Sultans of the Sonoma Coast -Spring 2009

by: Dan Fost

For anyone who doubts the concept of terroir in winemaking – who thinks that the winemaker is the key, and the soil, terrain, climate and other aspects of place don’t have much influence on what actually goes into the bottle – we offer for your consideration Nantucket native son Ehren Jordan.

Peay Vineyards

Jordan, the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2008 winemaker of the year, produces wines both at Turley Wine Cellars and at his own Failla (pronounced FAY-la) Wines.

“I make big, giant zinfandels in my day job” at Turley, Jordan says, because that’s what Turley’s Napa Valley vineyards produce.

And at Failla, he makes subtle, delicate pinot noirs grown on the cooler Sonoma Coast. “Size and varietal dictate winemaking, in my mind,” Jordan says. “You go with what you’re given on the site. My style is hands-off, where the winemaker’s touch is the least apparent.”

Peter Granoff, who co-owns the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Francisco and the Oxbow Wine Merchant in Napa, finds Jordan fascinating for just that reason. “A lot of people talk about terroir, and how winemaking is guided by terroir,” Granoff says. “I look at the wines he makes for Turley and the wines he makes on his own label, and they could not be more different. That tells me he does walk the walk. He lets the vineyards tell him.”

That goes a long way toward explaining the terroir of the Sonoma Coast, an appellation that’s not nearly as well-known as its Napa Valley neighbor. Wines from that special place will be on display at the Nantucket Wine Festival in May, when Jordan and two other winemakers, David Hirsch and Andy Peay, will speak on a panel and lead tastings from their vineyards.“Turley’s reputation is based on these big, huge, voluminous wines,” Granoff says. “But that’s what these vineyards are delivering. Then when he makes pinot noir from the Russian River Valley or the coast, it’s a totally different animal. He’s not being formulaic. He’s letting the land do the talking.”

The Sonoma Coast offers truly spectacular scenery, with views every bit as breathtaking as the more famous Big Sur to the south. Getting to the vineyards often requires nerves of steel to navigate twisting, fog-shrouded, one-lane roads where sheep or deer are likely to jump in your path. A rich history ranges from a 19th-century Russian fur-gathering settlement at Fort Ross, to the groundbreaking homes at Sea Ranch. Pounding waves, rocky shores and redwood trees awe everyone from tourists to abalone divers and mushroom hunters.

Something even more sinister lurks beneath the surface, however, putting terror in the terroir: California’s fabled San Andreas Fault runs right through the region. The collision of the Pacific plate with the North American plate can bring deadly earthquakes, but those temblors also shape the region’s exquisite beauty, as well as a complex soil structure that can work wonders in the hands of the right vintner.

Not too many people had thought of planting grapes on those hillsides when Hirsch bought his old sheep ranch in 1978. It certainly wasn’t in Hirsch’s plans. He was an old hippie, a one-time storyteller who had hitchhiked across the country from his native New York, ultimately winding up in the sleepy surf town of Santa Cruz. He sold women’s clothes in colorful fabrics, but was looking for someplace even more remote when he stumbled upon his 1,100-acre parcel above Fort Ross. “I was just looking for peace and quiet,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking grapes. I was thinking shiitake mushrooms.”“The San Andreas has been lifting and crushing and doing its thing for millions of years,” says Hirsch, owner of Hirsch Vineyards. “The land and the sea and the sky are coming together. The climate has to be affected.”

But a knowledgeable friend from Santa Cruz suggested that, in fact, he grow grapes. At first blush, the idea seemed dubious. Grazing and logging had stripped the land of its topsoil. Hirsch picks up a piece of sandstone from between a row of pinot vines, and says, “The soil goes from clay so heavy that you can’t get it off your boots, and then it dries to concrete – to pure sand. Soils go from 5 percent rock to 75 percent rock. We have everything here.”

It’s not an easy place to farm, as a ride up the twisting roads on a rainy day indicates. Good help is hard to find. “Instead of a Rolodex of contractors,” Hirsch says, “we call ourselves.” His calloused hands and dusty denim jacket and jeans confirm his assertion.

The climate is not even as mild as the legend has it, he says.

“One of the great myths about growing grapes in California is these cool-weather sites,” he says. “We are on the same latitude as Lisbon. There are no cool-weather sites.”

Peay stands at 800 feet, and has morning fog and a coastal breeze. “We tend to pick a couple weeks later than Hirsch and Failla do,” Andy Peay says. “Those guys are picking much riper than we are.”That may be an overstatement. Peay Vineyards, at Sea Ranch farther to the north, doesn’t have quite the elevation of Hirsch, and are measurably cooler. Hirsch, at 1,500 feet, is above the fog line, and gets plenty of 90- to 100-degree days in the summer, often when temperatures are 60 degrees on a beach three miles away.

Peay, 39, and his brother Nick, 42, found their site after combing the coast in the 1990s, inspired by Hirsch’s wines. “We’re after more of an older-world, European style of wine,” Andy Peay says, “one that’s aromatic, with texture and secondary flavors, not just big fruit.”

They planted their first vineyard in 1998, and hired winemaker Vanessa Wong from Peter Michael Winery for their first vintage in 2001. Not only has she stayed on, but she also married Nick, the principal winegrower. “Vanessa’s wine-making is one that emphasizes finesse,” says Granoff, of the Wine Merchant shops. “They are full of fruit but they’re not big voluminous monsters.”

And Jordan’s wife, Anne-Marie Failla, not only gave the winery her name, but she’s also a former investment banker and venture capitalist who runs the business side of the operation.It seems a prerequisite that a Sonoma Coast winery be a family affair. Hirsch’s wife Marie designs the labels – and is an architect who designed the winery, as well as their new home nearing completion on the site. His children work in the business as well.

Andy Peay, who will represent his family at the Nantucket festival, handles sales, marketing and everything else, according to the winery’s website. Peay is particularly proud to bring to Nantucket his Peay Scallop Shelf pinot noir, named for the scallop fossils found on the property, further testimony to the power of the fault line.

It’s a geological phenomenon that even David Hirsch, at 64 the elder statesman among the winemakers, still puzzles over. “What’s taken us all these years to figure out is, the quintessence of the site goes right back to the volatility, the intensity and the energy of the San Andreas,” he says. “The only thing we can do proactively is to try to understand the soils.”

He brought in an Australian soils expert, who taught him to turn the soil with specialized shanks hitched to a tractor. “We were just doing it helter-skelter,” he says. “It turns out you have to do it with finesse.”

Ehren Jordan understands. “You’ll have one soil series, take three steps and there’s another soil series,” he says. “It’s incredibly diverse. You get to another part of the world, and things are more homogeneous.”

Jordan believes the coast could be divided into several appellations. “The coast is an amazing place, and it’s really being discovered,” he says.

It’s also where Jordan, a phenomenally busy winemaker, goes when he needs a break. He and Al Coffin, his childhood pal from Nantucket, built a cabin off the grid, running on solar power, with no television or telephone, five miles down a dirt road.

But although he’s a “big believer in vacation,” don’t think for a minute that he doesn’t love his job. “If you have half as much fun drinking these wines as I do making them,” he says, “you’re in for a good time.”

Dan Fost is a freelance writer living in Marin County, and a former reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle. He writes frequently for Nantucket Today.

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