California is one of those states that provokes an array of images – pictures of jaw-dropping natural beauty that can range from the charming vineyards that are tucked within the numerous woodlands of Sonoma County to the magnificent views of the rugged central coastline in Big Sur to further down to the much visited stunning beaches of Santa Barbara. A wine producer in Sonoma called Landmark Vineyards recently compared three single vineyard Pinot Noir wines from great vineyards in these three different wine regions in California. One might automatically think that the most northern vineyard in Sonoma Country would be the leanest wine and the more southern vineyard in Santa Barbara making the richest but it is quite the opposite and it really shows the diversity of the topography of California with its various pockets that can produce a wide range of Pinot Noir excellence throughout the state.
Greg Stach first started with Landmark Vineyards 20 years ago and only took a brief break to work at another Sonoma wine producer in Russian River Valley early in his winemaking career. He was quickly called back to Landmark with an assistant winemaking position that led to him eventually becoming head winemaker. Before he started his journey as a winemaker he worked in the restaurant business as well as wine retail in northern California and quickly became a wine geek with the siren song of Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley in Sonoma County getting him hooked. Like a true wine geek, he became curious about wines from all over the world and his evident passion made many in the business around him suggest that he make the leap from wine buyer to winemaker. At first, becoming a winemaker seemed impossible as the science was too much for Greg when he first took enology classes at the University of Fresno in his early 20s but with a lot more age and experience under his belt, he went back to get his enology degree and he was back to his first love of making California Sonoma County Pinot Noir.
Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County
As much as Greg was obsessed with Pinot Noir from Sonoma County, he was also game to taste as much Pinot Noir from other wine regions in California throughout the years and as time went on, the wine areas within Santa Barbara, a place that had at one time been mainly known as a wonderful travel destination for those who wanted to avoid the crowded beaches of Los Angeles (two hours south of Santa Barbara) to take in the serene atmosphere of the Santa Barbara coastline, started to receive his attention. Over the years, various wine areas in Santa Barbara, such as Sta. Rita Hills, have made a name for themselves among wine connoisseurs as great wine growing places that were remarkably cool climate areas. In a lineup of three of Greg’s Landmark single vineyard Pinot Noir wines including one from Russian River Valley and one from Monterey, it is the southernmost of the three, the La Encantada Vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara, that has the coolest accumulative weather according to Greg.
Sta. Rita Hills “is in a much more windier climate” notes Greg and not only does it give the wine brighter red fruit, he believes that the grape skins thicken as a reaction from the intense winds and so the wines will have a lot more structure.
Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County
Four hours north of Santa Barbara is one of the most photographed places in California, the Bixby Bridge which is along a section of the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur. The majestically over-whelming view encompasses a palette of varying shades of blues reflecting from the Pacific Ocean while surrounded by heart-stopping jagged cliffs that are brought together by an elegantly designed bridge that brings a focal point that helps one to digest the over-whelming landscape. Just a half an hour away is the wine region of Monterey County and its most well-known sub-region Santa Lucia Highlands where Greg sources Pinot Noir grapes from the Escolle Road Vineyard, in the northern section of Santa Lucia Highlands.
The Escolle Road Vineyard is cool-climate as well and it is influenced by the fog and sea breezes from Monterey Bay yet it has a longer growing season, sometimes up to a month longer, and so it will get darker fruit and a distinctive “plum” character that sometimes has added notes of chocolate. Greg noted that the owners of this vineyard are also produce farmers and so if anything goes awry, the owners can bring over a crew of 100 to meticulously handle any challenges in their vineyard.
Russian River Valley in Sonoma County
And four hours north of Monterey is the famous Russian River Valley in Sonoma County with Greg’s Hop Kiln Vineyard – he noted that once they bought this vineyard in 2016, that “Landmark bought a landmark” as Hop Kiln has a remarkable history. The label of Landmark’s Hop Kiln single vineyard Pinot Noir with hop kilns on the label points to its history as a piece of land where Italian stonemasons built these large hop kilns in 1905 so they could grow hops and dry them. Eventually a disease wiped out the hops as ideally hops should be grown in an area that freezes every winter but as luck would have it, the hop farm was right next door to the Rochioli winery and vineyards – one of the most well-respected and sought after vineyards in the Russian River Valley. Through time, the property was planted with Pinot Noir as a known superior site and it ended up in Landmark’s hands as one of their most prized possessions.
