Napa’s Earthquake Is Not The Only Thing Shaking The Vineyards

Violence gave birth to more variations of soil than can be found in all of France. That makes for unparalleled wines, but also for the dangerous temptation to label every variety as unique.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Some time ago, say a few million years ago, several tectonic plates collided. The resulting geological violence created two adjacent valleys in northern California. Things never quite settled down and occasionally the earth still rocks, as it did in Napa a week ago.

“Now I know we’re on top of a fault,” said a friend of mine in Napa, surprised. Geology is a two-faced phenomenon. On the one hand it can bless you with exceptional land for growing grapes. On the other it can destroy you.

But even without help from a restless tectonic plate, folks in the Napa Valley get easily agitated. Just mention the word Sonoma. That would be the neighboring valley. Both valleys are lodestars of the Californian wine industry. Both produce some wines good enough to challenge the well-bred conceits of wine makers in Burgundy and Bordeaux. But easy companions they are not—it’s almost as though there is a cultural fault line to match the geological one.

For example, a winemaker I know in Sonoma took some family and friends to dinner at the French Laundry in Napa, the swankiest restaurant in the two valleys. He spent more than $1,000 on wine at the dinner. Not one of the wines came from Napa. The sommelier got the message.

Napa thinks of itself as aristocratic. The loftiest noses among the winemakers inhale the finest of scents from the tasting glass and proclaim another masterpiece. In Sonoma they behave more like farmers, happy running alluvial soil through their hands to sniff what it might promise in a grape, disdaining pretension.

Two pieces of history define the difference.

Nobody did more to establish Napa as a world player in serious wine than Robert Mondavi. Under his guidance (he generously inspired and assisted anyone who asked), land that had progressed from producing altar wine to bulk wine was, by the 1960s, beginning to produce fine vintage wines.

Mondavi also realized the value of coaxing trophy names from Bordeaux into opening wineries in Napa. He began in 1979 by uniting with Baron Philippe de Rothschild to invest $20 million in a winery to produce a Cabernet Sauvignon called Opus One. In 1982 he helped to persuade a rising superstar of Bordeaux, Christian Moueix, to make wine in Napa under the label of Dominus.

A bottle of the 2009 vintage of Moueix’ Bordeaux wine, Chateau Petrus, the most exquisite of all Merlots, fetches $4,500. Neither Opus One nor Dominus get even close to that eye-watering price—their best vintages sell for between $150 and $300 a bottle. But that’s not the point. With lavish wineries (Dominus’s 50,000 square foot winery was designed by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron) and their high aesthetic, the French gave a tone of social superiority to Napa that it freely indulges.

Now we have to skip west to Sonoma where, in the 1880s, Giuseppe Martinelli and Luisa Velletuni arrived as immigrants from Tuscany. The hills of the remote Green Valley Creek near the Russian River reminded Giuseppe of home. In a few years he scraped together enough money to buy a hill that he sensed had great potential for a vine that few bothered with, Zinfandel. Nobody else thought that his patch, on a 60-degree angled slope, was viable as a vineyard. Somebody said, “only a jackass would farm a slope that steep.” When Giuseppe arrived in the valley, apple orchards were the cash crop, not vines.

Fast forward to today. A bottle of the Martinelli Jackass Hill 2010 Zinfandel costs about $100—if you can find it. Among lovers of Zinfandel—including me—this is the Petrus of the category. After Giuseppe’s death his son Leno stuck with the project (other winemakers were still saying the effort was crazy) until he was 89; Leno turned it over to his son Lee. The Martinellis produce other great wines in Sonoma, but Jackass Hill with its very limited production is their pride and joy and the winery still has the feel of a farm, not an aesthetic showpiece.

It’s not surprising that Giuseppe found the Sonoma hinterland as bucolic as Tuscany, but closer to the Pacific the treeline was far higher and more majestic than anything in Italy. The coastal highlands are still thick with monumental redwoods, the youthful trunks pressed between the old and soaring a hundred feet or more. Long before vineyards lifted both the value and the appeal of land, northern California’s appeal was largely to outdoorsmen.

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In Europe valleys like Napa and Sonoma long ago developed the other arms of fine living that wine lovers expect, restaurants and hotels. Napa did that much sooner than Sonoma, during the 1970s and 80s, thanks to the sudden sophistication of its wines and an influx of wine buffs from San Francisco.

In Sonoma it had to wait for Burt Williams to show his hand. Williams was a typesetter in San Francisco when he had an instinct that in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley there was a microclimate ideal for making the wine he loved above all others, pinot noir. With partner Ed Selyem, Williams began making wine in 1981 from what was little more than an expanded garage. By the end of the 1980s the Williams and Selyem pinot noirs were fooling experts in blind tastings into saying that they were from Burgundy.

It’s only in the last decade that Sonoma has acquired an infrastructure of restaurants and hotels worthy of its wines, many of them in and around the attractive small city of Healdsburg. But as this happened, the winemakers who followed Williams and Selyem were busy damaging the reputation of the wines rather than spreading it.

It’s all about a finite precision in how a wine is labeled.

Because of the tectonic violence in which it was born, the Russian River Valley contains more variations of soil than in the whole of France. Colossal geological forces collided: the Pacific Plate, the North American Plate and the Farralon Plate. Volcanoes spewed lava and ash, ocean floors were thrust upward, sand and rock and shale settled into slurry. The soil variations are acute enough that they can differ radically from one side of a road to another. For example, up the road from Williams and Selyem is a winemaker of equal brilliance, Tom Rochioli, but his land, which begins on a rich alluvial shelf and extends into hills, has a wide range of characteristics in small lots each ideal for a different kind of grape.

