It’s hard to unravel the matrix that makes a great wine great. Which makes it all the more tempting to believe a word on a label, like “Pommard.” Not the place, but the plant that was named for the place.
After a bevy of Sonoma Coast pinot noir panels, I had assembled a collection of the top wines lined up in paper bags on my kitchen counter, narrowed down over the course of a week to twenty, then twelve, then seven, then five, then two. And when I pulled those two out of their bags, one of those wines was labeled as Cobb 2018 Doc’s Ranch Pommard. The other was Hirsch 2019 Block 8.
I knew Block 8 from visits to Hirsch and from the last time I had awarded the wine 96 points, in the 2015 vintage. It is a parcel that’s distinctly different from the rest of Hirsch’s far-coast site: Block 8 dates to 1993, a west-facing hillside of red, iron-rich soil over deep chert and sandstone gravels. David Hirsch had planted it to a selection from the original 1,000 vines he brought to Fort Ross from Felton Empire in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1980. He later traced those plants to Oregon, a mix of material described as Pommard and Wädenswil. Everardo Robledo, who has been farming with David Hirsch since 1988, estimates that 70 percent of the block is Pommard, 30 percent Wädenswil.
Why would that matter among all the other factors that went into producing this remarkable 2019? I wanted to think there was a connection, as Ross Cobb, who made that 2018 Doc’s Ranch Pinot Noir from a block of Pommard clone vines in the hills above Occidental, also made the 2015 Block 8 in his last vintage at Hirsch. Jasmine Hirsch, who made the 2019 Block 8, would have tasted the 2015 with Cobb at the time.
So, I set out to explore what, if anything, connected these two wines that stood above the hundreds in our recent tastings.
Early in his career, Ross Cobb was growing pinot noir at his family’s Coastlands Vineyard in Occidental while his day job took him north to Fort Ross, first at Flowers, later at Hirsch. Coastlands faces the Pacific on a low ridge three miles inland. Doc’s Ranch is the leeward side of the same ridge, a vineyard first planted in the 1990s, 1.5 acres at the top of the ridge. Bryon Sheets expanded the plantings there, including a block of Pommard selection in deeper soils of clay and loam lower down the hillside. After the 2016 harvest, Cobb had the opportunity to contract for the fruit. He’d set off on his own, making a go of it with Cobb Wines, and he negotiated a deal to bring in Paul Ardzrooni, a grower who sells him fruit from the Wendling Vineyard in Anderson Valley, to manage the farming on both sides of his Occidental ridge.
In 2017, he blended the Doc’s Ranch Pommard and Clone 114 together, finding the Pommard “a little hollow” on its own. But in 2018, he was wowed by the Pommard and decided to bottle it separately. “Pommard tends to be a little thicker-skinned and a little brawnier; it benefits from some 80- or 90-degree temperatures for a few days. In 2018, the ebb and flow of heat pushed it through to ripeness—we had warm-cold-warm-cold-hot-cold in August into September.” He recalls that other parts of the coast and inland were more advanced in their ripening cycle—“they ended up getting to ripeness in the middle of the heat wave. For us, we were still a week or two behind. We were still getting a lot of fog and a lot of moderation. We had more time. We weren’t frantically picking because of the heat.”
If the Pommard selection at Doc’s needs time and attention to ripen the tannins of its relatively thick skins, Cobb then works to enmesh those mature skin tannins with some stem tannins from about 40 percent whole clusters in the fermentation. What struck me about the wine, aside from the details of the fresh and floral fruit, was the suppleness of the tannins. Those tannins formed a detailed matrix of textural touchpoints that’s rare in pinot noir outside of grand cru Burgundy, this particular matrix a pattern developed on the far Sonoma coast.
Perhaps I wanted to believe that pattern in the tannins was influenced by the Pommard selection. The wines were side-by-side on the table and I knew Pommard was a factor at Hirsch’s Block 8, about 17 miles to the north as the crow flies and twice as far if you drive it. With the exception of their proximity to the Pacific, the sites are, in fact, quite different. While the ridge at Occidental rises 1,000 feet above sea level, the ridge at Hirsch hovers around 1,600 feet, often above the fog line. And though the soils at both sites are derived, to some degree, from uplifts of ancient seabed, Doc’s Pommard block grows in a deeper soil with clay, quite different from the well-drained deep gravels and iron-rich topsoil at Hirsch’s Block 8.
