Fortunes of Fort Ross-Seaview – Top Ten Wineries 7 min read
I have traveled to the Fort Ross-Seaview area for over a decade. Each time, one thought popped into my mind: I can’t believe more people haven’t discovered this rustic, rugged, raw spot. However, this secluded region is now gaining exposure. After a decade, the government has approved the Fort Ross-Seaview American Viticultural Area.
The viticultural history of the area dates back to 1817, when Russian settlers planted the first vines and constructed a garrison, which gave Fort Ross its name. Sadly, the vines didn’t survive the harsh climate and disheartened Russians moved on to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Fast forward a century and a half, and Mick Bohan, a sheep farmer, is credited with pioneering the area’s Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Zinfandel plantings.
Stretching for twenty-seven plus thousand acres, a mere sixty-five miles from San Francisco, Fort Ross-Seaview AVA is located in the western part of the Sonoma Coast. Eighteen growers cultivate predominantly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The area also features a smattering of Pinotage, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Zinfandel and white Rhones such as Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.
Vineyards within this area are typically located at elevations that range from a few hundred to two thousand feet. Given that factor, diverse climate conditions are a major influence. Vineyards located above the fog line enjoy longer periods of sunshine. Conversely, hillside vineyards, often framed by redwood forests are cooler sites, with rainforest-like elements that create unique growing conditions. A multitude of soil types abound, with sedimentary rock, sandstone and shale dominating the geological scene.
Below is the Top Ten list of my favorite producers that either grow or source fruit from the area.
Del Dotto Vineyards (Cinghiale Vineyard)
Most think of Dave Del Dotto as a Napa Valley vintner, famous for the elaborate cave tours and custom wine programs. Indeed he has been producing Napa Cabernet Sauvignons for a couple of decades. However, in 2006, upon trying a bottle of W.H. Smith’s Maritime Vineyard Pinot Noir, he ended up buying the vineyard. He renamed it Cinghiale, which means “boar” in Italian. The forty acre vineyard sits eighteen hundred feet above sea level. Yields are tiny, and the vines struggle mightily for water; spreading roots far and wide through gravelly soils.
Winemaker Ehren Jordan, took one taste of Helen Turley’s Pinot Noir, made from grapes from the Seaview, and went to investigate. The result was the acquisition of forty-three acres of land. The vineyard, which grows Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, consists of eleven acres. Ehren is an extraordinarily versatile winemaker. Wine lovers rave about his Pinots and Chardonnays, and rightly so. The wines are tense, elegant and deftly balanced. However if you haven’t tasted his cool climate Syrah, you are missing out on a revelation.
Walt and Joan Flowers had a vision. They took a risk by purchasing their remote Camp Meeting Ridge property in 1989 at a time when there were very few winegrowers in the area. Elevations ranging from eleven hundred to near two thousand feet produce nuanced, elegant, sophisticated wines. Now owned by the Huneeus family (Quintessa) the brand is as prosperous as ever. Flowers Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay routinely wow critics and consumers alike.
Linda and Lester Schwartz, owners of Fort Ross Vineyard hail from South Africa. Lester always wanted to farm his own land and the Schwartz’s began looking for a coastal vineyard. They found a perfect spot near Fort Ross with elevations ranging from twelve to seventeen hundred feet. There they planted fifty acres of vines. They are the only producer in the area who grows their native South African Pinotage.
Marcassin (Marcassin Vineyard)
What can be said about the producer whose Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are in the category of “un-obtainables”? With a two decade long waiting list, and no one ever passing on their allocations, the only way to try Marcassin wines is to tap the auction market. Helen Turley is a force to be reckoned with. Her 2007 estate Pinot Noir nearly brought me to tears. If I was forced to drink one wine for the rest of my life it would surely be hers.
Martinelli Winery and Vineyards (Blue Slide Ridge, Three Sisters, Charles)
A generational grower, the Martinellis and their relatives, the Charleses, have inhabited the area since 1850s. Lee Martinelli Jr’s. grandfather, George Charles, one of region’s first growers, planted Chardonnay grapes back in the eighties. Lee and his Dad first planted Pinot Noir there in 1995. Their three vineyards enjoy a stellar reputation, with Blue Slide Ridge serving as a fruit sources to Helen Turley (Marcassin.)
Peter Michael Winery (Seaview Vineyard)
Sir Peter Michael, famed Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Bordeaux blend producer, set his sights on “true Sonoma coast” in 1998. His four hundred acre Seaview Estate Vineyard is located above the south fork of the Gualala River in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. The vineyard was planted to a selection of Burgundian clonal material and produces three designates: Ma Danseuse, Le Caprice and Clos due Ciel. The winemaker is Nicolas Morlet, who followed his brother Luc Morlet, both representing fifth generation winegrowers hailing from France.
Mark Estrin and Carroll Kemp released their first vintage fourteen years ago. Sadly, in 2005 Mark passed away, leaving Carroll to continue the legacy of their wine passions. After a succession of winemakers, Carroll took over the winemaking duties and the brand blossomed. Over time, Kemp’s commitment to terroir driven wines grew resulting in a Sonoma coast vineyard acquisition. Their Pinot Noirs are some of the best from the area, boasting gorgeous aromatics and lingering finish.
Lawyer-turned-vintner, Jayson Pahlmeyer, receives plenty of accolades for his namesake Napa Valley brand. However he decided that if he were to try his hand at making a Burgundian style Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays his best bet will be Fort Ross-Seaview area. He bought the Wayfarer Farm Vineyard in 2000, and developed thirty acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. His outstanding winemaker, Bibiana Gonzalez Rave crafts wines of uncommon elegance and distinction.
A couple of talented gardeners, Daniel and Marion Schoenfeld, have been making wines in the area since 1977. Poster child for slow, sustainable winemaking Schoenfeld ‘s winery has been organically certified since 1981! They produce Pinot Noirs (along with small amounts of Petite Sirah and Zin) of exceptional purity and integrity. Hand harvested fruit rests in open top fermenters, using natural yeasts and sees no fining or filtration. The vineyard is located at fourteen hundred feet elevation at the rise of Wild Hog Creek, after which it is named, near a town of Cazadero.
Speaking of Cazadero, there is a remarkable spot in that tiny yet very special town. Mark Weiss and his wife Elizabeth acquired the remote Raymond’s Bakery and B&B and turned it into a local oasis of food and shelter. The award winning breads and pastries are some of the best carbs I have ever consumed. Mark is ridiculously talented and equally generous, an unbeatable combination.
The fortunes of Fort Ross Appellation reflect different pathways than Napa or Sonoma. It is a region where natural progression rules, where slow and steady grape growing isn’t a trend, but a way of life. The wines aren’t as easy to get to know. They aren’t loud or showy; they tend to reveal themselves over time. Invariably big on structure, they often present as highly acidic and somewhat tannic. However, give them a minute and your patience will be richly rewarded.
The grapevines that thrive above the fluffy fog blanket soak up direct sunlight and absorb every ray. The golden glow of the area’s Chardonnays bespeak of nature’s unexpected largesse. The area Pinots, when youthful, can be a bit awkward. However, when the wines’ components come into their own, a whole other side appears. Seductive, generous, profound flavors emerge. Qualitatively sound, these well-crafted offerings merit major attention. Embrace the elegance, the heartfelt, timeless qualities of these wonderful wines and find your fortune.