Small Vines Wines
There's a spot in the rolling hills of dusty 'Goldridge' soil west of the town of Sebastopol where you might think you've just stumbled across a little piece of Burgundy in Sonoma County.
It's not the soil, of course, but the way the vines are grown that's so reminiscent of the tightly packed, neatly trimmed vineyards of the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits. While most quality-driven winegrowing operations in Sonoma County have moved to closer spacing than traditional 10- or 12-foot rows, these narrow rows are only four feet across. Do they make such tiny tractors? They don't.
Winegrower Paul Sloan, who runs Small Vines Wines with his wife Kathryn Sloan, had to look to France to purchase a specialized tractor that glides over three rows at a time, on tall struts.
It's an unusual sight in Sonoma County, as are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines grown in this way. I even wondered if planting a vineyard in this style was a sort of conceit, a wishful thinking that copying the practices of the storied vineyards of Burgundy would produce the same result in California — the opinion held by my old viticulture instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College — until I visited with the Sloans and talked with them.
Sloan had the same viticulture instructor back in the 1990s, it turns out, and he joked that Sloan wanted to farm tomatoes, not grapes! But Sloan persisted, respecting his mentors in grape growing while going his own way.
One of the keys to this approach, says Sloan, is that the setup allows for more shading of the fruit zone, where the grapes hang from the vines as they ripen, during critical times of the day. To do the same, vines on an 8-foot spacing would have to be 8 feet tall!
Also, somewhat counter-intuitively, Sloan says that the devigorating rootstock, in close spacing, is fairly drought tolerant. Small Vines uses organic practices for the health of the soil, and their workers and family, but is not certified by a third party.
Sloan learned growing techniques from Burgundy luminaries like Lalou Bize-Leroy, but it's expensive to farm this way. While Small Vines wines may seem on the higher end, price-wise, the vignerons of Burgundy are selling theirs for hundreds more.
Lovers of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir will find a lot to like in Small Vines entry-level version, the 2014 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($55). It's a blend from vineyards, all farmed the Small Vines way, in the Sebastopol area (which overlaps the Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley appellations). Here are raspberry cola and spice aromas mingling with a wild, cherry liqueur note, yet the palate is fresh, crushed strawberry, the tannins Goldridge-sandy on a wide finish.
Oak is very understated here, just 7–10 percent new barrels being used, says Sloan, and the 2014 TBH Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($82) gives just a waxy hint of oak, less spice than the previous wine, and again, that intense, pure strawberry note.
The top Chardonnay selection, 2014 TBH Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($72), too, wafts a hint of waxy oak over enticing, yet subdued aromas of something like caramelized lees and candied lime peel. It's barrel-fermented Chardonnay that doesn't reek of toasty oak or candy apple, and four years after the vintage, could even be cellared another season or two.
I loved the pick that didn't make the cut for the TBH, the 2014 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($55) from the vines to the west of the new tasting room. It shows age, but the aromatic does not exactly speak of oxidation. It's almost exotic, because it's not often one tastes a Chardonnay that's aged like fine white Burgundy, but not volatile — hazelnut oil, maybe, and a shortbread cookie spiced with eucalyptus. The palate's a surprise: juicy, lime, fresh to the core, lightly framed with that butter cookie.
Yes, for Burg fans, I believe the price may be quite reasonable.
Small Vines Wines, Sebastopol, 707-823-0886. Wine tasting by appointment only, $100 per guest or three bottles purchased per person.
Down the Road
So what are we going to do with those three bottles of wine apiece, now? Uncork one at a nearby restaurant in Sebastopol: find local farm-to-table dining and other recreation and wine tasting options in the nifty West Sonoma County Field Guide, available at Handline restaurant and other locations.
Or head on down to The Barlow center, a revitalized food, wine and shopping complex that used to house a cannery run by the Barlow family — the very same whose original 1892 homestead is now occupied by Small Vines.