I love the places where wine grows in spite of the adversity heaped upon it by the place, the climate, and the geology. I also love the places where wine grows despite all conventional wisdom to the contrary -- the places everyone else avoided, but where visionary winegrowers and winemakers have staked their claims and bet their futures.
Often times these two types of places are one in the same. Call them extreme vineyard sites. The places that most people would dismiss as infeasible for making wine, for one reason or another. Some of these places stay extreme, and the iconoclasts that pioneer them remain the only people crazy enough to keep at it. But others, over time, become accepted wine growing regions. Especially after one person or a few people succeed brilliantly.
In a way, this is how all new wine regions start, at least in the new world. Visionary people seek out new places to make even better wine, and then after a while, the world follows.
When, in 1988, Walt Flowers visited what would be the future site of his well known vineyards, the only way he could get there was to hike. The 380 acres of chilly ridge-top forest and sloping hillsides that cascaded down to the Pacific Ocean about 2 miles away were, in a word, remote. Which is exactly what Flowers wanted.
He built a road eventually, with stone quarried from the back of the property, and planted 40 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in what had only just recently become a designated American Viticultural Area known as The Sonoma Coast.
Walt Flowers and his wife Joan have always been plant people. They bought a 1 acre Pennsylvania nursery out of bankruptcy and over six years, turned it into the largest small tree nursery in the country. A nursery that big has to source its own trees, and thus began Walt and Joan's trips to California, and their experiences with California wine. They fell in love with both, and while there were better sources of trees up north in Washington and Oregon, they always used their trips to the West Coast as an excuse to spend a day or two in wine country. After a few years of this they were spending a day or two in Oregon and weeks at a time in Napa and Sonoma.
As nursery owners, their interest in wine naturally led to an interest in viticulture, and before they knew it they had befriended a number of winegrowers, and they had talked themselves into giving it a try.
In 1988 the couple sold their nursery to the employees, and ripped an advertisement out of the back of Wine Spectator that referenced a big plot of land on the Sonoma Coast that might (lots of question marks) have vineyard potential.
The first vines for Flowers Vineyard and Winery were planted in 1989 on a site that would become known as Camp Meeting Ridge, after the Flowers' learned that it had been a historical meeting place for the local Pomo Indian tribes. Almost 10 years later, Flowers would acquire another nearby vineyard named after the first Postmaid of Cazadero, Frances Thompson.
The estate vineyards are planted about 66% to Chardonnay and 33% to Pinot Noir. Remarkably, the Pinot Noir sections are populated with 22 different clones -- diversity being an important characteristic for Flowers.
At the time of the first vineyard plantings, Flowers had little company in the region. The Hirsch family had established a vineyard a mile or so inland about 8 years prior, but other than that, few people had experience growing grapes in such cool climates.
Through what can only be described as a remarkable combination of terroir, perseverance, talent, and even blind luck, Flowers not only managed to survive, but to make wine of exceptional character.
It has been my pleasure and privilege to own and taste Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Camp Meeting Ridge vineyard going back into the early and mid 1990's and they are truly excellent.
The wines are made with Burgundian values, which translates into excellent acidity, usually no more than 60% new oak, no fining, no filtration, and generally native yeast fermentations. They tend to age beautifully, and improve for a decade or more.
At the moment, the winery produces 25,000 cases a year, including these single vineyard Pinot Noirs which are made in much smaller lots.
A large equity stake in the winery was recently sold to Huneeus Vintners, marking a new chapter in the Flowers story. The reason for this, I am told, was simply that Walt and Joan are getting older, and their only heir (a daughter of Walt's by a previous marriage) isn't interested in taking over the winery. They wanted a partner, and so went looking for someone to come in and make sure that the winery would continue to thrive without a strict dependence on them. After a long courtship they selected Huneeus, who owns several wineries around the world, perhaps most notably Quintessa in Napa.
My discussions with folks at Flowers indicate that basically nothing has changed there since the acquisition, which took place in January, and that not much probably will change for quite some time. At least for now, Huneeus is interested in making sure Flowers does what it has always done: turn out great wine.
I recently had the chance to taste the current releases of the single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, and here are my notes.
2006 Flowers "Sea View Ridge" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of bright raspberry fruit with hints of lavender, cherry, and green wood aromas. In the mouth it is juicy and bright with tart raspberry fruit that is laced with hints of sawdust. Softly textured with a long persistent finish and barely perceptible tannins, the wine is nothing if not utterly pleasant to drink. 350 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $100. Where to buy?
2006 Flowers "Frances Thompson Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light to medium ruby in color, this wine has a nose of tart cranberry and raspberry aromas that lean towards austere, with a hint of sawdust. On the palate the wine delivers on the tart promise of the nose with beautiful sour cherry and raspberry fruit borne on a silky texture that mingles with stony minerality and dusty earthen qualities through the finish. 300 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $105. Where to buy?
2006 Flowers "Camp Meeting Ridge" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a strong, alluring nose of bright cranberry and pomegranate aromas. In the mouth the wine is lush with bright cranberry and raspberry fruit with hints of plum, cola, and spices. Nice acidity balances the fruit perfectly amidst a satin texture that lingers along with a nice finish. Lovely. 500 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $105. Where to buy?