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Pinot Noir's Promised Land

CONTINUING our interview with Joan and Walt Flowers of Flowers Vineyard & Winery

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     "Down there, strictly by hand," Joan says. "You could never get a tractor in there. Other parts of the vineyard are planted 5' x 8', which makes it easier."

     She added, "It's nice that you came on such a clear day. In the winter, it gets so foggy up here, you can't see anything beyond this porch. But in the summer, we're almost always above it..."

     "How far up does the fog come in summertime?"

     "Usually it comes up to about up to 900 to 100 feet -- but we're in the sun from sunrise to sunset."

Part 3. Who put the "Meeting" in Camp Meeting Ridge?

     "Tell me a little about this site. Why is it called Camp Meeting Ridge?"

     "The Pomo Indians used to camp here in the summer," says Walt. "Then settlers would camp here for religious retreats."

     But another kind of meeting figured larger in the vineyard's history.

     "When we announced our plans for a vineyard," Walt recalls, "some townspeople were afraid it would pollute the river and kill the coho salmon. They held a big meeting to hash it over and things got pretty heated.

     "Then George Charles stood up and asked to speak. He must be more than 90 now, God bless him, and his people were original settlers. No one dared say a word while he spoke his peace.

     "He said, 'My grandparents came here in a covered wagon, I've lived here more than 80 years, and I've never seen a coho salmon around here in my life.'

     "That pretty much ended the argument."

Part 4. Scaling Mt. Baldy

     We then clambered aboard the Flowers' 4x4 to visit their new vineyard, as yet unnamed.

     Camp Meeting Ridge rises 1350' above the sea, but the new vineyard is even higher up, by some 500 feet. As the crow flies, it's just four miles away, but the road winds crazily down and up, around rocks, trees and underbrush for quite a while.

     Then BANG, another glorious view. You can see a wild stretch of ocean coastline from here, and the beginnings of the canyons that funnel in the fog. Walt points north and says, "That's Odiyan over there. It's a community of Tibetan Buddhists. They chose this part of the coast because it's shaped like a dragon. They're at the head, and we're more in the center of the dragon."

      A big fence surrounds the planted areas to keep out boars, porcupines and other grape-eaters. Vineyard manager Greg Adams greets us near the gate, and we then drive up a VERY steep slope that the Flowers have affectionately dubbed "Mt. Baldy."

     Don't look down, folks. The grade here must be something like 40%, and there's nothing but one-foot high plantings between you and eternity.

     "Our winemaker at the time originally wanted vertical rows," laughs Joan. "Walt said 'Fine, but first take a day in the tractor. Ride up and down this grade, lay out a row yourself, then tell me how comfortable you feel.'"

     "And...?"

     "He took the tractor out for a day and came back with a very different opinion."

     "Did you have much clearing to do here?" I ask.

     "Yes," Walt says, "and the firefighters were enchanted that we did it. There had been a forest fire up here some time back, and the second growth was scrubby tan oak. That kind of cover is a major fire hazard and our vineyard is a valuable firebreak.

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

     Beautiful and well-situated as Camp Meeting Ridge is, the newer vineyard appears even more promising. The soil in the sector we're looking at now hardly deserves the name. There's a little red dirt, but it's mostly crumbled rock the kind that makes a Burgundy-lovers' heart pound with passion.

     "Steve Kistler saw this and said 'I'm in Burgundy,' Walt recalls. "The rock goes very deep and it fractures very easily. So the vines will send their roots way down. And the land drains beautifully. You can be out here with equipment the day after a rainstorm."

    Elsewhere the soil is finer and the rock is more solid, but all in all, this looks to me like a great place to grow finicky grapes.

Part 6. WARNING: WINE-GEEK TALK BELOW
(Skip this section if words like "clone" and "rootstock" send you to sleep)

     The Flowers started planting here in 1997, rebudding in the springs of 1998 and 1999. The rows are planted 4' x 7' with four different rootstocks -- each one specially matched to soil type. "Our goal," Walt explains, "was to match a more devigorating rootstock to the more invigorating soil. And vice versa. So you can have evenness and consistency."

     Between the rows, they've planted specially selected native grasses. When I asked Walt about the clones they've planted, he rattled them off without skipping a beat.

     "For Pinot Noir, we've got 667, Swan, 115, 113, 2A, 1A, 23, plus 3 different selections of DRC clone from the La Tache vineyard, and 7 different selections of Calera. We included the Calera and 115 to bring some of spice to the Pinot Noir."

    "For Chardonnay, we planted clones from Mt. Eden, Gauer Ranch, an Old Wente selection from Phelps plus the Old Wente clone from our own Camp Meeting Ridge vineyard, which originally came from Larry Hyde's vineyard.

     "Our Guaer Ranch budwood came from Peter Michael. We swapped some of our clones for it."

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

     If the Flowers seem right at home in the vineyard, there's good reason. They made their money in the nursery business about 3,000 miles away, on the East Coast.

     "My family before me were nursery people," Walt recounts. "My uncle was a very well-known landscape architect. When I got out of school, I worked for my uncle, and oh, that was back-breaking work. I went into the service just to escape it!

     "When I got out, I started to work for someone else's landscape company. Built it up, bought it and expanded it to about 1,000 acres."

     The nurseries were located around Yardley, Pennsylvania a residential area that serves New York, Philadelphia and the booming Route 1 corridor in central New Jersey. Land prices there have rocketed and the Flowers are now moving many of their growing operations to less costly sites near Chesapeake City, Maryland. I didn't ask, but would guess that the transfer is helping to fund the new vineyard plantings out here.

Part 8. Adventures in vineyard real estate

     The purchase of their gorgeous new Sonoma Coast vineyard is an intriguing real-estate tale in itself. As Joan tells it, "Our neighbors, the Bohans, owned 50% of the property. Leona Bohan took care of the owner when she was ill and was remembered in the will.

