Ross Cobb practically grew up in his family's vineyard, but becoming a winemaker and starting a winery weren't part of his original plan.
In 1989, Ross' father David planted the 15-acre Coastlands Vineyard in California's chilly Sonoma Coast region with the idea of selling cool-climate Pinot Noir grapes to a handful of vintners.
On weekends and summer breaks from studying biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Ross helped his dad in the vineyard. He grew to love the winegrowing process so much that he changed his major to agroecology and sustainable agriculture.
After graduation, Ross joined Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery in Dry Creek Valley, where he established a soils lab and winery research team, and later worked as the enologist and lab manager at Bonny Doon Vineyard. His passion for Pinot led him to Williams Selyem, where he was able to work with grapes from his family's own vineyard. In 2000, he joined Flowers Vineyard and Winery as assistant winemaker and took over as winemaker in 2004.
Meanwhile, Ross approached his parents with an expanded vision for the family business -- one that included winemaking. In 2001, Ross and his dad founded Cobb Wines. With Ross dividing his time between the vineyard and cellar, the winery focuses on single-vineyard, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs made from the Coastlands Vineyard as well as four independently owned Sonoma Coast vineyards.
The wines are elegant and complex, built for aging and refreshingly low in alcohol -- usually around 13%. At $68 and up, they're not cheap. But they are exceptional.
I recently met up with Ross in Santa Rosa, and we popped the corks on some of Cobb's current releases over burgers.
WRO: I know you studied agriculture in college, but how did you learn the winemaking side?
Ross Cobb (RC): I first started learning about making wine in middle school and high school. My father was a home winemaker, and I would help him out. Once, he was called away on business for a week, so my mother and I had to check the fermentations and the Brix (sugar level), and do the punch-downs of the wines. After college, I joined the team at Ferrari-Carano as a lab technician. I was surrounded by UC Davis grads there, and I sort of look at Ferrari-Carano as my grad school. I’ve also learned an incredible amount traveling to Europe. I’ve been to Burgundy nine times and tasted at more than 100 wineries there. I’ve never regretted not having an enology degree.
WRO: What's special to you and your family about the Sonoma Coast region?
RC: When I was just a couple of years old, my dad, who is a marine biologist, worked in the Bodega Marine Laboratory, and we lived in Valley Ford. In the ‘70s, he started to think that the far Sonoma Coast would be suitable for really nice Pinot Noir. My mom also loved the coast. She grew up in Laguna Beach, and she shaped some of the first surfboards for Hobie -- and my dad was a surfer. There is a lot of love in my family for the ocean and the beach, and the coastline that overlooks it all. Our winegrowing, and where we have chosen to do it, is an expression of that.
WRO: What are the characteristics of your estate vineyard?
RC: Coastlands Vineyard is located on an uplifted marine terrace, at an elevation of 1,200 feet, about 3.5 miles from the ocean above Bodega Bay. You can see the ocean, and the white caps, and you can hear the foghorns. Even though we’re at 1,200 feet, because our vineyard is on an uplifted sedimentary marine terrace, you find tidal rocks. Within our 15 acres, we have four unique soil types, all of which are hillside, well drained and acidic. These are great soils, but they also challenge the vines just enough.
There are lots of other important factors. Our yields are kept low (1 to 2 tons per acre) because of the fog during flowering. And the mixture of oak, laurel and Douglas fir trees that have contributed to the makeup of the soils also influence aromas. Coastlands produces small concentrated berries, which in turn deliver bright, intense raspberry and plum flavors in our wines. We also get great white pepper and spice notes.
WRO: Why is the soil profile so important in winegrowing? What do you look for in the non-estate vineyards you work with?
RC: We look for well-drained, hilltop or hillside soils. All of our vineyards are quite steep. The soils are fairly fertile, but not too fertile. We want the vines to be healthy and thrive without fertilizers or water, so we like them to have good water holding capacity -- but again, not too much. We are looking for that ideal soil balance where the vines can concentrate on ripening the fruit. If you have too much water or fertility, the vines will just keep growing.
WRO: What's your stylistic goal for Cobb wines?
RC: The goal is to create a wine that reflects the place and the site -- a wine that tastes like where it came from. I want each vineyard to taste distinct, to have subtleties of soil and microclimate. Stylistically, I believe in making wines that are more elegant and aromatic with good acidity, moderate alcohols and the ability to age gracefully, and go with food. I also want to stay true to the variety. I want my wines to taste like Pinot.
WRO: How are you able to achieve lower alcohol levels in your wines?
