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West Sonoma Coast: Distinctive, Cool Climate Pinot, Chardonnay & Syrah

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West Sonoma Coast vineyard looking toward the ocean (courtesy West of West Festival)

West of West is the early August weekend festival devoted to wines made from grapes farmed on the far western coastline of Sonoma County. This year was the event's third outing and it was based in an ideal new location: Sebastopol's spacious Barlow Event Center. All in all, it was one of the most enjoyable and well organized regionally focused wine events I've ever attended.

There's a confident aura of success evident in this festival that derives, in part, from the presence of some of California's most accomplished winemakers. We're talking the likes of Littorai's Ted Lemon, Failla's Ehren Jordan and Peay's Vanessa Wong. Other great producers with long track records that have estate vineyards in this region include Flowers, Marcassin and Peter Michael.

Littorai's Ted Lemon
Littorai's Ted Lemon

The festival's programming was also smart, hip and fun. I particularly enjoyed a blind Syrah seminar tasting led by Ehren Jordan that took participants through 11 wines from seven regions. Audience members were asked to guess which of the wines were from cool versus warm climates, and from the Old World versus the New.

West of West Syrah seminar
West of West Syrah seminar

The grand tasting--held both Saturday and Sunday--featured wines from three dozen producers. I tasted many excellent Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Syrahs at this event all attesting to the favorable conditions for these particular varieties in the largely cool, high altitude conditions of California's true Sonoma coast.

The official Sonoma Coast AVA dates back to 1987. Thanks to its main proponent, Sonoma Cutrer--which wanted an appellation encompassing all of its far flung vineyards in order to be able to use the term "estate bottled" on their labels--the appellation's boundaries cover 750 square miles, all the way from Carneros in the southeast to just north of Annapolis in the northwest.

The focus of West Sonoma Coast Vintners, the association of wineries and growers that sponsors West of West, is the northwestern slice of this vast region descending from the coast near Annapolis down to the Sebastopol Hills. This area, comprised of only about 10% of the territory encompassed by the total Sonoma Coast AVA, extends about seven miles inland on average except for a large bulge, running as much as 15 miles inland, where the southern portion takes in the Green Valley AVA immediately to the west of the Russian River Valley appellation. Besides Green Valley, the other federally recognized AVA contained within this unofficial West Sonoma Coast area is the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA that was just approved at the end of 2011.

This AVA starts at an elevation of 920 feet, and most of its steep, pine forest enclosed vineyards are located at about 1200 feet above sea level, with some running as high as 1800 feet. This puts them well above the fog line, so they receive plenty of sun during the ripening period, but with cooling breezes from the ocean and rivers in its canyons that usually keep the temperature from getting as high as vineyards further inland, like those in Russian River Valley.

The new AVA was the focus of the festival's morning seminar on Saturday, August 3, with two of the pioneer growers in the area--David Hirsch and Lee Martinelli, Sr.--moderated by San Francisco Chronicle wine writer Jon Bonné. David and Lee reminisced about the early years of wine growing in what was then a very remote location, while the tasting focused on Pinot Noirs from seven AVA producers from both the 2010 and 2011 vintages.

Fort Ross-Seaview Pinot Noir seminar panel at 2013 WoW
Fort Ross-Seaview Pinot Noir seminar panel at 2013 WoW

The first modern plantings of wine grapes in the area were the 1972 vineyards planted by Mick Bohan, a sheep rancher whose family had first arrived in the area in the 1870s. David Hirsch came to Fort Ross in 1978 and began planting primarily Pinot Noir in 1980. Lee Martinelli, Sr.'s father-in-law, George Charles, first planted Chardonnay in 1981. Wine writers first began extolling the quality of wines from this area in the mid-1980s.

The Pinot Noirs at the tasting, and others from this area I've tasted over the last few years, consistently exhibit the darker fruit spectrum of Pinot Noir: black cherry, black raspberry, and the occasional blackberry. They also tend to have firm, sweet tannins and good acidities, making for very structured wines that benefit more than most California Pinots from a few years of bottle aging.

Due to the steepness of the terrain, the relatively small amount of land suitable for farming, the inadequate water supply and generally low yields, there will never be large quantities of wine from the West Sonoma Coast. What there is, though, is well worth seeking out if you are a fan of cool climate Pinots, Chardonnays and Syrahs.

Of the 102 wines I tasted at WoW, eight were barrel samples. Finished wines rating 92 points or higher for me came from 17 of the 36 wineries represented: Baker Lane, Ceritas, Cobb, Failla, Flowers, Fort Ross, Freeman, Halleck, Hirsch, Littorai, Peay, Red Car, Small Vines, Sojourn, Soliste, Sonoma Coast Vineyards and Zepaltas.

Ehren Jordan
Failla's Ehren Jordan

My highest rated Pinots at the event included several meriting 93 points or higher. More than half of those--i.e., the Ceritas 2011 Costalina; Failla 2011 Occidental Ridge; Flowers 2011 Camp Meeting Ridge; Littorai 2011 Hirsch and Platt bottlings; Peay 2011 Scallop Shelf and Sonoma Coast; and Soliste 2010 Foret--are, unfortunately, sold only in tiny quantities through the wineries' mailing lists and/or are already sold out. That makes the following highly rated Pinots that still are available even greater relative bargains: the Failla 2011 Estate (93+ points, widely available at an average price of $36), Failla 2011 Hirsch (93 points, $58), Fort Ross 2009 (93+ points, $38), Fort Ross 2009 Reserve (94 points, $55), Hirsch 2010 San Andreas Fault (93 points, $61), and Hirsch 2011 The Bohan-Dillon (93 points, $38).

My highest rated Syrahs at this event were the Failla 2010 MxM Estate (95 points, mailing list only), Peay 2011 La Bruma (93 points, mailing list only), and Red Car 2010 Estate (93 points, $50).

There were also a lot of strong Chardonnays at the tasting, but the only one I rated 93 points or higher was the 2011 Ceritas Porter-Bass (winery mailing list only).

For my tasting notes on the 102 West Sonoma Coast wines I sampled at this year's event, see the complete report on my blog here.