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GB: I had definitely been on the Bordeaux [variety] track earlier in my career, and could have done fine with that. Who knows what life would have looked like had I not come over to the Sonoma Coast and just stayed in Saint Helena. I think what really captivated me and had me bitten by the Burgundy bug was what was happening at Flowers: it was really the excitement over a paradigm shift for what these two grape varieties could be, something we'd never seen before. Even well-regarded Chardonnays had been huge wines that were heavily oaked, oily, and viscous, and generally from places that were much warmer than Sonoma County — most notably, Napa. And so, to come up with something that was steely and minerally, like a Chassagne-Montrachet but from the local terroir, was very exciting! And that was with the same clonal material. The area was also becoming very popular with people growing Pinot Noir who were pushing the envelope beyond what had then been the accepted norm for that variety — which had mainly been from Carneros [in Napa], with its delicious, soft, round, and strawberry yogurt flavors. But now in this new area, Pinots were being grown that were far more structured, deep, dark, burly, and rich, often approaching Zinfandel and Syrah in their qualities. So, I'd say that that really shaped my choice of varietals to work with. But there were other incidental qualities. I really like Sonoma County and the diversity of its topography — the coast, the hills, the valleys. I also feel it's more diversified in its industries, whereas the Napa Valley seems very singular in that it's primarily about the wine industry and what's affiliated with that.
"It was really the excitement over a paradigm shift for what these two grape varieties could be, something we'd never seen before."
NM: Dovetailing with your comment about a paradigm shift, I think it's safe to say that in the last decade or so, we've seen the wine industry in Sonoma County really tightening its focus and drive towards quality production with the Burgundian varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Would you say that they've found a home in Sonoma and that this region might very well provide some of the best terroir in California for them?
GB: Speaking generally, because there will always be people who take exception, I think that in large part we've acknowledged that some varieties really like specific climates, and we've accepted that there's a certain style that people have come to expect from wines made from those varieties. The Bordeaux varieties in Sonoma really aren't as well-regarded as their Napa counterparts, in large part because of the difference in terroir. I think that's predominantly because of temperature, although there's certainly soil differences between here and there that account for some of that. So, a warmer environment is generally going to help the Bordeaux grape varieties get riper, and I think that style (big, rich, and fruit-driven) is very popular right now, whereas people aren't interested in having herbal qualities in their wines — black olive in their Merlot or leafiness in their Cabernet. In the same way, there are expectations on the Burgundian grape varieties. Sonoma is generally a cooler area and more people are appreciating the complexity that can be found in a Pinot from a cooler region. Of course, there are some delicious Carneros Pinots — I feel like I cut my teeth on that style; the strawberry yogurt quality is yummy! But it's also great to see so much more potential being realized for Pinot in parts of Sonoma.
As for these varieties finding a home, I think what we have in California — the New World in general — is a freedom that you don't find in the Old World because of its controlled appellation system. Old World regions are bound by law in what they can do, and that came around for some good reasons after hundreds of years of making wine and learning from what they perceive is the best and right varieties in the right places. But one of the things about that entire concept is that it's actually very subjective — that's a very important part to remember about the system; humans have decided that this or that is the highest expression of the grape. I think that's also important in our situation in California because we're not held down by controlled appellation concepts; we're being driven by market forces that vote with their dollars on what they want in a Pinot Noir, a Chardonnay, or Cabernet Sauvignon. People are voting when they buy a Napa Cabernet over one from Sonoma, or a Sonoma County Pinot over one from Carneros. More specifically, I think Russian River Pinot Noir is probably the most developed and recognized area for Pinot, because it's a little smaller than the Sonoma Coast, for example. And so those Russian River wines fall within a certain range of flavor and textural qualities, more so than the Sonoma Coast, which is a larger area and therefore not as distinctive a region for making a connection on the label.