For years I’ve been curious about why, to my taste, Sonoma doesn’t make better Cabernets, along the lines of Peter Michael's Les Pavots. And for years, I’ve gotten the same analysis from Cabernet experts: Napa’s terroir works with Cabernet, its vintners and vineyard mangers are more fastidious about farming Cabernet than their Sonoma counterparts, and perhaps more to the point, more experienced.
Secondly, many of the areas chosen to plant Cabernet in Sonoma are a tad too cool for this grape to fully ripen and develop the depth and expansive flavors Cabernet can achieve when rooted in the right site. In some instances, for example, the mountain sites in Sonoma (and Napa for that matter) are too cool for the tannins to ripen. When Cabernet is grown in those areas, the wines are tough, green and tannic.
This is starting to change. On Wednesday, I visited Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma, which has, to my taste, struggled with Cabernet and Bordeaux blends of Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. Owner Tom Klein wasn’t satisfied with the Cabernets (and his Bordeaux blend called Symmetry), or the progress that's been made, so he hired a new winemaking team, along with two outsiders to advise him and his staff.
Bob Steinhauer, the long-time vineyard guru for Beringer Vineyards, is now studying Klein's vines, and he continues to find new ways to tweak them. David Ramey, an exceptional winemaker who makes wines under his label and has a track record of excellence with Cabernet from his days at Napa's Dominus, Rudd and Jericho Canyon, is guiding the winery to richer, more opulent wines. Klein also brought in Gary Patzwald, another winemaker, to work directly on the wines, and Christophe Davis, who works in the winery's new experimental cellar, to give his staff a fresh perspective.
We tasted some 30 wines on Wednesday--Sauvignons, Chardonnays, Pinots, Zinfandels and Cabernets, dating from 2001, and for me it was clear that the newest Cabernets, from the 2006 vintage, were the best wines. The barrel samples were rich, broad, deep, complex and long on the finish.
The source of these grapes was Klein’s Rockaway Vineyard, which is located on the eastern hillsides of Alexander Valley, near Cloverdale, at the northern end of the Alexander Valley. What’s interesting about this location is that for the longest time, it was assumed that Cloverdale, which can bake in the summer, is an area where Cabernet can ripen to its fullest.
So after all these years of writing off Cloverdale as too hot for Cabernet, it appears this area might have a future with this grape, and right now, no one is happier with this discovery than Tom Klein.