Site Trumps Everything

Tasting a line-up of the 2016 Gary Farrell Pinot Noirs shows why Theresa Heredia, the winemaker for wines, is adamant about the importance of site.  Same grape variety, same vintage, same winemaking, so how else to explain the wonderful difference between the Pinot Noir she made from grapes grown in the Fort Ross Vineyard in the Fort Ross—Seaview AVA and the one made from those in the Toboni Vineyard, located in the Russian River Valley?  These wines reinforce the idea that site (a.k.a. terroir) is alive and well in California.  American wine consumers are finally starting to come around to the idea of terroir, a concept vehemently articulated by the French.  Perhaps if we just talked about the importance of site instead of using a French word, Americans would embrace the concept.

Terroir, or place of origin, is important whether we speak of wine or any other food product.  Though we Americans do not have the legalized appellation system the Europeans have for food and wine, there’s no question that the character of the product varies depending on its place of origin.  Idaho potatoes, Copper River Salmon, Washington State apples all command premium prices because of their origins.  Door County (Wisconsin) cherries are prized above those grown elsewhere.  In the broadest concept, briny East Coast oysters are vastly different from their creamier West Coast cousins.  Yes, they are different species, so maybe it’s not just locale, but even the same species of oysters harvested in adjoining towns on Cape Cod taste different.

It’s no different when it comes to wine.  Place is critical.  Two impediments have led to our reluctance to accept the concept of terroir when it comes to wine.  First, in the 1970s, the early days of the modern American winemaking industry, the winemaker was all important.  When the 1973 Montelena Chardonnay bested prestigious white Burgundies at Steven Spurrier’s now famous 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting, no one asked the origin of the grapes.  It was Mike Grgich, the winemaker, who received the acclaim.

Secondly, California wineries rarely focused on specific vineyard sites.  In the past, and in large measure today, wineries would obtain their grapes from various parts of Napa or Sonoma, to use those two areas as examples, and blend them to make a finished wine.  Winemakers rightly would speak about the differences between Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, or within sub-regions of Napa, but consumers rarely had opportunities to taste the differences between the wines because very few producers bottled them separately.  So, if a consumer tasted a Jordan Cabernet made from Sonoma grapes side-by-side with one from Beaulieu Vineyards whose grapes came from Napa Valley, were you tasting the difference between origin of the grapes or producers’ style?  In the past, Robert Mondavi made separate bottlings of wines that highlighted the vast differences between the Oakville and Stags Leap districts of Napa Valley, but few other producers did so.  My point is that unless you taste wines made by the same producer, the average consumer will never be able to separate the impact of site from the impact of producer.

Compare this practice to the tradition in Burgundy, recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage status because of the patchwork of vineyards that makes Burgundy the classic case in point for the concept of terroir.  There, traditional and current marketing was and is done via négociants.  In Burgundy, the individual estates are small and fragmented, with farmers owning portions of vineyards scattered over several villages.  Production from each plot is small, which means it is impractical for individual growers to make, bottle and market their wines themselves.

The négociant, or wine merchant, system evolved in the 19th century to solve this problem.  Growers from throughout Burgundy would sell their grapes or newly pressed juice to large merchant houses, such as Maison Louis Jadot or Maison Louis Latour to name two of the best.  In turn, these houses would blend the grapes or juice purchased from several growers, each of whom owned plots in the same vineyard or village.  The négociant would then make, bottle and market the wines under his name.  Although the system started for economic reasons, a consequence was that it allowed the general consumer to taste wines from different villages made using the same winemaking techniques.  Since the winemaking was the same, the only differences among the wines were where the grapes were grown.  The uniqueness of terroir—the importance of site—became easy for the entire world to see, understand and appreciate.

Which brings me back to Gary Farrell’s array of 2016 Pinot Noirs.  It certainly helps that Theresa Heredia is an excellent winemaker and avoids the temptation to put her imprint on the wines at the expense of individual sites.  I’m certain that winemaking techniques, including oak aging, could have made all seven of the Pinot Noirs that I sampled recently taste the same.  But, because she let the various sites speak, the wines did, in fact, speak clearly—and differently.  The range of Pinot Noirs provides something for everyone, from more delicate and savory wines to those that are robust and powerful.

Gary Farrell was a pioneer in single-vineyard Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley.  Though I sampled seven of Gary Farrell’s 2016 Pinot Noir recently via a Zoom® tasting along with several colleagues, Heredia told us that they make between 12 and 14 different ones depending on the year.  In addition to buying grapes from well-respected growers throughout the Russians River Valley, they buy grapes from the famed Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley and from vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA.

