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Sonoma County vintners featured in 2022 ‘Slow Wine Guide USA’

Up a winding road on Sonoma Mountain sits a high-altitude vineyard, a hilltop ribbed with rows of pinot noir.

The Panther Ridge label, produced from this organic vineyard, is one of the brands listed in the “Slow Wine Guide USA,” an eco-curated guide to American wineries. The 2022 edition was just released this month. To make the cut, wineries like Panther Ridge have to pass a site visit and a farming audit.

“Our defining criterion is no use of synthetic herbicides on the estate vineyards or (on) any wines that we list in the guide,” said Deborah Parker Wong, the U.S. national editor for the book.

“The guide is designed to help consumers navigate the increasingly opaque landscape of claims around sustainability,” she said. “It’s almost impossible for a consumer to ask the right people the right questions to confirm a winery’s farming practices.”

Being transparent was easy for Suzanne Farver of Panther Ridge. The vintner said she tracks her vineyard activity meticulously and feels a kinship with others featured in the guide who are committed to farming without synthetic herbicides.

“I promised myself I would never put poison on my soil,” she said. “I grew up in Pella, Iowa, a town of 15,000 people. I remember the family farms where there were cows and chickens and people living on smaller acreages of land. It was traditional farming, but then I watched these farms being converted to factory farms with genetically modified seeds and pesticides.”

Offering a snapshot of people like Farver, the guide helps consumers make conscious choices, Parker Wong said.

“Navigating the landscape of sustainability has become intimidating for wine consumers,” she said. “The guide serves as a road map, celebrating transparent farming and advocating for wineries that uphold (Slow Wine’s) good, clean and fair ethos.”

Slow Wine, Parker Wong explained, is an offshoot of Slow Food, a movement that began in 1986 in Italy. A group of Italians gathered in Rome to protest a McDonald’s opening at the base of the iconic Spanish Steps. According to the Slow Food website, the protesters made and shared their penne pasta with the crowd, chanting “We don’t want fast food; we want slow food!”

The first “Slow Wine Guide Italy” was published in 2010 and, beginning in 2018, American wineries were included in it. But in 2021, U.S. wineries reached a tipping point, with 285 of them worthy of chronicling in a stand-alone guide.

Parker Wong said she expects the 2022 edition to get more traction with climate change altering both our landscape and our consciousness. It features 275 wineries across California, New York, Oregon and Washington. (Published by Goff, it’s now available at slowfoodusa.org/product/slow-wine-guide-usa-2022.)

“Our target audience,” Parker Wong said, “are wine consumers who want to effect change by voting with their dollars when buying wine.”

Before you cast your vote, we introduce you to three Sonoma County labels featured in the guide — Panther Ridge, Côte des Cailloux and Donum Estate — and the people behind them making Slow Wine.

Suzanne Farver of Panther Ridge

In 2012, Farver found a house she loved, with an old hayfield, on Sonoma Mountain. She envisioned a vineyard, and before long she replaced the hayfield with 7 acres of vines atop a rolling ridge at 1,000 feet.

On a recent day, the vintner, who said she’s “67 years young,” was clad in a tweed jacket over black tights and tennis shoes. Her blue eyes lit up when she pointed out her small vineyard, what she calls her “piece of heaven” on her 43-acre property.

“It’s ideal for growing pinot noir,” she said. “It’s in the Petaluma Gap AVA, and it’s just a mile from the renowned vineyard of Gap’s Crown.”

“Slow Wine Guide USA” features Farver’s Panther Ridge, 2019 Petaluma Gap Pinot Noir, $60.

Farver’s winemaker is Adrian Manspeaker of Joseph Jewell Wines. He produces about 250 cases with 25% of her grapes.

“The remaining 75% I sell to boutique wineries like Lynmar Estate,” she said.

Farver earned a master’s degree in environmental management from Harvard University Extension School and farmed organically from the outset. That was after working as a lawyer and shifting gears to return to school in her 50s.

“Part of my studies included learning about the terrible water pollution from nitrate fertilizers in the Midwest,” she said. “Most of the farm wells have gone bad, and farmers have been forced to get piped water from nearby cities and towns.”

Offering vineyard tours, Farver shares her connection to the land and even talks about some of the concoctions she makes to pamper her vines. The vintner also gives visitors a glimpse of her art collection. Farver was the director of the Aspen Art Museum in the 1990s, and her property is an exhibit of sorts.

