The excitement is rising in the heights above Cloverdale in the northern reaches of Sonoma County…..actually about a half mile above the streets of Cloverdale and the northern tip of the Alexander Valley. As reported in November 2011 in “Seasons of Sonoma…and more”, Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak (PM-CP) was officially established as an American Viticulture Area (AVA) in December 2011. Carved out from real estate in both northern Sonoma and southern Mendocino Counties, the wine growers of Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak (PM-CP) have begun, slowly and with intelligent deliberateness, to organize themselves and define their identity to the wine world. All bets are that it will be a stellar addition to the constellation of AVAs in the North Coast wine region of California wine country.
AVAs are made famous by the wines produced from the grapes grown there. It is no wonder, than, that an AVA is often established because of the unique nature of its grape growing characteristics such as soil type, micro-climate, elevation, sun exposure or water conditions. Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak growers are confident that those characteristics and the grapes they grow will follow that path. With elevations up to 3,000 feet and mostly volcanic and gravelly loamy soil, the mountain is the highest grape growing area in Sonoma County and perhaps all of California. The average rainfall (45″ – 90″ annually) and natural springs offer plenty of water to complement the well drained soil.
From an historic perspective, the history of farming and homesteading on Pine Mountain goes back over 150 years with George Allen and wife Lavicy Jane arriving in 1855. It even has is share of native Americans, bandits and outlaws, including Black Bart, who hid from the law in these mountains after robbing Wells Fargo stage coaches in the 1870s and 80s.
Mountain fruit is highly desirable today because of the intense flavors the stresses and strains that mountain climates can produce. The diurnal temperature swings are much less extreme than on the valley floor. PM – CP is above the fogline so the overnight cooling is not as dramatic. Temperatures are slower to change during the day so fruit gets more consistent and, ultimately, has longer ripening time. The heat spikes which do occur in the valley, often destroy acids in the grapes and cause the grapes to shut down and then restart. This does not happen very often on the mountain. These conditions likely account for the exceptional fruit characteristics. It is also expensive to produce because of the remote nature of the vineyards and the costs of getting labor and equipment on site when time may be of the essence.
Although PM-CP circumscribes 4,750 acres, only about 230 acres are planted to grapes and most of those are at the 1,600′ to 2,600′ elevation. (Kendall Jackson is planting an additional 90 acres as this posting goes to press.)
Cabernet is King! The principal varietals being grown on the mountain are Cabernet Sauvignon (about 75% of the total), Malbec, Chardonnay and Zinfandel along with lesser amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
The AVA currently has 8 growers with Kendall-Jackson and Benziger Family being the most well known. The other six: Oak Ridge Ranch and Vineyards, Pine Mountain Vineyards, Reichel Vineyards, Silverwood Ranch, Sky Pine Vineyards and Tin Cross Vineyards are very serious growers focused on ultra-premium grapes. About half of those produce their own wines including Sky Pine Vineyards (Bob Dog Wines), Reichel Vineyards (Respite Wines), Tin Cross Vineyards (Captûre Wines) and Pine Mountain Vineyard (Ampère) and these employ renowned winemakers to exploit the exceptional fruit produced on Pine Mountain. Winemakers May-Britt Malbec, Denis Malbec and Thomas Rivers Brown, among others, are producing amazing Cabernet Sauvignon for some of these labels. (The only winery actually on the mountain is Bob Dog Wines which is owned by Kandy Ward the proprietor of Sky Pines Vineyards.)
Barry Hoffner, owner of the 1200 acre Silverwood Ranch and President of the recently established AVA growers association believes that there is something special about the mountain and the fruit produced there. Like most other member growers, he is focused on establishing PM-CP as an ultra-premium wine grape growing area. He recognizes that the lower yields and higher costs of farming require the status of ‘ultra-premium’ if these vineyards are to be economically viable. Hoffner has two vineyards on the ranch, Silverwood Vineyard and Upper Ridge Vineyard which he leases to Benziger Family/Imagery.
Miro Tcholakov , winemaker at nearby Trentadue Winery, produces a Silverwood Vineyard designated Cabernet Sauvignon (2010) for his Miro Cellars label. He loves the mountain fruit for its softer though bigger tannins which, according to Miro, are likely “a result of the more intense solar radiation (much less smog than the valley – ed.), thicker skins and longer ripening process”. He also loves the hot rock affect and the blueberry and blackberry aromas prevalent in these grapes. Speaking with Miro is a real treat because of his passion for the fruit and his knowledge of the terroir.
