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But my perception has been different: I think that most of these ridge-top vineyards are phenomenal! And what's happening in Sonoma County — as opposed to Napa, which has been built out by people with lots of money and big organizations who own all that fruit — is that you've got all these retired guys who come to Sonoma and spend $50k, $60k, $100k an acre because they can afford it. And these rich ex-tech guys or ex-surgeons or whomever build micro-vineyards. But it's a pain in the ass to work with micro-vineyards if you're doing ten-, twenty-, fifty thousand cases of wine; you can't do it! So it facilitates a different type of a business model — like Super Sonoman's, where I can go and cherry pick the best fruit and work the vineyards the way I want them worked. Sure, I'll pay a premium but I can get stuff that no one else can get their hands on in Sonoma County! That's the beauty of it!
The reasoning behind starting Super Sonoman was twofold. One, as I mentioned, was this idea that Sonoma County can really hold its own against Napa in so many ways — maybe in some ways even more. From the perspective of a lot of different varietals, my personal humble opinion is that Sonoma County has the terroir. Period, end of story. But this is the challenge: I'm up against every great Cabernet that comes out of Napa County. I've tried really hard to do a great job — not just a good job, but a great job. I've done everything from researching the soils to learning the barrel programs and vineyard management — leafing, dropping flower clusters, and all that kind of stuff to really drive the flavor profile of the fruit. The second reason for Super Sonoman was that I'd always envisioned doing a Cabernet-Syrah blend, which would have been my version of a Super Tuscan for Sonoma County. In my mind, I grapple with that all the time, though we haven't actually done it yet. Of course, I really just love Syrah, but I think it would be cool to have a 'Super Sonoman' as a Meritage for Sonoma County. But once we did a great single-vineyard Cabernet in 2003, the name just stuck, so we kept it.
NM: I'm hearing from you that this project is not just about making wine, but also an effort to convey a message. Through Super Sonoman, it sounds like you're asserting your belief that Sonoma, as an appellation, has a tremendous amount of potential for making fine Bordeaux varietal wines that hasn't quite yet been tapped.
CT: Absolutely. I would love for the world to look at a bottle of Cabernet like that, open it, appreciate it for what it is, and say, "That is among the best wines ever." I believe that Sonoma County can produce such a wine, and I think I can help deliver the message as a winemaker. And it's not because I can't buy Napa fruit. There are extremely talented winemakers in Napa and a tremendous amount of extraordinary vineyards. In fact, I was just offered Beckstoffer fruit last week — I didn't say 'no' to it, but I don't want to diminish what Sonoma is about. A huge part of what I want to do is help to increase awareness for how amazing Sonoma County is [for Bordeaux varietals]. I think perhaps part of that is inherently driven by the fact that I came out of college thinking that the only wine you could possibly drink was a French wine. But my palate changed as I began to have more really good California wines — different, but really good.
NM: How are the choices that you make today as a California winemaker shaped or influenced by the fact that your initial point of reference for wine appreciation was based entirely on fine French wines?
"One of the trends in California wines is that people push the pH because they're trying to push the phenolics and polyphenolics, so they let the fruit hang for long on the vines and it loses a lot of its acid."
CT: When you taste the 2008 vintage, one of the things you're going to get right away is the acidic quality of the wine. One of the trends in California wines is that people push the pH because they're trying to push the phenolics and polyphenolics, so they let the fruit hang for long on the vines and it loses a lot of its acid. You can always add acid back in, but it's not quite the same. So, one of the things that I love about the Sonoma ridgetop mountains is that you get a wide temperature differential, which — especially on Redwood Hill — pumps up that acid. It's cold at night, hot during the day, and out of the fog belt so you don't get much mold action. Now, flash forward about ten years: how many California wines have you had that are flabby and have lost all their appeal at that ten year mark? At only four or five years, many of them are already at their peak. Now think about an amazing Bordeaux. Drink it young and you'll probably recognize that all the elements are there but they just haven't come together quite yet. Drink it in a couple of years and you'll likely notice an improvement, but still feel it's not quite there yet. Then one day, years later, you open another bottle of it and you're blown away! That doesn't lend itself to the quick-fix appeal of our American lifestyle, but it's winemaking in its most extraordinary capacity and manner.