The wines were all very good, although dramatically different stylistically, reflecting their origins.  They are all easy to recommend.  Those who prefer bolder Pinot Noirs that focuses on fruitier flavors will gravitate towards the Russian River bottlings because the warmer climate there—compared to Bien Nacido and Fort Ross—produces riper grapes.  The Bien Nacido and Fort Ross bottlings, in contrast, will be more appealing to those who prefer a lighter expression of Pinot Noir with an emphasis on its savory aspect.  The flavors dance across the palate.  The Gap’s Crown Vineyard bottling, from Sonoma Coast, delivered a nicely balanced combination.  It also taught two lessons: first, it weighed in at the same 14.1 percent stated alcohol as two from the Russian River Valley, the Toboni and Martaella Vineyard, yet handled it far better, showing you cannot judge a wine by the numbers.  And, second, the Gap’s Crown and the Fort Ross couldn’t be more different, yet both reside in the Sonoma Coast AVA.  I guess the Sonoma Coast AVA could use more sub-divisions.

Gary Farrell (Fort Ross Seaview, Sonoma Coast) Fort Ross Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($75):  Review copy:  The Fort Ross Vineyard is a cold site, lying less than a mile from the Pacific Ocean and roughly 1,500 feet above sea level.  The temperature rarely exceeds 85º, all of which explains the wine’s profile: a fabulous combination of beguiling fruitiness and smoke-y savory nuances.  Lively acidity gives it brightness and amplifies its charms.  Beautifully balanced, it’s long and refined, with suave tannins.  It conveys what I think of as a Burgundian sensibility, namely, one of flavor without weight.  All of 13.2 percent stated-alcohol shows you don’t need super ripe grapes to make a super wine.  96

Gary Farrell (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir Dijon Clones 2016 ($60):  Review copy: The warmer Russian River Valley compared to Farrell’s Fort Ross bottling explains the riper style of this Pinot Noir.  Black fruit flavors mingle with savory earthy components in this juicy, bright, and long wine.  Though slightly bigger and bolder than their Fort Ross Pinot Noir, it remains impeccably balanced.  Again, a modest-–by today’s standards—13.7 percent stated-alcohol reinforces the notion that riper grapes don’t necessarily make better wine, especially when dealing with Pinot Noir.  95

Gary Farrell (Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County) Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($80):  Site matters.  A skeptic of that statement just needs to taste this Pinot Noir made from grapes grown in a vineyard located in the windy Petaluma Gap of Sonoma next to the Gary Farrell Pinot Noirs from the Russian River Valley.  This one has the power and robust nature of the Toboni and Martaella, but with layers of savory nuances that add complexity.  Though it displays a muscular style, it is not overdone.  Bright acidity keeps it from falling into the “Pinot-Syrah” category.  More tightly wound than Farrell’s other Pinot Noir, this wine could use further bottle age.  It should develop beautifully because of its wonderful balance.  If you can’t wait—and that’s understandable—open it a couple of hours before dinner.  94

Gary Farrell (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($55):  This wine presents a fascinating comparison with the Farrell’s Dijon Clones Pinot Noir from the same vineyard.  The winemaker says it’s a blend of five clones of Pinot Noir instead of two Dijon clones.  It has the same power as the Dijon Clones bottling, but reveals less complexity at this stage.  In my mind, it suffers by comparison to its stablemate.  As a stand-alone wine, I’d be thrilled to drink it with grilled salmon.  The lesson for me is that clones matter, but that subject is far too geek-y for this review, so I’ll leave it at that.  92

Gary Farrell (Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County) Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($70):   Santa Maria Valley’s east-west orientation is unusual in California where most of the valleys run north-south.  Its orientation, which allows cooling Pacific Ocean breezes, explains its cooler climate despite its southern California location.  The bright red fruit-like profile reflects the coolness of the site.  Though this Pinot Noir has fewer savory notes, touches of spice season it nicely and add complexity. Its raspberry-like flavors dance on the palate.  It’s a lighter and brighter Pinot Noir, which Theresa Heredia, the winemaker, calls, “sexy and spicy.”  92

Gary Farrell (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Martaella Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($65):  Those who love a more robust style of Pinot Noir will embrace the Martaella Vineyard bottling from Gary Farrell, in relation to the rest of this producer’s lineup.  The focus here is on the ripe, plum-like fruitiness.  As with all of Farrell’s Pinot Noirs, the tannins are fine and the textured refined, which makes it easy to enjoy now.  The sunny Santa Rosa plain where the vineyard is located helps explain the opulence in the wine.  91

Gary Farrell (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Toboni Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($55):  The warmth of the Russian River Valley compared to the Sonoma Coast or Santa Maria Valley accounts for riper raw material for this Pinot Noir, which is translated into a more robust wine.  Similar to the one from Martaella Vineyard, it delivers power at the expense of subtlety.  But, showing that site is critical, its fruit and spice profile differs from the Martaella even though the vineyards are a stone’s throw apart. It’s not the style of Pinot Noir I personally look for, but it is well made and certainly will have an audience.  The glossy tannins, a hallmark of Farrell’s Pinot Noir, make it a good choice now with grilled beef.  90

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August 26, 2020

E-mail me your thoughts about the importance of site in general or Gary Farrell’s wines in particular at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein.