Our eighth installment of the Hidden Gems series ventures to the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, where magic happens every day.
The beautiful drive along Highway 1, north of Jenner, winds through everything from coastal redwood forests to pastureland, often with steep cliffs along the ocean’s edge. It’s not a stretch to rush past—in fact, that’s nearly impossible—as thick fog and narrow roadways require one to slow down and enjoy the surroundings.
Turning up Meyers Grade Road, you’ll quickly climb toward one of Sonoma County’s newest AVAs, called Fort Ross-Seaview. In only a few minutes, you’ll emerge from the mist, where you can behold the incredible, forested landscape that overlooks the coast. Peer down and the fog looks like a thick, white blanket covering much of the landscape below.
Fort Ross-Seaview encompasses 27,500 acres, entirely within the much larger Sonoma Coast AVA boundaries. Elevations range mostly between 920 and 1,800 feet, and the terrain is mountainous with many canyons, narrow valleys, unpaved roadways, dense forests and tall ridgelines. A vineyard you can see from one hilltop might look close, but can often take more than 30 minutes to reach. But the thing that most distinguishes the area is that it sits above the fog line, offering more hours of sunlight than the surrounding areas at lower elevations.
The petition to form the AVA was originally presented in 2003 by Patrick Shabram, a consulting geographer who’s also a professor at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, Colo., and David Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards. Shabram has been consulting on AVAs since the late 1990s, after completing a master’s thesis on Russian River Valley, and is considered an expert. “David [Hirsch] contacted me about Fort Ross-Seaview. It took an incredibly long time to get through [it became official in January 2012], partly because of timing and partly because of opposition from another group,” he says. There were different opinions about what the AVA’s name should be, and the TTB (U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) had to decide whether or not to include Annapolis as part of the designation or not. It was eventually decided that Annapolis was too distinct from the rest of the area under consideration (it may get its own designation some day), and that most growers in the area referred to is at Fort Ross-Seaview.
“There’s a huge mix of soils in the area, mostly from sedimentary rock. It’s right on the San Andreas Fault, so there’s some metamorphic rock, too. But the soils aren’t the most unique characteristic. It’s the climate above the fog, and cool air drains down into the valleys, so there’s no frost. The ocean moderates the temperature from getting too hot or cold,” says Shabram.
“Establishing the eastern border was the challenging part. How far inland can you go before you lose the coastal influences? I noticed the vegetation change and chose gray pine as an indicator species. The coast has more redwood and tanoak.
“Another intriguing thing is the area’s remoteness,” he continues. “There are a lot of dirt roads, and the paved ones are narrow and windy. You wonder how grape trucks can get up and down. If someone is looking for an easy place to grow grapes, Fort Ross-Seaview isn’t it. The people are here because they like seclusion and the fruit.”
Fort Ross was originally established by Russian fur trappers and is located on a coastal bluff just west of the AVA’s boundary. It served as Russia’s southernmost outpost in the Pacific Northwest until they sold it to John Sutter in 1841. Sutter then hired a succession of managers to dismantle and transport the remaining Russian possessions to his fort in Sacramento. His last manager, William Benitz, moved his family to the area in 1846, eventually purchased the land and turned it into a ranch. Others followed him, and the Kashaya Indians, who had lived in the area for centuries, were relocated to a reservation further north.
In 1873, George Washington Call bought the property and established another ranch, which ran for more than 100 years. At its peak, it was a social center for the surrounding communities, offering a port, post office, elementary school, hotel and saloon. The Russian settlement has been known as Fort Ross State Historic Park since 1906, when Call sold that portion of his property to the state. Today, more than 150,000 visitors come to the remaining fort and house each year.
The Russians are credited as the first to grow grapes in the area, beginning in 1817 when Captain Leontii Andreianovich Hagemeister planted Peruvian grape cuttings. A long stretch of time went by before more modern plantings went in. The first was Michael Bohan, who began planting in 1973 and selling his grapes to wineries in 1976. David Hirsch was among the first of the next group to plant there, establishing his vineyard in 1980—although grape growing wasn’t his original intention.