With the vineyard as its backdrop, one of the most compelling sculptures stands at 19 feet; it’s an assortment of airplane parts created by Los Angeles artist Nancy Rubins.

A sculpture by Nancy Rubins stands 19 feet tall in front of the vineyard at Panther Ridge on Sonoma Mountain. The common thread between art and wine, according to vintner Suzanne Farver, is “beauty and creativity and quality.” (Scott Hess)
A sculpture by Nancy Rubins stands 19 feet tall in front of the vineyard at Panther Ridge on Sonoma Mountain. The common thread between art and wine, according to vintner Suzanne Farver, is “beauty and creativity and quality.” (Scott Hess)

The common thread between art and wine is “beauty and creativity and quality,” Farver said.

“I love how it (the sculpture) overlooks the site, acting as a sort of anchor for the vineyard.”

The name Panther Ridge comes from Farver’s black cats through the years and also honors the mountain lions that occasionally roam on Sonoma Mountain, she said.

“I’m striving to be a good steward of the land up here on Sonoma Mountain,” Farver said. “My goal is to support and improve the ecosystem that’s here. I guess my definition of a good steward stems from the Iroquois (American Indian tribe) philosophy of living your life so that you leave the Earth in a way to support seven generations hence.”

For more information, go to pantherridgevineyard.com. Tours by appointment.

Jacques Mathieu and son Cody Mathieu of Côte des Cailloux

Côte des Cailloux is French for “hill of rocks.” Jacques Mathieu, 67, laughs when he explains that his property in Boyes Hot Springs was filled with rocks when he bought it in 1996.

Mathieu, who grew up in the Rhone Valley, likens his 2.5 acres of vines to Romanée-Conti. Wines groomed in that Burgundian vineyard are among the most sought after and expensive in the world.

“You have to start somewhere,” he said, smiling.

Jacques and his son Cody collaborate in the vineyard, planted primarily to Rhône varietals, and the cellar, producing about 350 cases a year.

The guide features Côte des Cailloux, 2018 Sonoma Valley Syrah White, $36; Côte des Cailloux, 2018 Grenache Inox, Sonoma Valley, $36; and Côte des Cailloux, 2019 Sonoma Valley Estate Blend of GSM (grenache, syrah and mourvèdre), $38.

“We don’t use any synthetic herbicides, fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides,” Jacques said. “These chemicals are known to be harmful to our biosystem by infiltrating and contaminating the groundwater supply. Instead we use manure, fish emulsion, organic-approved sulfur, and we do a lot of weed whacking.”

In his 20s, Jacques planted about a quarter of million trees in British Columbia, Canada. It began his understanding of the roots and soils beneath our feet and the give and take in nature.

“Our goal is to minimize our impact on the land,” he said. “We don’t take any shortcuts and we give back as much or more than what has been provided to us.”

Go to cotedescailloux.com for more information.

Dan Fishman of Donum Estate

The vineyards at Donum Estate stretch out over 100 acres on the Sonoma property at the base of the Carneros.

“We don’t use any herbicides of any kind,” said Don Fishman, the 40-year-old winemaker at Donum. “Eschewing the use of herbicides is critical because growing great wine requires a healthy root system. … When herbicides are used, particularly synthetic herbicides, the soil ecosystem is destroyed and it’s impossible to achieve naturally balanced vines.”

While mild mannered, it’s clear Fishman is a force of nature. Since 2019, he has guided the conversion of the vineyards to be organically farmed.

“We’ll be certified organic in July by the CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers),” he said. “We’ve also worked with a biodynamic consultant and practice many biodynamic principles. … Natural balance results in wines of depth.”

“Slow Wine Guide USA” features Donum, 2020 White Barn Pinot Noir Carneros, $100; Donum, 2020 West Slope Pinot Noir Carneros, $140; and Donum, 2020 Rosé of Pinot Noir Carneros, $45.

A vineyard tour at Donum — on foot or ATV — reveals a weave of vines and sculptures. Vintners Allan and Mei Warburg are as fond of art as they are of wine, with an ample collection of outdoor sculptures.

“A tour gives guests a chance to immerse themselves in the vineyards and experience the thriving life within them,” Fishman said. “For me personally, I think winegrowing provides one of life’s rare situations in which a trade-off is not required. What’s best for the land is also best for the wine. It allows me to make the best possible wine while also improving our land for generations to come.”

Vineyard tours and tastings by appointment. Go to thedonumestate.com for more information.

Wine Writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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