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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

(continued from page 3)

Smith harvests his fruit as early as possible. "We're not trying to push the wines to the finish line," he says. He makes the wines in an industrial park near Santa Rosa that is devoid of tourist amenities. Then Murphy gives them precious, lowercase names like finn and chloe ("I like the way they look on the label," he says) and sends them out to a mailing list full of devotees.

It would all mean nothing if it was just marketing and hype. But DuMOL wines such as the Chardonnay isobel 2005, which will be released this November, have a personality all their own. Made from grapes grown in Green Valley, the isobel has caramel on the nose, a hint of old-world austerity to keep the piercing fruit honest, and a tranquility that's just about impossible to find in a Napa wine. They'll love it at Mayacama.

Flowers Vineyard & Winery: On the Edge
The drive from downtown Healdsburg to the Pacific Ocean takes an hour. The road winds along the Russian River, beneath redwoods that blot out all but deeply dappled sunlight. It ends beneath an inevitable blanket of fog on Highway 1.

A mile or so inland and about 1,500 feet up sits some of America's best Pinot Noir, grown in a string of vineyards that hug the coastline. This is a different Sonoma, a world away from the knolls and valleys near Jackass Hill. It sees few visitors and offers few amenities. Lunch is a piece of fish on a bun at one of the tumbledown tourist stops in Bodega Bay, with sea spray in your face. "Some people say their wines get the influence of the Pacific Ocean," says Tom Hinde, who left Kendall-Jackson after 16 years to run Flowers. "But we live in the influence of the Pacific Ocean."

At an unmarked mailbox off a windy mountain road, you'll find Flowers. At their nursery in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Walt and Joan Flowers spent the 1980s growing trees that needed two decades from planting to harvest. When they decided to move west and plant grapes, they weren't put off by the investment of several years. It seemed like immediate gratification by comparison.

They'd married in 1982 and filled a 120-bottle wine storage unit. That gave way to a 5,000-bottle cellar hidden behind a bookcase. Cool-climate Pinots and Chardonnays spoke to the terroirist in both of them. They still recall the wording of the tiny classified ad that Joan spotted in Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication, in 1989: "320-acre Sonoma Coast property. Vineyard potential."

They were readers, hikers, contemplators—not glamorous people. Yet Sonoma felt right. The couple bought the land in 1989, built a road and created infrastructure, then started making wine from purchased grapes in 1991. Their own vineyards came on line shortly thereafter. A 1996 Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir was served at the White House to 44 heads of state. "I think there was a lot of, 'Hey, who are these people?' after that," Joan says.

A decade on, the wines are magnificent—and utterly site-specific. The Camp Meeting Ridge 2004 shows cherry and spice, not the raspberries and strawberries of Burgundy or the straight-on richness of the Russian River Valley. A 2003 from the Frances Thompson vineyard is elegant yet firm, with the promise of many years ahead.

The typical yield is less than two tons an acre, but they don't need many bottles of anything to make the winery pay. With help from Flowers, the Sonoma coast has become one of California's hottest appellations, in less time than it would have taken to harvest one crop of trees.

Williams Selyem: The Passing of the Torch
For years, Williams Selyem meant the artistic vision of Burt Williams. Self-taught, focused to the point of obsession, he started making his Russian River Valley Pinot Noir in a garage in 1981 and almost single-handedly created a paradigm of greatness for the appellation. His tempestuous pride was legendary. If you innocently spit out his wine during a tasting, the tasting was over.

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