Long before inland California wineries and grape growers made a rush to the Sonoma Coast for the production of cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, there was Flowers Vineyard & Winery.
Joan and Walt Flowers, former nursery owners from Pennsylvania, began planting wine grapes in 1991 on their newly acquired 320-acre property near Cazadero, a tiny hamlet in far-western Sonoma County. They weren’t the first to venture into this forested, cold, ocean-influenced wine territory -- David Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards blazed that trail in 1980 near Fort Ross -- but the Flowers’ putting down stakes in an area though to be too chilly to ripen grapes not only underscored Hirsch’s genius, it opened the doors for other growers to explore the advantages and challenges of growing grapes on the so-called “true,” “real” and “extreme” Sonoma Coast.
Those adjectives are important because the Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA) is both vast (500,000 acres) and ambiguous, extending from San Francisco’s San Pablo Bay on the southeast to the Mendocino County border on the northwest. Some vineyards in Carneros and Sonoma Valley can also claim Sonoma Coast status, even though their warmer, milder growing conditions have little in common with what Flowers, Hirsch, Cobb and other producers face in vineyards planted dangerously close to the Pacific Ocean, where they get more than twice the annual rainfall of inland plantings, yet weather the storms to produce remarkably pure, structured, minerally Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
Flowers’ Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard and Sea View Ridge Vineyard are approximately two miles from the ocean, in harm’s way of storms, fog and cold temperatures in spring and late fall. How do the grapes ripen here? Thank the elevation, which ranges from 1,150 feet to 1,875 feet across the two estate vineyards. With this lofty exposure, the vines are above the fog belt and exposed to plenty of daytime sun. Still, rain and chilly temperatures make for challenging viticulture.
“Camp Meeting Ridge has an elevation of 1,400 feet,” explained Flowers director of winemaking Dave Keatley of the Flowers’ flagship vineyard. “Being one mile from the San Andreas Fault and located in the coastal mountains, the vineyard has an incredible diversity of soil types as well as aspects. The soils are rocky, and shallow, with parent material consisting of metamorphosed sandstone and shale that are well drained but capable of holding moisture late into the growing season. As a result, our vines are low-yielding and produce small clusters with great concentration.”
Sea View Ridge Vineyard came along in 1998, planted to an array of Pinot Noir clones and Pinot Meunier. Sea View is higher (1,400 to 1,800 feet elevation) and closer to the ocean than Camp Meeting Ridge. It’s similar in size to Camp Meeting
Ridge, at 327 acres, but only 43 are under vine.
The long growing season on both sites and the high retention of natural acidity due to the cool ambient temperatures during the summer, make for Flowers’ extraordinarily fresh-tasting Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
“The vineyards dictate our winemaking decisions,” Keatley said. “(Being) located close to the coast, the Chardonnay grapes express a predominantly citrus character, mineral texture and crisp acidity. In order for this to show in the wines, we don’t employ battonage (lees stirring) and practices a judicious use of new oak in maturing the wines.”
Keatley also purchases some Chardonnay fruit from surrounding growers for a non-estate Sonoma Coast bottling. “A percentage of stainless steel fermentation (15 percent in the 2013) has always been used in the Sonoma Coast blend, to further add a perception of freshness,” he explained. “The pressing style that we employ is largely dependent on low-pressure extraction, which aids in the retention of fresh acidity and minimizing harsh phenols.”
The biggest viticultural challenge on the western edge of the Sonoma Coast is high mildew pressure during the growing season. Flowers farms organically and Biodynamically, adding to the difficulty.
“It requires that we use much narrower windows for our fungicides, often seven to 10 days, which means an enormous amount of work for our tractor drivers and careful observation in the vineyard,” Keatley said. “This challenge often subsides by August as the fog clears.
“Otherwise, I think the advantages of the true Sonoma Coast are clear: The beautiful, small clusters, the longer growing season, completeness and richness of flavor, great acidity, and a density without bringing heaviness.”
The Flowers Chardonnays -- 2012 Camp Meeting Ridge ($80) and the 2013 Sonoma Coast ($45) -- are bright, nervy and finely chiseled, with citrus, Asian pear and lemon oil character and a sea-air/crushed oyster shell salinity. Alcohol content is in the 13.3 to 13.5 range, yet the wines have all flavor one could want.
The Camp Meeting Ridge is graceful and nuanced, its layers unfolding in the glass, and 8in the bottle over time. I’d be very surprised if this wine doesn’t continue to improve for at least a decade. The Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is slightly more direct, delicious now and for a few more years, yet it has the same style and finesse of Camp Meeting Ridge.
The Pinot Noirs are similarly styled, with the vineyard shaping their crisp, almost crunchy red-fruit aromas and flavors. They’re absolutely mouthwatering and ethereal in their texture.
The 2012 Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir ($85), like its Chardonnay mate, is a youngster, but already showing nuances of baking spice, forest floor, truffle and black minerals that add complexity to the vivid dark cherry and pomegranate fruit. It’s medium-bodied and supple, with silky tannins countered by bracing acidity. All this, at pinpoint accuracy, and just 12.9 percent alcohol.
The 2012 Sea View Ridge ($65) has a pretty medium-ruby color, succulent red cherry and cranberry fruit, hints of Asian spice and garrigue, and a crushed-stone earthiness. It’s a bit more plump and forward than Camp Meeting Ridge, yet with a still-moderate 13.9 percent alcohol content.
In 2009, Huneeus Vintners (owner of Napa’s Quintessa and Veramonte in Chile, among other properties) took a major stake in Flowers, allowing Walt and Joan to retire. While not a dashing new brand, Flowers remains at the top of the “real Sonoma Coast” quality heap, not having lost a step during its quarter-century-long life.