Jessica LaBounty, Director of Marketing, the Benziger Family Winery and Imagery Estate Winery is enthusiastic about the exciting developments on Pine Mountain. As mentioned previously, they have leased about 30 acres on the mountain since 2006 and use the fruit for their Imagery Estate 2010 Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak Malbec. Total case production for Imagery Estate is about 10,000 cases. Joe Benziger is the winemaker for Imagery Estate.
Besides the Benziger family and Kendall Jackson, another titan of northern California wine country who sources grapes from Pine Mountain is Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola has his iconic and historic Rubicon Winery in Napa, of course, but in the past several years he has created Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville just 15 miles south of Cloverdale and Pine Mountain. The winery is a destination for wine lovers and families alike with movie memorabilia (The Godfather and Tucker for example), Rustic Restaurant, a cafe and swimming pool. Coppola has been quoted referring to his Geyserville location as ‘wine wonderland’. He’s right!
Tin Cross Vineyard and Captûre Wines are the love child of Mike and Carol Foster. They purchased their 240 acres in 2008 and have 36 planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Petit Verdot. They use about 80% of their grapes for Capture and have sold the ‘excess’ to winemakers like Paul Hobbs and Enkidu Wines of Kenwood, another rapidly growing area of Sonoma County.
Perhaps the most interesting denizen of the mountain is Tim Ward, vineyard manager on Sky Pine Vineyards for the past 24 years. A native of the Palo Alto area, Tim and wife Kandy moved to Pine Mountain as a lifestyle change and stayed. They grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Bob Dog Winery produced its first vintage in 2008 and is bonded for 2,000 cases. Tim and Kandy take social stewardship very seriously and are great supporters for the Tapas, Treasures & Treats Project sponsored by the Cloverdale Lions Club.
Pine Mountain has more going for it than ultra-premium wine grapes. The views of the geysers from the mountains peaks, the ability to look to both Mendocino and Napa Counties and of course down the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County, all offer a visual thrill. It is extraordinarily beautiful and unspoiled. It also has entrepreneurial residents, restaurateurs, olive farmers and talented music/film executives.
Glen Lajeski (and partner Gerry Etcheverry) fit a couple of these descriptors. Proprietors of this 160 acre Split Rock Springs Ranch since 2005, they have planted 1,500 Italian and Spanish olive trees and exploited a natural spring producing thousands of gallons of fresh water each day. Glen uses only organic farming practices and has been certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers organization (CCOF). Glen also has a passion for show dogs and is a member of the Poodle Club of America and the Boxer Club of America.
Another non-grape growing owner on Pine Mountain is San Francisco restaurateur, Matt Semmelhack. Matt and ballerina wife, Robin (Cornwell) along with a few investing partners purchased their Longview Ranch late last year, before they realized that the property bordered on the AVA. Matt and business partner, Mark Liberman, have been on a tear opening restaurants in SF. They already have AQ and will follow quickly with Bon Marché (in Twitter’s HQ building on Market Street) and later this year, they will be opening ‘TBD’ and ‘Mélange’ (fall of 2013). Matt was originally intent on using his Pine Mountain property to grow heirloom vegetables to feature in his restaurants but that dynamic may be changing with the evolution of the PM-CP AVA. Keep an eye on these new foodie opportunities!!
Three other non-grape growing residents, supporters or board members or of Pine Mountain are 1. Roxanne Kolbe of Auberge on the Vineyard, the highest TripAdvisor rated B&B in Cloverdale and member of the PM-CP winegrowers association board and 2&3. Mike Morisette and Marne Dupere, owners of Plank (a very popular coffee shop) and 14feet (a modern and vintage home furnishings shop) in Cloverdale. Mike and Marne also own the 14feet store in Healdsburg and live just above downtown Cloverdale on Pine Mountain Road. These Cloverdale locals do not grow grapes or make wine but are avid supporters of the new AVA and understand the symbiotic relationships that can benefit them all.
Ultimately, Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak is about the grapes and the premium wines they can become. Some of the other specific wines and wineries sourcing PM-CP grapes include: Edmeades, Fleuron Wines, Ispiri, Murphy-Goode Winery, Treasure Island Wines, and Valdez Family Winery (a Cloverdale based winery with a new tasting room on Mills Street in Healdsburg).
Stayed connected for future features on the growers, wines and denizens of Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak! Interest is ‘mounting’.