Vineyard Visionaries: Hirsch Vineyards

The story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

During my recent visit to the east coast, I learned about how many winemakers first started planting vines in Virginia, New York, Maryland and elsewhere. Each one talked about how little information they had when they started, and that they turned, at first, to California’s wine industry for guidance.

For many, California was seen as the established wine producing region in the United States. I was reminded at a recent seminar featuring Hirsch Vineyards at World of Pinot Noir that California winemakers had only begun making wine a few decades before the east coast. With little insight or experience, there were some California winemakers who took risks, like David Hirsch, who purchased land in an untouched area with the goal of growing wine grapes.

Hirsch Vineyards, founded in 1978, is located in a remote area of West Sonoma Coast in Sonoma County. The land was originally a remote sheep farm—there was no one else out there. Hirsch had no farming experience but he fell in love with the land, his daughter Jasmine told us. He purchased 1,000 acres in an extremely remote area and people thought he was crazy. Then, in 1980, he planted pinot noir, a less than popular grape at the time. And, not knowing any better, the vines were planted on their own rootstock.

It was only a matter of time for Hirsch Vineyards to transition from an idea people thought was crazy to being one of the most sought after vineyards for pinot noir. By 1994, wineries such as Littorai, Flowers and Williams Selyem, as well as others, came to Hirsch to buy his fruit. And, in 2002, Hirsch began producing wine under their own name.

The Hirsch Vineyards, located three miles from the Pacific Ocean and one mile from the San Andreas Fault, sit above the fog line at more than 1,200 feet. Today, there are 60 parcels of pinot noir planted on 68 acres and each vineyard is influenced by the fog. Hirsch Vineyards is biodynamic, although they do not make a big deal out of this. They take incredible care in the vineyard, as described by Jasmine Hirsch, because they are “farming to make wine, not farming to make grapes.” Today Hirsch Vineyards is considered the oldest premium vineyard in the area.

Jasmine Hirsch, who took over as general manager in 2015, led the seminar at World of Pinot Noir, along with winemaker Anthony Filiberti. The first flight in the seminar explored four micro-terroirs from unique sections of Hirsch Vineyards. The flight focused on four wines from the 2014 vintage, a year that gave good quality fruit and rather large yields.

— Hirsch Vineyards West Ridge Estate Pinot Noir 2014 — The best fruit from 25-year-old vines from the cool West Ridge of Hirsch, the wine is elegant with soft tannins and bright red fruit notes. There is an ethereal quality to this wine.

— Hirsch Vineyards Block 8 Estate Pinot Noir 2014 — Planted in 1993, Block 8 is a powerful and complex wine with elegant tannins.

— Hirsch Vineyards “Raschen Ridge” Estate Pinot Noir 2014 — Sourced from the highest elevation vineyards, the vines are 15-years-old. 2014 was the first vintage of this wine. It is a beautifully structured wine with concentrated fruit notes on the palate.

— Hirsch Vineyards East Ridge Estate Pinot Noir 2014 — These 25-year-old vines come from the warmest part of the vineyard. The wine is powerful with aromas of floral and spice. On the palate, there is an elegant depth of flavor.

The second flight was a vertical tasting of the San Andreas Fault Estate Pinot Noir. The San Andreas Fault is the Hirsch Vineyards’ signature pinot noir, blending fruit from more than 30 of the parcels. It is the one wine that represents the entirety of the Hirsch vineyards and shows the complexity of the vineyards. While the first flight explored some of the micro-terroirs of the vineyards, this flight highlighted the vintage variation which can vary due to the complexity of the site.

— Hirsch San Andreas Fault Estate Pinot Noir 2014 — A very good vintage that produced good quality grapes, the 2014 has notes of lavender and rose petals.

— Hirsch San Andreas Fault Estate Pinot Noir 2013 — A generally good vintage that resulted complex and concentrated wines, the 2013 has aromas of pomegranate and cherry.

— Hirsch San Andreas Fault Estate Pinot Noir 2012 — A warm vintage in the beginning, 2012 produced grapes with thick skins. The 2012 has aromas of black cherry, espresso and earth with a tart finish.

— Hirsch San Andreas Fault Estate Pinot Noir 2011 — Considered one of the worst vintages in California, the 2011 was a good vintage on the coast. The 2011 has cherry notes balanced by earthy aromas.

Every successful vineyard has a visionary behind it who saw the possibilities before anyone else. David Hirsch saw this potential when he bought a sheep farm in 1978 and turned it into one of the premier vineyard sites in the country.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.