About five months ago I was invited to a tasting of Californian wine producers Rodney Strong and Foppiano, organized by Domaine Wines in Stockholm and lead by Steve Messinger, representative of both Rodney Strong and Foppiano. The main reason for this delay – five months! – is that shortly after the tasting our adoption process advanced into top gear and things got rather dizzy. Anyway, a few days ago I managed to find my old notes so here is a report of the tasting.
Steve Messinger begins by discussing the special characteristics of terroir and climate of northern California. This however after a quick reflection of life’s unpredictablilarities, such as leaving a sun-drenched and spring-warm California and landing in the indisputable sub-zero temperature land of Sweden. Remember, this tasting was in March. “What makes Sonoma County so interesting”, Steve starts off with, “is that it is bordered by the ocean and old extinct volcanoes. So there is this interesting combination in Sonoma County of old seabed that has risen over the years and volcanic activity from these extinct volcanoes.”
This combination, old seabed and extinct volcanoes, provides for a terroir that is hugely diverse. Some winemakers even argue that there are more different soil types in Sonoma County than in all of France. This may sound puzzling to visitors, especially from Europe. How can you possibly make Pinot Noir and Cabernet in the same place? How’s that possible? Well you need to understand the soil, you need to come and visit the vineyards and appreciate the differences. It is not uncommon to have twenty different soil types within a ten hectare vineyard.
Turning to climate, California needs no special introduction. But, “California is a long coast, and everybody has the image of girls in bikinis running down, Baywatch… that’s southern California. Very different than northern California.” The vineries of Rodney Strong and Foppiano are both some ninety minutes north of San Francisco, so about 80 kilometers north. The northern part of California is much cooler than the southern part, but that does not mean that crops grow at a slower pace. The problem is basically the opposite, grapes seem to thrive almost too good in California, making the imperative to challenge your grape selection very small.
In Europe the rules of the appellations are determined by state or a governing body. In the US, if you plant the wrong grape, you’re out of business. So the logic is that wine makers in the US tend to grow grapes that are most suited for the terroir. However, as pointed out above, this is not always the case. But this remains a defining line between wine making in Europe and the US.
Steve explains that “what we have learned over the years is, when you plant grapes in California, it tends to grow really well. May not be the exact right thing, so then it becomes the challenge of saying, ‘ok I make pretty good Chardonnay here, but if it were Cabernet it would be so much better.’ When does the economic imperative say that it is time to make the change?”
Grapes have been growing in Sonoma County since the early 1800s. The basic origin for the Californian wine industry is Swiss and Italian immigrants, who came to California during the gold rush. Those who did not make their fortune in gold turned to what they knew which was growing grapes, and thus the Californian wine industry was born. The prohibition period between 1915 and 1935 naturally brought the wine business to an almost complete standstill, so did even WWII. But then in the 1960’s the economy started to grow and people started to grow grapes again. So from 1960 till now is really the renaissance and the new way of thinking of wine in California.
We start the tasting with a chardonnay form Rodney Strong Winery, the 2011 Rodney Strong Sonoma County Chardonnay. It is named after its founder, Rodney Strong, who was a very famous dancer in the 1950’s. At the height of his career he danced in Paris at the Lido. Reflecting on life after his dancing career, he concluded that there are no old dancers, but – there are a lot of old winemakers! So he started going down to the classic French wine regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Loire in order to learn about wine, and when he finally came back to California in 1956 he started looking around for a good spot. In 1959 he started his winery, and in 1962 he settled in Sonoma County. He thought this was going to be the most interesting place to grow grapes because of the variety of grapes you could grow there. He was the first person who planted pinot noir in certain areas and chardonnay in other areas.
The concept of Rodney Strong is to make Sonoma County wine only. By Sonoma standards, Rodney Strong Winery is a fairly large winery, owning about 600 hectares within the county. Over the years, as Rodney Strong developed his winery, he realized that he needed to find a partner to take the winery to the next level. He had no children. He met Tom Kline who had done some consulting within the wine industry, and they started talking. Tom Kline's family was growing grapes in central valley, and the more they discussed it, the more they thought this could be good for everybody.
Finally Tom said, “okay, I would be interested in buying the winery but under one condition and one condition only. Rodney, you have to stay in the winery until your death. You cannot go anywhere. This is your winery and I am only the caretaker. I want you to teach a new winemaker, you have a job for life.” This was more than Rodney had hoped for, so this was a relationship which started in 1989 and continued until the day that Rodney Strong passed away.
