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In the Vineyard in Cool Carneros
filed under: Regional Spotlight

withvine.jpgIt's been a bit of a whirlwind since I got back from Sonoma last month, but I've finally found time to put together some more tidbits from my visit. Those of you who follow the blog will recall that I took off for a much-needed "vacation" to wine country after wrapping the first round of edits to my book. And me being me, and my passion for wine being what it is, I naturally found myself at - where else?! - several wineries and even poking around some vineyards during my stay.

How beautiful is it here?!
carnerosview.jpgOne of two vineyard cameos I made during the trip took place in the cool Carneros region in the southern Sonoma Valley, in vineyards owned by sparkling wine giant Gloria Ferrer. I was there as part of Ferrer's annual "Earth to Effervescence", several days' worth of activities aimed at educating journalists and folks who sell Ferrer wines (e.g. restaurateurs, sales reps) about the brand.

mikeinholebest.jpgFeeling the need to maintain some semblance of "vacation" during my time in wine country, I opted to participate in just a few of the Ferrer activities, including a trek around some of the producer's more than 300 acres of estate vineyards. Our guide for the trek was Mike Crumly, the operation's longtime vineyard guru. Mike was later joined by Alberto, Ferrer's vineyard manager and an expert at vine grafting, something we got to experience first-hand as Alberto grafted several vine cuttings onto existing rootstocks at the end of our trek. Cool!

groupfromdistance.jpgMy biggest take-away from the visit was the surprising coolness of the Carneros district. I arrived in Sonoma during a heat wave, and even around 10AM when we first set out in the vineyard the heat was overwhelming. But as we made our way up the hillside vineyard - much-needed bottles of water in tow - to an exposed ridge, a wonderfully refreshing wind whipped through the vines and cooled everything down to a totally tolerable level.

sonomaviewupwards.jpgWhen I asked Mike where the breeze came from he said it was coming from the west - from the nearby Pacific - and that it was gusting through the gaps in the hills immediately to our west (for those of you familiar with the area, the town of Petaluma is located just over those hills). I had been under the impression that the cooling influence in Carneros came mostly from the San Pablo Bay, situated immediately to the south, but apparently in the morning the breezes come mostly from the west.

carnerosviewthruvines.jpgNo matter: the important point was that the temperature dropped considerably at the top of the bluff thanks to this breeze, and I was finally able to enjoy some of the wine that was offered to me as we walked past the plots from which the wines came. We tried several Pinots from several different clones, some of which were delicious. It was nice to try the wines while standing near the spots where the grapes were grown and contemplate how clonal selection and slight differences in soil makeup and exposure to the sun can make noticeable differences in the wines.

nonstoneyvineyard.jpgQuick stylistic note - the reason Carneros' coolness is important to sparkling wine production is that these wines require strong acidity in order to come across as *fresh* on the palate. Sparkling wines' main stomping ground is brisk Champagne, a region known for being notoriously cold. This is a great thing, since sparkling wines need to be fresh and tingly on the palate to taste delicious and to work well with food, and - generally speaking - the cooler a region, the higher the acid will be in the grapes produced there.

stoneyvineyard.jpgCalifornia is without a doubt hotter than Champagne, but we can still successfully grow grapes well suited to sparklers here by producing them in the coolest pockets of our wine growing regions - and chief among these is Carneros (Russian River is another great one). Pinot Noir (a key ingredient in sparkling wines) thrives in both Carneros and the Russian River Valley; the best Pinot is delicate and not-too-heavy stuff with good acidity - all things you get when the climate's cool enough. The other key ingredient to sparklers, Chardonnay, is also tops from these cool regions, for the same reasons.

stoneyvineyardrows.jpgOther notable take-aways from my trek: Ferrer's sparkling wines are made from vineyards situated on flat-ish land that's relatively rock-free (see earlier pics), while the still wines Ferrer produces (we're talking mostly Pinot Noir here) are made from rocky sites situated up higher on the hillsides (pictured here). Again, I took these snaps to show you the differences, which I hope you'll enjoy. I was also amused by Mike's penchant for climbing into several large holes that had been dug earlier that morning to show us the different types of soil the vineyards are made up of.

