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The True Coast
By Ed McCarthy
Mar 29, 2011
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Quite a few wine writers, including yours truly, have written off California Pinot Noir as a lackluster example of the variety, especially by comparison to the standard bearer renditions sourced from its native Burgundy.  True, there is only one Burgundy, which produces some of the world’s finest wines, such as Romané-Conti and Musigny.  However, it has long seemed that California Pinot Noirs were different that Burgundies not by degree but in kind--and not in a good way.

The fact is that most wine regions in California are quite a bit warmer than Burgundy.  This accounts at least partially for many of the fruity, super-ripe, high-alcohol Pinot Noirs made in the Golden State.  The other reason seems to be that many California winemakers’ vision of Pinot Noir wines is markedly different from the classic Burgundian model, and my own vision.  I’m looking for elegance, delicacy, and balance in Pinot Noirs, rather than over-ripe fruit bombs.  If the color is light, that’s fine with me.  In fact, I’m suspicious of dark-colored Pinot Noirs.  That is not the nature of the grape, at least in my sense of its optimal state.

I almost gave up on California Pinot Noir until I discovered some of the Pinots coming from the Sonoma Coast, a phenomenon that began only within the past twenty years.  Early examples of wines from this region were so miniscule that the wine cognoscenti have really just found out about Pinot Noirs of the “True Coast” within the last five to ten years.

What is this business of the “True Coast,” you ask?  If you look at a map of the AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) of Sonoma County, you will observe that the Sonoma Coast AVA takes up roughly the western half of the County--including the prestigious Russian River Valley-- from the Mendocino County border in the north to Marin County, the Carneros region and San Pablo Bay in the south.  (Bryce Jones, then owner of Sonoma-Cutrer, was instrumental in establishing the Sonoma Coast AVA in the 1980s.  He didn’t like the fact that wines sourced from his disparate Chardonnay vineyards, spread throughout the western part of the County, could only be labeled under a general Sonoma County appellation.)

Because of the vast expanse of this AVA, any wine producer making a Pinot Noir anywhere within the Sonoma Coast AVA, even forty miles away from the Pacific Coast, can label his wine “Sonoma Coast” Pinot Noir.  This fact is understandably frustrating for those producers whose vineyards are located two to fifteen miles from the Coast, where the cool, windy climate creates a completely different terroir for Pinot Noir wines.  Producers close to the Pacific Coast began calling their area the “True Coast,” to distinguish it from other wines made in the vast Sonoma Coast AVA.  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the main varieties growing on the True (a.k.a. extreme) Sonoma Coast.  Some very good Syrah and Zinfandel can also be found here.

Two years ago, when I wrote a Wine Review Online column on Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs, I wasn’t aware of the differences that existed between the so-called True Coast Pinot Noirs and other Pinots from the Sonoma Coast AVA.  About that time, I received samples of Pinot Noirs from Willowbrook Cellars, a tiny wine operation custom-crushing its wines in Sebastopol, along with wines from many other small wine brands.  The 2006 Willowbrook Marin County Pinot Noir (with a climate similar to the True Coast) and 2006 Willowbrook DuNah Vineyard Pinot Noir (from the True Sonoma  Coast) were eye-opening.  I had my eureka moment.  “These are the kind of Pinot Noirs I’m looking for!” I said to myself.  That began my quest to discover all that I could about the True Coast.  Heck, I didn’t even know vineyards were growing in Marin County up until that point (very few are, in the northern part, near the coast).

A factor influencing many True Coast vineyards is the effect of the Petaluma Gap, a 15-mile virtual wind tunnel.  Ocean breezes blow through the opening in the mountain ranges at Bodega Bay--a village hugging the Pacific Coast--in an easterly direction towards the town of Petaluma.  Vineyards in and near its path gain the beneficial effect of fog in the morning, followed by cool winds in mid-afternoon--even if they are not strictly coastal vineyards.

Regarding the much more established Russian River Valley, I believe that this region does produce some excellent Pinot Noirs.  But for my taste, I prefer the elegant, more delicately fruity style of Pinot Noir emanating from many of the better True Coast producers.  The classic True Coast Pinot Noirs tend to be lighter in color and in body than typical RRV Pinot Noirs.  That’s fine with me.  I’m looking more for delicacy and finesse in Pinot Noirs--not power.

