For me, the Promised Land for California Pinot Noir is the extreme Sonoma Coast, what locals and some writers are calling “The True Coast,” to distinguish it from the vast AVA known as the Sonoma Coast. The True Coast is a narrow strip of land running along the Pacific Coast above Bodega Bay, starting at Ft. Ross, going north to the hamlet of Annapolis, and extending about 10 miles inland to the hamlets of Occidental and Freestone, west of Sebastopol. Think of a triangle pointing southeast, with the Annapolis area the northern point, Ft. Ross-Seaview (now a sub-AVA of the Sonoma Coast AVA) the central part, and Occidental/Freestone the southeast point. What the True Coast vineyards have in common is the climate. The cold Pacific current and the cool winds coming through the Petaluma Gap at Bodega Bay have created a micro-climate which is perfect for Pinot Noir. Fog covers many of the vineyards in the morning, with plenty of sunshine (and those winds) in the afternoon. Most vineyards are on hilltops 800 to 1500 feet high, above the fog that still covers much of the lower altitudes for a good part of the day.
Most attempts at making Pinot Noirs in California have resulted in wines that have been too big, too ripe, and too high in alcohol. The True Coast area, which had previously been considered too cool to ripen grapes, had been used primarily as grazing land for sheep. But pioneers began arriving in the late 1970s. David Hirsch came along in 1978, and planted a Pinot Noir vineyard here in 1980. Today, at least 25 to 30 wineries, mainly small, are now in the True Coast area, primarily growing Pinot Noir--but also Chardonnay, with a little Syrah and Zinfandel as well. The best-known of the True Coast wineries is Flowers, one of the earliest to be established. Others, none of them household names, are Wild Hog Vineyard (actually the True Coast’s first Pinot Noir vineyard, in 1977), Peay, Lioco, Hirsch, Coastlands Vineyard, with its offshoot, Cobb Wines, Drew Family, Freestone, and Red Car. What really put the True Coast on the map is that many wineries from outside the True Coast, primarily Russian River Valley--such as Williams Selyem, Hartford Court, Littorai, and even Failla from Napa Valley--have been buying Pinot Noir grapes from the True Coast to make their own single-vineyard Pinot Noirs.
Cobb Wines came to my attention last year when I organized a tasting of over 20 Pinot Noirs from the True Coast (with the help of Jasmine Hirsch, daughter of Hirsch Vineyards founder, David Hirsch) for members of the Wine Media Guild in New York City. I had my epiphany moment when I tasted the 2007 Cobb Emmaline Ann Vineyard. Yes!, I said to myself. Here is the California Pinot Noir that I have been looking for; it was fairly light-colored, elegant, had great acidity combined with vibrant berry-flavored fruit, and, most importantly to me, it was delicate in structure--the way that the best Burgundies are structured. I was finally excited about a Pinot Noir made outside of the Burgundy region.
I had to find out about the man behind my epiphany-engendering California Pinot Noir, Ross Cobb. Fortunately, Jasmine Hirsch had brought Ross along with her to our tasting. Ross is a rather shy, young-looking man (he was only 40 years old, and looked younger). His winemaking credentials were impressive. Ross is the son of David Cobb, founder of Coastlands Vineyard in 1989. Coastlands, which sits on a mountain ridge up to 1200 feet in height, is 3.5 miles from the Pacific; it’s one of the coldest Pinot Noir vineyards in California and one of the last to ripen. (Williams Selyem has long been sourcing fruit from Coastlands for one of its single-vineyard Pinot Noirs.) Before joining his dad, Ross had learned his trade at various wineries, including Ferrari-Carano, Bonny Doon, and Williams Selyem. Ross was the winemaker at Flowers Winery and Vineyards from 2004 to 2008. In 2010, Ross became winemaker of Hirsch Vineyards--in addition to being winemaker at Cobb Wines.
Going back a moment, in 2001 Ross founded his own wine business, Cobb Wines, along with his parents, Diane and David Cobb. Ross’s first Pinot Noirs came from the family vineyard, Coastlands. This is still in the Cobb wines portfolio, but Ross in the next several years added single-vineyard wines from four more vineyards to Cobb Wines: Rice-Spivak Vineyard (2003), Emmaline Ann Vineyard (2006), Joy Road Vineyard (2007), and Jack Hill Vineyard (2007). Cobb Wines now has six Pinot Noirs, including one from a special block of Coastlands Vineyard named after his late mom, Diane Cobb (first vintage in 2006). Ross currently makes his Pinot Noirs (and a little bit of Chardonnay) at Hirsch Vineyards.
