On the Edge: Pinot Noir from the West Sonoma Coast

The wines from the West Sonoma Coast are very special. They possess an elegance that is found in only the most serious Pinot Noirs from California. Their flavor profile leads with floral fruit – not overly sweet or ripe, but aromatic, delicate, and smoothly balanced with confident acid. If you explore where these wines are grown, you find yourself a thousand feet above the Pacific, on a mountain ridge. Sweeping views of blue sky surround you and the rhythm of the ocean dances in front of you, expanding as far as you can see. The wind is fierce and depending on the time of day, the sun can either bathe you in sunshine or be shielded by dense fog. The terrain is rocky, with a diversity of soils.

View of the Pacific Ocean off of Highway 1 near Fort Ross, California 

This part of Sonoma County wine country is technically part of the Sonoma Coast AVA and according to the West Sonoma Coast Vintners, it is comprised of several sub-AVAs that share the distinction of being on the edge of North America, literally. The famed San Andreas Fault for the Pacific and North American tectonic plates runs right through the coastal mountain ridges.  The sub-AVAS of this self-identified group of 27 winemakers includes Annapolis, Fort RossSeaview, Occidental, Freestone, Green Valley (of Russian River)  and the Sebastopol Hills. These wines are routinely recognized for their outstanding cool climate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.

Red Car Wines, with a bright and modern tasting room in Sebastopol, is a beautiful example of the rich and complex expression that can be produced from grapes in this location. Every aspect of the agricultural process has hands-on attention by the Red Car team. Selecting the right clone or applying “clonal theory” is an aspect I discussed during my tasting with Michael, my host at Red Car Wines in November 2017. Whether it’s a Swan, Calera, Mt. Eden or Jackson 16 clone — experimenting with various Pinot Noir clones can impact everything from the floral and spice elements to the size of the berries.  A clone is simply grapes grown from a clipping or selection of a “mother” grape – it is identical.  I tasted about 8 wines during my tasting – including their signature Rosé  – each one had a different level of richness of fruit, balanced with herbs and earthiness.

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Pictured left to right: Red Car’s modern tasting room in Sebastopol, a taste of Red Car’s signature Rosé wine 

My favorite was the Estate Vineyard from Fort Ross-SeaView AVA. It’s boundary allows plants only at 920 to 1800 feet of elevation, just above the fog line.This wine was bright on the palate with fresh strawberry, rhubarb, cranberry and hibiscus.  It would pair nicely with grilled salmon, thanksgiving dinner, or a simple pasta with tomato sauce.  While Red Car’s Rosé is the most widely available of their wines (and is exported at the demand of a select group of global consumers who chase “hipster wine”), I decided to take home 11 wines, 9 Pinot Noirs and 2 Chardonnays.  

One of the most well-known winemakers for championing preservation of the land in this region is David Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards. Hirsch is also the fruit source for a couple of other labels, namely Littorai and Failla. The majority of the fruit is kept for Hirsch’s own label. He recently opened a quaint tasting room in Healdsburg. The room is bright and simple, with a communal tasting table and a giant photo of the site on the wall. There’s nothing else to distract you. The experience is all about the wine and the place they are from. Three miles from the Pacific Ocean, at 1500 feet of elevation, Hirsch Vineyard is actual 61 separate blocks, all with unique soil types, aspect, and sun exposure. These blocks are farmed, harvested, and fermented separately – bringing the consumer some of the most site specific expressions of wine in California, and probably the world. One of my favorites was the Block 8, with tasting notes of cherry, red plum, caramel, white pepper and a zesty acid. Really delicious now and I would love to see how it evolves over several years.

So far, I’ve only tasted wine from seven of the 27 vintners part of the West Sonoma Coast group. That’s far too few! Looking forward to tasting many more.

Pictured left to right: An impromptu picnic at Annapolis Winery, on the West Sonoma Coast, A topographic map of Hirsch Vineyards, the Hirsch tasting room in Healdsburg, CA

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