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Sonoma’s Secret Elite Wine Region

On far-western, coastal ridges, some of Northern California’s most talented winemakers are producing exquisite Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.

Fort Ross Vineyard Photo: Courtesy Fort Ross Vineyard

In the sprawling, sometimes confusing, Sonoma Coast wine region, much of the excitement in recent years has focused on the far west—the true Sonoma Coast, if you will. Winegrowing is not for the faint of heart out here, with vineyards perched on chilly, ocean-view slopes. As old wisdom has it, though, the best wines in the world are grown in extreme conditions, where vines struggle to ripen every year.

One of Sonoma’s newer AVAs, Fort Ross–Seaview (approved in 2012), practically defines those conditions. Small and still little known, the appellation is also positioned the farthest west of all, its vineyards occupying dramatic coastal ridges north of the town of Jenner. In wine terms, the slopes reaching above the fog line here constituted an exclusive address long before the AVA was officially recognized, home to vineyards owned by Sonoma’s best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers: Hirsch, Flowers, Pahlmeyer, Marcassin, Peter Michael …

Lester and Linda Schwartz—owners of one of the largest plantings, Fort Ross Vineyard itself, which braves the most western perch of all—studied the soils and weather patterns of these remote ranges and persisted in planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the early 1990s against the advice of the experts, which ran along the lines of, “That would be crazy.” As Linda Schwartz describes it, “The soils are like an Indian spice market. And with such variety, elevation, and orientation, it took endless trials, not to mention meticulous planning, to get the right varieties and rootstocks planted in appropriate blocks.”

Fort Ross Vineyard

Aerial view  Photo: Courtesy Fort Ross Vineyard


Today, those blocks give winemaker Jeff Pisoni (son of Monterey’s legendary Gary Pisoni) a fine-tuned palette for his minimalist winemaking. Native yeast and no filtering and fining encourage the wines to taste of the place. “I’m not trying to make a style. Fort Ross Vineyard is the style,” says Pisoni. He admits that with the short growing season here, there’s a certain challenge in getting just the balance he wants out of the grapes’ ripeness, but his 2015 Stagecoach Road Pinot Noir ($80) offers delicious proof that it can be done. Remarkably dark and powerful, the wine combines spicy black cherry, earthy forest floor, and silky tannins with bright acidity.

Official recognition of this region, championed in large part by Linda and Lester Schwartz, was a long time coming. In fact, grapes were planted in Fort Ross all the way back in 1817 by the Russians who settled on this stretch of coast. However, only now is it possible to visit for the wine. As it happens, Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery has the only tasting room in the AVA (open 10:00 am to 4:00 pm daily). A 2 ½-mile climb from Highway 101 gets you above the fog and into the sun, granting a panoramic view of redwood forests and coastal landscape. And besides Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the trip also gets you to a rare taste of Sonoma-grown Pinotage—a varietal from South Africa, where both of the Schwartz’s are originally from.

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