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Ridgetop Reserve
Digging into the Sonoma Coast Archive

by Luke Sykora
April 8, 2019

Flowers' Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard in winter

“The 1996 Williams Selyem is the best wine I’ve had from our vineyard,” Jasmine Hirsch tells me. We’re sitting at a table in her cottage at Hirsch Vineyards, on a high ridge north of Jenner and just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, tasting some bottles of older pinot noir from the property. It’s a sunny northern California winter day, but her cottage bears a recent scar from last week’s storm, the roof of her tidy front deck mangled by a fallen redwood.

Back when that 1996 was made, she was still a teenager. And while the Hirsch Vineyard is now one of California’s most highly regarded pinot noir sites, it didn’t have much of a track record in the mid-1990s. Kendall-Jackson bought the fruit for a while, and the grapes only made their way into vineyard-specific bottlings starting in 1994, when Kistler, Littorai and Williams Selyem simultaneously inked fruit contracts with Jasmine’s father, David Hirsch.

“We don’t have any more 1996s,” she tells me. “Because they were so fucking delicious.” Instead, we start by tasting a 1995 Littorai Hirsch and a 1997 Williams Selyem Hirsch, bottles that David received directly from the wineries on release and squirreled away.

I’m here to satisfy a lingering point of curiosity. A few (all too rare) run-ins with older Flowers and Williams Selyem wines, in particular, have suggested that the best Sonoma Coast pinot noirs can be pretty great with a decade or more of age. And the tight weave of the best younger wines seems to promise a long life ahead. But how consistent is that longevity? And are there even enough wines left from those early years to start parsing the blocks, vintage conditions and winemaking choices that contribute to especially longlived wines?

Hirsch pours the 1995 Littorai first. “As far as I know, it was a good vintage, not a spectacular vintage,” she tells me. It doesn’t feel like a young wine by any stretch, with a slight amber tint at the rim of the glass. Yet the color is reasonably deep and the flavors rich and fresh—a dusty raspberry tone with a hint of candied fruit, mushroom savor, a coastal vein of minty freshness and notably firm tannins. “I’d love to just roast a chicken and drink a bottle of this,” Hirsch says. It’s an auspicious start—all the more so when you consider that it was only Ted Lemon’s second vintage working with Hirsch’s fruit at Littorai.

The 1997 Williams Selyem Hirsch feels comparatively overblown—a heady wine from an unusually warm year. The grip, though, is classic Hirsch. “If you asked David what the signature for Hirsch is, he wouldn’t say the bright red-cherry fruit or whatever—it’s the tannins,” Hirsch comments. The fruit is still pretty intact, but at 14.9 percent alcohol, it doesn’t feel exactly balanced, the tannins and heat clashing in the finish. Neither of us is overwhelmed.

Jasmine Hirsch, her father, David, and a view of Block 8 at Hirsch Vineyard on Sonoma’s far coast. Jasmine Hirsch, her father, David, and a view of Block 8 at Hirsch Vineyard on Sonoma’s far coast.

Next, we hit the 2002 Hirsch Estate Pinot Noir—the first commercial vintage of their own estate wines, made by Vanessa Wong, who is now the winemaker at the Peay estate, farther north. It’s riper than the Littorai, but not as candied as the 1997 Williams Selyem, with a bit of that haunting wilted-flower scent that can make older Burgundies so enticing. The fruit is definitely riper than they’d pick it these days, Hirsch says, but she’s pleased with how it’s held up. “You taste the fruit and the ripeness, but it’s still fresh,” she says. My take: It hasn’t transformed into something transcendent during its slumber, but it’s still kicking.

A 2007 estate bottling of the vineyard’s Block 7 seems off. On the other hand, two 2009s—the East Ridge and West Ridge—are dynamite. We’ve now arrived at the wines with which I’m more familiar, and a style I associate more squarely with the vineyard. This was the year that Jasmine started to make an imprint on the wines, convincing her father to pick a bit earlier to sustain more of the acidity in the grapes. The 2009 West Ridge, drawn from three blocks planted between 1992 and 1995 on the ocean side of the estate, feels pulled into a tighter line than the previous wines. It’s racy and full at once, with a fresh, woodsy fragrance and an overriding sense of purity and life force. It’s a wine I’d love to have in my cellar for another decade.

