In March I had the great privilege of visiting Fort Ross Vineyard near the Sonoma Coast of Sonoma County, in what is now recognized as the Fort Ross Seaview AVA (American Viticultural Area). This is a relatively new AVA designated for vineyards that are above 1,200 feet and within a certain proximity of the Pacific Ocean.
I have a particular inclination toward these AVA designations that are built around distinctions of both location and altitude. In California the soils tend to be fairly young compared to a lot of wine-growing regions around the world. On the valley floors, the soils tend to be rather rich, and therefore not very well suited for growing great wine grapes. At higher elevations, the growing conditions change in a few regards, and the soils always become leaner and more rocky, yielding smaller crops of more intensely flavored, structured, and flavored grapes. Better grapes that make more interesting and longer-lived wines.
Fort Ross is a remarkably rugged site, and one that is notable for both its altitude and its proximity to the ocean.It's stunning, actually. What is fascinating about this site is that it clearly features the cold water influence of the Pacific Ocean that is constantly washing around out there. The air at Fort Ross is chilly, and the breezes are brisk.But because of its altitude, the vineyards are often basking in the sun, overlooking the reliable marine fog banks that otherwise shrouds the lower-lying coast.
Lester and Linda Schwartz purchased this 1,000 acre, heavily-forested and high-altitude ranch in 1988 and started to plant some of the first parts of the vineyards themselves in 1994. Today they have just 50 acres planted, mostly at elevations around 1,500 feet, on challenging slopes and swales just a couple of miles from the Pacific Ocean not too far from the town of Jenner. The scenery is epic, and so are the wines.
In the last ten or fifteen years, winegrowers seeking increased elegance and refinement have been creeping into cooler climates near the very cold California Pacific Ocean, where very cool winegrowing conditions and maritime fog layers slow retard the development of grapes and ultimately produce higher acid, less fruity, more savory wines. Some would say that their overall aesthetics are more comparable traditional wines from Burgundy, the inspiration for all classic Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
These young blood Cali wines are much more elegant than California wines that came before them, but they aren't trying to be wines from Burgundy. They are reflections of their unique growing environment and climate, and they're every bit as special and articulate as the finest Burgundies. I personally think that the best of these wines are positively thrilling. They're completely different from, but on par with great wines from Burgundy, and retailing for $30 to $70, they are comparative bargains, at least in a global sense once you consider their rarity, quality(class) and reliability.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that these new wave California wines are reliably offering an alternative greatness: a new standard, a new measuring stick, especially insofar as wines under $100 per bottle are concerned. And no place that I know of is coming close in that price point, in terms of quality even as much as New Zealand wants to think that it is.
The worst cold-climate California wines can be disappointing, but that's what you get when you're making wines in very challenging conditions. If you've ever bought and drunk wines from Burgundy, the taste of disappointment is deeply etched into your recollection. For some people, not so much me, that's part of the charm.
For me, if I'm paying top dollar, I expect fantastic wine. And I think the cool spots of the North Coast of California is delivering that with pretty good regularity now that the best growers have settled in over the last 20 years. Once you discard the chaff (and there are mediocre wines made in these regions), I think you can easily argue that these elevated coastal regions are now making spectacular wines.
The weather is cloudy, cold and blustery when we arrive at Fort Ross tasting room, having driven out in the morning from Oakland through San Rafael, out to Bodega Bay and then up the spiraling Highway 1 into northern Sonoma County. That stretch of Highway 1 is simultaneously heaven and hell. If you're driving, you can't take your eyes off the road for a split second. If you're a passenger, you can't take your eyes off of the ocean, circling hawks, skunk roadkill, and the vast pastoral dairy farms, and you're probably more likely to get carsick. Even if you're driving, the magic isn't entirely lost on you. It's a wonder that this part of the world has been preserved in such a pristine state, and you have to tip your hat to the preservationists of northern California.
The Pinzgauer seemed like overkill until we routed onto the bumpy dirt roads heading to the vineyards. In parts, the vineyards were super-steep and had to be terraced, so getting from the lower sections of the vineyards to the upper parts would be possible with a 4WD in decent conditions, but in muddy conditions you would need a serious all-terrain vehicle.
I'm only sorry I didn't get a chance to drive the PG. That thing seems like a beast.
You hop out of the military vehicle and survey the situation like a general. There are these very young, vineyards, carved out of hillsides, and cleared out of pristine forests, on high hilltops not far from the coast. The soils are rocky, as you would expect at this elevation, with some limestone as well as some organic matter from what was a pretty richly forested environment. The steepest vineyards are terraced, and as in the case of much of Europe's most prized vineyards, that kind of challenge yields Fort Ross' finest wine. The climate seems right, if edgy, for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The soils are unconventional, and the terrain steep, overall an x-factor.
The vineyards shift around on these Pacific slopes, but you feel like you're always looking west, toward the ocean, maybe because that's just the best view. And you can see the Pacific ocean, but more importantly, you can feel it. The ocean is already kicking up a powerful wind again, turning off the sun and reminding us who is boss. After a quick photo session and a couple of gulps of wine, we retreat back to the tasting room for one more glass of red and a few minutes by the fireplace.
I have seen a lot of the finest vineyards that America, Europe, Australia, South America and and the Pacific Coast has to offer first hand. I have always been impressed with the wines from Fort Ross, but after visiting the vineyards, I can surely say that this is a special, extremely challenging site that will continue to produce extraordinary wines in the coming years.
I can't say enough about the people who develop sites like this. They are the true adventurers in America, just like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, except that this is California in 2018.
It is possible to be ahead of your time and to pay a big price for it. They say that you can tell a pioneer by the arrows in their back. I don't suppose that the Schwarzes are turning much of a profit on this operation, but the wines speak for themselves, and a great site usually proves to deliver great value over time, and in time this site will be famous. Probably world-famous, at least in wine geek circles. The potential is boundless, and the thing that I have always appreciated about California, and the North Coast of California in particular.It is eternally inspiring.