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Accounting for Taste
What happened to Russian River Valley Pinot Noir?

by David Darlington
December 1, 2015

Rochioli Vineyards

In 1995, while working as a sommelier at John Ash and Company, a restaurant in the Russian River Valley, Paul Sloan underwent a life-changing experience. “We had some older Williams Selyem and Joseph Swan wines in the cellar,” Sloan remembers. “They were absolutely beautiful, which contradicted what I’d heard: that California wines don’t age.” A 16-year-old Swan pinot noir, in particular, “had a tremendous amount of life left in it. The tannin was developed, and the acidity was bright and lively with freshness and fruit.”

The alcohol content of the older wines was in the mid-13-percent range, which also made an impression on Sloan. “The newer genre of wine was getting more and more alcoholic,” he says. “When you opened a bottle and came back to it the next day, there was nothing intriguing left—no aromatics, no life. When you’re able to pair food with wines whose complexity comes out after decades, versus wines that are going south after two years, clearly these are different products.”

Sloan’s realization came at a crucial cusp in California wine growing history. The second wave of the phylloxera scourge was then forcing the replanting of North Coast vineyards, most of which had previously been grown on “California sprawl” trellising. They’d had umbrella-like canopies shading their fruit, but the predominant new method was “vertical shoot positioning” (VSP), which trains canes upward into the sunshine.

“I don’t think people did it believing they would get higher alcohol,” Sloan says. “They thought they would make better wines more consistently, with more control over rot and mildew. But it dramatically impacted the effect of sun on the fruit.”

Pinot noir vines growing in Goldridge loam over clay in the Russian River Valley Pinot noir vines growing in Goldridge loam over clay in the Russian River Valley
Sloan took this so seriously that he dedicated his life to altering it. He enrolled in viticulture classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, went to work for the Dutton Ranch vineyard management company, and eventually, with his wife, Kathryn, founded an estate called Small Vines.

“My life’s work has been to make nuanced, complex, ageable wines—an Old World expression of pinot noir,” he says. As an independent vineyard manager, he’s now planting grapes for like-minded “people who want lower alcohol and longer aging.” In other words, the Sloans aren’t alone. It’s well known that, over the past few years, a new generation of California producers (see InPursuitOfBalance.com) has been carrying a banner for lighter, more elegant wines. But at the same time—despite universal lip service to harmony with food and idiosyncrasies of site—the prevailing trend in Sloan’s part of the world is still toward greater ripeness, darker color and higher alcohol.

In the case of the Russian River’s flagship variety, pinot noir—the time-honored poster grape for elegance, finesse and transparency to the terroir—one has to wonder: Why are so many so monstrous? Are the winemakers responsible, or is it attributable to something beyond their control?

Nowadays, the first suspect in the latter possibility is climate. Hence, I rang up Greg V. Jones, professor of Environmental Science and Policy at Southern Oregon University, who, over the past several years, has gotten attention analyzing the implications of climate change on wine growing around the world. When I told him what I was looking into, he lamented “the whole issue of trying to tweeze out blame and find the smoking gun” for overripe wines.

“When you’re able to pair food with wines whose complexity comes out after decades, versus wines that are going south after two years, clearly these are different products.” —Paul Sloan
“There are so many moving parts,” he said.

“The market, ratings, consumer preferences, plant material, all underlain by the fact that climate is allowing growers to do what they do. Can I tell you that climate is 27 percent responsible or [a certain wine critic] 23 percent? No, but I can tell you they couldn’t have ripened to these sugars, with these hang times, 30 or 40 years ago.”

Jones was inclined to split the difference. “I think it’s probably about half climate, in response to how markets have evolved,” he said. “How that happens is a really hard call. I’ve looked at all the places in the world that grow pinot noir with high typicity, and I can tell you that, for bookends, the Tamar Valley in Tasmania is the coolest and the Russian River Valley is the warmest—and with the climate warming, there’s the potential for even bigger and bolder wines. Winegrowers are dealing with a variety that has a certain length to its season, but now it’s probably ripening to [higher] sugar levels earlier than other things like acids, flavors and aromas come into play. In 2014 they had a drought with smaller berries, but if the past few years are any indication, this is the norm we have to deal with. Winemakers have to decide how to manage it.”

