Red Car Wine & the West Sonoma Coast
“Going back five, seven or eight years ago, there was a feeling of a gold rush on the West Coast, a search for a Grand Cru site,” said Carroll Kemp of Red Car Wine. “The golden era of Napa had waned.” As a part of the second generation of vintners and winemakers to join the ranks of the true West Sonoma Coast, Kemp follows on the heels of the “true pioneers” such as David Hirsch, who founded his Fort Ross vineyard 1980; David Cobb of Coastlands Vineyard who purchased their “Big Rock” vineyard in Occidental in 1988; and Summa Vineyards in Taylor Lane, which was planted by Steve Young in 1979. “They wrote the early history,” said Carroll, “but not many followed.”
Founded in 1987, the Sonoma Coast Appellation as we know it was created by Brice Jones–of Sonoma-Cutrer fame. “The boundaries of the AVA are confusing,” said Kemp. “The job of an AVA is to bring clarity to the consumer, [but Jones] created a giant AVA so he could sell wine grown and vinified in the same area. It’s a giant AVA.”
Fast forward to 5-8 years ago, when Kemp was looking for property, he knew that the Sonoma Coast produced the best fruit. Having made wines with fruit from different areas, he knew which areas yielded the best juice, including Freestone, which offers the coolest climate; Sebastopol Hills, which is slight warmer; Occidental, which is warmer still; and Green Valley, which is the warmest of the four.
“Occidental, Green Valley, Freestone and Sebastol all have the best Goldridge loam because they were under water for so long,” said Carroll. Written by the San Andreas Fault, the history of Goldridge loam (“a fine grained shallow marine sandstone”) begins with the convergence of the teutonic plates, when the Pacific Plate slid beneath and lifted the North American Plate. The coastal ridges that ensued are home to this soil that is the most sought after for growing Pinot Noir.
When speaking of the similarities between the West Sonoma Coast and the Côtes de Nuits, Carroll pointed to the Winkler Scale (pictured above) that illustrates the number of Grower Degree Days in regions that favor Pinot Noir. In a maritime climate, the growing season comes to a gradual end, which prolongs the ripening period. “In California,” he said, “if lazy, you can have a month to pick, which leads to over-ripening.” In Burgundy, one doesn’t possess this luxury, because their continental climate brings winter quickly, which means that the growers must pick fast.
Looking to redefine this area that’s directly influenced by the coast, a band of like-minded wineries and growers, including Littorai, Failla, Freeman, Freestone, Peay and Red Car, came together to found the West Sonoma Coast Vintners. Embarking on a 5-10 year research project to identify potential AVAs and sub-regions, the group is hoping to redefine the area that’s known as the Sonoma Coast.
Awarded AVA status in December 2011, Fort Ross-Seaview is a wilderness with large, undeveloped parcels of land. With an estate of 113 acres, Carroll recently planted another 5.5 acres, to the 8.5 acres that were planted in 2005, totaling the acreage under vine to 14. To hydrate these new vines, whose roots aren’t yet deep enough to seek water themselves, Carroll built a reservoir noting that “the difference between grower estates and fruit growers is that wineries must be more disciplined to water less.”
In addition to these 14 acres in Fort Ross, Red Car also owns 12 acres on Taylor Lane, which is close to the Summa and Coastlands Vineyards. In addition to these two properties, they also lease a number of West Sonoma Coast properties, including Zepher Farms in Freestone; Bybee Vineyards, a 13-acre farm in Green Valley that provides the Pinot Noir for their rosé; and La Boheme Vineyard, a 4.5-acre plot in Occidental, where Carroll makes all of the farming decisions.
Much like their peers Peay and Littorai, Red Car is driven by the desire to make non-intervention style wines from fruit that’s grown and managed by the winemaker/owner’s hands. “Heaven & Earth can taste side-by-side,” said Carroll in reference to Kistler and William Seylem, who are of the first generation of wineries in Sonoma to demonstrate extraordinary success, “but most people don’t know it yet, because we’re of the third generation; and it wouldn’t have been possible without the second and first.”