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The Call of the Coast

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Apr 25, 2007 1:32pm ET

True Sonoma Coast grape growing really is at the outer limits.

The true coast, within a mile of the Pacific Ocean, is rugged and remote. I refer to this area as the true coast because the legal Sonoma Coast appellation is absurdly overdrawn. It covers the entire Russian River Valley and extends inland as far east as Petaluma and Carneros. Eventually, this slice of Sonoma will go by another name—perhaps Annapolis, a name that is often discussed.

It’s agonizingly difficult to reach by car or truck, meaning it will never be a major tourist destination. If you try to drive there without good directions, plan on taking at least one wrong turn.

But there's a definite draw to this area: The vineyards here, primarily those planted to Pinot Noir, are producing some stunning wines.

Yesterday I visited the coast with Napa vintner Jayson Pahlmeyer and his team—winemaker Erin Green and vineyard manager Ulises Valdez.

To save time, we traveled by helicopter. From Napa, it takes three to four hours to reach the coast by car. But by whirly bird, it’s a 45-minute trip. With pilot John Hamilton of Sacramento Executive Helicopters at the controls,  we took an aerial tour of the region, which is becoming one of those special places for Pinot.

As we soared high above the vineyards, the names read like a who’s who of cutting-edge Pinot. We flew over Marcassin (Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer), Peter Michael, Hirsch, Maritime, Three Sisters, Blue Slide Ranch and Flowers, to name a few. Further south is Joseph Phelps Freestone.

While the vineyards are scattered on bald hilltops, they share some themes. They are typically two mountain ranges in from the ocean, where it’s warm enough for grapes, and facing south and southeast. There isn’t much vineyard land available, and for the past decade, there’s been a rush to secure the remaining choice spots.

Pahlmeyer figures he was lucky. When he went looking for a Sonoma Coast site to plant Pinot Noir, his former winemaking team—Turley and Wetlaufer—presented him with a dream site.

“Helen and John brought it to me on a silver platter,” says Pahlmeyer, 62, who is best known for his Napa Valley Cabernets, Chardonnays and Merlots.

In 1999, he caught coast fever, after trying the Marcassin wines, and bought the 70-acre Wayfarer Ranch for $500,000. He planted 36 acres, most of it to Pinot Noir, and he is now using some of that fruit for his Pahlmeyer Pinot. The first Pahlmeyer Pinot, from 2005 ($65), carries the Sonoma Coast appellation and is mostly from Russian River Valley grapes.

In 2005, the 24 acres of Pinot yielded 17 tons of grapes, which prompted Pahlmeyer to quip: “See what a great investment this is?” In 2006, 70 tons of Pinot grapes were harvested. Eventually the plan is for the Pinot to be exclusively from the Wayfarer Ranch.

Because of its proximity, the grapes are picked at 2 a.m. so they can be driven to Napa to be crushed before it gets too hot.

While this project has been slow to develop, land prices and availability have skyrocketed.

To plant 20 acres of vines today, you’d probably have to buy 500 acres, Pahlmeyer guesses. But he spends less time thinking about that and more on what he hopes will be one of California’s marquee Pinot sites, way out here on the Sonoma Coast.

Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  April 25, 2007 4:18pm ET
James--What's land going for per acre in the Sonoma Coast area today? Pahlmeyer's sarcasm aside, I suspect that the Wayfarer Ranch is worth $4 or $5 million these days, which would be a fine investment from my standpoint!
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  April 25, 2007 5:16pm ET
A couple years ago I had the pleasure of drinking a Blue Slide Ridge pinot noir from the Martinelli winery with some friends. T-he wine was so delicious that we were licking (I'm ashamed to say) our glasses to get the last few drops. Not every year in the "True Coast" is extraordinary, but when they are good, they are very, very good. The trouble is that its hard to get your hands on True Coast pinot noir. Last time I looked, Martinelli was doling out one bottle each of Blue Slide Ridge to wine club members.
Stephanie A Hubbell
winter —  April 25, 2007 8:24pm ET
We recently had a opportunity to go to Flowers and having been to dozens of wineries,none have been as impressive.Being on the coast is a true natural wonder and their wine is sublime!
Roy Piper
Napa, CA. —  April 25, 2007 8:33pm ET
I have spent much time driving through the true Sonoma Coast, and I think there are already up to 4 sub-regions. Fort Ross, which is cool and windy, would be where Flowers and Peter Michael and Hirsch are set up. Another would be the next ridge in, where Turley and Maritime are. It is several degrees warmer there. Then there is the area near Occidental. And finally, Freestone, which I am not convinced will ever prove viable due to the fog that rolls in. Just ask Phelps. It is an exciting, but desolate region. Well will see how it all unfolds.
James Larson
April 25, 2007 9:13pm ET
Not to be trivial but a a horse and buggy could make it to the Sonoma Coast in 3-4 hours.
G A Blake
Pasadena, CA —  April 26, 2007 12:13am ET
James - How right you are. Based on one of your earlier blogs, my wife and I were able to hook up with Jamie Kutch as part of our 25th anniversary California Pinot Noir wine tour in late March. There in the cool caves of Deerfield Ranch we barrel tasted some of the 2006s. The McDougall is shaping up into something special, and showcases the potential of the "true" Sonoma Coast. I only hope we're lucky enough to get an allocation. Thanks to you and Jamie both for the great work, and kudos to Deerfield Ranch for its support of a new generation of winemakers!
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  April 26, 2007 12:13pm ET
James,FWIW, it does take me an hour and 45 minuutes to get to the Hirsch Vineyard from Santa Rosa so 3 hours from Napa is really not bad time.Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Ashley Hepworth
Saint Helena, Ca. —  May 5, 2007 2:49pm ET
Jim: Thanks for the nice mention in your article. I'm writing under Ashley's name as she has the current on-line subscription. Yes, I've been guilty of underscoring the challenges of the Freestone area and none of the upside when presented with an opportunity to discuss our winegrowing there. I guess I'm just not the "promoter" type.At the same time, my concerns over ripening at our site(s) in Freestone have greatly dimished owing to: neighbors in the immediate area who have planted vineyards there and our past three harvests all of which have ripened without difficulty. At the same time, the area demands respect and attention in the arena of mildew, Botrytis protection and hand-vine care; I've learned some lessons the hard way over the past few years. That being said and as our winegrowing improves, this area, as many others have demonstrated on the Coast, will allow us to realize the full potential of PN and CH; yielding grapes fully mature with high acidity creating wines of unique regional character and flavor. Craig Williams

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