Altogether, Ross makes about 1500 cases of Pinot Noir from his six vineyard-designated wines, averaging about 150 to 300 cases for each wine. Not a lot of wine. The best way to buy Cobb Wines is to get on its mailing list. Cobb’s website will also tell you the restaurants that serve its wines. The standard retail price at the winery for most Cobb Pinot Noirs is $68, which I consider a very fair price when you consider the low yields in all of Cobb’s vineyards, the very small production, and the quality of the wines. There are some “bigger-styled,” high-alcohol California Pinot Noirs that have received high point scores from two or three wine critics which are selling for over $100--and they’re not anywhere near Cobb’s Pinot Noirs in quality, in my opinion.
Most of Cobb Wines’ Pinot Noirs are quite low in alcohol. The four Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinots range between 12.8° to 13.1°--almost unheard of in California wines today. Ross Cobb has intentionally chosen very cool vineyard sites in which the alcohol remains low.
I have just finished tasting seven Cobb Pinot Noirs, four from my favorite, Emmaline Ann Vineyard, and one each from Jack Hill, Coastlands Diane Cobb, and Joy Road. Four of the wines were from the 2008 vintage, not considered a very good vintage in Sonoma, but one in which Ross believes came out well for his wines. I tasted all of the Cobb Emmaline Ann wines that have been made to this point, the 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. I tasted all seven wines the first day and then three days later, with food. All of the wines were tasted in large Burgundy glasses. Here is some information about the vineyards, along with my tasting notes:
Emmaline Ann Vineyard: What makes Emmaline Ann Vineyard so special? In one word--location. It is a 3-acre vineyard, situated at the very western end of Sebastopol township, near the town of Occidental, on a hill 800 hundred feet above sea level. The vineyard has a southern exposure. It generally gets more shade and fog than the other vineyards Cobb uses, and is very much influenced by the Pacific Ocean, several miles to the west. The soil is Goldridge sandy loam, typical in this part of Sonoma. Emmaline Pinot Noirs are marked by their delicacy, high acidity, complexity, and low alcohol. Cobb Wines receives all of the grapes from Emmaline Ann Vineyard, and is the only producer of this vineyard’s wines.
--Cobb Wines, Sonoma Coast, Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006 ($68): This was the first vintage from this vineyard. Fairly dark color, compared to other Emmaline vintages. Dark fruit aromas and flavors--more black cherry, cranberry, and plum than red berries, with notes of cinnamon. This is much dryer than other California Pinot Noirs, including those from the Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley. The 2006 spent 16 months aging in oak barrels (30 percent new French oak). Only 166 cases were produced, with a mere 12.8 percent alcohol. An excellent Pinot Noir, lovely to drink now, this exhibits the delicacy characteristic of this vineyard’s wines. 91
--Cobb Wines, Sonoma Coast, Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 ($68): This is the wine that turned me on to Cobb Wines, especially from Emmaline Ann vineyard. The 2007 vintage, relatively small but concentrated, is one of the great vintages for Sonoma Pinot Noirs--along with 2005 and 2009. The 2007 is a complete wine, with rich berry fruit flavors, excellent balance, and a long, dry finish. It has great acidity, is delicious now, but should easily last another ten years or more. The 2007 spent 17 months aging in oak barrels, 35 percent of which were in new French oak. 310 cases were produced; it has 13 percent alcohol. 95
--Cobb Wines, Sonoma Coast, Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008 ($68): The 2008 vintage proved to be difficult for many wineries in Sonoma and Mendocino because of smoke from wildfires, but the smoke never reached Cobb’s vineyards. As a result, Cobb Wines’ 2008s are surprisingly good. The 2008 Emmaline Ann is a lively young wine with great acidity. Spicy, raspberry flavors stand out, making the 2008 quite delicious right now. The 2008 spent 17 months aging in oak barrels, 35 percent of which were in new French oak. 370 cases were produced, with 13.1 percent alcohol. Although it’s a very fine Pinot Noir, it doesn’t have the complexity and great balance of the 2007 or 2009 Emmalines. 93
