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Sonoma County and an Exercise in Wine Adjectives

People rightfully make fun of the highfalutin nature of descriptors for wine that wineries, critics, tasting room staff, sommeliers, and... ahem... bloggers use on a regular basis. Particularly lampooned are assertions that one can taste/smell various obscure phenols in wine; a few (100% real) examples I've encountered over the years: acacia flower, gentian, Buddha's hand, piquant yet rich nut oils, Linzer torte, water chestnuts, clam broth, singed iron, barely ripe peach skins, meat, or cat pee (yes, cat pee). Certain laughable adjectives are also the subject of ridicule, like racy, tight, gassy, or even grapey.

Early snobbery.

I certainly believe it is possible to smell and taste certain things in wine with a mind-boggling degree of accuracy, but there is certainly some hair-splitting in wine descriptions that inspires Liz Lemon eye rolls in me. How many barely ripe peach skins have you actually smelled, sir? Indeed, 95% or more of people don't have the type of experience with wine to even begin to approach the types of descriptions you see of wine on winery websites and wine magazines, let alone decipher the difference between red and blue fruit, without a bit of coaching at least. I know more about wine than most of my fellow laypeople, but I can't get much further than basic phenols, and really don't try too hard unless a particular element is rather obvious. Moreover, for most folks less accustomed to the experience of tasting wine, telling them they are supposed to smell acacia flower is pretty insulting and makes the whole industry look rather aloof, not to mention that everyone's palate is different, like snowflakes, and will detect different notes, even with the same wine in a different environment.

Hopefully all wine at least tastes like wine.

I write many-a-post about wine, and despite being generally more pretentious than I'd like, I try not to be a dick when blogging. This blog is supposed to be approachable but informative, so things like "piquant yet rich nut oils" don't appear with any frequency, but you might see me describe classic aromas and flavors you might find in a pinot noir, for example. But I have noticed that when I write about wine, I have a selection of, say, twenty or so words I use routinely––too routinely––which border on silly or vacant. I suppose this is common for amateur writers, but while typing up this post about a recent visit to Sonoma County, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to see if I could avoid using any of these words. Proceed with your eye rolls as you read some of the examples:

  • Searing

  • Singing

  • Soaring

  • High-toned

  • Hefty/depth

  • Funky

  • Silky

  • Jammy

  • Complex

  • Brilliant

  • Ebullient

  • Balanced

  • Herbaceous

  • Aromatic

  • Unique

Off to the races with the challenge, and maybe I'll find some new, equally meaningless words in the process!

* * *

I woke up on my first day in Sonoma to a misty morning on a farm on the outskirts of Sebastopol, a picturesque town west of Santa Rosa. Ready to taste wine, I headed into town to check out an "urban" tasting room (i.e., not at the winery) for Red Car, a Sonoma Coast winery that has cultivated a hip public profile through their edgy but low-key Sebastopol tasting space.

The Sonoma Coast is one of my favorite wine growing regions in the world, as I'm particularly fond of wines made from grapes that thrive in cooler climates, such as pinot noir, chardonnay, and certain examples of syrah. Red Car checked all these boxes, and at a very reasonable price of $25 in an area where tastings are topping out at $60 or $70 of late. Red Car's people brought, along with some cheese and crumbled nuts, pours of their cult favorite rosé of pinot noir, a chardonnay and two pinots from single vineyards, and a cool climate syrah.

Their rosé is interesting because they have adopted a particular "style" they like to revisit in each vintage, but the processes of making rosé render it particularly sensitive to climate fluctuations between vintages, so they have to be quite nimble in their winemaking to produce consistency in this wine, one of their best sellers. Rosé of pinot is fairly unusual, too, and produces wines with particularly fragrant noses and somewhat broader palates. After tasting their tenth vintage of this wine, I can see why they have a whole wall of this adorning their tasting space!

The single-vineyard selections at Red Car were all excellent, but the one that stood out was a pinot noir from Heaven and Earth Vineyard in the wooded hills outside the village of Occidental. Blackberry and baking spice characterized the wine, along with a muted floral, tea-like nose. This was the fuller and darker of their two pinots, and I was expecting to prefer the other one from their coastal estate vineyard given its higher acidity and lifted red fruit, which tend to be favored characteristics in my pinots. I was surprised to find the Heaven and Earth more exciting to my palate.

Cool climate syrah is not just great wine, it's also often a steal compared to pinots from the same wineries. While it tends to have more weight and body as well as riper, bluer, and purpler fruit, it can have similar levels of food-friendly acidity and concentrated aromas of flowers and herbs. Grapes grown in cooler climates evade the aggressive ripe and full-bodied nature of many new world syrahs. I loved Red Car's contribution to this style of syrah––a 2015, it had more age than the pinots and hence more directed flavor, with some piquancy on the palate and purple flowers on the nose, rounded out by a general mouthfeel of tangy plum.