Jones told me about a paper he had co-authored for Practical Winery and Vineyard with Zac Robinson of Husch Vineyards, looking at heat-summation data from 1951 to 2005 in six different North Coast locations: Napa and St. Helena, Mendocino County’s Potter Valley and Ukiah, and Sonoma County’s Healdsburg and Graton (both in the Russian River Valley). Mendocino, they found, was the only place getting cooler; all the others are getting warmer. The town of Graton—ground zero for Russian River pinot—had “warmed by 68 degree days each decade…. from a region I to a region II climate.” Not insignificantly, however, Graton was also the only place where the number of cold summer nights had not declined.

A crucial question, Jones acknowledged, is: “Where is the fog influence? If the Central Valley heats up, it makes sense that the pull of cooler air from the coastal zone will be more intense. [But] the coastal waters off California are much warmer than we’ve seen in a long time. The common wisdom is that the fog bank will be more intense but narrower—the question is how it will transition inland.”

Before joining Three Sticks Wines last January, Bob Cabral studied this topic for 15 years while making pinot noir at Williams Selyem. “Fog traditionally comes from the Marin Headlands south of Bodega, Tomales and Point Reyes, rolls over the hills of Valley Ford, Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Sebastopol and up through Healdsburg,” Cabral told me. “When you drive up Westside Road on any summer morning, the fog will recede back down the river. Closer to Healdsburg and Dry Creek, the sun will be out a little sooner.”

Such variations of microclimate have significant implications for plant selections. Back in the pre-modern-Renaissance day, California pinot noir was planted either to UC Davis selections (e.g., Pommard) or so-called heritage clones, with tags like Martini, Wente, Mount Eden, Swan and Calera, named for early plantings of selections that had come from France in suitcases. When Oregon got into pinot production, people started importing clones from Dijon, which is much closer to the Willamette Valley in latitude. These made such good wine there that Californians embraced them, too, even though Oregon was colder and Dijon clones ripened earlier.

“Of all the places in the world that grow pinot noir with high typicity, the Tamar Valley in Tasmania is the coolest and the Russian River Valley is the warmest—and with the climate warming, there’s the potential for even bigger and bolder wines.”
—Greg V. Jones
“I looked at various clones, and to my mind, heritage clones did better if they saw more sun during the day,” Cabral said. “With newer plantings on Eastside Road, we stayed away from the Dijon clones that everybody was planting in the ’90s and started using more heritage clones like Pommard and the old Wente selection—they just seemed to develop better tannin, mouthfeel and texture without heavily accumulated carbohydrates or big sugars. I wasn’t looking for things that had all that alcohol. In cooler areas like Green Valley, Dijon clones and Swan selections do well.”

To visit the Westside Road area that Cabral described, I went to see Tom Rochioli, whose family has been farming the same property on the north bank of the Russian River for 80 years. They’d planted pinot in the late 1960s, started making it themselves in the mid ’80s, and quickly assumed an elite spot among the most sought-after producers in the country, commanding prices of $60 to $100 for their subtly shaded bottlings from different vineyard blocks. In recent years, the winery has maintained an equally devoted following for wines in the riper, lusher style.

“Dad selected the Wente clone,” the big, bearish, third-generation Rochioli told me about his father, Joe. Like lots of older vines in California, theirs were planted on 8’ x 10’ spacing “because that’s what you did then.” Also like lots of others, they’d since affixed higher wires to train the old vines upward; all of their newer plantings had been 5’ x 8’ on VSP.

They were now largely a mix of Dijon and Pommard clones. “Pommard is my favorite,” Rochioli said. “[Dijon] 777 is more structured; 115 is more perfumed and prettier. But Pommard is kind of our house style—spicy, rich, deep, dark fruit.”

Rochioli poured a couple of pinots from his Three Corners vineyard block, which was planted to the Wente clone in 1974—one wine from the 1992 vintage, the other from 2013. Since the main difference in character derived from bottle age, it was hard to discern stylistic influences; the labels, however, revealed that the 2013 was 14.5 percent alcohol while the ’92 was 13 percent.

“Fifteen years ago I decided to pay the extra tax and say everything was 14.5 percent,” Rochioli admitted. “In ’92 our picking target was 24 Brix; now it’s 24.5, and our wines are between 14.2 and 14.8 percent alcohol. The learning curve has been that the longer the grapes hang, the better they are—if you pick less ripe, you get what I call a tomato quality, not pretty fruit. But I don’t want prunes either. Today we actually pick earlier than we did in the 90s—we had no Dijon clones then.”