--Cobb Wines, Sonoma Coast, Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 ($70): The 2009 Emmaline is even better than the great 2007 Cobb Emmaline, to my taste. It is totally delicious, with lively raspberry and tart cherry aromas and flavors and great acidity. And yet it possesses the delicacy and subtlety that is so difficult to capture in California Pinot Noirs. It is very young now. Even after being open for four days, it was still very fresh. This might be the longest-lived of all the Cobb Pinot Noirs I have tasted. I would suggest holding on to the 2009 for a few years before drinking it. All of Cobb’s Pinot Noirs rank from very good to great, but the Emmalines are in a class by themselves. 97
--Cobb Wines, Sonoma Coast, Jack Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008: ($68): Jack Hill is a small, 2-acre vineyard sitting on a ridge above the Freestone Valley, near Occidental. Although it is close to Emmaline Ann Vineyard, it is distinctly warmer, because Jack Hill is surrounded by oak and fir forests, sheltering the vines. The 2008 Jack Hill emphasizes fruit and tannin, with a less delicate structure than the Emmalines. Dark fruit flavors dominate now; quite delicious. This is a very good Pinot from the difficult 2008 growing season. It spent 17 months aging in oak barrels, 35 percent of which were in new French oak. 240 cases were produced, with 13.5 percent alcohol. 90
--Cobb Wines, Sonoma Coast,Coastlands Vineyard Pinot Noir “Diane Cobb” 2008 ($78): The 1.5 acre block of vines that provided the fruit for this wine is appropriately named after the late Diane Cobb, a licensed nursery specialist who planted 24 relatively unknown Pinot Noir clones in one part of Coastlands Vineyard. Her son, Ross, has made a separate wine from this block each year since 2006. The Diane Cobb block has fertile, deep loam soils, which are reflected in the wine. The 2008 Diane Cobb is quite dark in color with the deep, concentrated fruit. It doesn’t possess the delicacy and elegance of the Emmalines from Cobb, but it is a delicious Pinot Noir. It spent 17 months aging in oak barrels, 40 percent of which were in new French oak. Only 140 cases were produced, with 13.4 percent alcohol. Beware: This wine sells out fast. 91
--Cobb Wines, Sonoma Coast, Joy Road Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008: ($68): Ross Cobb has been using the 2-acre Joy Road Vineyard, along with the Jack Hill, since 2007. It is located very close to Coastlands Vineyard, around Occidental. Compared to the delicate Emmalines, Joy Road is too fruity and a bit too hot on the palate (for my taste, at least in this vintage) because of the 14.1 alcohol. It is certainly a bigger wine than the other Cobb Pinot Noirs from the 2008 vintage. It spent 17 months aging in oak barrels, 35 percent of which were in new French oak. 280 cases were produced. 89
A word about the two Cobb Pinot Noirs not present in this tasting: I did taste the 2008 Cobb Coastlands Vineyard (at 14.5 acres, by far the largest vineyard Ross Cobb sources his wine from), and I thought it was a very good 2008 Pinot Noir, though not on a level with most of the Cobb Pinot Noirs in this tasting. I’ve tasted the Cobb Rice-Spivak Vineyard just once, and I recall that it was dark-colored and dense, needing time to open up. The Rice-Spivak Vineyard is further from the Pacific Ocean than the other vineyards Ross Cobb uses, which might account for its different style.
I realize that it is a bit presumptuous of me to claim that Cobb Wines Emmaline Vineyard is California’s greatest Pinot Noir. I should at least add, “in my opinion.” Let me amend this statement and simply say that it is my favorite U.S. Pinot Noir. Other Pinot Noirs I admire include Hirsch Vineyards, Littorai (especially its Hirsch Vineyards version), Hartford Court’s Far Coast, Williams Selyem’s Sonoma Coast single-vineyard Pinots (especially Hirsch Vineyard and Precious Mountain), and Failla’s Hirsch Vineyard.
My final recommendation: Two Pinot Noir “Best Buys” from the True Coast are Hirsch Vineyards 2009 “The Bohan Dillon” (made from younger vines at Hirsch plus purchased grapes from neighboring vineyards) retailing at $30, and Wild Hog Vineyard 2008 selling in the $23 to $27 range. Both are amazing values--from an amazing source for Pinot Noir.