Definitely hit up Red Car if your plans take you near Sebastopol––I'm not sure there's a better tasting for just $25 in Sonoma County, and the people are absolutely delightful, unpretentious, and chill.

Peay, which has their winemaking facility at the north end of Sonoma County in Cloverdale, was my second stop of the day, and I was surprised to find given the fame of the winery that there was no formal tasting room and I would be the only guest tasting with one of the winemaking staff. I had a blast wandering through Peay's production facility and talking to this jovial dude about their history and style, and when we finally got to their barreling room in the basement of their gravity-flow warehouse, I found six bottles of wine ready for tasting perched on the forks of a forklift. Awesome setup!

Many, if not most, wineries that produce premium wines from single estates will often split their properties into blocks and derive an entire wine from a single block––Sokol Blosser and Nickel and Nickel come to mind, with the former segmenting their vines into exceptionally tight micro-climates and sourcing a single wine from just that horizontal region and the latter dividing wines based on soil composition. For Peay, they get all their pinot from all over their estate vineyard and only after they have harvested and barreled it do they separate it into their three "brands" of pinot––Ama, Scallop Shelf, and Pomarium. They call this a "blind" approach to winemaking, where they don't pre-select things like the clone content of the barrel, or the amount of oak, or the whole cluster percentage––they let the flavor of the wine guide their placement into these three categories, each of which are meant to occupy a specific character.

They describe this process rather eloquently on their website:

"We pick the 13 clones of Pinot noir in 25–30 separate picking blocks. Each block may have different sensory characteristics due to the clone, the soil, the aspect, the rootstock, and the ripeness at picking. Some lots may emphasize fruit, some may have little fruit expression but are earthy. Some may have deep bass notes, some might be light and floral, and on and on. These blocks are vinified and aged separately and blended before bottling to make the three Estate Pinot noirs and our Sonoma Coast cuvée.

When making blends, Vanessa is much like a painter. Painters apply layers of paint to a canvas to create depth, light, color, and shape. Working with more than 25 pinots Vanessa has at least 25 individual paints she can layer to bring forth the voice of the vineyard in three distinct wines. There should be an overall harmony and individual character to each cuvée but within that style there will be top notes, middle notes, and bass notes that support one another and result in a complex tasting experience."

The Pomarium blends weren't part of my tasting slate, but I learned they feature Dijon clones and are their broadest-shouldered wines, rich with brambles, damp forest, herbs, and black tea. On paper, the Scallop Shelf wines should be my favorites––driven by red fruit, elegant flowers, and high acidity, but with some ripe cherry and citrus peel characteristic of the use of Pommard clones, it's a textbook pinot for the Maestro. I gravitated, however, toward the Ama––Peay says the Ama fits between the other two flagship blends, with classic pinot expressions of cherry, baked apple, spice, flint, and smoke. Still elegant but more concentrated, the Ama was my favorite of the flagship blends, even after getting to taste a vertical of Scallop Shelf from one new and one much older vintage. Given my similar experience at Red Car, perhaps my tastes are changing––I wonder how the Pomarium would have read!

Peay's Estate Chardonnay is also a magnificent wine, and the cool site restrains the development of ripeness and tropical fruits that can be so dominant in the varietal's most well-known California expressions. Instead, these wines emphasize citrus, apple, and pear, along with a stony minerality and high acidity––an elegant style of chardonnay, and one that would make many chardonnay doubters give the grape a second look. I was thrilled to get a vertical sampling of their estate chardonnay from 2018 and 2012, with the more aged wine showing baked fruit and tamer acidity, along with more stone and earth.

Another worthy mention was their Savoy Vineyard pinot, sourced from one of the most famous vineyards in Mendocino County's Alexander Valley. The extreme climate of their estate vineyard presents challenges in yield at harvest from time to time, so they buy some fruit every year from the reliable Savoy Vineyard. Savoy pinots are grown in a continental climate and gain more ripeness as they grow, but they are decidedly savory on the palate, a phenomenon industry folks call the "Mendocino spice." Some of my favorite pinots these days (including a killer everyday pinot from Trader Joes' proprietary reserve collection) come from the Alexander Valley, and Peay's might have been my favorite of the visit, with heady savory fruit and the elegance of spring flowers.

