Though Napa Valley gets all of the glory when it comes to wines of the Golden State – and it
does produce some exceptional wines – wines produced in other California appellations are still
relatively unknown to the general public. However Napa Valley isn’t the only region where Vitis
vinifera flourishes and arguably, many individual grape varietals do much better elsewhere. As
George Hendry, proprietor and winemaker for Hendry Vineyards once proclaimed, “I don’t make
wines, I grow wines”. In other words, it’s all about the soil and growing conditions. You can
purchase $1500 barrels of French Taransaud oak, build the most sterile wine making facility and
bore into the Mayacamas for your aging cellar. It still won’t guarantee you 95+ Parker scores or
even distinct wines. However find the right soil, the right climate, and the grape varietal that
was meant for both and you’re now on track to produce wines of distinction.
A Marriage of Art and Science
It seems that it does take a magician’s hand in producing the finest wines. First you need to
decide what type of wine to produce. Though top levels Cabernet Sauvignon can fetch close to
4-figures while top level Pinot Noirs only garner about one-tenth of that price, it’s not as
simple as simply deciding you’re gonna produce Cabernet. Is your vineyard conducive to growing
Cabernet or do your grape suppliers grow Cabernet in ideal conditions? Or does your vineyard
mainly support white varietals? Then there’s the soil. Is it simply fertile farmland that’s best
suited to producing bushels of Brussels sprouts or beans or does it have an underlying strata of
granite or limestone or chalk to produce distinct wines? And never mind Mother Nature, even
with all your ducks lined up, she can throw terrible droughts or rain storms or even that simple
hail storm right before harvesting that devastates your entire crop. And I won’t even mention
storing your precious vintage in a former naval warehouse.
It’s not Just Sun and Grapes
Unlike Sun-Maid raisins, growing grapes for winemaking is a little more than simply growing
grapes in lots of sunshine. Wine grapes need to mature both on a sugar and physiological level.
The sugar ripening is the easy part, fertile soil and lots of sunshine. The physiological part is not
as easy to accomplish. While sugar levels can determine the eventual sweetness of a particular
wine, it doesn’t play a large role since most wines are fermented on the dry side. Therefore sugar
level mainly determines the final alcohol level of the wine; higher sugar level at harvest, higher
alcohol level in the final wine. However the physiological ripening of the grape determines the
final flavor profile of that wine. From the tannin structure of the finished product – silky versus
medium versus harsh tannins – all the way up to distinctive qualities in each wine – earthy versus
simply fruity versus balanced and unbalanced wines. You may think it’s as simple as letting
physiological ripening “catch” up to sugar ripening. Well, simply easier said than done. Once a
grape reaches a certain sugar level, it’s only a matter of time before it starts raisining. While
raisining may be desirable if you’re producing a New World Amarone, it’s not desirable in the
mainstream California wines (Zinfandel raisins unevenly so you may experience that raisin
quality in many Zins).
So how do you achieve physiological maturity in parity with sugar ripening? Cooler climates.
Less heat gives grapes the time to attain physiological maturity in unison with sugar ripening. In
the Old World, this is accomplished by your real estate agent’s mantra, location, location,
location. Very cool climates with almost marginal growing conditions. The Rioja region is
probably the southern most of the Old World wines and it’s still at 42 degrees latitude. Tuscany
in Italy is at 43 degrees, Bordeaux at 45 degrees and the Mosel region in Germany at 50 degrees
latitude. By comparison Napa Valley is at 38 degrees with even Chicago (not a domestic wine
growing region) coming in slightly south of Rioja at 41 degrees latitude. So short of the Golden
State trying to start another Civil War by annexing parts of Oregon and Washington, what’s a
wine maker to do?
Head north young man, head north. Of course that’s only part of the equation. Northerly
exposures usually mean cooler growing conditions. Where you reside in relation to the
mountains is also key. Northerly exposures that lie west of the Mayacamas and even west of the
Sonoma coastline are ideal. Of course, we still want grapes to fully ripen so northern vineyards
with southern exposures to the sun. Rugged terrain buffeted by the cool Pacific air currents,
usually at higher elevation with soil that consists of limestone and rock. Grape vines struggle to
survive here. But the few clusters of grapes they produce usually translate into memorable,
distinct wines. Pinot Noir with that expression of terroir, a harmonious balance of fruit and
earth, spice and acid with a good finish and VERY food friendly. Or Chardonnay with that
perfect balance of vanilla, stone fruit, mineral and acid. Not flabby, not oaky but as Burgundian
as domestic Chardonnays get.
Any Other Prime Exposures for Grapes?
Further north in Mendocino county, growers see the potential of making distinctive wines.
However as the climate gets more severe, investors start their usual bean counting and balance
the potential to make phenomenal wines versus the potential return on investment. Surprisingly,
Central California is also another hot spot of wine making especially in the Paso Robles area
where mountain ranges run west to east instead of the usual north to south allowing crisp
pacific breezes to allow longer “hang time” for grape clusters thus allowing physiological
maturity. It also doesn’t hurt that the region was also once part of the Pacific Ocean as
evidenced by whale bone fossils in those limestone cliffs. But further elaboration is material for
The Gochiso Gourmet April Wine Selection
La Crema used to be considered a pricey high end wine that was found on most restaurant wine
lists. While the suggested prices for the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are $27 and $22 respectively,
they usually can be found at most supermarkets and big box retailers in the $15 to $18 price
range. These are NOT big, rich fruit forward wines, these wines are more about balance and
finesse and are perfect partners with a wide variety of dishes. Food friendly and less than $20, I’d
say that’s the perfect house wine for the Gochiso Gourmet.
La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2007
Lemon, mineral and nectarine on the nose with a medium rich feel on the
palate. Very good balance of stone fruit and mineral flavors with touch of
vanilla and a pleasing long finish. Would pair with any hearty white meat or
La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007
A lighter colored Pinot Noir with brilliant red cherry and ripe red fruit and a
touch of wet stone on the nose. Not rich and concentrated on the palate but
nicely balanced with dried red fruit flavors, good acid and a touch of mineral
with a medium finish. Very food friendly, can pair with roasted poultry and
pork down to hearty red flesh fish up to leaner cuts of beef. Also nice with
hearty salads with firm cheeses.
Wines of Northern Latitude