RC: I achieve this by selecting cool, coastal-influenced sites for growing Pinot -- places that are truly on the ocean’s edge. These locations produce slower ripening in the grapes, with slower sugar accumulation. We are not picking earlier. We pick in late September and early October, but the ripening is just slower. Just as important, everything is in sync -- the flavors in the skins, the color, the maturity of the seed and stems -- it all occurs on pace with sugar accumulation. We get a nice ruby color and great aroma, without the ripe jammy character you can get from hotter climates.
WRO: What's your approach in the cellar?
RC: It’s very natural, very traditional and very detailed and precise. I don’t add anything -- no enzymes, tannins, fining agents, non-indigenous yeast, or nutrients. I like to use nothing. The goal is for the fruit to be harvested in perfect condition, so nothing needs to be added or altered. In the same vein, we only use modest new oak, with lighter toasts, and we age our Pinots for a very traditional 18-20 months.
WRO: Do you think the word "Burgundian" is overused by California vintners when talking about Pinot Noir?
RC: Yes. Everyone uses "Burgundian" to talk about a certain style, but often, I don’t think they’re really talking about that kind of style. I think we all have the common goal of making beautiful, interesting and complex wines, which are characteristics associated with Burgundy. But the reality is a lot of vineyards aren’t planted in Burgundy-like climates, so the wines can’t be Burgundy style. They taste more like Rhône- or Mediterranean-climate Pinots, with lots of fruit body and juiciness, but not much earth and acidity, which comes more from a cooler-climate.
WRO: Do you think your wines fit the Burgundian profile?
RC: I don’t look at my winemaking as Burgundian; I see it as traditional. What I do think Burgundy represents is a true appreciation for site and vineyard. That’s something I echo. I don’t want to make a wine that tastes like Burgundy. I want to make wines that taste like the far Sonoma Coast, like Coastlands Vineyard, Emmaline Ann Vineyard, Rice-Spivak Vineyard, Joy Road Vineyard and Jack Hill Vineyard.
WRO: How much wine are you producing at Cobb? Any plans for expansion?
RC: We are at about 1,500 cases, between six vineyard-designate wines. So that’s about 150 to 300 cases per designate. Within the vineyards we own and work with, we will likely grow by about 200 cases a year to a maximum of 2,500 cases.
WRO: With such small production, how do you make a living?
RC: Cobb Wines has never been about making a lot of money -- it's about farming Pinot Noir on the far Sonoma Coast, and making the kind of wines we love. The winery itself helps to stabilize and pay for some of the Coastlands Vineyard farming costs in particularly low yielding years, which happens not infrequently when you are as far out on the coast as we are. Because we are a very small-production winery, I do have another gig; I’m the consulting winemaker for Hirsch Vineyards.
WRO: Where can people buy Cobb wines?
RC: We sell about 50% to our mailing list, 25% directly to restaurant and retail accounts, and 25% through distributors. We sell direct in California, and we have distributors in Hawaii, Nevada, New York, New Jersey, DC, Virginia, Massachusetts and Texas. There's a list of restaurants on our website.
WRO: At 75 years old, what role does your father play at the winery today?
RC: We are partners in Cobb wines, and my father owns Coastlands Vineyard, where he lives. He does a lot of the sales with our restaurant accounts, he handles sales on the mailing list, and he also handles customer relations. And of course his main focus is managing Coastlands Vineyard. Our relationship is classic father-son, which means it’s a little competitive, and at times a little tense, but at heart, we both share the same vision for Cobb and the same love of winegrowing and winemaking. He’s been a huge part of building Cobb Wines.
WRO: Who are some of your favorite producers in California and beyond?
RC: Ted Lemon of Littorai has been a big influence. Joe and Tom Rochioli. Burt Williams of Williams Selyem. Tom Dehlinger. Josh Jenson at Calera. Steve Doerner of Cristom in Oregon. I love a lot of wines. Obviously Burgundy has been a huge influence, but I also love Côte-Rôtie in the northern Rhône, Ribera del Duero, Grenache from the Priorat, and Austrian Rieslings.
WRO: Aside from your dad, are there any particular growers that you admire?
RC: Joe Rochioli for his canopy management [using techniques like pruning and leaf thinning that balance shoot growth and fruit development]. David Hirsch has taught me a lot about soil management and canopy management. Tom Dehlinger is a master of pruning and breaking his vineyards into micro pieces. Josh Jensen. Ted Lemon. Thinking back to the last question, I guess most of the winemakers I admire are also admirable growers….