Saturday, April 22, 2006

Sonoma Coast Vineyards

After a spill in Napa that caused a minor concussion, I wasn't sure if I had it in me to drive all the way out to Sebastopol, about ten minutes west of Santa Rosa. It seemed so far removed from I-5, the ostensible route north for the next leg of the tour in Portland, but the day was bright and relatively clear after many days of gloom, and you just can't waste those kinda days laying around reading at the Motel 6.

Turned out to be a great idea. I was warmly and enthusiastically greeted by Barbara Drady. After a chat, hubby John Drady whisked me away to tour the snug, pastoral valleys where an interest in Pinot Noir grows.

This area is the kind of place that immediately sets your internal iPod to Anton Dvorak's New World Symphony: flawlessly verdent and dotted with lazily roaming sheep, cool winds and winding roads, and these days, an increasing amount of vineyards. One set of hills forms a sort of bowl where fog gathers and lingers, having no wind to carry it off. John explained how this causes headaches for those who have tried to plant vineyards within the fogline. "You have to plant either above or below it," he says, pointing to areas that might work better. Eventually, we drive down a rough dirt road, past an oblivious llama and out to a vineyard spot that he and his associates have chosen. These vines are better situated because there is an entry in the valley for the wind to blow off the fog.

John's philosophy (and presumably that of his winemaker, Anthony Austin) is that grape ripeness is different from grape maturity, and that the latter offers more of the subtler flavors and nuance for which Pinot is loved. Because of the cooler climate, the grapes ripen more slowly and are able to acheive a full maturity of skins, pulp and seeds before they're bursting with sugar ripeness. This lets the growers pick at slightly lower sugar levels, making for a Pinot that doesn't whap you upside the head with gobs of fruit. This is a good thing in my book, and by the way he's talking, I'm thinking I'm gonna like the juice. I've been through many Pinots on this trip, and many of them are what I call Jerry Bruckheimer wines--heavy on the (fruit) explosions and very dull structure---and a leaner, more focused Pinot is what I crave.

Once back at the house, I learned that this high-energy pair are far from retired. Barbara, who is bringing out plate after plate of nibblets she's made to pair with the wine, owns a large wine education company called Affairs of the Vine, which has a rather impressive list of Big-Boy clients. John is still a firefighter for the county and answers his pager several times as we talk.

"Wine is a kind of bond," John says. "You come into our house, and we don't even know you, but because we understand each other about wine, you aren't a stranger anymore."

The wines, as I suspected, were lean and aromatic. Yes. My favorite was the 2003 Pinot Noir, 100% Pinot, a mix of seven clones the Dradys and Anthony Austin chose for color and style. Still high in alcohol (14.6%) but with deep color, great balance and lots of pretty florals on the nose. The Dradys make another wine called 'Fire Station Red', of which they often donate cases to charity events. It's labeled as a 'Shiraz', and I asked why. The answer was what I expected--these days, consumers respond to the word 'Shiraz' better than 'Syrah', plain and simple, and it's intended to appeal to those looking for an inexpensive burger-and-bbq wine. Fair enough....I guess.

As with so many turns in this road trip, if I follow a seemingly off-the-path destination, it leads me to another branch of road that ends up being even better than the obvious one. Since I was already this far west, I took the 101 instead of I-5, which in turn led me to some of the most fabulous scenery since Big Sur. I'm so glad I rallied from my post-headslam daze and got back out there right away. Carpe-freakin'-diem, man.

I'm in Portland now, and the Willamette Valley is beeeyootiful. Stay tuned for my posts on Argyle, Ponzi, and my chat with James Cahill of Soter Vineyards.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Easy there girl. We can't afford to have you sitting on the bench with an injury before you finish this journey.

Maybe you should take a lay day along the way and engage in an extended tasting of one these hidden gems that you've been writing about.

4:12 PM  
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