Along the extreme Sonoma Coast, growing season temperatures are almost as low as possible for grapes to ripen, averaging in the low 70s F. in the daytime, and dropping to the 40s at night, thanks to cool winds.  The growing season is extremely long; most of the grapes are harvested from late October to early November.  Vineyards, which are generally planted high in the Sonoma Mountain range to catch the sun, have thin, shallow, very rocky soil.  The sun and the thin soil are assets for growing Pinot Noir here.  Growers must contend with cold spring seasons, along with very small crops and the threat of autumn rains.  The stressed vines produce small, concentrated grapes.  Pinot Noir wines made from these grapes   show greater complexity of aroma and flavor than Pinot Noirs from other regions throughout the state.  True Coast Pinots often need two or three years’ longer bottle aging than other California Pinot Noirs, but they also will age longer.

David Hirsch, a pioneer of the True Coast, planted vineyards in 1980 on a mountain range a few miles from the Pacific Ocean and the coastal village of Fort Ross.  Back then, this very cool, windy region was deemed suitable for sheep grazing.  Hirsch’s vision was that this would be an ideal place to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Hirsch was one of the first to grow grapes here.  Some of his customers today are among the best-known Russian River Valley wineries, such as Williams Selyem and Littorai. In 2002, Hirsch started his own winery.  The only vineyard I know of that preceded Hirsch on the True Coast was the tiny Wild Hog Vineyard, founded by Daniel and Marion Schoenfeld in 1977.  Wild Hog started making its own wines in 1990.

Others in the vanguard of the True Coast in the late 1980s include Flowers Winery and Vineyards, the Cobb Family with its Coastlands Vineyard, and, later, Peay Vineyards.  Today, over 50 growers have vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA, many with their own wineries, and another 60 or more wineries source their grapes here.

In early 2010, at a dinner with Jasmine Hirsch, Sales and Marketing Director of Hirsch Vineyards and daughter of David Hirsch, I proposed a definitive True Coast Pinot Noir tasting in New York.  Together, we planned an extensive tasting at a Wine Media Guild luncheon in early March, 2011, which included 21 Pinot Noirs from 17 of the best wineries making Pinots on the True Coast.  My original goal was to have all the wines come from the outstanding 2007 vintage, but that proved impossible, due to limited availability, and so we included 2008 and 2009 Pinot Noirs as well.  This move was fortunate, because 2009 is shaping up to be a fantastic vintage on the Sonoma Coast, almost rivaling 2007 in our tasting.  But 2008 seemed ordinary, at best, with perhaps one notable exception in our tasting. 

Our three guest speakers at the tasting were Jasmine Hirsch, Ross Cobb (of Cobb Wines; the son of David Cobb, founder of Coastland Vineyard), and Jason Jardine, winemaker of Flowers Winery.  It was undoubtedly the largest public tasting of True Coast Pinot Noirs so far, at least on the East Coast.  Ross Cobb commented that he had never been to a similar tasting with so many True Coast Pinots.  Most of the wines are made in small quantities, and must be sought out.  Among the missing--which we could not get our hands on in time--were DuNah Vineyard, Dutton Goldfield, Ft. Ross Vineyard, and my early favorite, Willowbrook Cellars. 

We had 13 Pinot Noirs from 2007, four from 2008, and five from 2009.  The tasting was truly eye-opening for Wine Media Guild members--most of whom had previously been unfamiliar with True Coast Pinot Noirs.  I purposely excluded a few very expensive brands, such as Kistler, Marcassin, and Aubert--the latter two costing $200 and up per bottle-- because of their price and their scarcity.  Retail prices ranged from $30 to $78 for all but one (Williams Selyem Hirsch Vineyard was $120).

The following are the 21 Pinot Noirs we tasted, in the order of tasting, including their approximate retail prices:

1. Hirsch Vineyards, “the Bohan Dillon” 2009 ($30)
2. Red Car, Sonoma Coast, 2009 ($30)
3. Peay Vineyards, Pomarium Estate 2009 ($52)
4. Failla, Hirsch Vineyard 2009 ($65)
5. Lioco, Hirsch Vineyard 2009 ($60)
6. Red Car, Platt Vineyard “Dreamland” 2008 ($60)
7. Freeman Vineyard, Sonoma Coast 2008 ($40)
8. Pfendler Vineyards, Sonoma Coast 2008 ($45)
9. Cobb Wines, Coastland Vineyard 2008 ($78)
10. Freestone Vineyard, Sonoma Coast 2007 ($40)
11. Flowers Winery, Frances Thompson Vineyard 2007 ($65)
12. Evening Land, Occidental Ridge Vineyard 2007 ($40)
13. Williams Selyem, Hirsch Vineyard 2007 ($120)
14. Wild Hog Vineyard, Estate, Sonoma Coast ($30)
15. B. Kosuge, Hirsch Vineyard 2007 ($50)
16. Flowers Winery, Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard 2007 ($68)
17. Hirsch Vineyards, “San Andreas” 2007 ($60)
18. Drew Family Estate, McDougall Vineyard 2007 ($45)
19. Cobb Wines, Emmaline  Vineyard 2007 ($68)
20. Littorai, The Haven Vineyard 2007 ($75)
21. Hartford Family Winery, Far Coast Vineyard 2007 ($70)

From this august group, I have chosen my ten favorites--not surprisingly, seven from 2007; one from 2008, and two from 2009--all of which I rated between 93 and 97 points.  What was surprising is that two of my favorites are among the least expensive:  Hirsch Vineyards “the Bohan Dillon” 2009 and Wild Hog Estate 2007, both priced at $30!

