The Call of the Coast
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.