A few years ago, a 2007 Anthill Farms pinot noir from Peters Vineyard in western Sonoma shocked me with its energetic combination of earthy depth and high-toned aromas. That, I think, is when I really caught the Sonoma Coast bug. Since then, I’ve visited Sonoma’s coastal vineyards again and again, hoping to better understand the intricacies of these mountains.
The west Sonoma coast fascinates me partially because of the unique growing conditions of every site. From the steep, redwood-dense slopes of the north, mere meters away from the Mendocino border, to the exposed high-elevation peaks of Fort Ross–Seaview, all the way south to the fog-dripped slopes near Freestone and Occidental, each vineyard feels like its own isolated sovereignty. Thanks to the ruggedness of the region, many vineyards grow in remote reaches of the mountains out of sight of any other. Most of all, my fascination stems from the way this region’s pinot noirs express that diversity.
Sonoma’s coastal range draws a line between the warmer inland temperatures of the county on one side and the cold Pacific air mass on the other. Canyons and low points in between allow fog and cool air to sneak into the inland side of the county. Those two forces—the warmth of the continent and the chill of the ocean—interact to create unique microclimates tucked into the folds of the mountains.
The San Andreas Fault also contributes to the region’s viticultural diversity. The mountains here formed over millennia as the Pacific and continental plates crashed against each other, creating a complicated mineral quilt: shale and sandstone sometimes reduced to a powdery topsoil, volcanic rocks, and incursions of serpentine, quartz, greenstone and chert.
It’s a complex region. The six wines below only begin to scratch the surface, but they’ve become some of my most reliable signposts.
The Cool Southlands
The Freestone Valley—a particularly cool spot in the coast range—sits just north of the low valley of the Petaluma Gap. Here, vineyards are often inundated with dense fog and cold temperatures even in the middle of summer. Just north of Freestone, ridgelines clothed in redwoods lift into the town of Occidental, anticipating the higher elevations of the Fort Ross–Seaview sub-appellation to the north. While fog seeps into the forest-covered slopes, the ridges and trees insulate some vineyards from the most extreme cold. For me, the Gregory James 2014 Hawk Hill is a pure, paradigmatic example of Freestone pinot. Farmed and vinified by Greg Adams, the site offers the bright red-fruit signature of the region but finishes with a mouth-stimulating saline crunch that makes me feel as if I really am tasting a wine within reach of the Pacific.
Ted Lemon has been making pinot noir from the B.A. Thieriot Vineyard since the mid-1990s. The vines cling to a ridgeline in Occidental, and the Littorai 2013 B.A. Thieriot is the most ethereal of these six wines. At the same time, it tastes to me most completely of the Sonoma mountains. I can’t get enough of the exuberant aromas of redwood and pine. And then the ultra-lean palate is somehow tumbled with rocks, forest, cranberry and rhubarb followed by an almost angular, persistent, savory finish.
Here, we are in the heart of the mountains. In the 1980s, David Hirsch planted pinot noir along two spines of a ridgeline three miles from the ocean. Different blocks at the site include almost every rock and soil type found in the coastal range. Wind from the ocean cools the vines, while the hottest days can see plenty of direct sun. The Hirsch 2013 San Andreas Fault Pinot Noir relies on blocks throughout the vineyard. The wine brings together mouthwatering dark fruits with the structure of mountain tannins married to a sprinkling of oak spice. Most of all, the persistent minerality reminds me of standing on the crushed rocks of the ridgetop vineyard itself.
The historic Hellenthal vineyard sits adjacent to Hirsch, though at a slightly lower elevation, so it’s shielded from the direct impact of ocean winds and the most extreme temperatures of the highest elevations. The Hellenthal family planted their first pinot noir in the mid-1970s; a younger block planted ten years later is now farmed by John Raytek and bottled as his Ceritas Elliot Pinot Noir. Though Hirsch sits only feet away, the Ceritas 2014 Elliot Vineyard is a completely different wine. With its more consistent climate and gentler airflow, the vineyard grows a particularly approachable pinot noir, a wine with ultra-fine tannins and a slightly rounder texture. Even so, it’s vibrant and aromatic, spinning earthiness through rose petal and plum, then finishing with the snappy tension of the mountains.
The Wild North
In the late 1990s, Nick and Andy Peay planted vines near Annapolis, on the Mendocino border. Their vineyard sits at 800 feet of elevation, perched along the edge of a moon-shaped canyon that pulls in nightly chill from the Pacific Ocean. Ehren Jordan sources fruit from two blocks for his Failla 2014 Peay Vineyard, a wine that shows off the structural tenacity of the region’s cooler temperatures. Of all these wines, it needs the most time in bottle, but also has massive potential to improve with age. Already, the wine is full of wild flavors and exotic spice, and a finish to last until morning.
A mile away, at 1,000 feet of elevation, Campbell Ranch is a bit more removed from the ocean, with slightly warmer (though still cool) temperatures. Several producers buy Campbell Ranch fruit, including Webster Marquez, Anthony Filiberti and David Low of Anthill Farms. Their 2014 Campbell Ranch is full of expressive layers of flavor that range from crushed flowers to pomegranate and blackcap raspberry, all laced through with savory forest notes. It’s energizing and complex. When I can’t actually drive through western Sonoma’s pine forests with my windows open, this is the next best thing.
This article first appeared in W&S Fall 2016.