Wine & Spirits Going to Extremes

The rugged Sonoma coast produces spectacular single-vineyard wines.
foggy forest

Photograph by Jackson Family Wines

Flying in a helicopter over the Sonoma Coast with its jagged hills, pine forests and wisps of fog crawling like fingers over the land, I marvel that this coastal land is so rugged and wild. Through her microphone, Jen Walsh, winemaker at La Crema, points out patches of vineyards nestled on the high hills as we fly over the Russian River Valley. “There’s our great Kelli Ann vineyard down there,” says Walsh, who makes 19 single-vineyard wines for Jackson Family Wines.

How impossible it seems to reach these far-flung vineyards with few roads snaking along the terrain. “When I travel to these extreme coastal vineyards, I feel pretty isolated. There’s no cell phone service, and I’m aware there are mountain lions,” Walsh says. Grapes grown in these wild lands take on complex vivid flavors because the vines struggle in the winds and stressing conditions, she explains. The fog bathes the land, shielding the grapes from the hot sun for long parts of the day giving the grapes a longer hang time, allowing them to gain complexity.

At La Crema winery, we taste the results of grapes grown in extreme vineyards. From Kelli Ann, we savor a hedonistic Chardonnay ($55) with notes of crème brulée, pear and toasted hazelnut. From Durrell Vineyard, a Chardonnay ($50) showing lemon blossom, white peach and wet stone minerality. And from the hilly Saralee’s Vineyard ($45) surrounding La Crema, the wine displays apple, honeysuckle and bright citrus notes.

Head winemaker Craig McAllister joins us as we taste La Crema Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($25). Each vineyard shows its terroir’s distinct characteristics. Annually, McAllister creates a masterful blend of these single vineyards called Nine Barrel Pinot Noir ($90), which is highly aromatic with boysenberry, Bing cherry, anise and exotic flowers. McAllister instructs me on how to replicate his blend. We use pipettes and small bottles containing wines from top single vineyards like Ross (red fruit character with lift), Barbieri (brings structure and balance) and Bones (richly textured with supple tannins).

Next, it’s off to see Barbieri Vineyard, a 19-acre Grand Cru vineyard with winemaker Adam Lee from Siduri. He makes expressive Pinot Noir from 20 single-vineyard sites from Santa Barbara to Oregon’s Willamette Valley (all priced $50–$65). Siduri, named for the Babylonian goddess of wine, established in 1994, and sold to Jackson Family in 2015, has a cult following for Lee’s cool-climate Pinot Noir. While standing in the vineyard, I taste Barbieri Pinot Noir ($50), which is earthy with an amazing plush texture.

With the Mayacamas Mountains in the distance, we are joined at Barbieri Vineyard by viticulturist Shawn Kajiwara, who manages 1,700 acres of Pinot Noir in California and Oregon for Jackson Family Wines. He gives a fascinating tutorial about creating the healthiest sustainable vineyards, which involves experimenting with cover crops like peas and radishes that add nitrogen to the soils. We literally get into the weeds as he explains his technique of crimping not cutting the cover crop. Each vine gets individual pruning, and before harvest, the unripe grapes get dropped off in the last pass.

To discover another style of Pinot Noir—restrained and Old World—I head to Copain, a winery on a hilltop in the Russian River Valley. Winemaker Ryan Zepaltas makes savory cool climate wines mostly from Sonoma Coast grapes. He farms organically, uses no herbicides or fungicides and his winemaking is hands-off, rarely using yeasts. He doesn’t filter or fine the wines. “We don’t like to add things and we don’t take away things,” Zepaltas says, referring to filtering that removes some texture or flavor. Tasting his single vineyard Sealift Pinot Noir ($60) with its dark fruit, cacao and umami flavors or his Baker Ranch Syrah ($60) with its distinctive aromatics of lavender, blackberries, savory spices, fennel and clove, I’m impressed by their individual personalities.