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Sonoma Coast Pioneers at Fort Ross
By Gerald D. Boyd
Sep 7, 2010
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Imagine you are living in a country that is socially and politically at odds with your own views and beliefs.  Conditions get to the point where you can’t hold out any longer, so you pack up and move to a place where social and political views and beliefs are a matter of personal choice. 

In 1976, Linda and Lester Schwartz found themselves in such a situation, so they left their native South Africa and moved to northern California.  The Schwartz’s met one another while both were students at the University of Cape Town, where Lester graduated as an attorney and Linda earned her degree in music composition, piano and theory.  But they left that all behind and once settled in to life in the San Francisco Bay Area, Lester began practicing law in San Francisco while Linda immersed herself in arts administration and international trade.  Lester’s father had been a lawyer and a farmer in South Africa, so the rural life was in Lester’s blood and he soon grew restless, longing for the country life.  In their spare time, the Schwartz’s began looking for property along northern California’s rugged coastline.

What they discovered was a tract of land in the high coastal ridges with spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean just north of Jenner and two miles southeast of the historic town of Fort Ross, on the Sonoma Coast.  “Lester was driving up Highway 1, and just past Jenner the road was washed out, so he was diverted up Myers Grade Road and saw this beautiful piece of land.  It was just what we were looking for, so in 1988, we bought the property as a get-away in the country,” recalls Linda.  While attending university in Cape Town, the Schwartz’s spent their leisure hours dining at restaurants and enjoying the local wines, even entertaining the idea of one day owning their own vineyard.  “Planting a vineyard was not our sole objective.  We just wanted to get back to the land,” says Linda.  

Once the decision was made to have a working vineyard, Linda immersed herself into the project with a zest that has marked her remarkable career.  “The vineyard project began with Lester ordering two dozen dormant rootstocks,” recalls Schwartz.  The new plantings were a success, so they planted an assortment of different varieties.  But after four years, she concluded that the land was best suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Remembrances of South Africa took root with protea plants in the garden around their sprawling house that overlooks the vineyard and ocean, and the Pinotage they enjoyed drinking during their college days in South Africa.  With a little effort, they found some bud wood in South Africa and arranged to bring in the plantings through the UC-Davis Foundation Plant Services, eventually planting two acres of Pinotage at Fort Ross Vineyard.

“I remember that when we were establishing the vineyard in 1994 I was obsessed by all the possible choices of rootstock, as we had chosen first to establish the rootstock and then to field graft the vines with carefully sourced bud wood.”  Linda soon realized that the vineyard was too remote to rely on contractors or to rent heavy tractors, so the most logical answer was for her to get into heavy equipment.  “I was fixated on heavy equipment and became so fervent in my research that I was even offered a job selling heavy equipment.  This was quite a coup for a classically trained musician and amused Lester greatly,” she said with a laugh. 

Linda bought an array of heavy equipment, made Lester the operator, and together they graded the land and developed the vineyard.  They started with the less steep slopes, preparing what Linda calls “the wussie blocks,” but it still took four years before they could plant rootstock in 1998.  Growing conditions and vineyard practices along the Sonoma Coast, also sparked her interest, so she began to study viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College and winemaking at UC-Davis.  “It’s like yoga,” Schwartz quipped about her wine classes, “you have to be humble and nimble!”

The Fort Ross estate is 1,000 acres of steep hills and valleys, with 50 acres of vineyards, ranging in elevation from 1,200 to 1,700 feet, located one mile from the ocean, making it the closest vineyard to the Pacific Ocean.  “We designed and put in the vineyards ourselves with no consultant,” Linda proudly notes.  The 30 planted blocks, ranging in size from one-half to two acres, each with its own terroir, are on a very steep, west-facing ridge.  Linda says that the first plantings were more experimental with up to 18 different varieties.  “Most just laughed at me,” she recalls.  The Fort Ross vineyards are high enough that coastal fog that can linger well past midday and cause problems with fungus at lower elevations, is not a problem.  But Linda admits to having trouble with birds.  “Lester wanted a falcon, but he soon discovered that you had to spend quality time with your falcon, so we net all of the vines,” she says. 

It took the Schwartz’s ten years before they made their first wine.  “We’ve done nothing the easy way,” says Linda, who notes that production now stands at 4,500 cases, mostly Pinot Noir.  Fred Scherrer, Fort Ross’ first winemaker, started in 2000 and slowly built production from 100 cases.  He was replaced in 2003 by Ed Kurtzman, then Helen Keplinger and Jeff Pisoni who came on board in 2009 and is currently making the wines in Santa Rosa.  Pisoni is winemaker of Pisoni Vineyards in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands.  “We should hit many high spots with Jeff Pisoni,” says Linda.  “Our wines have bright natural acidity and minerality, because when others have a heat wave in Sonoma County, we have the luxury to wait before picking our grapes.

“When the grapes at Fort Ross are fully ripened, the flavors are astonishing,” she notes.  I tasted through the current wines during my recent visit to Fort Ross Vineyard and believe the wines support the claim that the Sonoma Coast is one of California’s premier sites for growing Pinot Noir.  The Fort Ross wines have a depth of pure fruit without being over-extracted.  The 2005 Reserve Pinot Noir is lively and intense with great structure and acidity; the 2006 Pinotage shows juicy plumy-berry flavors and the 2008 Chardonnay is bright and crisp and more mineral than the tropical flavors found in many California Chardonnays.

These days, Linda and Lester Schwartz own a home in the San Francisco Bay Area, but spend a great deal of their time at Fort Ross Vineyards.  “We feel we’re very fortunate to do this,” says Linda.  Although most of the remaining land on the estate is too steep and rugged for additional vineyards, Linda continues her search for two suitable acres where she can plant an olive grove.  In the meantime, there’s always Fort Ross Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines to tend and nurture.