In Burgundy, working with the same grapes, principally pinot noir and chardonnay, the quality and distinctiveness of a wine is authenticated by having its own appellation. The greatest Burgundies come from a low escarpment, the Cote d’Or, where the appellations are minutely prescribed, with 32 grands crus in a 30-mile stretch.

Everybody making pinot noir lives in the shadow of one tiny vineyard in Burgundy, the 4.4 acres of La Romanee-Conti. Its microclimate and soil cannot be replicated, nor can the wine (a bottle of the 1999 vintage fetches $1,795). In Bordeaux the astronomical prices for Petrus reflect another exact and inimitable act of nature and grape, the 28-acre vineyard’s unique crown of clay where Merlot—a notoriously skittish grape—surpasses all competitors.

In the U.S. the equivalent of an appellation is called an American Viticultural Area. An AVA is decided, incredibly, not by wine connoisseurs but by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. And it has become a system far more driven by the demands of branding and marketing than by recognizing clearly discrete locality. The most egregious example of how this works has been played out in the Russian River Valley.

The valley received its first AVA in 1983, when it covered 95,800 acres. That was already too large for it to accurately describe one definitive style in wine or even which grapes were used—there were many. However, once the valley’s reputation reached well beyond California and into the cellars of major restaurants in Chicago and New York because of wines like those made by Williams and Selyem, others wanted to ride on their coat-tails.

The three words, Russian River Valley, were in the process of becoming a brand, not a wine. The Russian River Wine Growers Association, dominated by bulk producers, pushed to expand the AVA, and in 2005 the ATF granted an extension to 126,600 acres, or around 150 square miles. Even that was not enough. In 2011, largely because of pressure from the Gallo wine empire, it was extended again to more than 169,000 acres. (Within it there is a small sub-zone called Green Valley.)

The result is that the term Russian River Valley on a label is meaningless. I have tasted pinot noirs made within a mile or so of the Williams-Selyem vineyards on Westside Road that were spectacularly awful—thin, tart and unbalanced. On the same road, Tom Rochioli makes chardonnays that raise this over-produced grape to the same heights as many on the Cote d’Or, while nearby other chardonnays from vastly inferior land are little better than jug wine.

Those supporting the ballooning and indiscriminate Russian River Valley appellation use the specious argument that it should not be confined to the relatively narrow path of the river from an inner plain through the hills to the Pacific. They say that all the AVA’s vineyards—no matter how far they are from the actual river—are on land that drains into the Russian River, and which comes under the influence of the vast, endemic octopus of maritime fog that moves from San Francisco Bay and Bodega Bay into the river valleys and cools them, becoming a decisive agent in the mystical alchemy of wine making.

This is nonsense. Any appellation this large has the effect of creating, at best, a huge mid-band of mediocre wines selling at supermarket prices that don’t deliver any message particular to place, as well as a glut of really nasty cheap wine, while the wines of real integrity have to establish reputations of their own and are often not apparent to anyone but dedicated wine buffs.

And it would be nice if in both Napa and Sonoma they were able finally to gain the self-esteem to break free of comparisons with European prototypes. You never hear a Bordeaux wine maker say his wine can hold its own with a bottle of Opus One, or a Burgundian say his pinot noir reminds him of a Rochioli. Maybe then Napa and Sonoma could get the chops to design an appellation regime of integrity.

When it comes to Zinfandel no comparisons are possible between France and California because no relationship exists. For a long while Zinfandel was the mystery grape, apparently sui generis except that nobody knew where it came from. It was introduced to California in the 1850s by a Hungarian nobleman, Agoston Haraszthy, although there is no record of how or where he got hold of it. (Experts suspect its origins were in Apulia, southern Italy, where Primitivo is similar…or in Yugoslavia. Whatever.)

In any event, thanks to Jackass Hill and some other growers who saw that it was a perfect match for certain microclimates and soils in Sonoma, Zinfandel is really an all-American phenomenon. At its best it’s what I call a deep wine, with a darkness than contains layers of fruit flavors all held together until the mouth discerns their individuality. This is a wine for meat and game, as good as many that cost many times as much simply because they have a French or Italian provenance.

The best Zinfandels come from either the Martinelli vineyards in Green Valley or from the Dry Creek Valley, directly north of the Russian River Valley. West Dry Creek Road has a bunch of good Zinfandel vineyards, of which Rafanelli is, in my experience, the best. Rafanelli has 15 acres of Zinfandel on a fold of small hills that look like clove-spiked turkey breasts.

But the Rafanellis are cranky. The family has been there since the early 1900s, selling as much as they can make only from the vineyard, never from retail outlets. Some time ago I called in search of a case of a good vintage. I was told to return the next day but could not, so I didn’t get the wine. A wine critic friend of mine asked for an interview with the winemaker but was told it was “inconvenient.” A sommelier told me that his name for the family was “Rudinelli.”

All this makes me want the wine even more, but the only way I can fulfill the dream is to hunt for it on a few restaurant wine lists.

Zinfandel’s reputation suffers from the thousands of gallons of white and pink versions churned out by bulk producers, an abomination. In the hands of those who really understand it nothing better comes out of California. Sometimes, drinking it, I can feel the earth move.