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Pinot Noir's Promised Land

Interview with Joan and Walt Flowers of Flowers Vineyard & Winery

(April 4, 2001) Sonoma Coast Sonoma Coast Sonoma Coast Sonoma Coast...

     Nearly every time I taste a jaw-dropping new California Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, it turns out to be from the same magical stretch of misty mountains.

  • Some of Steve Kistler's most magnificent new Pinot Noirs hail from here...
  • Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer grow their marvelous Marcassin Vineyard wines here...
  • Martinelli's charming new Charles Ranch Chardonnay was born here...
  • Peter Michael bought a whopping 390 acres here, intended for Chard and Pinot Noir...
  • Jason Pahlmeyer purchased 80 acres here (want to guess his plans?)...

     So when Joan and Walt Flowers of Flowers Vineyard & Winery kindly invited us up to visit their state-of-the-art set-up on Camp Meeting Ridge, high above the Sonoma coastline you might say we were, uh, happy campers.

     Starting with the 1994 vintage, the Flowers Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays have been praised by reviewers including me. But if my take from today is correct, the best is yet to come. They've got a new winemaker, a breathtaking new vineyard, and the '99s soon to be released are the most supple and complete wines I've tasted from Flowers.

     Let's get on out there now...

     NOTE: You may want to read this interview in several sittings, so I've broken it up into bite-sized sections. You can read it all the way through or hop to the parts that catch your interest. Click on any heading below to jump to that section:

Joan and Walt Flowers

Ocean View from New Vineyard

Vines at Camp Meeting Ridge
What's the scene at Flowers Vineyard & Winery? Click here to start your photo tour.

1. Getting there (Can you say STEEP?)

2. What's so special about Sonoma Coast climate?

3. Who put the Meeting in Camp Meeting Ridge?

4. The new vineyard at Flowers (Can you say STEEPER?)

5. "Steve Kistler saw this and said 'I'm in Burgundy'"

6. Clones, rootstock and more wine-geek talk

7. So where do these folks come from, anyhow?

8. Adventures in vineyard real estate

9. Sampling the 2000 vintage

10. New releases tasted from bottle

Part 1. Can you say STEEP?

    Driving here from the more established Sonoma and Napa wine country is half the fun if you're a goat. First you wind along the Russian River to where it meets the Pacific Ocean, watching wineries and vineyards gradually give way to old-fashioned tourist inns and redwoods. Next you snake along oceanfront cliffs, minding the curves while your passenger goes "ooh" and "ah." Then you turn up a skinny little path and start to climb and climb and climb...and just when you think the "up" part is over, you see a sign advising you to shift into low.

     Happily, the roads are dry today. We arrive atop Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard in one piece, get out of the car and now this view is really something.

     Look east and you can see all the way out to Mt. St. Helena, where you started two hours ago. Turn a bit to your left and you'll see a little white speck that's Marcassin Vineyard...then the Charles Ranch...3 Sisters Vineyard...Hirsch Vineyard...and the original site where vinifera vines were first planted on the Sonoma Coast, a surprisingly recent 30 years ago.

Part 2. What's so special about the climate?

     If the Sonoma Coast is so great for grapes, why was it so late to the party?

     "The folks at Davis said it wouldn't work," explains Walt Flowers. "The original growers out here were the Bohans, who are still our neighbors. They settled in 1947 and tried a bunch of different things until they finally went against the experts' advice and planted grapes. That was in 1971 and their first harvest was 1973."

     So why does it work so well?

     "Camp Meeting Ridge has a very moderate climate because it's less than 2 miles from the Pacific. That helps the fruit ripen more slowly." (Long "hang times" are generally good news for grapes, but especially Pinot Noir.)

     "When did you harvest last fall?," I ask.

     "Our 2000 harvest started on October 15, but this was an interesting year. In some blocks, we had to harvest one side of the vine nearly two weeks before the other side! It was a small crop, with small-sized clusters."

     "Looks to me like the Camp Meeting Ridge vineyard is closer to the ocean than some of your neighbors. Does that make any difference?"

     "Oh yes," says Walt. "During the growing season, it can be 5 to 10 degrees cooler than at the Bohans, just two-thirds of a mile to the east -- and 10 to 15 degrees cooler than other vineyards that are one to two miles further inland. In the winter, we're often a bit warmer than those vineyards, with average temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees."

     Now we're on the back porch of their home, looking down at some closely planted rows of Pinot Noir. This particular plot is planted meter by meter, in the French way -- about 4,000 vines per acre. The rows march straight down the steep slope.

     "How do you care for them?," I inquire. "Doesn't look very machine-friendly..."

CONTINUED on next page. Click here to go to there...

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