“I bought a sheep ranch in 1978,” says Hirsch of his Fort Ross-Seaview property. “I came here for the peace and quiet.” Originally from Bronx, N.Y., he moved to Santa Cruz in 1968, where he worked in the women’s clothing business. Little did he know, his future was about to completely change.
“My neighbor from Santa Cruz suggested planting grapes here. I thought he was out of his mind, but we decided to grow two acres of Reisling and one acre of Pinot Noir. There was no electricity or house.”
That neighbor was Jim Beauregard, who Hirsch credits as the person who “helped revive Santa Cruz Mountain viticulture.” Today, there are 72 planted acres on the property, which is perched at a 1,500-foot elevation. Reisling is no longer part of the program, which is now devoted entirely to high-end Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “My original reason for being here wasn’t grapes. But they’re providing the economic support for reforesting the land [which was heavily logged in the past]. We get, on average, 80 inches of rain per year, and there’s erosion because of the logging [damage]. It’s becoming a redwood/fir forest again, but this is a 200-year process,” says Hirsch.
“I moved up permanently in 1988 when I built a house here. That’s when I truly decided to become a grape farmer,” he says. “I was really just looking for an affordable place when I bought the property.
“In the beginning, nobody knew this area would become a grand cru Pinot Noir and Chardonnay site. Then the Flowers [Flowers Vineyard & Winery] showed up in 1989 and hired Helen Turley as consultant and Steve Kistler as winemaker. Then Williams-Selyem, Kistler, Littorai and others started showing up and buying our fruit. Sea Ridge [winery] was the first to use our vineyard name on its bottles, in 1987. But after 2000, it was a deluge. Now there’s Peter Michael, Pahlmeyer....” he says.
Hirsch is credited by many growers in the area as being the person who spearheaded the effort to create the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA designation. But he gives much of the credit to Shabram, who ended up penning the petition, and to the group of people who worked together to make it happen. “Most of the meetings about it were at Flowers,” he says. “The MacDougals were there, George Bohan, the Martinellis, Tin Barn. There were 18 of us total. I remember, because we had 18 different ideas for the area’s name. That was one of the most difficult parts.”
Currently, Hirsch Vineyards produces six Pinot Noirs and one Chardonnay. Production is about 6,000 cases annually. “We decided to build a winery on the property in 2002,” says Hirsch. “It was completed just before harvest of 2003. Ross Cobb [formerly of Flowers and Williams-Selyem] is our winemaker. He and his family live on the site. Everyone involved, including the farm workers, lives on the site. It’s very unusual. It’s an experiential education for a site like ours,” says Hirsch.
“We’re also going biodynamic,” he says. “It’s been an evolutionary thing. We became aware of soils and how the topography is a result of the San Andreas Fault. We’ve slowly morphed into being self-sustainable. We’re paying better attention to the fertility of the soil and the land,” he says.
The winery’s flagship offering is the San Andreas Fault Estate Pinot Noir. “The most important thing about this area is that it’s right on the fault line,” says Hirsch. “It’s a pretty intense energy field. There’s tons of rock grinding away at each other. There are four ecosystems meeting in one place.
“Our wines have a very European, complex style,” he adds. “They’re more acid-driven than fruit-driven and they have strong tannins. They have a tremendous amount of focus. We want them to taste like they come from a specific place.”
Wild Hog Vineyards
Daniel Schoenfeld’s Wild Hog Vineyard is tucked away amid a magical forest of pines, redwoods, ferns—and critters. His vineyard is located in Wild Hog Canyon, named after one of its most prevalent creatures. But Schoenfeld notes that, since the mountain lions came around about 10 or 15 years ago, he hasn’t had as much of a problem with hogs.
Schoenfeld moved from Cleveland to San Francisco at age 19, but quickly left the city for Mt. Shasta and later Costa Mesa before ending up back in Northern California. “I’d work winters and take the summers off,” he remembers. “I wanted some land in the country so I’d drive up the coast, all the way to British Columbia.”
