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Walnut Creek Magazine

Headed North? Check out Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery

Sep 27, 2017 06:14PM ● By Fran Miller


When describing Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery, it’s tempting to use superlatives. Close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, high elevation, and diverse terroir set Fort Ross Vineyard apart in the fine wine world, and this sublime topographical influence is represented in the winery's expressive and nuanced wines.

Located in Jenner, in the far western reaches of the Sonoma Coast in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA (formed in 2012 and distinguished by its elevation and proximity to the ocean), Fort Ross is the westernmost vineyard in California.The Fort Ross vineyard is a matrix of 32 small blocks, planted on 53 acres of hillside meadows and coastal ridgetops that plunge into canyons with dense forests of redwoods, coastal oaks, and madrone. The elevations of these vineyard blocks range dramatically from 1,200 to 1,700 feet, just above the coastal fog. The winery offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean.

Lester and Linda Schwartz purchased this slice of heaven in 1988. South African natives who immigrated to the Bay Area in the 1970s, they were told they’d be crazy to plant vineyards on this rugged terrain. Undeterred, and after years of extensive trials and painstaking work, they were rewarded, as the site proved capable of producing truly distinctive wines. Today, the duo work closely with winemaker Jeff Pisoni, who came to Fort Ross as winemaker in 2009. His approach is gentle and minimalistic, with the aim of producing wines that truly express the terroir and topography of this unique coastal vineyard where temperatures range between 55 and 85 degrees and soil types vary greatly. “The soils are like an Indian spice market,” notes Linda. “With such variety in soil, elevation, orientation, it took endless trials, not to mention meticulous planning, to get the right varieties and rootstocks planted in appropriate blocks. 

But Pisoni’s minimalistic approach doesn’t mean the wines are made without care. At harvest, blocks are hand-picked individually into small picking trays, and then hand sorted. All of the wines – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinotage – are fermented using native yeast, which lengthens the process and changes its dynamic. According to Pisoni, it takes longer to initiate fermentation with native yeast, and the progression is slower, “but the results are more distinctive and complex.” 

Farming vineyards in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, with its relative remoteness, steep, mountainous terrain, and low yields, is not for the faint of heart. The region boasts just a handful of growers, but some of California’s finest producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have vineyards here, including Flowers, Wayfare, and Martinelli. But Fort Ross Vineyards is the only one in the AVA with a tasting room. And getting there is a thrilling journey -  a 2.6-mile climb up the spectacular Meyers Grade Road off Pacific Coast Highway 1 near Jenner at the mouth of the Russian River. Winding through high meadows, oak trees, and thick redwood forests, the road rises up out of the ever-present fog and into sunshine, giving the sensation of floating above the clouds. The reward is a beautifully appointed, open, airy tasting room housed in a rustic barn-like structure. With three cupolas and a classic water tower, the redwood-colored, LEED-certified building blends seamlessly with the landscape. Its gardens are filled with swaying grasses, heirloom roses, native plants and trees, and proteas, the native flower of South Africa.

The tasting room offers both indoor and outdoor tasting spaces, including a spacious deck with a panoramic view of the redwood forests and coastal landscape beyond. Flights of wines vary with the season, but include tastes of the Fort Ross Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinotage as well as special cuvée releases. Charcuterie plates featuring locally-sourced cheeses and salumi are also available.

In 2018, Fort Ross will mark the 20th anniversary of the planting of this remarkable vineyard. Few vineyards in California possess the striking vistas and extreme topography of Fort Ross, and few wineries offer such a varied and distinguished array of wines from a single site. It’s not an overstatement to say that it’s worth a visit.

Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery: 15725 Meyers Grade Road, Jenner, CA

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