A recent visit to the Monte Rosso Vineyard in Sonoma County got me to thinking about when I first began writing about wine. That was more than 30 years ago, and back then I thought that my job was knowing and passing along to my readers every little bit of information about a particular wine so that they could make an educated purchase. Later, I became convinced that all wine buyers wanted to know is, "How does it taste and how much does it cost?"
Now, I've come full circle, believing that terroir is important to a wine's character and quality, and that knowing something about the wine's pedigree helps the consumer to make a more intelligent and thoughtful wine purchase. Still, I wonder if consumers ever consider a wine's single vineyard designation when buying a wine?
Monte Rosso helped me with my latest turn around. Sometimes it's hard to get an accurate impression of what a vineyard site has to offer by tasting just one wine a single vineyard. It's better to try three or four or a half dozen wines from the same vineyard, preferably made by different winemakers, to get a sense of the inherent qualities of that site's terroir.
For me, the thread of mountain-grown intensity and ripe dense berry flavors runs through the fabric of Monte Rosso, especially when woven into Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel. "Monte Rosso has an elegance while at the same time showing all the extract and strength of a mountain wine. It is my favorite," exclaims Ed Sbragia, owner/winemaker, Sbragia Family Vineyards.
Presently, there are 13 different winemakers who believe that the grapes they get from the 249-acre vineyard on Moon Mountain have something that can't be found in any other vineyard. Here's what Michael Martini has to say about Monte Rosso: "It has been an honor to be the steward of a property where the cross hairs come together to give such an exceptional environment for some of the best fruit in the world. Monte Rosso produces wines with a rich elegance that speaks of vineyard origin no matter who makes them."
Martini, who is winemaker for Louis Martini Winery and co-proprietor with his wife, Jacque, of M Squared, may be a little partial to the mountain vineyard. His family purchased the old Goldstein Ranch in 1938, renaming it Monte Rosso to reflect its mountain site and red soils. The Martini family remained steward of Monte Rosso until 2002, when Monte Rosso and the Martini winery in St. Helena were sold Gallo. Mark Oberschulte, who was the vineyard manager under the Martini ownership, continues as manger of Monte Rosso Vineyard as well as being winemaker for his own Oberschulte Wines.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant variety planted in Monte Rosso, accounting for just over 115 acres in 20 different plots, ranging in size from 1.5 acres to 10.8 acres. Zinfandel is planted in 75.5 acres, followed by Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Petite Sirah. There are also small plantings of Semillon and Folle Blanche.
At altitudes ranging between 700 feet to 1,240 feet atop Rattlesnake Hill, overlooking Sonoma Valley, Monte Rosso enjoys cooling influence from nearby San Pablo Bay, yet is high enough to stand above the morning fog. The undulating vineyard expanse is a series of plateaus and hillsides, mostly loam and mineral-rich, decomposed volcanic ash; all parts of the Monte Rosso terroir that impart a richness and intensity of flavor into the wines. Vine age is another factor that distinguishes Monte Rosso wines. The Three Thieves Block has 110-year-old Semillon vines; Rattlesnake Hill at the very top of the vineyard is a 3.3 acres block of 110-year-old Zinfandel, and Los Ninos, planted by Louis M. Martini, is the oldest Cabernet on the property, at 65 years.
With such a magnificent view from any vantage point in the sprawling Monte Rosso Vineyard, it's easy to expect the wines to be as big and beautiful as the scenery. Reflecting on the grapes and wines he has worked with over the years, Mark Oberschulte posed these questions: "Who were those men with their mules who worked the land back in the 1880s? Did they know how great the wines of Monte Rosso would be?" The answer and the proof is in the tasting and savoring.
