BY ROB NELLIS
I’ve always been fascinated by Sonoma. The first time I visited the state, I did the obligatory tour of San Francisco, which was amazing of course, then headed to Napa. I was fairly familiar with the wines of Sonoma, but for the most part, was interested in seeing the big, iconic houses that litter the landscape of Napa. Full disclosure, I also carried a fairly healthy bias against the Pinot Noirs of California, believing them all to be cherry-cola laced fruit bombs. I had started to appreciate some of the Chardonnays coming from the Russian River Valley, but again, believed most to be fat, oily, “lumber” wines. My exposure was limited by the lack of selection available at the LCBO and the choices made by most of the importers. I was admittedly ignorant about the region and it’s wines. But during my tours, I was brought to Chateau St. Jean for an industry tasting. I saw the rows of oak barrels and assumed I was in for a long day and had my smug sneer firmly in place. Then I sat down to a vertical tasting of their Cinq Cepages and I was absolutely blown away by the complexity of the wines, the vintage variation, the taut, tannic structure and the balance. These were Cabernet-based wines though, and I was well aware that California did some masterworks in that area.
Next up on the docket was barrel-sampling their line of single-vineyard Chardonnays and this is where I had the epiphany. I recall standing off by myself, looking at the rows of oak barrels, then being handed a glass of their Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay. I took a large sip, barely bothering to nose it, totally unprepared for what I was about to taste. The wine was bold, no doubt about that signature California style, but the acid levels were off the charts! It had some tropical fruit notes, some green apple and toasty oak, but the mouth-watering freshness and nervy tension in the wine was stunning. I was used to wines with that much stuffing being on the flabby side, overblown and viscous. This wine was none of that. It had layers of flavours and the finish just kept going. I went back and nosed the wine and was shocked by the complexity of aromas and the subtleties. I listened intently to the rest of the presentation, impressed by the winemakers diligence in selecting the right clones for certain vineyards, the use of indigenous yeasts, the attention to phenolic ripeness, not just levels of sugar. Perhaps I had been missing out on something after all. Then I got my hands on a bottle of Williams Selyem Pinot Noir on the way back to the hotel. It was massive, to be sure, but when I stopped trying to compare it to Burgundy and tried to think about the winemaker’s choices, I found myself transfixed by the new flavours I was experiencing. There was heft and mouth feel, but there was also perceptible acidity, brightness and purity of fruit that I had no idea was achievable in California. I had to leave the next day to come home, but began to search out Sonoma wines, both at home as well as for restaurant wine lists I curated. I argued strenuously with many of my sommelier compatriots who still viewed California wines as too candied and childish. I hadn’t even really explored the region, but felt an affinity for it, if only for the fact it gave me some great debate fodder with my friends.
Fast forward almost a decade, and while the selection has improved somewhat, particularly on the consignment end, wines available to licensees, but they’re frequently in short supply, there is still a lot of work to be done in the area. I also felt it was essential to tell the story of the region. To help consumers understand the differences between Napa and Sonoma. To make people aware that more than 70% of the wineries there produce less than 6000 cases a year. That more than 85% of vineyards are family owned, most 4th or 5th generation farmers. That 90% of Sonoma is now certified as sustainable and the region has its eyes on 100% sustainability in the near future. This is not the land of mass conglomerates and discount wines. It is mountainous and difficult land to farm. It has some of the largest diurnal shifts in the world, dropping a shocking 15 to 20 degrees Celsius between afternoon and evening in many areas. For every acre planted to wine grapes, 2 acres are planted to other agriculture. 50% of the Sonoma growing area is still forest or woodland and there are no plans to change that. These are all things most consumers are totally unaware of here in Ontario, with most of our exposure being the biggest, least-interesting stories from the region.
I set out to explore the region properly, and with assistance from the trade commission and Vinexpo, I was invited down to do a thorough tour. What I saw was breathtaking. I had heard about the morning fog and had witnessed some in Napa. This fog rolls in from the ocean, tens of miles inland in some places, and drops temperatures significantly, but what I saw that first morning in Santa Rosa was thick pea soup, almost frosty. It hung thick and didn’t dissipate for a couple of hours. This fog keeps the vineyards blanketed in a cool cloak, keeping those essential acids vibrant and fresh. As you head into wine country, vineyards line the roads, framed in the background by the two mountain ranges, the Mayacamas and the Sonomas. It’s an unbelievable area, with pastures, forests, rolling hills, rugged mountains and wildlife as far as the eye can see. Close to the ocean, you can find areas like Sea Slopes and Fort Ross, rising above the fog line. Beautifully textured Chardonnays and ripe Pinot Noirs that have that slight salinity that all great coastal wines share. To the north, a little further inland, you can find warmer areas like Alexander or Knight’s Valley, where blockbuster Cabernet Sauvignons dominate and the wines have tannic structure built for aging. Of course you can also always visit the iconic Russian River Valley, home to the most recognizable, elegant and subtle wines. It is here where you find the bulk of the production. I stood at one of the highest points of elevation in Green Valley, a smaller appellation recently placed within the Russian River AVA, and sipped a ripe Pinot Noir while I watched the Russian River snake lazily through vineyards.
I decided I needed to try to bring wines to Ontario that truly express the voice of these regions. That let you view the beauty of the land, the dedication of the vineyard workers and the skills of the winemakers. These wines are certainly not the brooding type. They’re generally bright and open, offering generous fruit and softer tannins. For me, it’s the acidity that makes these wines special. They are incredibly versatile to pair with a wide range of dishes, particularly modern cuisine and foods with big flavours. They can stand up to umami, but have the acidity to ensure high acid, leaner flavours will still pair fantastically. My chef at Mena loved to prepare dishes that had a handful of different elements on each plate, extremely tough to pair with leaner or tannic wines. These became a favourite choice of mine and were always well received by guests, many of whom were shocked at the quality. Food matching is important, but sometimes it’s just fun to sit and sip a wine, to pair with it a good movie or a football game. These are also wines that you can bring to someone’s house and be sure they will be appreciated (unless of course you’re bringing it to the younger, more annoyingly pretentious version of me).