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An Unlikely New Site for Sonoma Cabernet

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Apr 26, 2007 6:21pm ET

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.

Becky Carlson
Turks & Caicos —  April 27, 2007 8:29am ET
So, when will we ordinary folks be able to taste this exciting cab?
Peter Czyryca
April 27, 2007 9:31am ET
I havent tasted a Rodney Strong wine that I like, red, white or otherwise. Visited the winery last summer - and it reminds me of a car sales office, with all these silly certificates and trophies in glass cases on the walls.
Sherry Padgett
Stanford, CA —  April 27, 2007 9:52am ET
We tried the '04 Rudd Cab. last weekend and it was velvety and super smooth. Their "second" label called Crossroads Oakville (2004) would match perfectly with ostrich or venison. Definitely worth trying!
Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  April 27, 2007 10:41am ET
James, If anyone can make a great Cabernet from Sonoma it would be David Ramey. His success with reds under his own label, particularly the new vineyard releases like Larkmead, is incredible.

Looking back over the last 20 years, there is one Sonoma Cabernet that, in my opinion, has shown a remarkable consistancy in style and reflection of "terrior", and that is the B.R. Cohn Olive Hill Vineyard Cabs. From the first vintages in 84, 85, and 86, done by Helen Turley, to the latest vintage that I have tasted (2002), the characteristics of the vineyard have shown through, even in not so good years. I am sure there are other examples of this in Sonoma Cabs, but none that come to mind at present.
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  April 27, 2007 4:32pm ET
James, its my understanding that its only recently that the the hills of Alexander Valley have been growing cabernet grapes. The cabernet wines made from the valley floor have generally been disappointint to me. Could it be that the hillside vineyards in Alxexander Valley produce grapes that produce better wines?
Stuart Smith
St. Helena, CA USA —  April 28, 2007 11:57am ET
I am writing to challenge Jim¿s derogatory comment that ¿..mountain sites¿are too cool for the tannins to ripen. When Cabernet is grown in these areas, the wines are tough, green and tannic.¿ Big disconnect here---how can Jim explain the years of glowing prose he has lavished on Abreu, Bond, Bryant, Barnett, Cain, Chappellet, Craig, Dalla Valle, Diamond Creek, David Arthur, Dunn, Forman, Harlan, Keenan, Kuleto, Ladera, Lokoya, O¿Shaughnessy, Pride, Pina, Paloma, Sloan, Sherwin, Togni, Von Strasser, Viader, all of whom are located in mountain areas?By many wine industry standards, mountain vineyards produce both superb and unique wines. Although Smith-Madrone doesn¿t submit wines to The Spectator to be reviewed, our past three vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon have been awarded 9 gold medals.If Jim is implying that mountain wines don¿t ever get ripe enough to produce the style of wine he prefers --- then that means reminding everyone that many vintners, mountain and otherwise, choose to make wine in a style that they prefer --- even if it¿s not fashionably 15% alcohol, the apparent preference of The Wine Spectator. Just about anyone in California can harvest Cabernet Sauvignon at 30 degrees Brix, add water back and make high-alcohol wines that are overripe, flat, simple and jammy. As the old saw has it, ¿Bacchus loves the hills.¿ We mountain vintners have history on our side as well as quality. Please don¿t generalize about our terroirs when there is a much more complex picture, which includes temperatures warm enough to produce great Cabernets and cool enough to produce great Chardonnays and Rieslings.Stu SmithSmith-Madrone
James Laube
Napa, CA —  April 28, 2007 12:43pm ET
Stu, None of the wines you mention are from Sonoma (which was what the blog was about), but there are plenty of overly tannic wines from Napa, too.
Anthony Roumph
San Francisco —  April 28, 2007 7:41pm ET
Mr. Smith,It is obvious that you have an axe to grind when you do not even read the article correctly. I guess that you really don't need a rating from WS when you get a gold medal from the Wichita Wine Festival - thats just as good. If anything hats off to Mr. Laube for telling us about wines that the everyday drinker can afford, unlike your subpar "boutique" wines. It is very disheartening to see such a statement filled with anger written by an owner who can't accept praise for a winery that actually admits their faults, makes positive changes, and has the guts to have their wines reviewed - unlike yourself.
Harvey Posert Jr
napa valley —  April 28, 2007 11:16pm ET
james -- the question seems to be, "is there one platonic ideal of cabernet?" or can a thousand flowers bloom? we'd certainly prefer that debate.
Stuart Smith
St. Helena, CA USA —  April 29, 2007 9:37pm ET
Jim,Thanks for the reply, I enjoy your blog and the nice words you had for Rodney Strong. I too agree that there have been overly tannic mountain wines from Napa, but the problem as I see it is that those overly tannic wines have enjoyed praise and high scores from The Wine Spectator.Stu

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