Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery
Back in the early years at TWH’s tenure on Carolina Street, a woman with long black curly hair walked in to our store, introduced herself and proceeded to ask a lot of questions about our business – who we were and what we did. Her South African accent beckoned John Carpenter out of his office, who before opening The Wine House had lived and taught for two years in Johannesberg during the early 70’s. They hit it off right away as this woman, Linda, was a whirlwind of energy with many interests. The upshot of the encounter was that Linda and her husband had planted a vineyard and were planning to make wine. She promised to come back to the store when they finally had it bottled.
all photos courtesy of the winery
This Linda that we met at The Wine House turned out to be Linda Schwartz of Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery, who with her husband Lester, purchased 976 acres of coastal land just north of where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean in 1988. Rather than hire people out to do the work, the Schwartz’s decided to become the experts themselves. Linda enrolled in viticulture courses and soon discovered yet another talent. In 1991 they began the first stages of their vineyard project by planting a test vineyard with an assortment of various trellis systems, varietals, clones and rootstocks, to learn what grew best in this extremely cool/high elevation climate. By 1994 they knew they needed to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and then took the next 10 years to plant nearly 55 acres.
Though Linda and Lester are involved in all aspects of the winery, to help them with the arduous task of making wine from this challenging terrain, they hired a winemaker. In 2009 they met and hired renowned winemaker Jeff Pisoni. This collaboration has propelled the winery further towards excellence as the latest releases from Fort Ross are stunning and quite frankly, right up my alley as far as domestic Pinot Noir is concerned. For my taste, the fruit is present and deep, but notably restrained vis á vis most Sonoma Pinot Noirs and the structure is firm yet silky. It all comes down to the vineyard, and there is little doubt that the one the Lesters planted is quite exceptional. Fort Ross Vineyard lies at elevations between 1200 to 1700 feet and is said to be the closest to the Pacific Ocean; about a mile away as the crow flies. Anyone who has ever driven along Highway 1 in these parts knows how blustery and cold it can be even when temperatures are spiking 10 miles inland. The vineyard pops up above the fog line and is able to produce ripe grapes despite the coastal weather.
There are two wines from Fort Ross that we’re offering: 2013 Pinot Noir Sea Slopes and 2012 Pinot Noir Symposium. The Sea Slopes is blended for earlier release from various clonal selections and is aged in 100% French Oak of which only 10% is new. The grapes are hand-harvested at night before the pre-dawn light. A colleague of mine worked harvest at Fort Ross last year. He told me they picked in the dark with lights on their heads, just like a miner, from 2 to 9 am picking bunch by bunch…back breaking work! The Symposium is a darker, more brooding wine, with pronounced black fruit flavors and warm spice notes. The kicker here is the inclusion of 4% Pinotage. I don’t believe anyone could actually pull out flavors of Pinotage from the wine, but clearly it adds something to it.
The long Holiday weekend will find me enjoying family time not too far away from Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery up at the family dacha. September is my favorite time of year at the beach on the River; the riff raff is mostly gone and the sun’s rays are more golden and gently warming. The Redwoods have begun to drop their needles and our heritage pear tree is ready to ripen all at once. According to my Instagram feed, grape harvest is in full swing all over California. Fort Ross is probably getting close, but out along the coast, harvest comes mid to late September. There is a lot of excitement out there as winemakers are thankful for August’s cooler than usual yet sunny days. Here’s to their good and successful labor!– Anya Balistreri