Arrowood Vineyards & Winery, Sonoma Valley (Sonoma County, California) Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 ($70): This intense, layered Cabernet Sauvignon is from a small block of old vines, some dating back to the 1950s. Rich and textured with smoky French oak notes, the wine has length and layered fruit, accented by hints of black pepper. 90
Charter Oak Winery, Sonoma Valley (Sonoma County, California) Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel 2004 ($45): Here is a full-stop Zinfandel, with forward, deep-set, berry jam aromas and flavors, good structure, firm tannins, some heat (15% alcohol) and bright fruit through to the finish. This is a nicely built Zinfandel but it does pack some heat. 88
Louis M. Martini Winery, Sonoma Valley (Sonoma County, California) Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 ($80): This is a dark, brooding, dry-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon, with 5% Petit Verdot added for fruit lift and dimension, matured in new and used oak barrels for 18 months. Ripe blackberry and toasted oak aromas lead to deep, richly textured berry flavors, finishing with firm tannins and good length. This is an expressive example of a mountain Cabernet. 94
Louis M. Martini Winery, Sonoma Valley (Sonoma County, California) Monte Rosso Zinfandel "Gnarly Vine" 2003 ($40): Gnarled vines over 100 years old from the heart of the Monte Rosso Vineyard yielded this concentrated, characteristic mountain-grown Zinfandel. Mostly whole berry fermentation and extended skin contact of up to 21 days produced a Zin with big, ripe, slightly jammy berry aromas and flavors, accented with sweet spice, vanilla and anise. The finish carries a touch of black pepper. This is a monster wine, finished at 15.6% alcohol that amply shows the power of Monte Rosso fruit. 92
M Squared, Sonoma Valley (Sonoma County, California) Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon "Old Vine" 2001 ($100): For his own private label, Michael Martini went with 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, then filled it out with dashes of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot from a 3-acre block nestled amongst Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. The lovely berry aromatics are rich and forward, with no herbal notes. There is old-vine intensity in this nicely structured Cabernet that highlights the fresh berry accents, all leading to a long, fruity finish. 89
Oberschulte Mountain Wines, Sonoma Valley (Sonoma County, California) Monte Rosso Vineyard Syrah 2003 ($33): Mark Oberschulte knows these blocks and vines intimately and has carefully selected the grapes for this juicy Syrah, which shows excellent structure. The color is deep inky-red, and the nose shows fresh, intense, ripe blackberry and anise notes. The flavors are big with full tannins and good structure, fruit and length. 92
Rancho Zabaco, Sonoma Valley (Sonoma County, California) Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel 2004 ($35): For the 2004 Zin, winemaker Eric Cinnamon uses 70% whole berry fermentation to keep the harsh, bitter tannins from the grape skins and seeds at bay. The result is a concentrated Zin with forward, bright berry aromas and flavors. Aging for nine months in mostly French oak gives the wine depth and structure. This is not as big as this producer's Toreador bottling, though the alcohol is 15.2%. It shows ripe raspberry notes, with very good tannins and acidity. 90
Rancho Zabaco, Sonoma Valley (Sonoma County, California) Monte Rosso Vineyard Toreador Zinfandel 2004 ($50): Winemaker Eric Cinnamon used 70% whole berry fermentation for this concentrated mountain Zin, then matured it for nine months in a combination of French and American oak. The aroma melds together vanilla, spice and jammy berry accents, while the concentrated flavors are rich and textured, with hints of sweet spices and chocolate. This is a high-octane Zin (15.2%) that is best enjoyed as a post-dinner wine with a nice hunk of cheese. 91
Robert Biale Vineyards, Sonoma Valley (Sonoma County, California) Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel 2004 ($45): Among Zinfandel producers and Zin Freaks, Robert Biale has a reputation for squeezing the most Zin character out of every grape. In this rendition of a Monte Rosso Zinfandel, Biale goes for texture and balance, with deep berry aromas and flavors, accented by spice and followed by a long balanced finish. The Zin power is nicely harnessed, while the fruit-forward character of Zinfandel shines. 92
Rosenblum Cellars, Sonoma Valley (Sonoma County, California) Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel Reserve 2004 ($40): Rosenblum has a good track record for selecting vineyards that offer power with subtle finesse. This slightly jammy Monte Rosso Zin is very bright, with sweet, slightly jammy fruit notes, firm tannins, and a long finish. The wine is finished at .7% sweetness, which is just at the threshold of overt sweetness, recalling Late Harvest Zinfandels from out of the past. 88
Sbragia Family Vineyards, Sonoma Valley (Sonoma County, California) Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($50): Ed Sbragia knows his way around big, mountain-grown red wines from his long experience as winemaker for Beringer Vineyards. Grapes from the same block (with vines ranging from 20 to 40 years old) as Martini uses for his eponymous Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon go into this Sbragia Cabernet. The nose is bright, with ripe, berry-rich fruit and subtle toasted oak. Firm tannins and good acidity give the wine a framework for the blackberry flavors, which are accented with hints of anise and toasted oak. It has a long, balanced finish with very good fruit. 92