This is the standard Chardonnay from Rodney Strong. It is a blend of vineyards throughout the county, thus aiming at showing the county as a whole rather than a specific vineyard. Its focus is on drinkability, aiming at capturing the fresh fruitiness, the crisp apple, trying to balance the oak so it does not become too owerpowering.
Naturally, it is difficult to mention Californian chardonnay and oak in the same sentence without people grabbing the nearest blunt object good for throwing at you, but that is the past. “For the most part,” Steve is eager to point out, “gone are the days of stereotype of the wine people have about California Chardonnay, big, buttery, oaky… we have not made those wines in twenty years. But stereotypes die hard.”
Given the multi-faced, abundantly varied geology of Sonoma County, it is not easy to determine the boundaries of specific terroirs in Sonoma County. There is an AVA called Sonoma Coast, an AVA called Russian River Valley, and an AVA called Alexander Valley. All these can prove distinct and different.
Steve continues with stating that he usually uses a Burgundy analogy to demonstrate the differences of the terroir in Sonoma County: “there is Mersault, there is Morey St Denis, there is Mâcon. All places where Chardonnay grows really well and they are all different. We are beginning to see those differentiations in California as well. This wine wants to teach us the combination of all those and put it in a blend. This wine is a combination of all these three.”
It is a nice wine. I find hints of apple and candy, it is fresh and fruity, tiny hints of butter. A little bit too much oak for my taste but that is just my personal taste. Nothing you could not live with. About 60 per cent of the wine is barrel fermented, 40 per cent stays in stainless steels. A nice combination for this style of chardonnay.
We continue with the 2010 Rodney Strong Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon. Apart from cabernet, this wine has got a little bit of merlot in it and also a little bit of malbec. For this range of cabernets, the object is to find something that is true to Sonoma County but rather soft in tannins. This is a wine that is made to be consumed early, it is not for laying down 20 years. Something to be enjoyed in restaurants. I really enjoyed this wine. Good structure, hints of cedar and wood. Some red peppers appear on top.
Steve tells us the story of when the cellar was redecorated a few years ago. Behind a wall they found 1935 cabernet, cabernet made the first year after prohibition ended. Probably because of troubles getting glass and cork and everything, half was made with whisky screw cap bottles and half with cork. Four out of five with the screw cap bottles were perfect. Very much alive and fresh! Master wines could not believe the wine was so fresh. For the wines bottled with cork, probably two out of five were good. “There is a great history of Californian wines aging very well, but there is not that many people who have had the opportunity to try it, since we tend to drink it all…”
Finally, 2010 Rodney Strong Knotty Vines Northern Sonoma Zinfandel. Made from vines planted in 1914, so almost a hundred years this year. I find this wine more open than the cabernet, more accessible. A bit of mothball again, maybe a wee bit too much. But, apart from that, a very good wine. All that you are looking for in a Californian cabernet – the fruity, the ripe berries, yet with structure. A bit spicy, too. As Steve puts it, “in California, this is our pizza and pasta wine. In the rest of the world, it is Chianti Classico. We have Zinfandel.”
Turning to the Foppianos, we start with their pinot noir: 2010 Foppiano Russian River Estate Pinot Noir. The Foppiano winery is located in Russian River Valley, which has gotten a reputation of being one of the finest places in California of growing chardonnay and pinot noir.
The Foppianos came from Genoa during the gold rush era, didn’t make their fortune in gold, settled in Sonoma County, bought the property in 1896 and started making wine. It is now the fifth generation, farming in the exact same spot. The winery consists of about 60 hectares in Russian River Valley of Sonoma County.
Their claim to fame is this odd grape called Petite Sirah. This grape, the Petite Sirah, was for the old Italians the blending grape. You could put it into anything as a magic equalizer, if your Cabernet was a little weak, if you needed a little colour in your pinot noir, well then you added some Petite Sirah to it. The Foppianos, however, understood that you could make a really great wine out of Petite Sirah on its own. What is this Petite Sirah, then? It is not Syrah, it is its own unique grape. In France it is called Durif. It is a rich wine, but if it is made incorrectly it can be very hard and very tanny.
The Foppiano estate amounts to about seventy hectares and located in the warmer section of the Russian River. The Pinot section is right on the river, which is coolest section of the vineyard. Coolest, since the fog comes in during the summer time and keeps everything very cool.
During the growing season, temperature reaches 30 or even 35 degrees during the day. But at five o’clock the wind starts to blow and fog comes in and the temperature can drop to ten degrees. Steve laughs about the ill-fated tourists coming up in shorts and t-shirts: at five, when the temperature drops to ten degrees, “we sell a lot of sweaters at the tasting room at the winery during this time!”