Hirsch’s ’09 “the Bohan Dillon,” made from younger vines of Hirsch Vineyard plus purchased grapes from neighboring vineyards, is exuberant, precocious, and charming; totally delicious right now, and an indication of the promise of the 2009 vintage.  The 2007 Wild Hog Estate was the most delightful 2007 Pinot Noir to drink now; at my table, we were gulping down these two delicious wines with lunch.  The other 2009 Pinot Noir that I loved was the Failla Hirsch Vineyard.  This lusty beauty needs a bit of time, even though it was difficult not to drink now.

The one 2008 which stood out was Cobb’s Coastland Vineyard.  Unlike the other 2008s, Coastland was substantial and vibrant, with a potential for aging.  Ross Cobb, still a young man whom I doubt has seen his 40th birthday, in addition to being winemaker at the family Coastlands Vineyard, has done stints as assistant winemaker/oenologist at Williams Selyem and as winemaker at Flowers Winery, and is now also the winemaker at Hirsch Vineyards.

The 2007 True Coast Pinot Noirs lived up to the reputation of the vintage.  All of the wines ranged from very good to superb.  In addition to the “Best Buy” Wild Hog Estate Vineyard I mentioned earlier, Williams Selyem Hirsch Vineyard stood out for its depth and potential longevity; Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard, typically Flowers’ best Pinot Noir, was excellent, an exciting wine with a brilliant future; Hirsch Vineyards “San Andreas,” its flagship wine, showed depth and complexity; winemaker-owner Ted Lemon’s Littorai The Haven Vineyard was smashing!  Many critics consider Ted Lemon the premier winemaker of Pinot Noir in the U.S., and I will not dispute that.  Hartford Family Winery, a.k.a. Hartford Court, like Williams Selyem, produces a dozen or more Pinot Noirs, but my favorite usually is its Far Coast Vineyard, near Annapolis in the north.  This baby needs time; it will be long-lived, and is destined to be one of Hartford Court’s greatest wines.

My favorite Pinot Noir of the tasting was Cobb Wines’ 2007 Emmaline Vineyard.  This is my style of Pinot Noir:  Very aromatic, delicately flavored, and complex, proving to me irrevocably that California CAN produce truly superb Pinot Noir, rivaling the best of Burgundy.  Emmaline Vineyard is on the western edge of Sebastopol, and is influenced by the Pacific Ocean winds and fog. By the way, the ’07 Emmaline contains only 12.9° alcohol; the ’06 Cobb Emmaline has 12.8°.  When is the last time you’ve seen a California wine with under 13 percent alcohol?

Three other True Coast Pinot Noirs that I’ve tasted previously rival Cobb’s 2007 Emmaline Vineyard in greatness.  Littorai’s 2007 Hirsch Vineyard, which I tasted at the winery in 2009 but which was not available for our tasting, is one of them; this monumental, complex wine is Littorai’s standout 2007, in my opinion.  Another is Willowbrook Cellars’ 2006 DuNah Vineyard, made in the delicate style of a True Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir; a rather pleasant note is that all Willowbrook Cellars Pinot Noirs, still little-known, are outstanding values.  The third is Hirsch Vineyards 2007 Estate Block 7 Pinot Noir, which sent a chill down my spine when I drank it last year at dinner with Jasmine Hirsch; it’s such a thrilling wine to taste, clearly for me Hirsch’s best Pinot Noir.  Made from the old Martin Ray-Mt.Eden clone, this delicately nuanced wine has a light ruby color, pronounced acidity, and low alcohol (13°).  Unlike most California Pinot Noirs, it is not overtly fruity, but has subtle flavors of sour cherry, tart strawberries, and herbal notes.  Only 47 cases were produced, and so 2007 Estate Block 7 might be impossible to find at this point, but look for it in future vintages.

If you have not yet tasted True Coast Pinot Noirs but consider yourself a fan of this variety, I urge you to seek out some of the wines I’ve mentioned in this column.  I think you might become a convert, as I have.