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David Hirsch | The Seminal Pinot Noir Grower of the Far Sonoma Coast

Recently Hirsch came to New York with his wife, Marie, and daughter, Jasmine, to present a retrospective tasting of wines from their family property.

David Hirsch David Hirsch
The desolate beauty of Sonoma’s Pacific Coast attracted the Kashia band of the Pomo tribe to its lands between two rivers, the Gualala and the Ashokawna. By the time the Russians came for sea otters and their furs, the Kashia had a village in the center of their territory, at Metini, and negotiated an arrangement with the foreigners to settle nearby at Fort Ross in 1812. The Russians started logging the redwoods along the Ashokawna, the river that now bears their name. And, a century later, when loggers came north for timber to rebuild an earthquake- and fire-ravaged San Francisco, the hills and ridges surrounding Fort Ross were stripped, the trees replaced by sheep.

David Hirsch bought a sheep-shearing barn and 1,000 acres of land there in 1978, hoping to restore the forest and repair the land. He planted a few acres of vines as a side project, spurred on by friends from Santa Cruz, where he’d made his money in the clothing business. The sheep barn is now a winery, and the vineyards long ago became Hirsch’s full-time work. There were a few scattered vineyards farther inland at the time, but no sign of the developments that were to come ten and 20 years later. Today, there are 72 acres of vines at Hirsch and many more on ridges nearby. “We became aware that the vineyards and winery would be a tremendous asset,” he explained on a recent visit to present his wines in New York. “What you’re tasting is a support vehicle to heal the place.”

It was Hirsch’s first visit to New York since a tractor accident four years ago left him hospitalized for four months. His wife, Marie, a yoga teacher and graphic designer, became his full-time care giver, cooking and delivering his meals every day during his hospital stay and later taking on his healing with qi gong. Though he can no longer walk his vineyards, he now farms them with the help of a small tractor he can use to navigate the vine rows and a pickup truck equipped with a lift to get him into the driver’s seat.

His daughter, Jasmine, runs the family’s wine business, and joined him in New York to show seven wines, starting with the 1996 that Burt Williams and Ed Selyem made from Hirsch Vineyards. Hirsch recalled his first meeting at the Williams Selyem winery. “They had a Butler building, one of those metal sheds, and it was all closed up. Then the doors swung open and these two roly-poly guys in bib overalls came out. ‘You’ve been to high tech,’ Burt Williams said. ‘Welcome to no tech.’” They made a dark, rich pinot noir from Hirsch’s ridgetop vines, still lively 20 years on, with a spiciness that lasts.

The success of wines bottled with the Hirsch Vineyards name from Williams Selyem, Kistler, Littorai and others was one of the reasons Hirsch decided to bottle his own wine, he said. “We wanted to have immediate feedback to the farming,” he added. His experiences in the vineyard would eventually lead the family toward the biodynamic practice they employ today. And then there was the matter of financing the property and the reforestation. “The wealth is in the ground, but the cash is in the bottle,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch bottled his first vintage in 2002, working with winemaker Vanessa Wong, a partner in Peay Vineyards in Annapolis, farther north along the coast. He has worked with three winemakers since, including Mark Doherty (through 2009), Ross Cobb (through 2015) and, currently, Anthony Filiberti. His vineyard manager, Everardo Robledo, came to graft two acres of riesling from the original planting to pinot noir in 1989, and has worked side-by-side with Hirsch ever since.

Jasmine Hirsch Jasmine Hirsch
Jasmine poured their 2002 alongside the 2014 San Andreas Fault Pinot Noir. Both wines carried the particular earthy tannins pinot noir can pick up when grown on these sandstone ridges, the eroded top soils built by the confluence of conifer forests and ocean fog. Yet a lot had changed in those intervening 12 years, including Hirsch’s farming philosophy, the family’s intention in interpreting the land and the way they parse the selection of individual lots of wine from the more than 60 vineyard blocks they farm and produce separately. “We were picking later,” Jasmine explained with the 2002, which stood out for its warmth and textural weight, while the 2014 emphasized clarity and floral scents.

The attention to ripeness is even more apparent in the West Ridge Pinot Noir, a selection of fruit from blocks along the ridge most influenced by the Pacific. Jasmine described 2009 as “a transition vintage for us in thinking about the role ripeness plays in terroir expression. In 2008, a hot year, when we tasted the lots in the winery, all the parcels began to taste alike.”

The process of farming for an earlier harvest played out over the next several vintages, and there’s refinement and grace to the 2015 that isn’t present in the 2009, an intensity of flavor without weight, a juiciness in the tannins, and a gentle persistence that makes it a classical beauty.

West Ridge West Ridge

Both vintages of West Ridge share what David describes as “a certain kind of gritty energy.” He connects that to the plants he has been farming for this wine, selections from Mount Eden and Swan, along with selections from the original Wädenswil and Pommard material he planted in 1980. Taken from the Mount Eden estate in 1989 before Jeffrey Patterson replanted with clean material, many of the plants in Hirsch’s selection are virused, but he likes it this way. “Jeffrey took it all out because it was too dirty,” David said, “but pinot needs to be dirty. The contrast is what makes pinot so attractive. It’s never predictable.”

“When Jeffrey came to visit,” Jasmine recalled, “he was shocked to see how his vines were thriving. David has a high tolerance for the complexity of farming diseased vineyards. The original meaning of perfect did not mean ‘without flaws.’ It meant ‘complete.’”

In the years since Hirsch began farming his property, Tibetan Buddhists have moved in just to the north with their own 1,000-year plan for the coast. Hirsch took a slightly different path, becoming a Zen Buddhist. “Having patience and respect gives you a reward,” he said of his vines, then reluctantly admits that he did decide to pull out six acres of his older vines. “But, on the whole, the goal is to really be careful and not let the quantitative side dictate your decisions.”

This is a W&S web exclusive feature.