But the cooling fog makes great pinot noir. It has been argued that Russian River pinot noir, due to the cooling fog, have a little more grip than some of the other areas, they have a little more tannin structure in the back. But still, beautiful fruit.
The Foppiano Russian River Estate Pinot Noir is a fairly new wine for Foppiano, the first vineyards with pinot noir were not planted until 1990. Prior to that they were planted with cabernet, which probably was absolutely the wrong decision, but the economic imperative made the firm plant pinot instead and that has shown to be the right decision.
The wine is made with traditional Burgundian methods, such as open top fermentors and no pumping over. Predominantly, French oak is used, but wine maker Natalie West has experimented with a little bit of Hungarian oak.
This is a superb wine. It has soft tannins, a good structure and great balance. Lots of warmth. A little mothball lingers on top, but nothing disturbing. It is welcoming, generous. I find some hints of cranberry and cherry. At the end, coffee. A long finish.
Then 2010 Foppiano Russian River Estate Petite Sirah. Finally the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the Petite Sirah! Steve notes that when made on its own, it has a tendency of producing really hard, harsh tannins. But that is if you treat it like you treat cabernet. “What Natalie has decided is, she wants to treat this like she treats pinot noir, gently. So, we use top fermentors, we push down gently. And it seems to really soften the tannin structure. There are a lot of tannins here, there is a lot of depth. But it is really embracing and easy to consume.”
It certainly is easy to consume and embracing. It starts off with a dark, sweet scent. Very ripe cherries. Instructions for making this wine: take you most ripe berries, but don’t worry – you will not lose structure. It is by far not the most complex wine on the market, but scores high on drinkability. A nice wine, I am glad I got the chance to try it.
Then we get a bonus wine: 1990 Petit Sirah. No tasting without bonuses or dark horses! Behind a hidden cupboard Steve pulls out a 1990 petite sirah, to conclude the tasting. Ah, this is interesting. Old cellars, mint pastilles, my mind wanders off to Italy and a mature Barolo. Very, very good! I’m buying a case and forgetting.
Afterwards, lunch is served. We are offered prime rib of Swedish Wagy, and with that sauce béarnaise, green beans and grilled tomatoes. Superb!
Many thanks to Steve Messinger and to the rest of the crew at Domaine Wines for sharing the story and philosophy of Rodney Strong and Foppiano winerys, along with letting us taste the wines. Very interesting and best of luck!
PS, on a more personal note, I would like to add that being at a Californian wine tasting brought back memories of my own wine tasting experience in California. Some five years ago, it must have been April 2008, I accidentally stumbled across the Sideways trail, when a friend and I did a week in California. My friend was there for a coaching conference and I joined to get some time off work. Needless to say, of course we did the whole shabang: driving the coastal highway from SF to LA, driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, gazing at the amazing redwoods at Muir, eating a thirty-five dollar breakfast at a local diner, stopping at Big Sur, eating crappy food at Fisherman’s Warf, eating even more crappy food at Venice Beach and eating the crappiest food of them all at Hollywood Boulevard. All this in addition to trying to look as cool as possible at Long Beach, having a hard time coping with the American version of “breakfast” and “coffee” and NOT trying to speak English with too much fake British accent. Everything but the Alcatraz prison – I saw the place back in the early eighties and frankly it isn’t much of sight. An island, some buildings, lots of cells and lots of tragedy. The movies do a better job.
Anyway, while my friend was busy coaching down in LA I suddenly became aware that much of the story in the film Sideways takes place just north of Los Angeles, centering around the town of Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez Valley. I just had to go there. The town of Los Olivos is a very quiet place, mostly one story buildings. People tended to walk slowly and tended to smile a lot. I parked the rental car and grabbed some lunch at a salads bar, sitting down at a table outside. Halfway into my chicken sandwich I saw that just across the street – just across the street! – was the restaurant where Miles had cried out his “if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f***ing merlot!”
I wolfed down the last of the sandwich and hurried across the street to the restaurant. It was open, so I entered. The walls were covered with bottles and the air was cool, friendly, relaxed, yet strict. A classy restaurant. I went to the bar where I was greeted by a young waiter with a big smile. She asked if I was looking for something special, which I of course was. All those bottles, which to try? I settled on buying a pinot, but just as I was about to ask for their best or at least a very good pinot noir, I remembered that Californian pinots tend to be too much fruity. So with the best fake British accent I could do, and in a loud voice of course, I declared: “I’m European. Do you have any pinots with like no fruit?”
The girl, understanding my joke, smiled ear to ear and said, “I’m sure we can find some.”
This article is also published in BKWineMagazine
This article is also published in BKWineMagazine