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
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
- 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:
1. Getting there (Can you say STEEP?)
2. What's so special about Sonoma Coast climate?
3. Who put the Meeting in Camp Meeting
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
7. So where do these folks come from,
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..."
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