Friday, July 06, 2007

Winery Watch: Fort Ross Vineyard

An ongoing series of Friday posts highlighting California family wineries. You might not be familiar with all of these vineyards and winemakers--yet--but they produce wines that speak with the voices of this state's people, places, and history. They are worth seeking out. These posts will be longer than most posts on the blog, but I hope you will find them perfect for leisurely weekend reading and internet browsing. To read previous posts in the series, click here.

Perched above the Pacific Ocean, on a beautiful but treacherous stretch of coastline, is a vineyard that has spectacular views and produces equally spectacular wines. Here you will find Fort Ross Vineyard, overlooking the historic Fort Ross encampment of the Russia-America Company which was established in 1812. As Linda and Lester Schwartz point out, this is the true Sonoma Coast. (picture of the view from Fort Ross Vineyard in spring courtesy of Fort Ross Vineyard)

The Sonoma Coast above Jenner is not for the faint of heart, or those who get car-sick. There is a pioneering mentality among the residents, since it is an hour and a half to the nearest city of any size (Santa Rosa) up a winding road that is a hazard even without the occasional cow you find lazing in the center of Highway 1 and the Winnebagos inching their way around the curves. For those of us who love this part of the world, all the hazards are worth it. Where else do you see such views? And where else, I'm starting to wonder, can you make such wonderful wine?

The Schwartzes began their wine-making journey at Fort Ross in 1994, nearly two centuries after we believe that the first grape vines in Sonoma County were planted near Fort Ross, from rootstock brought into the area from Peru in 1817. The Schwartzes come from South Africa, and moved to California in 1976. They fell in love with the Fort Ross site in 1988, when they built their house and began to explore their property. Lester's background in geology no doubt came in handy as he walked the rocky ridges and came to know the terrain and the soil. The Schwartzes began to think about grapes, and experimented with various rootstocks for years. They came to realize that pinot and chardonnay thrived. Linda began taking courses in viticulture and found she had a deft hand with a backhoe. They cleared the site, planted, put in a pond, installed drip irrigation and Fort Ross Vineyard was born. They couldn't resist infusing their South African wine heritage into the varietal choices they made, planting the relatively rare (in the US) varietal of pinotage which they sourced from South African bud wood. That, too, thrived.

Fort Ross is a cool climate vineyard spread over 28 vineyard blocks all less than 1 mile from the ocean. Here, the grapes are exposed to warm sunny days and cool nights that are often foggy (you can see a little bit of coastal fog clinging to the hills in the background of this picture). The Schwartzes, along with their primary winemaker Ed Kurtzman, believe that the climatic particulars of the site, along with the marine soils in the area, will distinguish the wines from this part of the Sonoma Coast--so much so that there is a Fort Ross-Seaview AVA in the works to carve out a smaller designation from the larger Sonoma Coast AVA. (photo courtesy of Fort Ross Vineyard)

Here are my impressions of the Fort Ross wines I tasted this spring. They were also at Pinot Days last week, and their table was mobbed so I'm giving you fair warning: the word is out about Fort Ross wines. Get your hands on these wines when and if you can. These wines are not cheap, but the wines are well worth the price. As I mentioned in my Pinot Days Post Mortem, the day of the good under $20 pinot may be at an end. Alder Yarrow sadly agrees. If you love pinot you may want to economize on another varietal, to help your wine budget cope. The important thing is to spend your pinot dollars wisely, and Fort Ross wines allow you to do just that.

Prices indicated here are the suggested retail prices at the winery; as always the price you pay may be higher or lower at your local merchant. Clicking on a wine's name takes you either to a list of merchants who stock the wine, including Fort Ross's online store. Fort Ross Vineyard has no wine club yet, but you can contact them to be notified when the wine club is up and running which may be a prudent move if you like their wines as much as I do.

2006 Fort Ross Pinot Noir Rose ($16) This beautifully perfumed dry rose has abundant raspberry fruit and a delicious mineral streak. Excellent QPR.

2003 Fort Ross Pinotage Fort Ross Vineyard ($32). Made from 100% pinotage grapes, it has rich and luscious wild blackberry fruit aromas and flavors. The flavors develop into a long finish with complex layers of coffee, earth, cocoa, and dark chocolate. Seek this one out--its a winner, and a relatively rare varietal here in the US. Excellent QPR.

2003 Fort Ross Pinot Noir Symposium ($32). 4% of pinotage grapes are added to the pinot noir in this blended bottling. Lush black cherry flavors and aromas predominate, accompanied by rich cedar notes and some earthiness. Easy drinking red. Excellent QPR.

2004 Fort Ross Pinot Noir Fort Ross Vineyard ($39). I really liked this wine, which had great complexity in a restrained package. This is my kind of pinot noir. Black cherry and raspberry aromas were joined with a gorgeous note of rose petals. The wine had a smooth, silky texture, and the aromas were echoed in the flavors. Very Good QPR.

2003 Fort Ross Pinot Noir Reserve Fort Ross Vineyard ($49). This pinot noir is far richer and jammier, with raspberry, cola, and rose aromas and flavors. The finish picks up an interesting black tea note. Good QPR.

2003 Fort Ross Chardonnay ($32) A very well done chardonnay, with aromas of pear and peach. You'll find the same characteristics in the flavors, along with a streak of minerality. Good QPR.

Fort Ross was settled by pioneers twice: once in 1812, and once again in 1988 when the Schwartzes decided to take a bit of Sonoma Coast ridgeline within spitting distance of the ocean and started growing grapes on it. That pioneering spirit has paid off in this marvelous, distinctive wine. Tasting a Fort Ross pinot noir transports me to the Sonoma Coast even when I'm not there. I think it will do the same for you, too.

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