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Napa winemakers tap Sonoma for pinot, chardonnay

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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.

Wayfarer farm

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.”

Sonoma-Loeb

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.

The Grower Collection includes block-designate pinot noirs from the Bateman and Apple Lane vineyards in the Russian River Valley, Fedrick Ranch in the Sonoma Coast and Calesa Vineyard in the Petaluma Gap AVAs.

Andrew Delos, director of winemaking for the Far Niente Family of Wineries and Vineyards in Napa Valley (brands include Far Niente, Nickel & Nickel, Dolce and Bella Union), was the winemaker for the EnRoute winery in Sebastopol prior to his 2018 promotion to winemaking director for all brands.

He knows the Russian River Valley well having worked for MacRostie Winery and Pellegrini Family Vineyards.

“EnRoute was founded because the (company’s) partners wanted to make pinot noir,” Delos explained. “Far Niente made one in 1980, but it never went to market. Starting in 2003, Nickel & Nickel bottled a few vintages of pinot from the Dutton Ranch in Russian River Valley, and in 2006, we had the opportunity to buy the land that would become Amber Ridge Vineyard.

“During our search for land, we kept coming back to Russian River Valley,” he added. “We love the area and planted our flag there. Carneros has some great sites, but Russian River Valley gives us more diversity in flavor and aromatics. The fog is a major factor in this diversity, as are the fine, well-drained Goldridge soils vs. the clay soils of Carneros.”

In addition to Amber Ridge, the company also owns the Northern Spy Vineyard, in Green Valley of Russian River Valley, and leases three other vineyards in the region.

1,000 miles of pinot

Megan Gunderson, winemaker for Kathryn and Craig Hall’s Walt Wines, is responsible for what the company terms “1,000 miles of pinot,” using grapes ranging from Oregon down to Santa Barbara County, and including Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast along the way. Walt (Kathryn’s maiden name) came to be when the Halls acquired the Roessler label from Sonoma-based Roger and Richard Roessler in 2010.

“Craig and Kathryn always intended to make pinot noir and chardonnay,” Gunderson said.

“Their purchase of Roessler came with contracts for fruit from Shea Vineyard in Oregon and Gap’s Crown in the Petaluma Gap. They also purchased vineyards, among them The Corners in Anderson Valley and Bob’s Ranch in Russian River Valley. Pinot noir is so reflective of the place where it’s grown; for us, it’s the cool regions along the Pacific Coast.”

Amici Cellars in Calistoga offers several Napa-grown cabernet sauvignons and a pinot from Napa Carneros. Yet the partners, including John Harris and Bob and Celia Shepard, saw an opportunity to make and sell Sonoma pinot and chardonnay and, in the process, launched a sister Sonoma brand to Amici, Olema, for affordable, every day-drinking wines ($15-$20).

Price spikes

Although it’s flattering that Napa wineries admire Sonoma pinot noir, some Sonomans — particularly smaller producers who purchase most of their grapes — worry about spiking grape prices in the whatever-it-costs wine world.

Mark Aubert of Aubert Wines, one of Napa’s early embracers of Sonoma-grown pinot in the early 2000s, gets an average bottle price of $186 for his CIX Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, according to Wine-Searcher.com. That’s a Napa-style number.

The average pinot noir price per ton in Sonoma County has gone from around $2,000 in 2003 to $3,904 in 2017, according to Turrentine Brokerage. North Bay Business Journal reported in 2018 that plantable land for the grape sold for approximately $20,000 an acre in 1996, soaring to $100,000 in 2017.

“Well-funded wineries are pricing us little guys out of the pinot business,” one Sonoma County winemaker said, asking that he not be identified. “The more I pay for grapes, the more my wines will cost the consumer, and the harder time I will have selling them. Fewer people will be able afford Sonoma pinot noir, if grape prices continue to increase.”

On the bright side for local producers: Napa Valley is helping to market the pinots of which Sonoma is so proud.

Healdsburg resident Linda Murphy writes about wine for Sonoma and Decanter magazines. She is also the author, with Jancis Robinson, of the book “American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wine producers of the USA.” Reach her at linda@lindamurphywine.com.

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