I tell her about a significant piece of my larger project here—to meet with a few of the newer caretakers of the Sonoma Coast’s pinot noir legacy, and suss out how they absorb the two-plus decades of bottlings that are now at their disposal.

“It’s really more like ten years,” she responds. She explains: The current style of wines that she and many likeminded producers are making is only really a decade old. Around 2009, an emphasis on acidity rather than ripeness, and a more conservative approach to new oak, took hold in many cellars, not just at Hirsch.

It’s an interesting point. Even if you knew all there was to know about, say, the farming and winemaking that contributed to the 1996 Williams Selyem, would it be desirable—or even possible—to repeat it?

The South Side
Curious to get a bit more context, I drive back up to Sonoma County the next weekend, exchanging a sunny day in San Francisco for a cloudy, rain-drenched one farther north. My first stop is Coastlands, another proof-of-concept Sonoma Coast vineyard where Ross Cobb farms vines that his parents began planting in 1989. It’s on the southern end of Sonoma’s coastal hills, not far from a low corridor called the Petaluma Gap, which funnels cold marine air inland even in the middle of the summer, blowing fog across rolling cattle ranches. To get to Coastlands, I leave those bare emerald pastures behind and head into the hills. As I follow Joy Road and then Fitzpatrick Road, I spot a few vineyards cropping up, and the sun breaks out for a moment. Even so, the damp redwoods and lichen-covered oaks continue to exhale a low blanket of fog.

Cobb, who made the Hirsch wines from 2010 to 2015, comes to the door wearing a North Face puffy jacket and a bit of stubble. We sit down at the kitchen table in the modest one-story house his parents built overlooking their vines.

Ross Cobb and his family’s Coastlands Vineyard in Occidental, four miles from the Pacific coast. Ross Cobb and his family’s Coastlands Vineyard in Occidental, four miles from the Pacific coast.

Compared to Hirsch, Cobb tells me, Coastlands is demonstrably cooler—often ripening two or even three weeks after Hirsch. It’s slightly lower in elevation and has a direct view of the ocean, whereas Hirsch is protected by a high ridgeline to the west. One unfortunate result is that yields here can by abysmal when you get a cold, windy spring. That’s one of the reasons he started Cobb Wines— a way to bring in some other fruit sources, so his parents weren’t so financially dependent on this finicky vineyard site. Despite the challenges, though, the wines from Coastlands are reliably thrilling. A 2010 from the property’s Diane Cobb block remains quite possibly the best young Sonoma Coast pinot noir I’ve tasted.

We sample six or seven wines, but three provide the most interesting comparison: His 2002 and 2003 Coastlands, and a 2003 that blends young-vine Coastlands fruit with grapes from another vineyard, Rice-Spivak. (To articulate the rarity of these wines: Cobb kept only two or three cases of these early vintages, later forcing himself to hold onto 8 or 10 cases of each bottling for wine dinners and retrospective tastings.)

The first two wines both come exclusively from that Diane Cobb block. It sits at the top of the property, not far from the house, a wild mix of pinot noir selections that his mother first planted in 1989 and later expanded, intending it more as a vine nursery than a standalone vineyard block. She passed away in 2006, but the 1.5 acres of vines remain, growing in deep sandy clay-loam. It’s not the most dramatic soil, but it allows the vines to essentially take care of themselves: The Cobbs haven’t irrigated or fertilized the vines in the last 20 years, and they don’t even add compost, beyond mowing the grass and chipping the pruned canes onto the ground to decompose.

The distinction between the 2002 and 2003 Coastlands demonstrates how age can amplify seasonal variations in this dynamic coastal climate, where a cool marine air mass and a warm inland air mass are constantly vying to define the vintage. The 2002, from a relatively cool vintage, feels silken and harmonious. “I was definitely getting it nice and ripe,” Cobb says of his philosophy at the time, and at 13.7 percent alcohol, it’s bigger than most of the wines he makes now. But the red-fruited verve of the wine is what lasts, a delicious persistence that touches on all parts of a wild strawberry—fruit, seed and stem. The 2003, from a warmer vintage with a late- season heat spike, is also in pretty good shape. But it’s definitely sappier, the fruit as purple as it is red, with a broader payload of tannins. Very much alive, in other words, just not as keen and precise as the 2002.

