Surprise, it was not the Spanish padres, although their viticultural contributions in the mission town of Sonoma did have a more direct influence on later developments. Turns out, the Russians at Fort Ross beat them to that punch bowl by seven years, importing vines from Peru in 1817.
Now, the first thing to understand about Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery is that was not established by those same folks who brought us Fort Ross in 1812. Nothing remains of their orchards and vineyards. Located inland and high above the sea, Fort Ross Vineyards was planted in the 1990s by South African émigrés Linda and Lester Schwartz.
Fort Ross-Seaview, which gained American Viticultural Area status in January 2012, thanks in large part to the Schwartzes’ efforts, is distinguished more by its challenging maritime climate than its history.
“It can rain here more than the Amazon jungle,” Linda Schwartz explained over a glass of Chardonnay in the spacious, lodge-like tasting room. Schwartz says that their mountainous location presents opportunities as well. “It’s like karate. If there’s a force that’s coming against you, you can turn it around, and use the momentum.”
“If you take each of the factors, that might be troubling; if you turn them around, they have actually created an area that some people think is going to overtake Burgundy in the quality of wine,” Linda said.
Heady stuff! But now, those who wish to investigate such a statement can taste for themselves – those with a steady hand on the wheel along cliff-hugging Highway 1, that is. Caution: wandering cows.
The Fort Ross tasting room, long in the planning and review process, opened just this year. You’ll find it at the end of a picturesque drive that meanders through a small section of the vineyard, a stand of conifers, a meadow and a pond.
Inside, the prime visual is a clear view of the ocean, framed by wild hills, through the west-facing window behind the tasting bar. For all that talk about wild weather, on most days of the year Fort Ross-Seaview basks in the sun above the cool, blue Pacific.
The wines, vinted down in Santa Rosa by Jeff Pisoni, are likewise tightly focused, from sea-breeze subtle Chardonnay to the spicy, clean Sea Slopes Pinot Noir ($32). Culled from the best barrels, the 2009 Pinot Noir ($42) is dark and intense, with plush boysenberry and vanilla flavors.
The Schwartzes doggedly pursued a seven-year quarantine process in order to import Pinotage from South Africa. That nation’s signature grape, Pinotage is a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, developed in the 1920s. The 2007 Pinotage ($40) has smokey, tarry aromas and a rubbery tannic finish, reminiscent of Malbec or Nebbiolo.
The bicentennial commemorative edition Pinot ($46) and Chardonnay ($40) are labeled with an 1841 painting of the colony at Fort Ross – the original hangs in the Peter the Great Museum in St. Petersburg.
“We are exceptionally popular with the Russian community,” said Linda, laughing that San Francisco’s Russian consul general, for instance, heads down to K&L Wine Merchants to stock up for events. There’s a bit of historical continuity here at Fort Ross, after all.
Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery, 15725 Meyers Grade Road, Jenner. Open daily 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tasting fee $10. 707-847-3460.