Then, there’s the climate, with Block 8 fully exposed to the ocean winds, and Doc’s more protected, facing into the morning sun.
As it turns out, 28 acres of vines, about one-third of Hirsch’s contemporary vineyards, originate from the 1980 planting, the same mix of Pommard and Wädenswil that thrives at Block 8. So, when I caught up with David Hirsch and his daughter, Jasmine, they steered me away from the distinction that might come from the plant material and focused instead on the site.
“Dad calls Block 8 his grand cru: We don’t have that soil anywhere else at Hirsch,” Jasmine says. “I wish we did. You could probably plant anything there and it would be stunning.” The team at Hirsch starts tasting the wines as soon as they complete their malolactic conversion, and Jasmine says that some of them can be punishing at that moment. But Block 8 seems to arrive immediately, fully formed.
David says that as they have learned to farm a dramatic site (some would call it extreme), they’ve set out to ask, “How can we assist each of these blocks to be as complete as they can be? Block 8 finds its own natural balance.”
That wasn’t always the case. According to Jasmine, when they first decided to make single-block wines, from what they considered an exceptional 2007 vintage, Block 8 didn’t make the cut. “We knew from farming it—this is a grand cru vineyard in the field. But we hadn’t seen it in the wine yet.”
Jasmine explained that Everardo changed the pruning, setting out to relieve the vines of some early-season vigor. In other blocks, when he picks one of last year’s shoots to become this year’s cane, he lays it horizontally along the trellis and prunes it so it doesn’t cross with the cane from the neighboring vine. “At Block 8, he began to leave the new canes longer, allowing the vineyard to get rid of its excess energy early on. Then he would come back and cut them so they would not overlap.”
David also remembers that 2007 was about the time that Daniel Roberts, the viticulturist, brought John Gladstones, the author of Wine, Terroir and Climate Change, to visit the vineyard. He says their discussions about botany and plants had a profound impact on Hirsch’s farming practice. “That’s when we began to pay more attention to irrigation and shading in the vineyard—to make sure there is good wind movement, air movement and light, so the fruit can achieve full maturation. With these heat spikes, we try to control the maturation process so the fruit doesn’t ripen too quickly. You really have to set the table from pruning onward.”
Jasmine also recalls that Ross Cobb made some changes in the 2011 vintage, after he came on as winemaker in 2010. “Ross started picking earlier,” she says, and included some whole clusters in the fermentations. “If you want that energy and tension, you have to be careful not to pick Block 8 too late. 2011 was the first vintage we bottled Block 8 on its own—Ross came to me and said it would be a crime not to do it.”
When I asked Jasmine to compare the two vintages in which Block 8 resonated most powerfully with me, she explained that 2015 and 2019 could not have been more different. “2015 was the worst year of the drought,” she recalls. “We had an insanely warm, dry winter, early budbreak, early bloom. Challenges during set kept the yields to one ton an acre and harvest started early, on August 15. The vines were so stressed by drought. This was the year we did two passes through Block 8—part on August 19 and the rest at the end of August, beginning of September. We never pick any block twice. I think we were so anxious about the yield.
“In 2015, the wines were concentrated and dark. 2019 was a very normal vintage—warm, not hot, with a big rain in May that contributed to the sizing of the grapes—a juicier wine.”
Still, David dismisses talk of vintages and plant material. “Block 8 is the paradigm,” he says. “The particular morphology of the land, at the cusp of four ecosystems, on the St. Andreas fault, plays out vintage after vintage in a very different way. Block 8 is so strong in the realization of its potential no matter the weather, if we back off and listen.”
Pressed to describe how he perceives the profile of the wine from Block 8, David says, “It expresses this wonderful balance, creates a supple wine, where the character of the fruit and the acidity component come into a beautiful synthesis. Even from the beginning when the wines make that clear statement, ‘Here we are again, no matter how different the vintage was. We’re back and giving you an indication in year one what we’ll be like in 25 years.’”
Maybe there doesn’t need to be a connection between Cobb’s 2018 Doc’s Ranch Pommard and Hirsch’s 2019 Block 8. For those among us who will still be around in 25 years, it would be fascinating to taste them fully mature, as different and as compellingly beautiful as they may prove to be.
This feature is published as part of our Regional Tasting Report on US Pinot Noir.
This is a W&S web exclusive. Get access to all of our feature stories by signing up today.