Growing grapes on hillsides or mountains is a whole different ballgame than harvesting them from flat, valley floor vineyards. In every region I visit, the magical landscapes and vistas that high elevations present translate into very special wines with concentrated flavors. Why? Because rocky, infertile soils, such as those you encounter at great heights, restrict vine growth, force roots deep into the earth and yield a small crop of tiny but intensely flavored grapes. It’s both windier and sunnier the higher you ascend. Think Hermitage in the Northern Rhone, Brunello di Montalcino in Tuscany, Peter Michael Winery from Sonoma’s Knights Valley, the Adrianna Vineyard that Catena has planted way up in Gualtallary, Mendoza, the Grand Crus of Alsace, the legendary specially designated single-vineyard Einzellagen of the Mosel and Rhine Valleys, single quinta, or vineyard, Port bottlings in the Douro, like Taylor’s Vargellas, and countless others emblazoned in my memory in Spain, California, Israel’s Golan Heights, Chile’s Alto Maipo, and elsewhere: all memorable, unique and on steep, rugged inclines.
It’s estimated that the difficulty of cultivating vines by hand on hillsides (which is the only practical way, as tractors cannot navigate the inclines) is more expensive by a significant factor of at least three to five times, compared to farming flatter vineyards. Add this additional expense to the extra cost involved in lower tonnages per acre and it’s no surprise that mountain or hillside vines produce artisanal wines that often command a high price. We love the minerality and tight, focused flavors these highly structured wines offer, especially as they help accent subtleties in our seafood. Two vineyards we will highlight here, one from Sonoma, the other from Napa, are exceptions to the high cost rule. Why? Because they originate on estates that have owned the land they cultivate for many decades, prior to land prices in California’s North Coast skyrocketing, back in an agricultural era when grapevines constituted only one among several crops, growing alongside walnuts, figs, olives, wheat, apples and pears.
Clay Mauritson’s Sonoma vineyards are mostly in the aptly named Rockpile appellation. Wholly encompassed by the Dry Creek AVA, it’s one of a handful of US districts that require vines to be situated at a minimum altitude above sea level (in this case 800 feet, although virtually all of the vines are over 1,000), to qualify. Clay’s family has owned the land at Rockpile since the 1860s, but it’s only in the last 20 years that they have begun to make their own wine. And what delicious wine it is! Overlooking Lake Sonoma, and just about 15 miles from the Pacific, the Mauritson Rockpile vineyards experience no fog, but are exposed to strong sunlight, extreme winds, and moderate temperatures, a winning combination for producing balanced Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Their hallmark is purity, intensity and bold fruit flavors. Also, reverence for the land is essential. Clay pointed out on a recent visit that the vines are so steeply situated that one possible strategy for farming them might be to construct terraces, but his conviction is that as a sixth generation steward of the land, this would dramatically and irreversibly change the natural contours in a way that would upset the natural ecosystem. His Zinfandels in particular, drawn from Rockpile and the rest of Dry Creek, are beautifully balanced and manage to taste elegant while also being quite bold. A preview of coming attractions: we are trying to secure enough quantities to pour the current vintage by the glass at select locations starting in a few months.
For decades, Napa’s Mayacamas Vineyards, situated near the summit of Mt. Veeder in the Mayacamas Range that divides Sonoma from Napa, have been virtually synonymous with classic California mountain Cabernet that can age for decades. The property, which ranges from 1,800 to 2,400 feet above sea level, has an iconic stone winery that dates to 1889. Since former Screaming Eagle winemaker Andy Erickson took over in 2011, the wines have continued to improve. As James Laube of The Wine Spectator has written, "Mayacamas Vineyards is one of the greatest Cabernet Sauvignon producers in the history of California. For those who long for great red wines that cellar with conviction and evolve in the course of time into brilliantly complex and compelling wines, Mayacamas Vineyards remains one of the brightest stars in the constellation of California wine." The uncompromising 100% varietal red wines are only released when ready to drink, so older vintages are often available.
We have been fans of the Mayacamas Chardonnay, with its beautifully understated, mineral notes and aromas of pear, bread dough, lemon and vanilla. It’s a wine of great purity that we recommend with all medium textured grilled fish. We’re excited to offer this wine, the Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and two vintages of the legendary Cabernet (2009 and 2012) at a winemaker dinner offered at Park Square on April 18. Presenting the wines will be Estate Director Jimmy Hayes, and the menu is still in development, but if you’d like further information or to make reservations, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the reasons we’re bullish on both Mauritson and Mayacamas is that their hillside terroirs, one in Sonoma and the other in Napa, impart stony, sharply etched flavors that complement food extremely well. I invite you to try some of our hillside and mountain selections with our great seafood dishes and experience it for yourself.
Sandy Block, Master of Wine