SONOMA SKI & SIP

SKI & SIP
EXPLORING THE SONOMA-ROCKIES WINE CONNECTION
BY ERICA DUECY

For California’s most extreme winemaking, head to the Sonoma Coast. This untamed area is California’s hottest wine making  region—and also the coolest, with near-constant fog and wind sweeping up the ridge lines from the Pacific Ocean. It’s a far cry from the bucolic hills of Napa; the steep, rugged hillsides look more like double black diamond runs than vineyards. Yet, despite these challenges, the cool-climate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from this sparsely populated area are emerging among the state’s most distinctive and revered.

If you’re looking for a bottle to brighten a chilly evening at your chalet in the Rockies, there’s no better fit. Why? Among the Sonoma Coast’s winemaking mavericks are transplants from Colorado and Wyoming, along with thrill-seeking outdoor enthusiasts who spend their leisure time in the Rockies. Some of the most notable bottles come from long-established vintners like Bill Phelps of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, and Brice Jones of Emeritus Vineyards, plus younger winemakers like Duncan Arnot Meyers of Arnot-Roberts, Sarah and Chris Pittenger of Gros Ventre Cellars, and Dave Keatley of Flowers Vineyard & Winery

The Sonoma Coast AVA sprawls along some 750 square miles of coastline north of San Francisco. Brice Jones, president of Emeritus Vineyards, literally put Sonoma Coast on the map by helping to define the wine growing region in the 1980s while he was at Sonoma-Cutrer, a brand he sold in 1999 to focus on the Pinot-exclusive Emeritus Vineyards. An avid skier, Jones grew up in Colorado Springs and still spends winter months at his home in Telluride.

On the Sonoma Coast, Jones says his William Wesley vineyard is “like farming on the dark side of the moon” given its 30-degree slopes and remote location.wine_2

It’s practically an extreme sport just to get to these vineyards, says Sarah Pittenger, a Jackson Hole transplant who specializes in Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs at Gros Ventre Cellars. “The vineyards are cloaked in fog and wind, and are only reachable by long, narrow, windy roads that make transporting fruit difficult and at times nauseating,” she says

At Flowers, Dave Keatley christens it “wilderness winemaking.” As an accomplished ice climber and ski mountaineer who spends time every year in the Rockies, Keatley says: “There’s a spirit of adventure—this region is attractive to people who like being challenged by physical environments outdoors, because we’re doing it on a daily basis out here.”

One of the region’s best-known Colorado transplants, the Phelps family of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, expanded their vineyard holdings to the area in the late 1990s. “The Sonoma Coast is a tougher environment to grow and make wines in than the Napa Valley, but we felt that there was a tremendous amount of untapped potential there, and that it was worth the considerable risk that it imposed,” says the vineyard’s president Bill Phelps. That risk can include—as in the cold, rainy 2011 vintage— losing 40 percent of the crop to rain damage and mildew.

But the impetus of Phelps and other winemakers here is to make Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that are truly site-specific, with more vibrant acidity than expressions from warmer inland sites. Pinot Noirs from the Sonoma Coast tend to be elegant, well structured wines with black cherry and stony notes. The Chardonnays are crisp, deeply flavored wine with mineral accents.

“The grapes struggle more here and have  more intense character,” says Duncan Arnot Meyers, a former professional mountain biker who graduated from Fort Lewis College in Durango, and now partners in Arnot-Roberts, a winery specializing in cool-climate wines.

Echoing the sentiments of other Sonoma Coast winemakers with ties to the Rockies, Sarah Pittenger notes that both regions are tough, beautiful, and rewarding. “It may sound a bit cliché, but both have a ‘no pain, no gain’ vibe,” she says.

For après-ski gatherings and slope side dinners, these Sonoma Coast Pinots and Chardonnays serve up a taste of adventure— with a nod to the mountains—in every sip.

 

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