The Hop Kiln Vineyard is in the Russian River Valley area called the Middle Reach which contains a who’s who of some of the most iconic producers and vineyards and it is known as well as the warmest area in the wine region. Just for contrast, Greg talked about their Rayhill single vineyard in the Sebastopol area of Russian River, one of the coolest areas, and he said that the wines were “vastly different”. But when it comes to the Hop Kiln Vineyard it is more complicated than it just being the warmest site as when it comes to temperatures “the highs are higher but the lows are lower” compared to the other two properties as Greg explained and that in general, Sonoma County, where the Landmark winery is located, will get a few days of intense heat during summer weeks but the latter part of the week will be countered by a few days of significantly cool weather as the fog is pulled in by the heat and cools things off until it dissipates; and the fog lingers for several hours more in the area of the Hop Kiln Vineyard compared to Greg’s experience at their winery in Kenwood, Sonoma County. Furthermore the Hop Kiln Vineyard is divided into different sections as the elevation varies by 300 feet from bottom to top and so some of the grapes can be richer and plusher while others more vibrant and fresh. And so the resulting wine has red cherry jumping out of the glass that is additionally highlighted with black and blue juicy fruit, sweet spice and a luxuriantly inviting body.
Greater Appreciation for What Started It All
Greg notes that his handling of these single vineyard Pinot Noir wines are similar in the winery for all three wines and includes trying to allow native fermentations when possible, using only free-run juice with no pressed wine added and small amounts of new French oak in cellaring the wines in barrel. Even when it comes to working with various Pinot Noir clones (different mutations of the Pinot Noir grape variety) in these vineyards he feels that those vines that reach ten years or older really display more of the sense of place, a.k.a. terroir, in the wine than the different characteristics of the clone. As it is really mainly about place for Greg, that is what he is always looking for in his single vineyard designates and the idea that he gets to work with one of his favorite grape varieties in different terroirs really makes this journey a constant thrilling experience.
But one cannot help but notice the extra glimmer of excitement when Greg talks about the Russian River Valley Hop Kiln Vineyard that represents where it all started for him. Tasting the wines of Rochioli was a game changer for Greg and he noted that he, like many others, started his wine journey with Pinot Noir “because it is approachable”. But after discovering Russian River Pinot Noir he went and explored the whole world, training his palate and his mental awareness of different styles and quality levels, but then he came back to Pinot Noir “because it is really the most complex red wine there is”. As what has a great appeal to many, such as the wine that everyone is fighting over at the party, doesn’t mean it is not the most complex and elegant as the idea that only wine geeks can get a truly great wine doesn’t always hold true in every wine situation. Sometimes great wines attract a diverse audience of wine lovers because it hits so many pleasure centers and just enjoying it is enough. Although for others, such as Greg, they need to taste the world of wines learning as much as they can to see what they are missing out on only to be led back to those wines in Russian River Valley that started it all… but with a greater appreciation of what these wines bring to the table.
2018 Landmark Vineyards, ‘La Encantada Vineyard’, Sta. Rita Hills AVA, California: Overall pretty and elegant wine with vibrant flavors of pomegranate and cranberries with aromatic rose oil notes balanced by earthy forest floor and energetic acidity with structured tannins.
2018 Landmark Vineyards ‘Escolle Road Vineyard’, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, California: Sucks one in with its deep and dark fruit and dark chocolate flavors that has contrasting hints of citrus peel that meld together to create a chocolate covered orange slices note with a richer body than the La Encantada Vineyard.
2018 Landmark Vineyards ‘Hop Kiln Estate’, Russian River Valley AVA, California: Singing with red cherries and rich blackberry and blueberry flavors with a background of baking spice, smoky minerality and earthy morels that danced across the plush body; a sweet and savory knockout punch with an intensely mineral edge.