     "But the other half was owned by someone who wanted the hunting rights, and the two parties couldn't come to agreement. So they put it all on the market.

     "Originally they estimated that 28 acres could be planted to grapes, and the price they were asking was just too high for that amount of vineyard.

     "But Walt had a clever idea. He asked if we could mark out the plantable areas so the boundaries would be visible from the air. Then we took an aerial photo of the mountain.

      "When we looked at the photo and re-calculated the acreage, we figured we could plant nearly twice the original estimate. Fifty-five acres instead of 28! Suddenly the deal was possible."

Part 9. Meanwhile, back at the winery...

     Back on Camp Meeting Ridge, we visited the winery to sample the Flowers 2000 vintage. The building itself is cunningly dug into a steep slope of the mountain. This not only provides natural cooling, but also helps them make the wine without pumping. (Wine jargon for this is "gravity flow." The idea is to handle the wine as gently as possible.)

     Like the folks at Peter Michael, they also rack their barrels without pumping or undue exposure to oxygen. Instead, they force it out with inert gas and a device called a "bulldog pup."

     The open-top fermenters were custom-made by an outfit in Northern Italy, in different sizes to accommodate the different vineyard blocks. I find it hard to get excited about tanks, but I thought the hatches at the bottom were pretty neat they're rectangular instead of circular, which makes it easier to shovel 'em out.

Sampling the 2000 vintage

     I did not meet Flowers' new winemaker, Hugh Chappelle (formerly of Madrona Vineyards, 3,000 feet up in the Sierra foothills) or assistant winemaker Ross Cobb (the former enologist at Williams-Selyem), but I do get a sense that they're making good progress in their Pinot Noir program.

    From my own perspective, if you've got excellent grapes and Flowers does the next big hurdle to making Pinot Noir is managing the tannins. Get too little and your wine falls apart. Extract too much and the fruit gets canceled (many 1993 red Burgundies exemplify the latter). But if you get it just right, your Pinot Noir will display a smooth, silky texture.

     Previous Flowers releases have always displayed plenty of delicious fruit, but texture at times got a tad too gritty. They're obviously attempting to correct this and I like the results. Bear in mind that the following notes are for young barrel samples and that none of these components represents the final blend. Young Pinot Noir can really fool you -- some reviewers don't assign scores to Pinot Noir barrel samples and maybe they're wiser than I. But here's my take:

First we taste a barrel sample of ***+2000 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir Blocks 14/15/17a. The grapes here are a mix of Swan and 2a clones (the latter a predominant clone in Oregon) -- and the juice is showing fantastically well. Sensational aromas of ripe red raspberry and blackberry. Thick, velvety texture. Walloping finish. Wow!

Then comes *** 2000 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Blocks 2/15/16/17. Made from a combination of Swan, 2a, 1a, 23 and Pommard clones, this wine has a spicier nose, emphasizing the red fruit. The palate is raspberry essence, very generous, with a viscous texture.

**2000 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir Blocks 2b/2c features Dijon clones 115 and 113. Also very aromatic, this wine has leaner fruit and displays more structure.

Our last Pinot Noir barrel sample is the core blend for what will be the **2000 Flowers Keefer Ranch. The fruit here comes from Green Valley -- a sub-appellation of Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast. The clones are 777, 2a, Pommard and 115 -- and the wine tastes very different from the previous three. It's got a terrific floral nose and an outstanding finish. The mid-palate is a little numb right now, but this isn't unusual for young barrel samples.

     We also tasted a couple of Chardonnay samples, but the barrels had been sulfured recently and I found it hard to draw conclusions.

Part 10. New releases tasted from bottle

     It was far easier to assess the bottled wines we enjoyed over lunch:

**+1998 Flowers Porter-Bass Vineyard Chardonnay was made with fruit from a Sonoma Coast vineyard that's nestled in a canyon south of Camp Meeting Ridge. The wine is medium gold with floral aromas, papaya flavors and a mineral-laden finish. Beautiful stuff that could still use another few months in the cellar.

     But it was the 1999 Pinot Noirs that really turned my head:

***+1999 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir seduces you with aromas of potpourri and jasmine. Take a sip, and blackberries and raspberries burst on the palate. Flavors are still very primary, but the finish is long and the balance tells me this wine should develop well over the next 3-5 years. In particular, the structure seems more supple than in previous years.

And the ***1999 Flowers Van der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir is a little more restrained on the palate -- but far more open and generous than any other Pinot Noir from this vineyard that I've ever tried. At least two other producers buy fruit from this site on Sonoma Mountain, and I've found both efforts pretty lean and compressed. Flowers' own 1998 Van der Kamp was a very good wine, but the '99 is clearly a great leap forward.

     When I asked Walt if they did something new with the '99 Van der Kamp, he nodded and said that they eliminated all the punch-downs. Typically, when a wine ferments, the skins rise to the top, forming a "cap." If you punch down the cap, you'll extract more color and flavor, but usually more tannin as well.

     Sensing that the Van der Kamp was crying out for gentler treatment, they skipped the punch-downs and vinified a portion of the wine with submerged caps. (What you do is actually hold the cap down below the surface using slats.)

     Joan added that they have decided to hold back release of their '99s by an extra year, although mailing list customers will continue on the old schedule. The idea is to give the wines more time to develop and open up. Can't hurt, but I had no trouble sucking them down right now.

     I'll continue to report on Flowers wines as they are released and must admit I'm looking forward to that chore. More than ever, their new wines persuade me that the Sonoma Coast may indeed be California's Promised Land for Pinot Noir.

For more information about Flowers wines and how to obtain them, visit their website.

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