By 1973, he was back in San Francisco, working a seasonal job in a warehouse. When he got laid off in the spring, his boss asked where he would go from there. “I told him I wanted to look for land to buy, and he told me about a friend who’d bought some in this area,” says Schoenfeld. “So I bought the adjoining 40 acres. It was great living here—until it rained and I had to return to town [he’d only built domes for shelter at first, and they leaked].” Eventually, he ended up in San Anselmo with a group of friends. One of them was a wine buyer for a local restaurant, and he’d bring some of the samples home to enjoy. “We developed palates we couldn’t afford,” he says. “So I decided to make some of my own wine in 1977. I started with some Cabernet Sauvignon from Sterling Vineyards. Six months later, I had some great wine. I was a home winemaker for a number of years—the joke today is, I’m a ‘home winemaker gone bad,’” he laughs. I’m going to have to disagree. His wine is delicious.
“I met my wife, Marion, in 1980 and, in 1981, we began planting the vineyard on the property [as well as building a house]. We didn’t know what we were doing, but by 1985, people said we should sell our wine.” They have five planted acres, including Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Syrah. “It took us 10 years to plant it all because of water issues,” he says. “Most of the land here isn’t suitable for planting.” The winery became bonded in 1990 and the estate now covers 110 acres, including a three-acre garden and fruit orchard.
The wine label features a photo of a Bruce Johnson sculpture that Marion gave Daniel as a birthday present. “We’d always wanted one,” he says. “I was stunned when she gave it to me.” The label’s design is custom-made by a friend who worked at the San Francisco Chronicle. “We’re one of the few wineries with a black and white label,” he says. “It hasn’t changed.”
Planting grapes and building a winery wasn’t an easy undertaking by any means. The estate is entirely off the grid (as is most of the Fort Ross-Seaview area, though most of the bigger vineyard operations aren’t). Everything is powered by solar and hydro (a Pelton wheel), with a back-up generator for about 5 percent of its needs. Schoenfeld had to buy tractors so he could improve the three-mile dirt road that leads to his property. He ended up doing heavy equipment work, carpentry and playing keyboards in local bands for a living during the process. It took four years to build the winery because it was all self-funded. “The bank wouldn’t help. We had no track record,” he says, but adds that he was glad in the end that it happened that way. “Don’t borrow money,” he advises, “build what you want slowly and small.”
“Our vineyard is certified organic, but the wine isn’t, because we add a small amount of sulfites,” says Schoenfeld. “We only use American oak. Most of the new oak is used for Pinot Noir because it gives it a cleaner, crisper flavor. We don’t use humidifiers because what’s evaporating is the water, not the wine. It gets more complex that way. The Zinfandel and blends stay in about 18 months; the rest for about a year. The wine is bottled and labeled here, and it ages in the bottle anywhere from six months to four or five years, depending on what it needs.” The winery also purchases some of its Zinfandel and Pinot Noir from other growers, along with Montepulciano, Dolcetto, Sangiovese and Barbera.
The 2008 Estate Pinot Noir has a smoky nose with spices and raspberries. It’s earthy with great acid balance. “The Pinot Noir needs some extra time to farm. It’s like a sensitive child—you have to spend more time with them or they get cranky,” says Schoenfeld.
The 2009 Estate Zinfandel (which is co-fermented with Petite Sirah) has anise on the nose with dark fruit and firm tannins. It’s lush and masculine, earthy with great balance. “The Zin is much easier,” he says.
“We store the finished wine in our ‘cave’ [a makeshift, cement-lined room that keeps cool] or at Sonoma County Vintner’s Co-op in Windsor, which is a great place. They make life so much easier and take care of the wine very well,” he says.
His was the first winery facility in the area. “Bohan was the first to plant grapes here. When he wanted to do it, the county said he shouldn’t, but he did anyway [back then, no permit was required]. Then Precious Mountain vineyard came in, which sells to Williams-Selyem. Hirsch had some grapes up here when I came, too,” he remembers. “When we started here, there were about 30 or 40 planted acres in the area. Now there’s at least 400 or 500 and 20 or 25 growers. In about 1998, this place became hip to grow Pinot Noir. But some of the people who came had more money than sense. Before, it was old hippies and ranchers, but then people from all over started moving in. People spent a lot of money to plant those vineyards. Some had fleets of water trucks.”
