The Fort Ross-Seaview AVA Characteristics
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After a decade of wrangling to establish the appropriate boundaries of this mountain top-and-side, coastal AVA, Fort Ross-Seaview was officially established as a sub-appellation of the Sonoma Coast in January 2012.
The appellation stands entirely above 800 feet in elevation on mountains that reach to 1600 feet over a small section of the San Andreas fault. Thanks to the seismic activity, the soils are the result of the movement of the plates giving deep earthen rock and very little topsoil for plants to grow.
As David Hirsch, of Hirsch Vineyards, explained, the AVA cannot properly be understood as a cool climate due to its mixed set of characteristics–what he names “the confluence of 4 unique ecosystems.” As he describes, the sub-region receives ocean influence including fog and coastal breezes, while also river effect from the floor far below. Drainages are numerous and plant and animal life reflect the movement of water through the area. But the region stands predominately above where the fog settles thus receiving exposure to warm sun influences through the day in summer months, as well as warming aspects from inland temperatures. Finally, the range is dominated by conifer forests, effectively giving a rainforest effect. As Hirsch explains, then, between the soils, the moisture, the sun exposure and heat, and the winds, the confluence of factors determining the high elevation appellation are near impossible as one climate type.
looking through the gully-ridges of Fort Ross-Seaview AVA from the second ridge towards the third, July 31 2013. The furthest ridge in the center frame has multiple vineyards growing from the ridge top down the side towards camera.
History tells us vines were planted in the coastal mountains more than 100 years ago, with Zinfandel being primary, but in the small population through the region grapes were not a priority. Most land holdings through the ridges were large parcels, with much of the property being difficult to use both because of its extreme slopes and gullies, and also because of the challenge in travel between ridges. Still today, the road system through the area is intensely windy as it descends one hilltop, then climbs another.
In the late-middle of the last century several large parcels were subdivided into 40 acres plots leading to a move-in of new small family owners, some of whom remain today still growing the new vineyards they established. Plantings are still far from dense in Fort Ross-Seaview, and with the complexity of land shapes it seems unlikely for such a phenomenon to develop, though there have been some attempts at closer-to-bulk.
looking through rows of Pinot Noir at Campbell Ranch Vineyard, surrounded entirely by conifer forest, Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, July 31, 2013.
Fort Ross-Seaview is still quite early in its development, but as Sr Editor of the SF Chronicle, Jon Bonné explains, the appellation already has shown a consistency of wine quality. Saturday, August 3 the West of the West Festival offered a Fort Ross-Seaview Pinot Noir panel discussion facilitated by Bonné, with Lee Martinelli, Sr, of Martinelli Wines, and David Hirsch. Having extensive experience with his own family vineyards through Russian River Valley, Martinelli became established in the coastal mountains in the 1950s. His wife’s family kept a ranch and lived there for generations. David Hirsch established his site in 1980, helping to usher in (along with already established farming families like the Martinellis) a new interest in true-coastal grapes.
We tasted through 7 site-specific Pinot Noir examples from the appellation out of the 2010 and 2011 vintages. The wines showed a range of styles, but within each there was a clear thread of crushed dark rock flavor and throat tightening tension, pulled forth by bright red fruits and lifted by the fresh aromatics of conifer forest. During discussion, Bonné confirmed that in his tastings through other vintages these characteristics are consistent to wines of the region.
Following are notes on the 7 wines. Each come from vineyards within the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA but some are named as Sonoma Coast.
Fort Ross-Seaview AVA Pinot Noir Tasting
looking through Pinot Noir clusters in Fort Ross-Seaview AVA July 31 2013–note the small cluster size, how early in veraison the fruit still is, and the conifer silhouettes in the distance; Campbell Ranch Vineyard visited with Gros Ventre
* North Appellation
2011 Red Car Estate Vineyard, Fort Ross-Seaview
The Red Car offers delicate aromatics with red berry and light dusty accents moving into crushed rock in the palate with touches of cracked pepper on the finish. The wine is juicy, with smooth easy tannin, and a touch of bread dough on the medium-long finish.
* Central Appellation
2011 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Estate, Sonoma Coast
Bringing lightly perfumed aromatics that carries into the palate, the Flowers Meeting Ridge shows cherry blossom and red cherry, with accents of dark rock tension and light conifer. The tannin is lightly textural falling in balance with the acidity as a light grip on the palate.
* 2010 Hirsch Vineyards San Andreas Fault Estate, Sonoma Coast
The stand out of the tasting for me, Hirsch’s San Andreas Fault accents a vibrant, lively nose with musky hints leading into cherry blossom, a feral musk, very light cocoa + espresso, and a touch of black pepper on the palate all together in a dancey frame. There is a nice crushed rock mineral length and good tension here. The acidity carries this wine all the way home.
2010 Martinelli Three Sisters Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
The Three Sisters is a light and pleasing wine giving a light touch overall presentation. The cherry blossom and conifer with red notes on the nose carry over into darker, slightly brooding aspects on the palate. This wine has a lean focus with a very light musk dancing with floral aspects. The wine drinks now as though it is still private and will open more with age.
* South Appellation
2011 Failla Estate Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
Another stand out, the Failla Estate gives darker, and more bramble aspects than the other wines of the tasting. Dark berry shows here on the nose alongside an animal poise moving into coniferous notes on the palate. The mouth gives cherry with cherry leaf and bramble, a touch of cocoa, and dark rock. The wine is lightly brooding with still bright lift and long lines of tension.
2011 Fort Ross Vineyard Sea Slopes, Fort Ross-Seaview
Red cherry with cherry blossom carry over dark bands of crushed rock and conifer forest. This Sea Slopes drinks currently as though its flavors are still very much uncurling from its generally balanced structure. The wine is currently tight and needs time in bottle as well as air upon opening.
2010 Wild Hog Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
The most feral of the wines presented, the Wild Hog gave sweat and running horses with lightly candied aspects of red cherry pushed onto moist tobacco and light cigar box. The finish is long and tart with crushed rock and slowly appearing oregano oil and thyme. The various elements of this wine seem to still be finding their balance in the bottle showing currently as a little disjointed.
Thank you to Amelia Weir for your work on West of the West.
Thank you to Chris and Sarah Pittenger of Gros Ventre for taking me on a tour of multiple vineyards through the Fort Ross-Seaview appellation prior to the tasting.
Thank you to Jon Bonné, Lee Martinelli, Sr, and David Hirsch for the excellent panel.
To read more on why sub-dividing the Sonoma Coast matters, check out this previous article by Jon Bonné: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thirst/article/Drawing-new-lines-for-wine-on-the-Sonoma-Coast-2376315.php
and his brief announcement for when the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA was established: http://insidescoopsf.sfgate.com/blog/2011/12/15/three-new-appellations-as-a-holiday-gift/
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