The Far, Far West of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Wines

Photo West Sonoma Coast Vintners
Photo West Sonoma Coast Vintners

Marcassin, Kistler, Littorai, Peter Michael, Martinelli.  These were among the first wines I tasted from the Sonoma Coast and they changed the way I viewed American Pinot Noir and Chardonnay forever.  The best of these wines came from the literal Sonoma coast, such as Three Sisters Vineyards, Marcassin Estate or Hirsch Vineyards.  Whenever I tasted these wines, I pictured rugged coastline, bracing winds and high elevations.  That’s probably what the West Sonoma Coast Vintners want you to think too, to distinguish itself from the broader Sonoma Coast appellation that reaches well beyond the coast, even beyond Highway 101 to the east to the Sonoma-Napa boundary of Carneros.  On the way, it subsumes Russian River Valley AVA and parts of Chalk Hill.  In total area, the Sonoma Coast AVA represents about half of Sonoma County’s million or so acres.

The West Sonoma Coast Vintners association covers the true Sonoma coast – Annapolis, Fort Ross-Seaview, Occidental, Freestone, Green Valley and the Sebastopol Hills.  On December 14, 2011, the federal Tax and Trade Bureau approved Fort Ross-Seaview as an independent appellation and we had a chance to taste through some of their Pinot Noir wines at the West of West (WOW) Festival at The Barlow earlier this month at a seminar titled “Diamonds in the Sky”.

Line-up of Fort Ross-Seaview AVA Pinot Noirs from the”West” Sonoma Coast

Fort Ross-Seaview vineyards, wholly contained within the Sonoma Coast appellation, encompass about 500 acres of varied mountainous terrain of ridges and “gullies”, with many aspects.  With proximity to the Pacific and elevations ranging from 920-1,800 feet above sea level, the micro-climate is cool but sunnier and warmer than areas below the fog line, allowing grapes to achieve slow maturation.  Shallow soils and frequent winds keep vigor in check.

Lee Martinelli, Sr. (left) and David Hirsch
Lee Martinelli, Sr. (left) and David Hirsch

The wines we tasted showed the characteristic freshness, lightness and to some extent spiciness of western Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir but within the Fort Ross-Seaview set, there was a remarkable difference in personalities.  David Hirsch spoke about the differences in is own Hirsch Vineyards depending on the precise location.   Among all the Fort Ross-Seaview wines, there was a range of expression in the wines from red to dark fruit, others more floral, some with notes of sassafras/licorice/savory herb.  Some wines were silky, others more structured.

I was looking for a common thread in the wines but there were enough differences by micro-terroir, clones and winemaking regime to remind me that what really matters in this region is the individual brand and unique vineyard.

Wild Hog Vineyards

One of my favorite wines was the 2010 Martinelli Three Sisters Vineyard Pinot Noir, an earthy and spicy Pinot Noir with seamless balance and long finish.  Lee Martinelli said that the wines show a “consistent personality” and I agree when it comes to this particular vineyard and I would add consistent quality for all of his wines.  Another favorite was a new one for me, the 2010 Wild Hog Vineyard Pinot Noir, a full-bodied, black fruit-driven and peppery Pinot Noir with rich, velvety tannins.  The vineyard, at 1,400 feet and 5 miles from the ocean, has been certified organic since 1981 and the vines are dry-farmed.

If all the existing wineries who grow or purchase fruit here change their labels to Fort Ross-Seaview, it may add currency to the new appellation for consumers but for now, I think the overarching, more evocative Sonoma Coast name – or even better, a new “West Sonoma Coast” appellation – harnesses the message better.  Vintners will no doubt continue to carve out more sub-appellations in Sonoma but for me, less is more.  I mean, it’s all about the individual brand first, right?