The first Wild Hog vintage yielded 800 cases. “Some was good, some not,” he says. “But we sold all of it.” Then, when the economy turned in the early 1990s, “we spent years struggling,” says Schoenfeld. “But in 1994, we entered our estate Zinfandel at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. It got double gold. I’m forever in debt to them for putting us on the map. A year later, we were making money again,” he says. Today, the winery produces 2,500 cases annually. “We’re at a comfortable level,” says Schoenfeld. “It pays the bills with some money left over.
“This is a really good community,” he adds, noting he joined the volunteer fire department (the only department that serves the area, due to its remoteness) and became an EMT in the early 1980s. “We mostly get together at each other’s homes,” he says of social activities. “Everybody loves food, wine, eating and being with friends. Timber Cove Inn [on the nearby coast] has live music, and Raymond’s Bakery in Cazadero does too,” he adds with a smile.
“I love doing this,” he says as our visit comes to a close. But that’s obvious.
Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery
Lester and Linda Schwartz, owners of Fort Ross Vineyard, Winery and Tasting Room, moved from South Africa to San Francisco in the 1970s. “I grew up on a farm in South Africa. My dad was a lawyer and a farmer. I followed on both accounts,” says Lester, who worked as a lawyer before he and his wife relocated to their Fort Ross-Seaview property. “I wanted to start farming again,” he says. “I was driving up the coast looking for land, but didn’t want it right next to the ocean because of the fog. There was a slide on Highway 1 and the traffic was diverted up Meyers Grade Road. I came out of the fog into the sunshine and could smell the fresh air, perfumed with trees. It was magical.
“We decided to look for land here. What we found was 804 acres owned by many far-flung siblings. We began talking about buying the land in 1984 and finally managed to purchase the parcel in 1988. A few years later, we bought an additional 165 acres next to it. That land, which consisted mostly of open meadow, is where the vineyard is,” he says. In 1989, the couple began construction of their house on the property.
In 1994, they began preparing the land for the first blocks of a vineyard that would, ultimately, include 50 acres and 30 different blocks. “We had to start from scratch, including drainage and fencing. Linda called the first section the ‘wussy blocks,’ because it was the flattest part of the land. In 1998, we planted the first 12 blocks. Our first crop came in 2000, and our first commercial vintage was 2001.” Today, the winery averages about 4,000 to 5,000 cases per year.
There are three rare field selections and two Dijon clones of Pinot Noir, two heritage field selections of Chardonnay and two proprietary cones of Pinotage imported from South Africa (Linda was the first nonacademic to bring grape vine cuttings from South Africa into the United States, via UC Davis’ Foundation Plant Services program).
Lester mostly works in the vineyard, while Linda focuses on marketing. “We can’t believe how well the vineyard turned out,” says Lester, who, with Linda, did most of the planting, without any consultation (though Linda had studied viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College and Shone Farm under Rich Thomas, and the couple did plant a test vineyard of 18 different varietals to see what would thrive in the cool, maritime climate). “We tried 18 different varieties because we wanted to see what else could grow here. But the sugars weren’t there except for the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which had remarkable vibrancy and purity.”
“A professor at UC Davis didn’t think we could grow grapes here,” adds Linda. “Our Nebbiolo giggled at us, and Zinfandel thought it was ridiculous,” she says. “In the test vineyard, we planted some fairly pedestrian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones, but for the actual vineyard, we were lucky to get incredible plant material.”
While the vineyard doesn’t need frost protection, the couple is always wondering what nature will bring. “One time it hailed!” says Linda. “Even though we’re above the fog, it doesn’t always read the rules. It can come and cause a perfect environment for mischief,” she adds. But in general, the ocean keeps the climate even and there isn’t often any extreme heat.”
The 30 separate vineyard blocks are all vinted separately. When harvest time gets close, they net the entire vineyard to protect it from birds. “We call it the largest hair net in the western world,” laughs Linda.
From the top of the vineyard, you can see 180 degrees of coastline and as far south as Bodega Head. “We planted in the meadows, so we didn’t have to remove trees,” says Linda. “You don’t mess with Mother Nature. She doesn’t take it well.” The property is almost a square mile and is mostly forested. The vineyards are at the peaks. They’re entirely irrigated with rainwater (a pond was installed at the top of the property to catch it). All the wines are made from single-vineyard, estate-grown fruit, by winemaker Jeff Pisoni, who’s been with the winery since 2009.
