The Fog Of Wine

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The New York Sun

One morning last month, ocean-borne fog lay thick outside my hotel room in Sebastopol, a small city in Sonoma County’s little-known Green Valley wine country 40 miles north of San Francisco.Three hours later, as I stood on the veranda of the Miramar Estate Winery in the low hills a few miles away,the fog was only just beginning to lift.

That feast of fog, and the cool air that comes with it, is what gives distinction to the Green Valley American Viticultural Area, nestled within the larger Russian River Valley AVA. The silent gray wave slips in from the ocean through an opening in the coastal mountain range called the Petaluma Wind Gap to the south, as well as through the mouth of the Russian River to the north, making Green Valley the foggiest viticultural area in the California wine country. That may not do much to lift the spirits of the locals or visitors. But it does great things for wine grapes that thrive in coolness, especially chardonnay and pinot noir. The area is so cool, in fact, that it is one of the few places in California wine country where no cabernet sauvignon is planted: It simply cannot ripen here.

“We have a more sharply delineated taste profile than any other AVA in California,” said Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards, established by her parents in Green Valley in the mid-1970s.I checked out Ms.Sterling’s assertion by tasting dozens of wines during last month’s Green Valley Symposium, sponsored by local wineries and growers. I came away convinced that there is indeed a Green Valley taste profile, albeit one that melds with that of the larger Russian River appellation. The wines have exceptional zing and freshness, whether white, red, or sparkling. Instead of the thick-fruited ripeness of vines roasted by the sun elsewhere in Sonoma, as in Dry Creek Valley to the north, these Green Valley wines tend to transparency in texture and flavor.Their flavors insinuate rather than attack head-on. And, while alcohol levels are climbing elsewhere in California, reaching as high as 18%,they remain blessedly moderate in Green Valley, often coming in at less than14%.You can drink an extra glass or two of these wines and not wake up in the morning with a hammer banging in your head.

While Green Valley hosted some vines in the 19th century, it had shifted over to apple orchards (notably Gravensteins) by the 20th century, when the area was considered to be too cold for fine wine grapes other than hardy French Colombard. In the early 1970s, the Duttons, a local farming family, disregarded “expert” advice and planted chardonnay, then pinot noir, in Green Valley. Soon the orchards gave way to vineyards. Now the low rolling hills of Green Valley are home to eight major wineries and about 100 grape growers. Their vineyards are typically planted on Goldridge soil, a sandy loam that, along with the fog, lends a distinctive profile to Green Valley wines.

Despite the specific grace and liveliness of its best wines, the Green Valley name is relatively unknown – in part because some wineries that are entitled to the designation, including Dutton Ranch, choose to use the higher profile Russian River Valley appellation instead. Even after the 1985 summit marking the end of the Cold War was toasted with a Green Valley sparkling wine from Iron Horse Vineyards, the area remained obscure. Currently, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is inviting comment on a proposed name change for the area: “Green River Valley of Russian River Valley.” Though cumbersome, it will allow wineries in the appellation to incorporate both the better and lesser known designations on their labels. And, for wine drinkers yet to be introduced to Green Valley, that’s a good thing.

Recommended Green Valley of Russian River Valley Wines

IRON HORSE ESTATE CHARDONNAY 2002 ($24) Classic Green Valley, with its bright appley aromas and refined texture in the mouth. Long aftertaste. This white, I suspect, will age as gracefully as a good white burgundy, with earthiness emerging.

MARIMAR ESTATE CHARDONNAY 2003, DON MIGUEL VINEYARD ($25) More tropical fruit than the wine above, with pineapple dominant. Light-bodied and elegant, with deepest flavor on the aftertaste.

OROGENY SONOMA COUNTY-GREEN VALLEY PINOT NOIR 2004 ($27) Crystalline sparkle to this red from a new winery. Not big-bodied, but silky and ever so nimble on the palate. From a multi-vineyard blend selected by the talented winemaker Dan Goldfield. Beguiling pinot noir. “Orogeny” means mountain formation or upheaval, but this wine evokes a gentler landscape.

HARTFORD COURT ARRENDEL VINEYARD PINOT NOIR 2004 ($64) Exceeds Green Valley norms in its dark color, urgent aromas, and flavors of boysenberry and dark cherries. Comes from a vineyard that is exceptionally cold even for Green Valley. The frost alarm reportedly has gone off here in late August. Pinot noir seems to love it. This one is impressive.

TANDEM KEEFER RANCH PINOT NOIR 2004 ($45) Bright berry and clove aromas. Spicy, dark-fruited mouthfeel with black cherries coming on in the aftertaste. More full-throttle than most Green Valley pinots.

IRON HORSE WEDDING CUVEE 2003 ($25) Amid an array of bottlings by this sparkling wine specialist, Wedding Cuvee is best known. Three years of slumbering on its own yeasts gives the wine plenty of fresh-baked baguette texture. Composed of 85% pinot noir, 15% chardonnay.

The New York Sun

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