During a recent field trip with the Bi-Rite Wine Team to Hirsch Vineyards and Winery near Cazadero on the Sonoma Coast, I couldn’t help thinking about the pace of change in California wine. Things are always in flux here. We seem compelled to try new things every vintage: winemakers experiment with fermenting and aging their wines in concrete eggs, not using sulfur, spreading strange potions in their vineyards. These are all things that yield exciting results. But the very earth beneath us is also in a constant state of motion.
The San Andreas fault runs along the Pacific coast, just to the West of the Hirsch vineyards, rending and crumpling the land into hills and divots and creating ridges that dart this way and that. Here the Pacific plate slides underneath the North American plate, exposing ancient rocks and transforming the soil composition in the process. The ridges also create the microclimate that makes fine wine production possible. Perched above the fog line, but just on the edge of where the clouds normally burn off in the Summer, the sun is allowed to break through and nourish the vines, but it’s cool enough to ensure a long steady growing season. Perfect for pinot.
Measuring change on a human scale is a bit more intuitive. Organic farming is great step toward eliminating chemicals from our land and from our bodies, but it can also be seen as merely a replacement; taking out one chemical and replacing it with a new one. Biodynamicists see farming as a practice that can work with nature instead of against it. Methods such as planting cover crops, composting, applying preparations to the soil that promote the growth of friendly soil bacteria, and planting the right crops next to each other, when coupled with a view of the vineyard as a natural environment that interacts with and is contained in the surrounding “uncultivated” land, result is minimal impact on the land. It also happens that this process can create some pretty compelling wines.
Biodynamics represents an ideal in farming. The folks at Hirsch have begun to move toward that ideal, but are still in the process, finding out how to best implement these practices on their land. They’ve already figured out how to work with the ever-shifting landscape. Their newest vineyards are mapped into blocks based on soil type and exposition that work with the curves and slopes of the land. These blocks are picked and fermented independently, offering an ever more specific sense of terroir. Ultimately, this is Pinot Noir’s (and Chardonnay’s) greatest asset: the ability to translate the soil into your glass. Fruit is nice, but without earth, you have juice, not wine. Everything that Hirsch does is geared towards the end result. They’re definitely on the right path.
2011 Bohan-Dillon Pinot Noir $39.99
Named after the road that runs by the winery, this is a blend of some of the younger vines from the estate vineyards and some fruit from neighboring vineyards. Aromas of orange peel and spice with lots of fresh berry fruit. It’s lighter-bodied and bright. Serious for an entry-level wine—with enough depth to make a couple years’ ageing worthwhile—but with enough verve to be great at the table tonight.
2010 San Andreas Fault Pinot Noir $59.99
A blend of fruit from the Western and Eastern ridge. It’s meant to encompass the vineyard as a whole and is Hirsch’s signature wine. The 2010 vintage was extremely cool, highlighting the brightness and savor of the wines rather than the fruit character. More texture, savor, and grip than the Bohan-Dillon, this will age on the long term beautifully.
2011 Chardonnay $54.99
A Chardonnay for people who think they don’t like Chardonnay. With bracing acidity balanced by tons of texture and depth, this drinks much more like a white Burgundy than most CA chards. At 500 cases / year, this is one of the smallest production estate wines at Hirsch. The grapes all come from an extremely steep plot that juts up on the West ridge of the Hirsch property. The wind forms a microclimate that makes it distinctly cooler than any other part of the vineyard and so perfect for Chardonnay. Delicious to drink right now, but will also greatly reward those of us who are patient enough to wait…