Exploring a California Wine Region Producing Fine Pinot Noir

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

For several weeks I have been reporting on my travels with my wife to northern California wine country. I’ve been focusing on artisanal winemakers plying their trade through their vision and passion for producing the finest expressions of the land. Many of them have the added benefit of living in the most beautiful landscape in the United States, if not the world. These dual dimensions of the bounty of man and nature have enthralled us and inspired us to seek out little known wineries and vineyards.

Our travels in Napa Valley and Sonoma County have focused on Cabernet Sauvignon for the past few weeks. This week my focus shifts to a different grape.

One of my favorite wines is Pinot Noir. The French region of Burgundy has long been accorded the fame as the best expression of this grape. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by the Pinot Noir wines of the United States. From northern New York to California and Oregon, this wine has been growing in quality and prestige. I’m especially impressed with the progress made in this century in the California regions of Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley, Carneros, Santa Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands.

Within the highly regarded bastions of California Pinot Noir, one subregion stands out in my mind. It is the West Sonoma Coast area, located along the northern stretch of the Pacific Ocean coastline. Here, the conditions are ideal for world-class Pinot Noir. The cool climate, with day-long fog and constant sea breezes, allows the ripening fruit to build sugars during the heat of the day and to store and develop them during the cool evenings. This difference, which may range between 55 and 85 degrees, provides ideal growing conditions for Pinot Noir. The long growing season contributes to the production of robust grapes with vibrant juice and a long finish.

As I reported in an earlier column, my wife and I decided to explore this area, driving along the windswept coastline of Highway 1, then up a treacherous winding mountain, heading for the Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery.

We arrived at the winery by driving deep into the woods until we came upon the modern tasting room. Sitting on the veranda, taking in the vistas from the 1,700-foot elevation, we began to understand the unique characteristics of this region. The view of the redwood tree-adorned mountains below was shrouded in fog, yet we were immersed in the warmth of the sun radiating above the fog line. Views of the rocky shoreline of the Pacific Ocean stretched for miles to the north and south.

The winery’s vineyard manager greeted us with an invitation to tour the vineyards in the estate’s pickup truck. We eagerly accepted, perhaps a bit too much so. The rusted truck traversed the mountainous estate with aplomb, climbing up and down the steep terrain. My wife and I clung to the door handles as we precariously ascended the steep slopes of multiple narrow ridges. The next minute we were gripping the dashboard as we descended to the next ridge at severe angles, both vertical and slightly horizontal.

We stopped to catch our breath at a plateau that seemed at the top of the world. Standing under a lone oak tree at 1,500 feet above sea level, we drank in the vistas of the individual vineyard blocks stretching above and below us, undulating along the natural ridges and valleys of the property.

The daily fog floated imperceptively through the individual grapevines, seemingly caressing the grapes with delicate moisture. The Pacific Ocean, less than a mile away, acted as a backdrop to the fog and mountain terrain, its waves majestically crashing into the rocky beaches below. We felt as if we had found the epitome of man’s symbiotic relationship with nature.

I’ve reached a hard stop in my allotted writing space for this week’s column. Next week our virtual tour continues back at the tasting room.

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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