The couple opened the first tasting room in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA in August. Visitors are treated to a true slice of the AVA from the moment they turn into the gate. First they see a Pinot Noir vineyard, then pass through a redwood forest and by a large pond, then up a grade to the tasting room, which looks like it’s built from redwood but is actually made of concrete (it’s also LEED-certified and has a solar roof). When you enter the room’s double-doors, the view is immediately dazzling. The tasting bar has a picture window behind it that opens up entirely. From it, you can see the nearby forest and all the way down to the coast—as far as Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands beyond (they’re small, but visible) on a clear day. It’s truly breathtaking. An outside deck provides a place to sit and taste the wine if bellying up to the bar isn’t your style. There are also some picnic grounds in progress.
“This is the first tasting room that’s so close to the ocean and that’s in a vineyard,” says Linda. “We got a lot of support and opposition from local residents before it was built,” she adds. “People were afraid the area would become like Highway 29. But when you consider Meyers Grade Road, there’s no comparison.” It was a bit of a struggle, but permission was finally granted and they began building last year. Since then, Wine Spectator has described it as the number one destination on the Sonoma Coast. “Local hotels and restaurants are also enthusiastic. They view it as an asset to the area, as do many residents. Even some of the opponents have stopped by and complimented us—some have even bought wine,” says Linda.
It also has a private tasting area and a commercial kitchen, where occasional wine and food pairings are planned on a reservation-only basis (prepared by executive chef Lorin Dewees, who also lives on the property).
What it comes down to, though, is the wine, which doesn’t disappoint. The 2010 Chardonnay has citrus aromas with perfect acidity and a long finish with hints of oak, butterscotch and toast. The 2010 Sea Slopes Pinot Noir has a floral nose and is elegant with bright minerality. “We choose the most delicate lots for the Sea Slopes program,” says Linda. “It’s great with poached salmon.” The 2010 Fort Ross Vineyard Pinot Noir has some herbs on the nose and is earthy and lively on the palate with a hint of plum. The 2009 Pinot Noir Reserve has more weight to it, with a rich mouthfeel and hints of spice and pepper. “The luscious fruit, lively acidity and minerality of the reserve Pinot pairs exceptionally well with heartier meals, such as duckling with balsamic reduction,” says Linda. The 2009 Symposium Pinot Noir has a bit of Pinotage blended into it and is full-bodied with dark fruit and a meaty nose—elegant and sexy. The 2007 Pinotage also exhibits meaty, earthy characteristics and has a lively mouthfeel. There’s also a rosé and two bicentennial bottlings (one each of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) to commemorate the Russian settlement of Fort Ross in 1812. All together the winery makes nine selections—something for everyone, with a view.
Red Car Wine
Carroll Kemp, founder and winemaker at Red Car wine, grew up in an agricultural region of rural Arkansas. But dreams of a career in the film industry brought him west, first to Los Angeles, where he became a producer (1997’s “The Brave” and 2004’s “Highwaymen” are examples) and met his wife, Pade Vavra, who designs jewelry and interiors—including the winery’s stylish tasting room on Graton Road in Sebastopol, which opened in 2010. And no, he doesn’t own a red car. The winery’s name is a tribute to the electric trolley cars that ran in Los Angeles from the late 1800s to the early 1960s. “They’re romantic and transportive, like wine,” says Kemp.
“I was always interested in making wine,” says Kemp of how he transitioned from Los Angeles to Sonoma County. “In 1999, I got a job at a custom crush facility in Santa Barbara on weekends,” he says. “I loved it! It clicked for me. I felt like it combined my ‘old life’ in Arkansas with the creative culture of my ‘new life’ in Los Angeles.
“By 2000, I decided I wanted to make some wine of my own. I partnered with a friend [Mark Estrin, a screenwriter, who passed in 2005] and bought some basic home winemaking equipment and a ton of Syrah from Santa Barbara County. We made 50 cases from it in my second bedroom,” he continues. “It turned out pretty good! So we sent it to Robert Parker—and he gave it 90 points.” After that, French Laundry bought some, Christie’s auctioned some off, “and a buzz got going,” says Kemp. “In 2001, we decided to increase production, hired a new winemaker and made the wine at the custom crush in Santa Barbara. I wanted to make it myself again by 2003, but a movie [“Highwaymen”] got the green light that fall. It was harvest time, I was working on the movie, but all I could think about was making wine.”
