In 1988 South African natives Lester and Linda Schwartz had been living in the Bay Area for just about 10 years when they decided to purchase the, then, untouched property atop the cliffside slopes of the Sonoma Coast. Convinced the land was suitable for grapevines, Lester ordered two dozen dormant rootstocks, planting a test vineyard with 16 varieties, three trellis systems, assorted clones and rootstocks. It took four years, but the couple found the most successful plantings were of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes and spent the next ten years cultivating their 53-acre vineyard, complete with roads, subterranean drainage, and irrigation system. Alongside a small vineyard crew, Lester and Linda created thirty-two blocks of vines, carefully choosing which blocks were most suitable for which clones.
A taste of Fort Ross Vineyards wines means a taste of focused Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and a testament to what the cool climate and proximity to the Pacific Ocean does for these grapes. Indeed, among the Fort Ross Vineyards lineup, one can taste single-vineyard and even single-block expressions of either of these two varietals and experience how specific vineyard block orientation affects both the tastes and textures of resulting wines.
Of course one can’t get the full Fort Ross Vineyards experience without tasting a glass of Pinotage. Yes, during the course of building their vineyard acreage, Lester and Linda sourced bud wood from their native South Africa (where Pinotage claims the country’s “heritage grape” title), had it quarantined and tested through UC Davis, and became the first private growers, and eventually commercial producers, of Pinotage.
The Fort Ross Vineyard property ranges in elevation, from 1,200 to 1,700 feet. During the primary growing season, temperatures can range between 55 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit with temperatures between individual blocks differentiating as much as two and four degrees. Hence the Schwartz’s need to understand their grape varieties specific clones and why their “simple” Pinot Noir and Chardonnay portfolio is anything but.
Soil types are also another contributing factor to the wide variety of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay the Schwartz produce, and include both maritime and San Andreas fault soil types.
“The soils are like an Indian spice market,” says Linda Schwartz. “With such variety in soil, elevation and orientation, it took endless trials, not to mention meticulous planning to get the right varieties and rootstocks planted in the appropriate blocks.”
When it comes to the winemaking, Lester and Linda play an active role from vine to bottle, but have been working exclusively with Jeff Pisoni as head winemaker since 2009. Due to the complexity of the fruit that the natural conditions provide the Fort Ross estate vineyards, Pisoni takes a naturalistic and minimalistic approach in this winemaking methods. Fruit is always hand-picked and hand-sorted; all wine is fermented using natural yeast; and the final products are bottled unfiltered and unfined. “It takes constant observation, both through tasting and under the microscope,” says Pisoni. “But bottling without filtering results in a purer, fresher expression of the vineyard.”
Wines to Try: (Links become live as reviews are posted.)
Fort Ross Vineyard 2012 Pinot Noir
Fort Ross Vineyard 2015 FRV Chardonnay
Fort Ross Vineyard 2015 Mother of Pearl Chardonnay
Fort Ross Vineyard 2015 Stagecoach Ranch Pinot Noir
Fort Ross Vineyard 2012 Pinotage
Fort Ross Vineyard 2014 Pinot Noir Symposium
More Info: I visited Fort Ross Vineyards as part of a sponsored press trip. (Cheers Lisa and thank you Jeff!) To learn more about Fort Ross Vineyards and schedule your visit, please visit the Fort Ross Vineyard website.
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