Napa winemakers tap Sonoma for pinot, chardonnay
Pinot noir has been called many things. The heartbreak grape. Temperamental. Finicky. Demanding. Untrustworthy. Difficult to grow and vinify.
Yet once in the bottle, pinot noir undergoes a personality transformation, showing a silky, supple, elegant, charming, multilayered and seductive side one can never get from a cabernet sauvignon or merlot.
Most California winemakers can’t help but try to master pinot noir, embracing the challenge and reward for getting it right. Many a marketing piece proclaims that producing great pinot noir is akin to finding the Holy Grail. Sonoma County winegrowers and winemakers have sipped from that cup for years, enjoying near-ideal weather and soil conditions for taming the persnickety pinot. Overnight fog intrusion, late-afternoon marine and wetlands breezes, diurnal temperature swings of 40 degrees and more, and well-drained, sandy loam soil - all found in Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Petaluma Gap AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) - provide possibilities for achieving pinot perfection.
Napa Valley not only has taken notice; some of its winemakers have taken action. The valley, renowned for its ripe, intense, pricey cabernet sauvignons, has produced pinot noir over the years, the vast majority of them from the Los Carneros region, which straddles Napa and Sonoma counties at the top of San Pablo Bay.
Bay breezes temper the daytime heat during the growing season, but while Carneros is considered cool for Napa Valley, it doesn’t have the positive impacts of Pacific fog nor the full force of the bracing winds that shoot through the Petaluma Gap.
Not to be outdone by their west-side Mayacamas neighbors, Napa winemakers are increasingly shifting to Sonoma for pinot noir grapes (and coastal-influenced chardonnay, too).
Pahlmeyer of St. Helena owns a vineyard in Cazadero from which it produces pinot under its Wayfarer label. Hall Wines, with production facilities in St. Helena and Rutherford, created the Walt brand for pinot, even establishing a tasting room in Sonoma with another soon to open in Healdsburg. The Far Niente/Nickel & Nickel group purchased the Amber Ridge Vineyard in Russian River Valley in 2007 and launched the EnRoute brand for the purpose of producing pinot noir from Sonoma grapes. And Duckhorn Wine Company’s Decoy and Migration labels include Sonoma-grown pinot noirs, too.
Jayson Pahlmeyer is known for his rich, ripe, powerful red Bordeaux-?style wines from Napa Valley (his daughter, Cleo, now runs the business). Yet in 2012, he planted pinot and chardonnay on a chilly plot of land known as the Wayfarer farm, now in the Fort Ross-Seaview region of the Sonoma Coast, because he wanted to drink - and sell - pinot.
“Every oenophile eventually gravitates to the wines of Burgundy,” he said.
Another of Napa Valley’s most enthusiastic proponents of Sonoma pinot noir is Phillip Corallo-Titus, since 1990 the winemaker at Chappellet Vineyards on Pritchard Hill, arguably Napa’s swankiest address for growing cabernet sauvignon.
Rocky volcanic soils on the eastern Vaca mountain range and sun-drenched vine exposures at elevations of up to 2,000 feet make Pritchard Hill a remarkable spot for cabernet sauvignon and other red Bordeaux grape varieties.
“When we see an opportunity, we go all into it,” Titus said of Chappellet’s merge into Sonoma for pinot noir and chardonnay.
Chappellet had previously produced chardonnay from grapes grown in American Canyon and Napa Carneros, “But Sonoma felt like the future for chardonnay and, especially pinot noir,” Titus added.
“Ten years ago, we began reexamining where we sourced (Burgundian) grapes and found that Sonoma gave us more diversity in growing conditions, soils, clones and rootstocks, than Napa.
“We can’t do pinot noir and chardonnay as well in Napa as we can in Sonoma,” he added.
“We can’t do cabernet sauvignon in Sonoma as well as we can in Napa.”
Titus learned a lot about Sonoma as the winemaker for Sonoma-?Loeb, a brand owned by John L Loeb Jr., a former ambassador to Denmark. Loeb leased his Sonoma-Loeb trademark to Chappellet in 2011, and Titus continues to make the wines, all from Sonoma County vineyards.
“(Chairman of the board) Cyril Chappellet said, ‘We want our name on our brands,’” Titus added. “We’ve always stood behind the strength of our brand and quality of our wines.”
So much so that in late 2018, Chappellet launched the Chappellet Grower Collection, a range of Sonoma-grown pinot noirs and chardonnays from specific blocks within acclaimed vineyards. The Sonoma-Loeb visitor center in Sonoma has been renamed the Chappellet Grower Collection Tasting Room, and while the Sonoma-Loeb wines continue to be sold there, they are now largely appellational blends rather than site-designates.