Cobb also made a “Coastlands & Rice-Spivak” pinot noir in 2003, blending young- vine fruit off the home estate and off a sandier vineyard a few miles inland. The fruit tone is almost identical to the 2003 Coastlands—the vintage showing through—yet the impact of vine age in the 2003 Coastlands becomes more apparent with this wine as a foil, the added gravitas of the older-vine fruit from the Diane Cobb block lengthening the finish.

Cobb went through a phase when he wasn’t so thrilled by these early wines. Around 2007, he started traveling to Burgundy a lot, and would bring his wines along to see what the Burgundians thought. Tasting his own efforts in the context of the more tense, linear wines from pinot noir’s homeland, he found the oak imprint of his Cobb wines a bit distracting, and the fruit heavy in comparison to the lacy, mineral textures of Burgundies. “Even tasting them against some of the riper Burgundies,” he says, “I found they didn’t show that well.” Given his own feelings at the time, it’s perhaps no surprise that he joined forces with Jasmine and David Hirsch in 2010 and took their estate’s wines in a distinctly linear direction.

Now, though, he’s able to appreciate his early wines. They’ve digested their oak more completely, so you can focus on the innate flavors of coastal California fruit. “Now, I’m like, ‘Wow—these have integrated really well, and they’re not so overt,’” he comments. “A little intensity is okay, for balance.”

Farther In
One of the more curious twists of the Sonoma Coast pinot noir story is that few of the central pioneers came from within the wine industry itself. David Hirsch ran a fashion business in Santa Cruz before decamping to the hills to grow redwood trees and, eventually, grapevines. David Cobb was a marine biologist. And Joan and Walt Flowers— who planted their first vines in 1991—ran a plant nursery in Pennsylvania before planting their own flag in the hills of the Sonoma Coast.

Just one ridge south of Hirsch—the vineyards can see each other—Flowers’ Camp Meeting Ridge grows more chardonnay than pinot noir, but with pinot noir vines dating to the early 1990s, it’s a remarkable pinot noir site as well. It’s mostly east-facing, so it sees less of the warm afternoon sun than Hirsch. But it’s also more protected than Coastlands, the Pacific onslaught mitigated by a high ridge to the west.

The drive from Coastlands to Camp Meeting Ridge takes exactly an hour, just as Ross Cobb predicted. (He made wines at Flowers, too, before he joined the team at Hirsch, and knows the route well.) Once I arrive, I jog through the rain into an open kitchen where Flowers winemaker Chantal Forthun and her husband, Eric Prahl (who works at Rhys Vineyards), are heating up a puréed carrot soup, sautéing mushrooms for crostini, and opening a string of Flowers wines from the mid-1990s on.

We’re immediately astonished by the rich color of the 1995 Camp Meeting Ridge, Flowers’ first commercially released pinot noir, which was made by Andy Bledsoe and consulting winemaker Steve Kistler. Forthun has tasted her fair share of old Flowers since joining the winery in 2012, but this is her first time tasting this rare 1995. It’s gripping in a way that feels invigorating rather than astringent, exploding with fruit that’s as taut as a fresh, dark Bing cherry, with secondary notes of green herbs and brown spices.

“I feel like that tannin intensity is totally Block Eleven,” she says, referring to a parcel of a Calera selection planted on a hillier piece of the ranch in 1991, and prized for the structural contribution of its small, thick-skinned berries. “I’m surprised, given how young the vines were,” she continues. “It makes me feel like this vineyard was charming since the beginning.”

Prahl, who, given his day job at pinot-centric Rhys, talks shop with more than his fair share of California pinot noir winemakers, suggests that Bledsoe and Kistler likely fermented this wine completely as whole bunches. That makes sense, given the structure of the wine—though, if so, the stems must have been in ideal condition that year to integrate so well.

