Growing grapes by the sea at Fort Ross Vineyard

One of the most beautiful views, to me, is that of a vineyard next to the ocean. But with the cool air and fog that comes from the ocean, how close can you successfully grow grapes near the ocean? Fort Ross Vineyard is located one mile from the ocean and are producing exquisite Pinot Noir as I wrote about in the Napa Valley Register and share here.

How close can you get to the ocean and still grow grapes? That was the question Linda and Lester Schwartz wondered when they purchased their 975-acre Fort Ross property in 1988.

Located only one mile from the ocean, the property was virgin forest and grasslands when they fell in love with it. When they asked an academic at UC Davis about planting vines, he told them they were crazy. But after experimenting with various clones, rootstocks, and trellising systems, they determined that they had the potential to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

In 1994, Linda and Lester began preparing the property. Linda went to school to study viticulture and by 1998, they began planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

In addition, as Linda and Lester are originally from South Africa, they planted some Pinotage.

The first Fort Ross Vineyard release was in 2001. In 2009, Jeff Pisoni joined as winemaker. Although there were not many vineyards in Fort Ross when they started planting and today the area is still sparsely populated, the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA was approved in 2012.

Located 80 miles northwest of San Francisco, Fort Ross-Seaview is one of the smallest AVAs. With approximately 600 acres of vineyards planted on steep coastal ridges at elevations from 920 to 1,800 feet, this “coastal cool” AVA is distinguished from other Sonoma Coast AVAs both by its elevation and proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Sitting above the fog line, the terrain is very steep which limits the planting and results in low yields. It is a picturesque area, but it is not for the faint of heart.

Jeff Pisoni describes Fort Ross Vineyard as “such a remarkable site that you cannot not be impressed.” Growing up around grapes in the Santa Lucia Highlands, Jeff knows cool climate sites. But making wine at Fort Ross-Seaview is different than the Santa Lucia Highlands. The Santa Lucia Highlands are 20 miles from the ocean. The ocean winds flow through the area, which has rugged mountains and granite soils. Fort Ross-Seaview, in contrast, is a true coastal climate with fog, elevation, and sandstone soils.

The philosophy of Fort Ross Vineyards is to capture the ocean in their wines. Within the 50 planted acres that sit between 1,200-1,700 feet elevation, there are 33 blocks (minus two as, for superstitious reasons, there is no block 13 or 26). The grapes are hand-harvested and each block is fermented separately with native yeasts in open-top stainless steel fermenters. Then the fun begins for Jeff as he blends the components together for the final wines, which are unfined and unfiltered.




2017 Fort Ross Vineyard “Sea Slopes” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast ($35)

A new label that blends estate fruit with some purchased fruit, Sea Slope Pinot Noir is an affordable approachable Pinot Noir. It is a bright, fresh wine with notes of cranberry, cherry, flowers, cloves, and tea. Lower tannins result in a wine that is very easy to drink.

Blended from six different blocks, fermented, and aged separately, the FRV Pinot Noir is the signature blend that best represents the estate. Forest floor, dried herbs, tea leaves and mild red fruit notes are on the nose with tart cherry and spice notes on the finish.

2017 Fort Ross Vineyard “Top of Land” Pinot Noir, Fort Ross-Seaview ($80)

Sourced from two of the higher elevation blocks that sit at 1700 feet, “Top of the Land” has a cool climate nose of cranberry, black cherry, dried lavender and minerality. The wine has a lovely mid-palate texture and a rich concentrated finish.

2017 Fort Ross Vineyard “The Terraces” Pinot Noir, Fort Ross-Seaview ($80)

Sourced from a single block that is a very steep and rugged section of the vineyard, “The Terraces” is a muscular wine with high tones of wild raspberry, cherry, and brown spices. On the palate, the wine is structured but balanced.

2017 Fort Ross Vineyard “Stagecoach Road” Pinot Noir, Fort Ross-Seaview ($80)

Named after the road that would have run through the vineyard, where the gentleman highway robbers would hit the Wells Fargo trucks, “Stagecoach Road” comes from one of the closest blocks to the ocean.

This is a dense and powerful Pinot Noir with black raspberry, cocoa, earth, and baking spice notes.

This library selection was from Jeff Pisoni’s first vintage with Fort Ross Vineyards. A great vintage for California, the wine has beautiful raspberry, currant, spice, and forest floor aromas and lots of savory umami flavors on the finish.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.