After I left, Rochioli emailed me a follow-up note. “My curiosity got to me,” he wrote. “I went back to my notes, and yes, the 1992 was picked at 23.8 Brix. However, the actual alcohol was measured at 13.3 percent. The conversion was less than it is today, probably due to the yeast selections.”

This is a widespread but perplexing point of view. “Our yeasts have evolved superpowers that they did not previously have,” Zac Robinson had told me. “In the old days, you would pick grapes at 23 Brix and get wine at 12 percent alcohol. Today you pick at 23 Brix and get 13.9 percent.”

“We used to use natural yeasts,” Rochioli divulged. “But now we have hundreds of great selections that are cultured and safe.”

Or—from the vantage point of alcohol production—more dangerous.

I drove south on Westside Road, crossed the river, and got on the nostalgically named Gravenstein Highway. The town of Graton in Green Valley is headquarters for the Dutton-Goldfield Winery, a low-slung, wood-sided facility where Dan Goldfield and Steve Dutton have been producing pinot for more than 15 years. The lean, wiry, fast-talking Goldfield met me in his tasting room, where he acknowledged that grapes are ripening earlier than ever.

“But I don’t know that it’s clonal,” he demurred.

“People like to say, ‘New clones ripen faster!’ but I say, ‘No, young vines ripen faster.’ Twenty years ago the best pinot noir vineyards here hadn’t even been planted.”

At the contention that Russian River Valley is the world’s warmest region for high-typicity pinot noir, Goldfield erupted. “That is completely untrue! In this neighborhood it’s really a cool summer—our average temperatures are warmer than Oregon’s in spring and fall, but Oregon is hotter in July and August. They have warmer summers but cooler shoulders. Burgundy has higher peak temperatures, too. Should we even be talking about degree-days any more? [The Winkler scale] is 50 years old—it doesn’t even take nighttime lows into account. There’s more climatic variation in western Sonoma County than anywhere else in the world. When I come downhill from my house near Occidental in the morning, it’s 20 degrees colder at the bottom.”

Still, Goldfield said, “On weighted average, I think winemakers are making what they want to make. If I and three of my colleagues make wine from the same vineyard, there will be more difference between those wines than there is between wines from three different vineyards by the same winemaker.”

To wit, I drove a quarter of a mile down the road to see somebody who, over the past 20 years, has probably gotten more acclaim for pinot than anyone else in these parts: San Francisco Chronicle Winemaker of the Year, James Beard Foundation Outstanding Wine & Food Professional, Culinary Institute of America Vintners Hall of Fame. Not only has Merry Edwards enjoyed enduring adulation, but she blazed a path for women in the industry and did groundbreaking work on clonal selection. The veritable doyenne of Russian River pinot, she now has a lavish winery boasting not one but two receptionists to match the immaculate tasting rooms that flank the entry foyer. Not incidentally, the place feels more like modern Napa than western Sonoma.

When I told her that I was investigating the trend toward superripe wines, Edwards—a lupine practitioner of Bikram yoga, which is performed at temperatures over 100˚ F.— recited the contemporary catechism. “A lot of winemakers are looking for scores, and wines that get kudos are high in alcohol. Everyone is very purist in their minds, but America is now-oriented; people say, ‘If I let the grapes get superripe, I can drain juice off for saignée, water back and make lower alcohol—it’s done all the time. And even though it’s frowned upon to add other [grape varieties] to pinot noir, it doesn’t mean people don’t do it. If you’re looking for something big, adding syrah or petite sirah will certainly change the character.”

“French marketing has convinced people that you should pay a lot of money for wines that are light and watery. I’m on the opposite side—we’re not in France, we’re in California.
—Merry Edwards
In fact, Edwards’ own wines commonly exceed 14 percent alcohol.

“Our wines aren’t low in alcohol,” she acknowledged. “But our trucks are the first ones running in the Russian River Valley. I don’t want raisins—but it’s hard to get grapes picked. There’s a lot of pinot noir here—you have to get in line two weeks in advance.

“Certified yeasts are also more powerful now,” she added, contributing to the general industry echo. “Forty years ago, we didn’t get high alcohol from the same sugars.”

So why not use native yeasts?

“A lot of people think they’re using natural yeasts,” she smiled—referring to the fact that, in wineries where cultured selections have been introduced, those stronger yeasts will linger and overpower the motley strains that come in from the vineyard.

What about climate change? Is global warming having an effect?

