At first, the story of Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery may sound familiar: City-dwellers buy vineyard land and embark on second careers in the California wine industry. But this story has a twist. The couple behind this Sonoma Coast winery, Linda and Lester Schwartz, didn’t exactly take the easy route.
In 1976 the South African natives moved to Northern California, where Linda put her music background to use as an arts administrator and Lester worked as a lawyer. After years of practicing law in San Francisco, Lester began longing for the country life of his childhood, and in 1988 the couple bought a virgin property in the high coastal ridges overlooking the Pacific Ocean, above the old Russian Settlement of Fort Ross.
This is normally the part of the story where the couple hires famous consultants to plan and plant their vineyard. Instead, Linda enrolled in the viticulture program at Santa Rosa Junior College and Lester discovered his affinity for heavy machinery.
The location Lester chose for the vineyard wasn’t for sissies. The property is set atop steep mountain ridges, at elevations from 1,200 to 1,700 feet above sea level, in what has since become known as the “Extreme Sonoma Coast” region. The vineyard is only a mile from the Pacific Ocean, closer than any other California vineyard.
Despite the challenges, they planted the vineyard in 1991, and after four years of experimenting with different grape varieties, clones and rootstocks, they decided to focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, tailoring their clone and rootstock selections to each vineyard block.
Today the vineyard consists of 28 small blocks, each ranging from a half-acre to 2 acres. Fort Ross makes a total of 5,000 cases per year, divided between Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinotage -- a tribute to the couple’s South African roots. The wines are priced at $32-$59 per bottle.
I was lucky enough to taste these exceptional wines with Linda earlier this year and found them to have lively acidity, minerality, well-integrated tannins and beautiful ripe fruit. I found Linda herself to be warm and intelligent, a woman who gives careful thought to questions before answering.
We ran into each other again last month at her viticulture alma mater, where Linda gamely participated in a cooking and wine-pairing challenge with sommeliers from around the country.
Wine Review Online (WRO): How were you and Lester able to tackle planting a vineyard, and in such an extreme location?
LS: We are both quite the same, we tend to be a little bit compulsive. It’s very, very difficult farming on such steep vineyards -- everything takes so much longer, and you’ve got so many other cultural practices to take into consideration. We have never had a vineyard manager, and we’ve never had consultants come in. But my husband, fortunately, came from a farming background, so he wasn’t intimidated by any equipment. In fact, the bigger the piece of equipment, the more excited he is. When I did the viticulture program, we had as part of it equipment maintenance and we learned how to drive all the equipment, which was a learning curve, especially on our hills.
WRO: Why not hire consultants?
LS: I expect it was just stubbornness. Probably the main thing is, it’s just been a lot of fun. I can’t see why anyone would want to have a vineyard and not plant it, not take care of it, not enjoy all the cycles of nature.
WRO: Your vineyard is part of the new Fort Ross-Seaview AVA that was just approved in January. What makes it different from the Sonoma Coast AVA?
LS: The Sonoma Coast AVA is 480,000 acres. The Fort Ross-Seaview AVA is 27,500 acres, but the planted acres are only 555. In the last nine years, only 49 extra acres were planted. There’s very little land to plant, it’s mostly steep ridges and canyons. Our specific, wondrous advantage is that we are above the fog. We are tempered by being so close to the Pacific Ocean, and we have a cool, maritime climate.
WRO: How does that affect the wines?
LS: You can produce wines that have structure. They don’t lose their acidity, minerality or tannins. And still, you can ripen your grapes without this mad, mad rush if there are heat waves. Everything is modulated down.
WRO: What are some of the region’s challenges?
LS: One of the challenges is dealing with the steepness. The other thing is that you are mostly above the fog, but there are days in which your crop can be very wet. So what you want to do is make sure that you plant so that the wind can blow through and dry up any moisture, and the sun can get access.
WRO: You’ve said that you’re affectionately known at the winery as the “sales prevention department.” What does that mean?
LS: Because we’re growing grapes in an area where we can keep structure, the wines can be quite tight and wound-up for a period of time. So it’s worth being the “sales prevention department” and letting one’s wine be cellared, and then releasing it when it’s beginning to show this wonderful balance between structure and fruit. Some of the wines take longer than others.
When people try to ask me when we’re releasing a vintage it doesn’t apply, because we don’t release per vintage, we release per wine. We often release wine from four different vintages at once. That’s why we don’t have a manager -- do you think that anyone would put up with us?
WRO: Why do you blend Pinotage into your Symposium Pinot Noir?
LS: We use just a small amount to amplify the mid-palate and give added richness. Most people wouldn’t know that it’s the secret ingredient. Sometimes we tell them afterward to play games, because so often people have got mixed views about Pinotage. We want them first to express how lovely it is, and then to know that it has a potentially fatal flaw, which they really enjoyed so much.
WRO: How does the Pinotage that you grow compare to the ones from South Africa?
LS: It’s more vibrant here. The ones in South Africa can have a series of elements that true Pinot lovers love, and I personally don’t like at all, which include rubbing alcohol, rusty spoon and all of these other descriptors. We’ve found that people who have not wanted to taste the Pinotage have become quite addicted.
WRO: Tell me about your winemaker, Jeff Pisoni.
LS: He’s a wonderful winemaker and a very nice man. He tries to do as little as possible with the wines, and that’s what I find very refreshing about him. He believes, like we do, that Pinot Noir is made in the vineyard. We have long, long blending sessions and it’s fascinating what the possibilities are.
WRO: Do you have a certain type of wine drinker in mind for the wines?
LS: My husband says, “You can’t make wine just for yourself.” But I don’t know how anybody else tastes! So we have this exchange every time, where he says, “What do you think of this?” And I say, “Oh, I prefer this wine.” And he says, “Isn’t it a little bit exclusive in its minimalism?” And I say, “I think it’s lovely!” And we go backward and forward, and I give him a few and he gives me a few.
I once tasted wine alongside a winemaker that I admired, and we had a discussion about one of the wines. I asked why he liked it, and he said, “It was very minerally and austere.” Then he asked me, “Why did you like it?” And I said, “Because it was rather round and luscious without going to extremes.” I thought that was very interesting.
WRO: Where can people buy the Fort Ross wines?
LS: The nicest way would be if they came to visit us. The next would be online, because there you’ll find the whole range of what we make. And we’re in about 20 states, mostly at restaurants.