holecloseup.jpgPictured here, the soil inside the hole in the sparkling wine vineyard was dark-colored and rich-looking. It was also moist down inside the hole, which is where the vines' roots pick up their much-needed water. The holes higher up in the more rocky vineyards had soil that's not only less rich-looking but also less moist; in these spots the vines' roots really have to dig down deep to get to the nutrients and water they need. This is what I like to call "the good struggle" and is part of what makes great wine! This struggle is apparently less important for grapes destined for sparkling wine.

alberto.jpgFinally, the grafting: Check out this series of pics in which vineyard manager Alberto (seen here) inserts a new bud into the root stock of an old vine. These were taken in a portion of the vineyard where a handful of vines weren't doing well; these had been hacked off and can be seen lying on their sides nearby (I'm also holding one of these "victims" in the opening pic of this entry). There are a couple of reasons we graft onto existing rootstock - namely because the rootstock already in the ground is resistant to a vine pest called phylloxera, but also because the root stock has a long-established root system down below that will help nourish the new growth that's created from the graft.

fallensoldier.jpgAlberto tackled the job with the skilled hand of someone who's been doing this all his life. Grafting is a highly specialized skill, and we were all impressed by the speed with which he cut a tiny incision into the root, inserted a bud and wrapped the whole thing up like you might tape an athlete before sending her back out onto the field. The tape protects the graft site but leaves the bud exposed, and in short order the newly grafted bud should begin to grow out of the root and produce a new vine. Bravo, Alberto!

buddingsite.jpgLastly, I've included a snap of Mike with Ferrer's longtime winemaker, Bob Iantosca. I had the great pleasure of tasting a vertical of Bob's extremely limited Jose S. Ferrer Selection Carneros Pinot Noir after our vineyard trek. The cuvee is made each year using fruit from the best plots of Ferrer's estate vineyards, and only about 2000 6-bottle cases are made. My favorites of the seven cuvees I tried were the 2000 and the 2002. I scored them 86/87 and 88/89, respectively, and my tasting notes follow. Enjoy!

alberto1.jpg2000 Jose S. Ferrer Selection Carneros Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine is wonderfully aromatic, offering up notes of nutmeg, strawberry, cherry, and brambly raspberry, saddle leather, wet earth, and a hint of barnyard; supporting notes of coconut and cinnamon spice round out the elegant nose. On the palate this seven year-old wine retains its plush fruit character with plum, ripe cherry and pomegranate essences underpinned by spice, toast, vanilla and smoke. Great balance and good length. 86/87

alberto2.jpg2002 Jose S. Ferrer Selection Carneros Pinot Noir
Medium ruby in color with a brick-hued rim, the robust 2002 offers up brambly red fruits backed by rich notes of smoke, black pepper, herbs, earth and bacon. On the palate the wine shows more depth than the 2000 and flavors of cocoa, caramel, and ripe red-black fruits. It's got fantastic balance and concludes with soulful notes of smoke, clove and strawberry. A winner. 88/89

alberto4.jpgAbout Gloria Ferrer
Ferrer was founded in 1982 by the Spanish family behind Freixenet (fresh-en-et), the black-bottled Cava that's sold around the world. They were looking for a spot to make Cava-style wines (read: bubblies made in the traditional method used in Champagne) in the US, and settled upon Carneros for its ideal winemaking climate and because it reminded them of their Mediterranean home. The family still owns the Sonoma operation, home to a large winery modeled in the style of a masia (Catalan farmhouse), and they produces both sparkling and still wines there. Recently, the Ferrers have begun to produce Merlot and Syrah from select plots of their estate vines.

alberto5.jpgOpen daily for tasting.
23555 Hwy. 121


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