Marine Layer is a brand-spanking-new winery (by wine standards) financed by some real heavy-hitters in the industry that is already making serious waves in the Sonoma wine world. Right out of the gate, the winemakers have been able to access coveted and expensive fruit from some of the best vineyards in Sonoma County, as well as some more obscure sites. Their deep pockets have granted them a good deal of flexibility with their winemaking, too, so that they are able to produce some of the more interesting Sonoma Coast wines I've tasted.

SingleThread introduced me to these wines a few months back at their Usu-Zan experience, where Marine layer single-vineyard pinot and chardonnay were featured with the donabe main course. We were all flabbergasted by how good these wines were at the dinner, particularly the chardonnay, and finding Marine Layer's freshly-opened tasting room in Healdsburg available for an unexpectedly reasonable $35 was a very happy surprise.

But first, a detour––after Peay, I found myself with plenty of time to wander about the charming town of Healdsburg, the home to my favorite restaurant in North America, SingleThread, and countless fantastic restaurants, shops, galleries, and tasting rooms, all within the heart of a quaint, quintessentially wine country town. I'd live here in a heartbeat.

The highlight of my visit to Healdsburg, besides my tasting at Marine Layer, was a stop at the magnificent butcher shop and charcuterie house just north of SingleThread, Journeyman. The staff, despite being swamped on this busy weekend day, complete with a festival in the main town square, kindly allowed me to taste a ton of their selections before landing on a few to take with me and devour in the nearby park for lunch. The coppa cured in mace, nutmeg, and red wine was a particular treat.

As I mentioned, Marine Layer has a tight relationship with the folks at SingleThread, so I was unsurprised to see an option to add a sampling of snacks from SingleThread's new vegetarian concept, Little Saint, to the tasting, which I happily grabbed. The spread included delicious pickles of carrots, kohlrabi, and fennel from local farms, along with a roasted red beet tahini and vadouvan hummus, all served with the most delicious spiced chickpea crackers of all time.

My $35 bought me pours of five stellar wines from Marine Layer––two chardonnays and three pinots. The chardonnays were just as good as the one I had at Usu-Zan. The Aries chardonnay comes in at a reasonable price point under $40, making it a wine you could comfortably open without feeling guilty, but still enjoy the winery's excellence. The nose was lively and floral while the palate gave way a bit to roasted hazelnut, likely from a bit of California ripeness and oak. The estate chardonnay had a lighter touch, guided by citrus and stony minerals more than weight. An elegant chardonnay one could just as easily pour as a refresher on a hot day or with an upscale seafood feast.

Pinot was once again my primary focus, though they did not have the single-vineyard pinot I sampled at Usu-Zan open––perhaps for the best so I could taste some others! The first pinot, "Lyra," is their entry-level offering, blending some of the most highly sought-after fruit from across cool sites on the Sonoma Coast to produce a classic expression of red fruit, bright brambles, slight woodiness, and mellow spice. At this price point for an entry level pinot, I'm not sure there is anything better on the market.

Two single-vineyard pinots followed, one from Grand Vent Vineyard outside Petaluma and another from Gravenstein Vineyard in the hills outside Sebastopol. Grand Vent sits in the Petaluma Gap, and is named because of the "big wind" that sweeps in from the coast, cooling the otherwise warmer site. This was the most interesting pinot I tried on this day, with tangy red fruits like pomegranate and a distinct, heady eucalyptus and tea quality. The Gravenstein, grown on iron-rich soils, was a more muscular, assertive expression of Sonoma Coast pinot, with intensity of dark cherry wrapped in baking spice and orange peel. Again, the bigger pinot from Gravenstein was my favorite of the day, and probably my favorite of the trip––who have I become?!

Honorable mentions must go to the wonderful places I patronized at the Barlow, an open-air market and community gathering place in the heart of Sebastopol with coffee shops, wine tasting rooms, breweries and cideries, cheese shops, clothing stores, and even a community market. After the day tasting wine, I was happy to find a change of pace with a tasting of niche dry ciders at Golden State Cider, which gave me a pretty eye-opening look at the wild divergence of exciting styles in craft cider production. Finally, I wrapped up my wine tasting the next day at the Barlow location of Pax, an esoteric winery in Sonoma County specializing in Rhône Varietals, particularly syrah, which was a nice change of pace from the previous day's parade of Burgundian pinot and chardonnay. Their "Syrah is King" flight offered a glimpse of their outstanding output of the varietal from cooler climates.

So, I think I managed to avoid the most-used, buzzy words generally deployed in my wine blogs, while perhaps losing a few more vacuous adjectives in the process of being conscious of them! It's a good reminder in food, writing, and life in general––sometimes, it's good to take stock of your habits, and see where tweaks can be made to improve things.

One last post from the west coast back(b)log before we head back east and finally into the Maestro's April adventures! Maestro fans (both of you), stick around!

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