Sonoma County conjures up pastoral images of California’s bucolic wine region — vineyards and creameries tucked along back-country roads dotted with farm stands and rustic garden shops, cows grazing in pastures, herds of sheep roaming in meadows.
And then there’s the other side of the Sonoma wine region, the rugged, extreme coast that hugs the Pacific Ocean. The newly established Fort Ross Seaview appellation is ensconced in this pocket of the larger Sonoma Coast American Viticulture Area, or AVA.
Perched on mountainous terrain, Fort Ross Seaview’s fog-blanketed vineyards appear to cling to sunny mountain ridges, some as high as 1,800 feet, pushing through the dense fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean.
The areas above 900 feet are blessed with a longer duration of sunlight and are in fact warmer than the surrounding land below. This warmth, combined with the tempering effect of a cool maritime influence, creates a perfect growing season for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, varietals widely planted in the region. The grapes enjoy gradual ripening with no dramatic ups and downs, which results in balanced sugar and acidity levels. Although noted for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the region is also planted with Zinfandel, Pinotage and Rhône varietals.
The wines of this extreme coast are low in alcohol and packed with bright fruit flavors, complex minerality and bracing acidity.
Sonoma County AVA the newest in popular wine region
On a recent visit to the Sonoma coast, I trekked out to visit this isolated and challenging site that received its own AVA in 2012. The Sonoma County AVA brings the total for the county to 17 appellations.
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Fort Ross Seaview’s 27,500-acre appellation includes 18 commercial vineyards, and more than 550 acres are planted to vineyards by such noted vintners as Marcassin, Martinelli, Peter Michael and Pahlmeyer. The area has five wine labels, among them the region’s pioneer, Flowers & Winery.
The AVA’s only tasting room open to public is at Fort Ross Vineyards. Coming from Sebastopol, it took us more than an hour to get to Fort Ross Vineyards, the first destination on our trip. The drive along Highway 116 that connects to Highway 1 was spectacular, taking us through the hamlets of Guerneville and Monte Rio along the Russian River. The dramatic coastline winding through the coastal town of Jenner brought us to the Fort Ross tasting room, which is tucked away in the mountainous landscape between the towns of Fort Ross and Cazadero.
San Francisco-based owners Linda and Lester Schwartz purchased the 975-acre Fort Ross property in 1991 and later planted 50 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinotage. With Jeff Pisoni on board as winemaker, they launched their first commercial release in 2000.
The 32 different parcels of small vineyards are perched at elevations ranging from 1,200 to 1,700 feet. The tasting room is enveloped by evergreens in a forest-like environment and sits at an elevation of 1,000 feet.
As we tasted the lineup of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on a mid-August afternoon, the fog hung thick below the tasting room’s terrace. We were clearly above the fog line.
We savored the three different styles of Pinot. The 2012 palate-caressing, drink-now Sea Slopes showed hints of strawberry, while the 2010 signature Fort Ross Pinot reflected the region’s terroir, with layers of complexity, smoky blackberry notes and firm tannins. Lush with cherry notes, the silky-textured 2009 Reserve Pinot was indeed cellar-worthy.
Chardonnay mirrors the coast
The zesty 2012 Chardonnay had bracing acidity and minerality reflective of the extreme coastal terroir. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, the Schwartz family paid homage to its signature Pinotage grape (a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault) and imported the budwood. Grown in the cool, coastal climate, the 2009 Pinotage showed a Pinot Noir body but with rustic brambly notes.
Our next stop was at Flowers Vineyards, renowned for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Walt and Joan Flowers pioneered this rugged area when they planted these two varietals in 1991 at the Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Vineyard, and they released their first commercial vintage in 1994. The winery is now owned by vintner Agustin Huneeus of Napa Valley’s famed Quintessa Winery.
Rising up just 2 miles from the rugged Pacific Ocean cliffs, the Flowers property is breathtaking. The vineyards, heavy with fruit, are spread out on elevations ranging from 1,150 feet to 1,875 feet. Our guide and host Michelle Forry informed us that this mountainous range was at one time a sheep ranch till the coyotes wiped them out.
Flowers follows organic and biodynamic practices on its 80 acres of vineyards, 30 acres on Camp Meeting Ridge and 50 acres on Sea View Ridge. The entire mountaintop ranch totals 648 acres.
The well-known San Andreas fault runs nearby, Forry said, and its geological movement has influenced the Camp Meeting Ridge and Sea View Ridge vineyards. Through time and cataclysmic events, the ancient rocks and weathered marine and volcanic soils have helped control vine vigor, resulting in distinctive coastal minerality with bright fruit, signature characteristics of Flowers wines. And it’s this expression that has made me a longtime fan of Flowers’ wines.
Pinot Noir with a lovely finish
We tasted the 2011 vintages of Pinot Noir from the two estates. The Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Pinot showed bright red fruits accented with acidity and minerality. The Sea View Ridge Vineyard had a deep brick color (due to the volcanic ash in the soil) laced with cherry notes and a lovely lingering finish.
The classic sea-salt minerality of Camp Meeting Ridge vineyard was reflected in the 2011 Chardonnay, layered with cardamom and citrus fruits. The 2012 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay also showed the signature minerality laced with pear and apple.
Because the AVA is just 2 years old, you might not see the Fort Ross-Seaview name on bottle labels yet. In fact, Flowers does not intend to use that appellation name on its labels.
“For us we are Sonoma Coast first,” Forry said.
Main photo: Grapes from the morning pick at Flowers Vineyards. Credit: Courtesy of Flowers Vineyard