By January 2004, Kemp went into the wine business full time. It was the same year he closed escrow on a piece of property he’d bought near Fort Ross. “This began our transition into a Sonoma County brand,” he says.
“I saw the beginning of the Pinot Noir upswing and that the Sonoma Coast was an area that had promise. The wines I’d tried from there were the style I liked—concentration without weight, natural acidity and a balance of earth and fruit,” he says. When my partner became sick, I found the property and it was raw ground. We began planting and, by 2009, we moved up and began our first harvest.”
Around the same time, Kemp and some other growers in the area started a vintners group called the West Sonoma County Vintners. “The Sonoma Coast AVA is almost half of Sonoma County,” he says. “This was more literal.
“We knew the style of wines some of us wanted to make were partially about the culture of the place. Wines don’t taste the way they do just because of the vineyard. The mouthfeel and style comes from the winemaker. It’s like deciding what to wear,” he continues. “To me, it’s also about what food is in the area and what wine will go with it.”
The vintners group originally had six founders (“we couldn’t have done it without everyone’s help”) and today has about 40 members. It includes Occidental, Freestone, most of Green Valley, Sebastopol Hills, Fort Ross-Seaview and Annapolis. It could eventually become its own AVA. But the Fort-Ross-Seaview area is unique in itself. It’s cold because it’s so close to the ocean, but all the vineyards are mountain vineyards, and all above the fog. There’s a slightly different taste than those in the lower elevations nearby. The skins are thicker. The tannins, even in Pinot Noir, can be stronger, and the flavor is on the savory side.
“There’s also a pioneering sense up there,” he adds. “Not just anybody goes there.” It’s a frontier mentality. There are no stores. It takes 30 minutes just to get milk somewhere.”
Kemp’s estate is 113 acres, 14 of which are planted to grapes (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah). The vertically trellised vines are all heritage clone and suitcase selections and the water is provided by a reservoir. “We’ve done low-impact farming from the beginning,” he says. “We also farm 40 acres of vineyards in other areas. Our focus is on single-vineyard, high-end Pinot Noir.”
The winery has three lines: Boxcar, Trolley and Reserve and produces wines from its estate vineyard as well as La Boheme Vineyard in Occidental, Platt Vineyard in Freestone, Bartolomei Vineyard in Forestville and Vivio Vineyard in Bennett Valley. Aside from Pinot Noir, it offers Chardonnay, Rousanne, Syrah and rosé.
The 2011 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay (Hawk Hill) is bright and smooth with a long finish. The 2010 Trolley Pinot Noir (Coastal Blend) has a bright red nose, cherry and even some citrus elements with a crisp finish. The 2009 “The Aphorist” (each label represents a different quote) has a floral nose with spicy and earthy flavors with a hint of cedar. The 2008 Trolley Syrah is a lighter style Syrah and smells like peppers and teak with floral flavors backed by dark fruit. The 2008 “The Fight” Syrah has boxing scenes by artist Doug Frazier on the label. Each year is different and when put together, they read like a storyboard. The one I tried is called “Victory” and has a meaty smell and taste with black pepper and dark fruit. All the bottles have different labels and it’s fun to hear the stories behind them.
Kemp says Red Car’s wine style has changed over time. “It has to do with my personal experience with the culture here,” he says. “It’s your job as a winemaker to be a conduit between what’s happening around you. Putting your ego in is a mistake.”
He adds that he’d like to grow his company, citing his two young sons as part of his reasoning. This is a man with vision—and great wine.
Go for it
An area this rich in history and character is bound to produce exceptional wine, and sure enough, I found that many of the wines produced there have an earthy, meaty character and wonderful natural acidity. There’s obviously some climatic influences going on, but I also think it’s the people there that truly round out the area’s unique aspects. Like I said, it’s not easy to get to or travel within, and those who’ve chosen to live there know that better than anyone else. But the trip is worth it—and so is the wine.