“What we have is global climate chaos. Starting in 2005, there’s been a chimney effect—the Central Valley sucks in all the warm air and leaves us with cold air. But if it cools off in the Valley it can be really hot here all of a sudden. Two thousand ten was initially very cool—growers had crowded canopies, so they stripped leaves. Then it went from 70 to 112 [degrees] in one day. You could actually smell the rotting fruit while driving around.”

Edwards believes that pinot noir in California and the US in general was revolutionized 30 years ago when a group of wineries got together for a technical symposium in Oregon. “It lasted three days. No wine writers were invited, only wineries. People brought examples and trials, trying to figure out why their wines weren’t good. It was a huge pivotal point—the way I work now is the opposite of how I worked [before that symposium]. When I started, I was told to keep the fermentation cold—people didn’t want color or phenolic extraction, because in Burgundy they have no heat. But pinot noir starts with less phenolics, and you can lose 50 percent of your color in the tank. Now I make sure the juice gets to 85 degrees.”

Winemaking aside, Edwards said the main reason for the revolution was viticulture. “VSP has allowed us to use much less chemicals,” she said. “I never even heard of deficit irrigation until the 2000s.” On the other hand, she does question the suitability of Dijon clones. “We’re finding that they’re one of the worst carriers of red blotch [virus].” Since she now insists on clean budwood, she’s limiting her replacement material to UCD #37—the so-called Mount Eden clone, which she selected for heat treatment and certification in 1975 while working for that winery.

Like Rochioli, Edwards poured a couple of wines from a benchmark vineyard, in this case Olivet Lane—one from 1999, the other from 2012. Again bottle age dominated the comparison, though I noted that where the older wine was 14.3 percent alcohol, the more recent one was 14.0 percent. She couldn’t be accused of inconsistency.

“After seeing so many overripe wines with low acid [in California], we decided we’d change the way fruit matured in the vineyard.”
—Paul Sloan
“I make wine for me, my followers, sommeliers and restaurants,” Edwards said. “Our customers have palates—a lot of them are actually negative about the press. The fashion norm is shifting now; people are listening to Raj Parr (the In Pursuit of Balance ringleader), and French marketing has convinced people that you should pay a lot of money for wines that are light and watery. I’m on the opposite side—we’re not in France, we’re in California.”

You wouldn’t necessarily guess that from talking to Paul and Kathryn Sloan. When they set out to make Old World–style wines, Kathryn says, “Three things impacted us: Jancis Robinson said that some of the greatest wines come from dense vineyards; Eben Archer in Stellenbosch told us that by far the best wines come from smaller vines; and, when we went to France, people kept saying, ‘Petite vigne! Petite vigne!’ Especially for pinot noir.”

The Sloans’ brand—Small Vines—clearly took this to heart. “In the Pursuit of Balance group, most people aren’t paying attention to vineyard architecture,” Paul says. “They’re more focused on clonal selection and earlier picking, but we’re paying attention to how fruit was planted in Burgundy. After seeing so many overripe wines with low acid [in California], we decided we’d change the way fruit matured in the vineyard.”

Where a typical VSP vineyard in the Russian River Valley is planted on 5’ x 8’ spacing, the Sloans’ is 3’ x 4’. They train their vines with a fruit zone two feet off the ground—a compromise between the Burgundian standard of 18 inches and the three feet common in the Russian River Valley—and by raising the vines a foot taller than Burgundy, shield the grapes in the north-south-running vine rows from the rising summer sun. (“The canopy height is a scientific choice for acid retention in the fruit,” says Paul.) Tight spacing within vine rows is intended to reduce the yield per plant, with an aim of tiny berries and clusters; the plants are attended by irrigation hoses, though Sloan said only 10 percent have an actual emitter. “After five years, the vast majority are able to be dry farmed.”

“Every year we hand-select which vines need water—only the replants and injured ones,” says Kathryn.

It’s a meticulous operation, to be sure. “What we do is pretty detailed and specialized,” Paul says—and as he acknowledges, the results run counter to commercial trends. The Sloans’ wines are, if not altogether austere, decidedly reserved. As Paul himself posits, compared with “voluptuous, ripe, rich wine that leaps out of the glass with fruit and power, if I say, ‘Buy my wine but don’t open it for ten years,’ what’s going to drive more sales?” Within view of the Sloans’ vineyard, just downhill to the east, is another project that’s been influenced by a French model: the 105-acre Hallberg vineyard, owned and farmed by Emeritus.

