Ross Cobb's first exposure to winemaking came in the least likely place in the entire world: Saudi Arabia.
David Cobb, Ross' father, is a marine biologist who spent 1977 to 1980 in Saudi Arabia working on a desalination plant. It's illegal to buy or even possess alcohol in Saudia Arabia, so he bought Austrian grape juice and made wine at home. The official punishment can be months of imprisonment and a public whipping -- and that's literal.
Compared to that, making Pinot Noir on the chilly Sonoma Coast is not risky at all.
"It was incredible for a kid 8, 9, 10 years old to be around this 6th century culture," Cobb said of Saudi Arabia (not the Sonoma Coast). "We were there before the oil refineries. They went from the 6th to the 20th century in 20 years. They had this clash of cultures -- you would go into an old stone building, hundreds of years old, and it would house an electronics shop with all the latest TVs and stereos."
David Cobb finished world-hopping in 1988 and bought an undeveloped 14-acre plot of land on a ridge west of Occidental, about four miles from the Pacific Ocean. At the time, there was only one other vineyard planted that far west -- Summa Vineyard, which sold Pinot Noir grapes to Williams-Selyem. The conventional wisdom was that the area was too foggy and cool for wine grapes to ripen.
But David Cobb thought he knew best.
"My father did a research paper when he was at UC Berkeley in the '70s on the future of the wine industry in California," Ross Cobb said. "He said the future was Pinot Noir in the cool coastal regions."
I laughed when I heard that. "Your father was so wrong. He should have bought a mountain vineyard in Napa and planted Cabernet," I said.
Financially, of course I'm right. But aesthetically it's a very different story.
As soon as the Cobb family's vines yielded fruit, they started selling them to Williams-Selyem, which is how Ross Cobb started hanging around with Bert Williams, tasting barrel samples. He got the wine bug and changed his major at UC Santa Cruz to agroecology and sustainable agriculture.
His first job, though, was on the vineyard team at Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery, which was a culture shock, as it was not exactly at the forefront of sustainability.
"I was taking soil samples and talking about whether or not a certain worm trap actually worked, and they would just look at me funny," Ross Cobb said. "They told me, if you want to work with us, you better be at the breakfast place at 6:30 a.m., because that's when we talk about the vineyards, and that's the only time. If you're not there every day, you're not serious."
A man accustomed to extreme culture shifts, Cobb next moved to the madhouse that was mid-'90s Bonny Doon Vineyard, where he worked as enologist and lab manager. Since then, it's been all Pinot Noir specialists: Williams hired him at Williams-Selyem, and he moved from there to Flowers Vineyard and Winery, where he became winemaker in 2004.
Meanwhile, he stopped selling all of his fruit and began making a Cobb Wines Pinot Noir in 2001. The business grew enough for him to come to it full-time in 2008.
Of course, that coincided with the economic collapse, which has made selling $68 domestic Pinot Noirs a challenge. But Cobb has some great restaurant placements that he earns through the quality of these wines, which share silky smooth mouthfeel, purity of fruit and refreshingly restrained (13 to 14 percent) alcohol.
Let me tell you something about modern American winemaking. A sentence I'm tired of hearing is, "We pick two weeks later than everyone else." So many young winemakers boast about this because they're trying to get their fruit as ripe as possible -- raisiny flavors and alcohol level be damned.
Cobb said something I've never heard an American winemaker say before. He makes a Pinot from Joy Road Vineyard, which is owned by Terry Adams, the winemaker at Sonoma-Cutrer for nearly 30 years. One would assume Adams knows his own fruit. But when Cobb's buying it, the picking date is his decision to make.
"We picked this three to four weeks before he (Adams) thought we should," said Cobb. "At Flowers I was always three to four weeks ahead of everyone."
In theory, Cobb's wines should taste under-ripe. But they don't, because he has science on his side.
"I'm a soil scientist. My dad is a marine biologist. We're just climate-soil-wine geeks," he said. "Each step of the way is getting the bunches of grapes closer to each other in ripeness."
The idea is that you can make great wine from just-barely-ripe grapes, as long as you don't have grapes in the same cluster that are lagging behind in ripening.
"When we get to 22 Brix, we've done so much trimming of the over-ripe and under-ripe clusters that we're able to get more complexity at the lower ripeness level," he says.
While Cobb is constantly trimming the vineyards, his approach is different in the winery: "It's very passive winemaking," he said. "I'm not trying to build tannins. My biggest influence is the Chambolle-Musignys that have that velvety, silky finish. I pick when the grapes have that pretty floral taste, but for winemaking I'm doing what my friends are doing in Burgundy."
I tried all six of his '07 single-vineyard Pinots -- he makes just 1,350 total cases -- and loved them all. They're distinctively different, but each has that great silky mouthfeel and pretty raspberry fruit. They're serious wines that combine the bright fruit of California with the promised balance and finish of Chambolle-Musigny.
So I'm glad his father was wrong about the future of the California wine industry 35 years ago, and I'm also glad the Saudi police didn't find their homemade contraband. The only flogging Ross Cobb needs is to see Pinot lovers whipped into a frenzy over his delightful wines.