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With greatness in its sights

Three areas of Sonoma County have emerged as the New World capital of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

June 01, 2005|Rod Smith | Special to The Times

The country road unfurls through a misty landscape of giant trees and meadows dotted with grazing deer. Vines appear to one side, and then a weathered old barn in a grove of redwoods.

A glimpse of stacked wooden barrels through the open barn doors tells you the place is a winery, and a small sign invites you to come in and taste. Accept the invitation and you may well encounter world-class wines, especially Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The scene is typical of Sonoma County's wine country. There are lots of enticing back roads with tasting adventures just around the next bend. I've described Westside Road in the Russian River Valley, but there are many similar scenes in Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley and half a dozen or so other wine enclaves within the Sonoma County lines. I think of them fondly when I'm stuck in Napa Valley traffic, bathed in the fumes of a tour bus waiting to turn into a winery-cum-theme park.

Napa County is gorgeous too, of course. But its self-consciously glamorous sensibility, evoking Bordeaux, is quite different from Sonoma County's earthier, more Burgundian farm-country feel.

Next-door neighbors across a craggy fence called the Mayacamas Range, Napa and Sonoma have evolved quite differently in the past few decades. Like its French model, Napa is virtually a wine monoculture: Less than half the size of Sonoma, it has nearly as many acres of wine grapes and almost twice as many wineries. And like Bordeaux, Napa Valley is a magnet for wealthy seekers of a stylized wine country lifestyle. Its chateau-like wineries concentrate mostly on Bordeaux-style wines made primarily from Bordeaux grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

By contrast, Sonoma County is a much larger, more diverse region with a decidedly agricultural ambience. Glamorous wineries are few and far between; many facilities are housed in old barns or their modern equivalents. Growers get good prices for their fruit, especially Pinot Noir and old-vine Zinfandel, but nothing near the $20,000 a ton that was the top reported price for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in 2004.

And while Sonoma's top Pinot producers routinely get $60 a bottle or more, there's nothing on the west side of the Mayacamas to match Napa's $200-a-bottle "cult" Cabernets.

Yet Sonoma's diverse terrains and climates offer excellent places to grow just about any wine grape, and the range and consistent high quality of Sonoma County wines reflect that.

Ironically, that viticultural strength has historically been a weakness when it comes to establishing an image with consumers. Like the cliche of the talented actor/writer/director/producer/composer/key grip who can't concentrate on one thing long enough to make the big time, Sonoma has done so many things well that it's always gotten plenty of work without achieving Napa's star status.

Instead, each of Sonoma County's distinctive AVAs -- American Viticultural Areas -- has worked to establish its own character. Sonoma Valley, where wine production began early in the 19th century, produces heady Cabernets and luscious Zinfandels, among other varietals. Alexander Valley, which boasts one of California's most scenic wine routes (Highway 128), is noted for the fruity richness of its Merlots, Zins and Sauvignon Blancs. Picture-perfect Dry Creek Valley -- it really does look like a storybook illustration -- is known worldwide for uniquely compelling old-vine Zins.

And in the past few vintages, three AVAs in the western half of the county have emerged -- not coincidentally -- as the New World capital of the great Burgundian grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. (Sonoma County accounts for nearly 20% of California's Chardonnay acreage and almost half of its Pinot Noir, and most of those vines are in the western half of the county.) An explosion of new producers, many of them small-quantity artisans, has presented wine lovers with a feast of bottlings featuring the luscious ripeness of the 2002s and the small-crop intensity of the 2003s.

"There are endless nuances in Pinot and Chard from site to site throughout the Russian River Valley region," says Hugh Chappelle, winemaker at Lynmar in Sebastopol and previously at Flowers on Camp Meeting Ridge near the coast. He's worked with Pinot and Chardonnay grapes from Russian River, up and down the coastal ridges, and Green Valley. "You get a tremendous variety of expressions, especially when you plant different clones and selections. Even in Green Valley, small as it is, there can be big differences from place to place."

A French soul mate

The rugged terrain of the Russian River Valley, bathed by fog most mornings, tends to produce wines that distantly resemble those of Burgundy's Cote de Nuits -- powerful, with generous perfume, fine weight on the palate, and firm structure. The Pinots tend to have broad, velvety tannins, and the Chardonnays combine richness and finesse.

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