“Hallberg stands out for natural acidity and good structure,” says Adrian Manspeaker, one of the two young proprietors (with Micah Wirth) of Joseph Jewell, an eight-year-old winery that made the best pinot noir I’d tasted for this article. “It’s fairly rich because of dry farming and the Pommard clone, but not necessarily riper—the vine roots are deeper, so it ripens at a more even pace and doesn’t dilute the fruit.”

Say what? A young, dry-farmed pinot noir vineyard? “It wasn’t the plan,” the owner admitted when I tracked him down at his unprepossessing, prefab-like facility on Highway 116. “But when I told Aubert that I needed an irrigation system, he said, ‘What irrigation system?’”

Aubert is M de Villaine, proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the top-flight Burgundy house that everybody likes to think they got their heritage clones from. And the Hallberg owner is none other than Brice Jones—the unapologetically brash former fighter pilot and founder of Sonoma-Cutrer. Since Jones is famous for helping to spearhead the controversially vast “Sonoma Coast” AVA, approved in 1987, which allowed him to label his chardonnays “estate bottled,” I hardly expected him to be growing terroir-redolent pinot noir. But the most transparent wines I’d encountered had come from this ten-year-old vineyard between Graton and Sebastopol.

“I sold Sonoma-Cutrer in 1999,” Jones recounted. “The week I signed the papers with Brown-Forman, Don Hallberg came to me and said: ‘You told me you’d match any offer.’ I’d been eyeing this property for years—it was a 115-acre apple orchard, but I knew something about the climate and I could see the writing on the wall for pinot grown in the right places. You can grow chardonnay in a parking lot in Fresno; not pinot noir.

“Dry farming puts the vine in the same cycle as the year—it’s in tune with what the weather is doing, so it ripens when it wants.”
—Kirk Lokka
“Land here was going for $28,000 an acre,” Jones reminisced. “It ended up costing me twice that much, even though I agreed to keep Don’s foreman in his house—he just died at age 94, and now his son lives there. I also agreed to leave the liquid amber trees, which I hate.”

Before he started Emeritus, in the 1990s Jones had bought property on the real Sonoma coast near Annapolis. De Villaine joined him in developing a vineyard there, but as time went on, Jones came to think of the remote location as “the dark side of the moon.”

“It was a money sink,” he said. “After three years, I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ But I didn’t want to lose Aubert as a friend, so I gave him his money back and rolled it into Emeritus.” (He has since sold the Annapolis property to J Vineyards.)

When Jones told de Villaine that California doesn’t have enough rain for dry farming, the Burgundian grower said, “If you irrigate, you will lose the signature of the wine.”

“I thought about that for years,” Jones said. “We’d tried dry farming at Les Pierres”—Sonoma-Cutrer’s flagship vineyard, on the edge of the Carneros district—“and it didn’t work—it was all rock, with no water-holding capacity. But this vineyard has the proper soil type.”

That would be Goldridge loam over clay, the area’s prized pinot ground. “After we planted the vines, we drip-irrigated them the first couple of years, then started cutting the water back,” said Kirk Lokka, Jones’ vineyard manager for three and a half decades. “I didn’t know how the vines would do—I thought the root zone would be about four feet, but it’s at least ten. The vines found fractures in the clay, and now, even without water”—and after two years of drought—“the vines are still too damn vigorous. The roots are deeper. Dry farming puts the vine in the same cycle as the year—it’s in tune with what the weather is doing, so it ripens when it wants.

“You can grow chardonnay in a parking lot in Fresno; not pinot noir.”
—Brice Jones
“We go into veraison a week earlier than anybody else,” Lokka said, “and our maturation point is at least two degrees Brix lower. We can pick at 23.5 and get all the flavors of wine picked at 28.”

The vines (11 different clones) were planted almost as densely as the Sloans’—3.3’ x 6.6’—shortening the time that the fruit is exposed to the sun. Even so, didn’t the fruit get fried in 2010?

For an answer, Jones’ daughter Mari poured me the 2010 Emeritus “La Combette.” Avowedly expressing the more “masculine” side of the property than the ethereal estate cuvée, it was succulent and delicious, not burnt-out (even at—um—14.3 percent alcohol). It had come from a shallow-loam, heavy-clay slope on the northeastern corner of the vineyard, almost directly across the road from Merry Edwards’ domaine. The clone was UCD #37—Mount Eden.

In other words, just as Dan Goldfield said, whatever the clone or climate, Russian River pinot producers are still making what they want to make.

This feature appears in the print edition of April 2015.
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Tags  Climate Change