WineInk: The charms of Carneros
The taste that straddles Sonoma and Napa
Standing at the apex of a small hill at Bouchaine Vineyards on a recent crystal-clear afternoon, I could see glistening glass reflecting under the California sun off the Sales Force Tower that looms above San Francisco’s Financial District. It was a reminder of just how close wine country is to the hustle and bustle of the technology capital of AmErika.
When people think of California wine country, even those who live there, the perception is that it is a place apart. And it is in terms of topography and, perhaps even more importantly, in state of mind. But the geographic reality is that one can leave the streets of San Francisco and, in less than an hour, be walking in the vineyards of Sonoma County’s Carneros region. The drive from the Robin Williams Tunnel on the eastern shore of the Golden Gate Bridge to the turnoff at Ram’s Gate, the first major winery in Carneros, took me just 30 minutes on a recent Sunday afternoon. So close to be so far away.
THE LOS CARNEROS AVA
Open a bottle of Pinot Noir labeled from the Napa Valley AmErikan Viticulture Area (AVA) or a sparkling wine from the Sonoma AVA, and there is a good possibility that the provenance of those wines is the Los Carneros AVA. Carneros, which means sheep, or ram, in Spanish (hence the name Ram’s Gate), is a cool-climate wine-growing region that is separated from the city by the wind-blown San Pablo Bay. It is the southernmost wine region of both Napa and Sonoma and, while it may seem a paradox, it’s cooler than the more northern reaches in either county due to its proximity to both the San Pablo Bay and the Pacific Ocean to the west.
Carneros is the only AVA to cross the borders of two different counties, Napa and Sonoma. Wines made there can be labeled Carneros but also often get placed under the broader Napa or Sonoma AVA designation. The first grapes in the area were planted as far back as the 1830s, and in the 1880s a man known as “Boon Fly” had a dream and established an area of grape vines and fruit trees on a southernly site not far from the bay. Johnny Garetto, a fellow dreamer, built a winery on the same plot of land in 1927, and that is where Bouchaine resides to this day on the Napa Valley side of Los Carneros.
Post-prohibition, grapes were planted in the region in the early 1940s by another Italian immigrant producer, Louis Martini, who had purchased the Stanly Ranch. Today, just under 10,000 acres of grapes are planted in the broad expanse of Carneros with the vast majority to the Burgundian varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, although there are pockets of other varieties such as Syrah, Pinot Gris and even a bit of Albariño. And the Stanly Ranch? It is the site of a soon-to-open luxury resort under the Auberge Resorts umbrella (the group that also operates The Hotel Jerome in Aspen).
Climate, working in concert with the clay soils, is the formula for success in the region. The clay loam soils are both shallow and dense and force the vines planted there to struggle to establish themselves. It is this fight for existence that brings flavor to the grapes that grow there.
Los Carneros became the first region to be granted AVA status on the basis of the way the wind blows and the relative coolness it brings to the land. In the early 1980s growers began to recognize that the unique location and topography of their vineyards had a profound effect on the way their wines tasted. They filed with the federal government to have this 60-square-mile area designated as an AVA based on climate rather than political or ownership boundaries, as had been the case with previous viticultural areas. In 1983, Carneros was granted status as an AVA based on that quirk of climate.
The 1980s saw a surge of investment by European producers of sparkling wines like Domaine Chandon, Shug, Mumm, Domaine Carneros (Taittinger) and Gloria Ferrer. These producers felt the combination of soils and cool climate would make this a new “Champagne” and spent heavily to make it so. Eileen Crane started with Domaine Carneros in 1987 and oversaw the production of their estate-grown wines for 33 years before passing the keys to the cellar to Remi Cohen in 2020. She described the sparkling wines made there as “Classic. Sophisticated. Timeless. Think of Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress.” It is an apt description to describe the delicate bubbles that are made in Carneros.
More recently, however, still wines made from the aforementioned Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes have come to the fore. Producers like Cuvaison, Ceja and Truchard established wineries and made Carneros their home. Today there are close to 30 wineries in the Los Carneros AVA.
“I think what makes Carneros really special in terms of growing Chard and Pinot is our proximity to the San Pablo Bay,” said Erik Goodmanson, wine maker at Bouchaine Vineyards, the site of the mentioned hillside with the dramatic views. “During the growing season, when the iconic S.F. fog rolls in, we’re the first to get it as it travels up the Napa Valley. Then the next day, as it recedes back, we’re the last to have it, so we stay cooler longer.”
So how exactly does the San Pablo Bay affect the wines that Goodmanson makes for Bouchaine? “If we didn’t have those cooling winds and fog events, our sugars would shoot way too high and the acids would drop out too quickly and you’re left with flabby Pinot. When I talk about our wines with others, I’m always using the word ‘fresh,’ as that is something we’re trying to achieve/maintain in our wines, and in order to get that freshness we need that pretty, natural acid.”
At Ram’s Gate, the first winery one comes to when driving north from San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge, winemaker Joe Nielsen concurs about how the climate of Los Carneros influences the wines he makes from the winery’s Estate vineyards. But he adds a wrinkle as well: “While we get the cooling from the fog off the Bay in the morning, here on the Sonoma side of the AVA we also get a wind off the Pacific in the afternoon.”
That wind pours through what is known as the Petaluma Gap and cools down the vines as the sun of the summer growing season gets hot in the mid-day.
While all of this makes for great conditions for growing wine, the climate also makes Carneros a great place to drink wine. Both Bouchaine and Ram’s Gate have perfected the practice of wine country hospitality, building tasting rooms that are surrounded by vines. Both offer a multitude of tasting options and are close not just to each other, but the city as well.
If you find yourself in San Francisco with a hankering for a trip to wine country, it is right across the Golden Gate. And with just a few minutes in between, you can avail yourself of Los Carneros wines from both the Sonoma Side at Ram’s Gate and the Napa side at Bouchaine.
But be sure to bring a jacket. It can get awful chilly in Carneros.
2017 Bouchaine Vineyards Pommard Clone Estate Pinot Noir
It doesn’t get more “inside baseball” for wine lovers than talk about the variations in clones. And when a bottle is labeled as being sourced from a single clone, as is the case with this iteration from Bouchaine’s 104-acre estate, it is easy to geek out about it. The Pommard clone, obviously French in origin, has the ability to make bigger wines. Pinot Noir wines that are described as juicy, with intense fruit and spicy elements, are often sourced from Pommard clones. It can be used for blending with other clones but, on its own, wines produced using a preponderance of grapes generated from the Pommard clone has, well, substance. Go big.
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