An aerial view of Flowers’ Camp Meeting Ridge vineyard; Jeremy Seysses consults with Chantal Forthun on the wines at Flowers. An aerial view of Flowers’ Camp Meeting Ridge vineyard; Jeremy Seysses consults with Chantal Forthun on the wines at Flowers.

A 1999 Camp Meeting Ridge feels like the 1997 Williams Selyem Hirsch on steroids—blunt, alcoholic and kirsch-like. The 2002, on the other hand, bears a striking resemblance to the 2002 Coastlands. It’s brilliantly alive, with that same emphasis on tensile red fruit. The 2009 is equally delicious, from a cool summer that ended in a heatwave. Fortunately, the harvest interns frantically picked the vineyard before any roasted notes could show in the fruit, working double-time and even pitching tents in among the vines, apparently, to help deliver a wine that now feels lush yet persistent, with a coastal spiciness that lasts.

Then, to be fair, we hit a few duds. A couple of cool vintages, plus an over-reliance on whole-cluster fermentations and some picks that seem on the near side of fully ripe, have created wines that feel a bit wan and green even with six or more years in the bottle. The 2011 Block 11 smells of string beans more than anything else.

But when we hit Forthun’s 2016 Camp Meeting Ridge, everything feels back on track. You sense the implicit lushness that made wines like the 1995 great. The 2016 might not quite have the extract that’s kept the 1995 intact, but it’s probably more charming than the 1995 was in its youth, and certainly feels in line with the high-performing 2002 and 2009.

“It’s been a three-year process,” Forthun tells me. “We’ve had the freedom to do micro-picks. Do we like Block 11 at 23˚ Brix or 24˚ Brix?” She’s also minimized the use of whole-cluster fermentations, finding that the thick skins of this site’s berries don’t need an extra payload of stem tannins. “The 2016 vintage was the year of: Let’s try to let the vineyard say what it wants to say, rather than throw a bunch of trends and winemaking at it.”

“The very best vintages, I’ve found, are the ones that have a moderate growing season,” she concludes. “And that’s not often. There are lots of vintages where you have heat waves, or rain. But 2016 was great. And 2018 was great.”

Regardless of the vintage conditions, there’s a subtle through-line between all the best Camp Meeting Ridge wines, a spice character that we try to zero in on as we finish our carrot soup and sip the venerable 1995. It takes us a couple of animated minutes to pinpoint it. I say cumin. Chantal says, yes, but also blood orange and pink peppercorn. I mention dried lemon peel. We finally settle on sumac.

Historic Wines
How significant are the best older Sonoma Coast pinot noirs in today’s wine market? Not very, it’s true—far fewer people are collecting these wines than are collecting the likes of Dujac or Roumier.

But they’re not impossible to find if you know where to look. Back at Hirsch, I mentioned to Jasmine that I found a pretty significant cache of older Hirsch wines at Angler, a new outpost from the team behind San Francisco’s Saison. She told me that wine director Mark Bright actually bought them directly from her dad—a pretty comprehensive collection of both estate wines and bottlings from the other producers who have worked with the fruit over the years.

Back in San Francisco, I call Bright to ask about his newfound trove of Hirsch wines. At Saison—three Michelin stars and a $398 per person tasting menu—and to a lesser extent at Angler, Burgundy is his stock in trade. Why then, I ask him, does he think it’s important to showcase all of these older Sonoma Coast pinot noirs?

“Because of the list at Saison, I’m kind of known for Burgundy,” he admits. “But I think of that list as also an encyclopedia of the pinot noir grape. California is maybe the best place to grow pinot noir outside of Burgundy, and these are historic wines. I was able to get six-packs of most of the wines made from that vineyard.”

He finds the Kistler wines from Hirsch to be remarkably consistent, whereas the Littorai wines tend to be much more responsive to vintage. He’s particularly taken with some of the Hirsch bottlings from Whitcraft, a rather old-school Santa Barbara–based winery that purchased Hirsch fruit in the 1990s and early 2000s. He’s in no hurry to sell them, he tells me, but rather content to maintain a library of older Sonoma Coast pinot noirs for those occasional guests who decide to eschew Burgundy for something not only closer to home, but also rarer these days than just about any grand cru.


This feature appears in the print edition of the April 2019.
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Tags  Sonoma Coast