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The future of Sonoma County is… cabernet?


Perhaps that is an overstatement, but up until recently California cabernet sauvignon was synonymous with Napa Valley. And, make no mistake, Napa continues to produce outstanding cabernet. I recently attended the Napa Valley Barrel Auction and tasted a lot of superb Napa Valley cabernets. But recently I’ve become focused on the increasing quality and complexity of Sonoma County cabernets and so I took the opportunity to interview some of the winemakers whose wines have caught my attention to see what has changed.

Let me begin by saying that I am not naturally a cabernet person. There’s an oft-told story in Missouri where my distributor asked me if I wanted to order a cab. I firmly but politely told him that I was paying for that dinner, and I didn’t want to drink any cab. He looked at me and laughed and explained that he was talking about a taxi.

I should also point out that when I worked in wine retail back in the early 1990s, consistently outstanding Sonoma County cabernet was largely limited to Silver Oak, Jordan, Laurel Glen and the Monte Rosso cabernets from Louis Martini (which required explanation as they were made in Napa from Sonoma grapes). That has changed over the years and recently I’ve found myself drawn to wines from Moon Mountain—such as those coming from Hamel Family Wines, Lancaster Estate Wines and Kamen Estate Wines. There’s another gathering of outstanding Sonoma County cabernets emanating from Alexander Valley such as Aperture Cellars and Stonestreet Winery. And then there are outposts of superb cabernet-based wines such as Peter Michael Winery in Knight’s Valley and Capture Wines on Pine Mountain. To my palate, many of these wines demonstrate a character that I once found more often in “old-school” Napa cabernets—concentration, balance and a classicism that often eludes many newer cabernets. These are cabs that I can order!

My immediate assumption was that what I was seeing in these wines was climate change. Sonoma County, buttressed on the west by the Pacific Ocean, generally runs cooler than Napa Valley and this cooler weather, warmed somewhat by climate change, was allowing for more and more high-quality cabernet to be grown and made in the area. What I discovered surprised me.

I began my exploration by interviewing Phil Coturri—one of California’s leading viticulturists and the person responsible for planting and farming some of Sonoma County’s premier cabernet vineyards, particularly in the Moon Mountain/Sonoma Valley area. I began by asking him if he also thought that the quality of Sonoma County cabernet sauvignon was at an all-time high. To this he readily agreed, and I thought I was off to a good start. I then started in on climate change and that’s when things turned in a direction I didn’t expect. While not denying that climate change has played a role, he said that the greatest improvements in Sonoma County cabernet sauvignon now can be attributed to grape growing.

The assumption that cabernet sauvignon was easier to grow than pinot noir had led to a less-rigorous level of viticulture and only in the last few years, with cabernet being farmed with the same exacting care (and expense) as the best pinot noir, are we seeing the rise in the quality of cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma County.

That wasn’t the answer I’d expected. Having said that, Phil is both a friend but also a viticulturist—and perhaps his emphasizing higher-quality grape growing made sense. Unconvinced that my emphasis on climate change wasn’t correct, I soldiered on and interviewed a rather august group of winemakers: Sam Teakle of Capture Wines, Jesse Katz of Aperture (and more), John Hamel of Hamel Wines, Robert Fiore of Peter Michael and Danielle Langlois of Lassiter. To a person they all acknowledged that climate change played a role in Sonoma’s improving cabernet scene, but they all emphasized site and farming over climate. Jesse Katz summed it up quite well: “The attention to detail in farming the top sites has finally caught up and we are seeing that translated in the wine.”

This higher level of farming is being combined with more specific site selections and the matching of clones. Most of the producers I interviewed are selecting mountain side sites for the majority of their efforts. Sam Teakle conveyed this when I asked him what areas in Sonoma County are producing the highest quality cabernets. “For me, without a doubt, it is the mountains. The high elevation vineyards in Sonoma Valley, Knight’s Valley and in Alexander Valley have always been on my radar, and always my favorites.” John Hamel added that, “elevation moderates climatic extremes late in the season, allowing for more balanced conditions during the ripening period.”

Danielle Langlois brought up that once site is determined, modifications in clones and farming can take place to further increase quality. “At first, we planted early ripening and heritage clones on the property, in consideration of Sonoma’s generally cooler profile as a cabernet sauvignon growing area. It turns out, however, that the narrowest part of the valley where we are located is also the warmest part of the valley. This means we have greater options for cabernet sauvignon clones and expression, and we are making adjustments in the vineyard as a result.”

Improvements to the winery were also mentioned, but these came up as a way of better expressing what was happening in the vineyards rather than as any real game-changer in quality.

Overall, the discussion was quite illuminating for me as a recent convert to the joys of Sonoma County cabernet sauvignon. Robert Fiore summed it up well: “I think the future of Sonoma County cabernet sauvignon is quite bright. Sonoma County has the terroir and I think we are learning to showcase it in increasingly high-quality ways.”

I’m excited about exploring these opportunities in the future.

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