Winegrowers: What to Do With a New AVA

Reflections about Sonoma's Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak, one year later

by Jane Firstenfeld
imagery pine mountain cloverdale peak ava
Imagery's 2010 Malbec is believed to be the first wine featuring the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA on its label.
Cloverdale, Calif.—It took years of preparation, a name change and somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000, but the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA won TTB approval just about a year ago. Since then, the scant dozen grapegrowers and winemakers in this remote, high-elevation appellation in northeastern Sonoma County have founded an association, a website and are working together to build a brand focused on high-end, high-elevation Bordeaux varieties.

Grower Barry Hoffner owns Silverwood Ranch with his wife Jackie. Their 1,200 acres of vineyards represent about 25% of the AVA’s total acreage. Most of their grapes are sold to Francis Ford Coppola Winery in nearby Geyserville, and a small amount goes to Miro Cellars, which makes a vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignon.

Hoffner leases some 30 acres at 1,800-2,600 feet to Benziger Family Winery, which grows 11 different grape varieties for its high-end Imagery Estate Winery brand. Imagery’s 2010 Malbec is now ready for release, believed to be the first to bear the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA in addition to the mandated Sonoma County label.

A long gestation
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After several years of preparation, the growers submitted their petition for a subappellation to the TTB in fall 2010. At that time, it was to be called Pine Mountain/Mayacmas. The “Mayacmas” is a Native American name that appears on official maps and was intended to distinguish it from innumerable Pine Mountains across the continent. However, Mayacamas Vineyards (spelled slightly differently) was already a well-known Napa County wine brand, so petitioners adopted “Cloverdale Peak” to win final approval.

“It turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” Hoffner told Wines & Vines. “Cloverdale is an up-and-coming city, one of the best little towns in the United States. We’re linking ourselves up with Cloverdale.” AVA “partners” met last week with the mayor and other officials to talk promotion.

Mike Foster, owner of Tin Cross Vineyard and Captûre Winery, also has been involved in the AVA since it first was conceived. Under winery CEO Ben Sharp and winemaker Denis Malbec, Captûre already is earning a reputation as a premier luxury brand. Its first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon, released in 2011, earned 90-plus scores from critics and retails around $90-$140.

According to Foster, the long-term benefit of the AVA is to market and produce a great brand for the terroir. “Pine Mountain has been delivering very good fruit to really good brands. The notion for us is that we really believe we can and should brand Pine Mountain as the premium, high-elevation luxury brand,” he said.’’

With many of its more famous neighbors anchored in comparatively lowland terrroir—Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley—the emphasis on high-elevation identity does make Pine Mountain a standout, as does its emphasis on classic red Bordeaux varieties.

Hoffner pointed out that most of the AVA’s grapes already are contracted to established producers, so increasing grape prices was not an immediate goal for the appellation. But, Foster said, “Using the AVA as a central theme as we travel across the country, we hope our vineyard values will grow, and that more precision-farmed vineyards will help with better grape prices and, eventually, real estate prices.”

Foster said the story has proved to be fascinating to wine buyers across the country. “The concept of a new, small, high-elevation, exclusive AVA with not a lot of acres planted and not a lot more to plant” is alluring, he said. “I believe having an AVA like this, that will be marketed all over and reflected on the premium bottles of wines, should have a long-term effect on our property values.”

He’s a fan of Cloverdale and its Wild West history. “I don’t think the world sees Cloverdale like Healdsburg,” he said. “I like the name a lot. It’s frontier territory, rugged. It’s on the edge. Black Bart robbed stage coaches on Cloverdale Mountain.”

Common goal: uncommon wines
Hien Nguyen bought his 34 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and 2 acres of Cabernet Franc vines three years ago. Although the vineyards were planted 14 years ago, he’s a raw novice in the wine business, a professor of mathematics at the University of Montana in Missoula looking for a “retirement” career.

Ulises Valdez manages the vineyards, and Thomas Rivers Brown has come aboard as winemaker for Nguyen’s soon-to-be licensed brand, Ampere. Brown made about 375 cases of 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. San Francisco’s Treasure Island Winery bought some grapes for a 2010 vineyard designate wine.

“As little as I know,” Nguyen said modestly, “It’s important to give indication to the consumer that there is something that allows the wine to be distinguished. The label itself doesn’t mean too much. It’s like an empty vessel. You need to brand the premium wine, the grapes, the vineyard.

“In my case, the production will be small. Probably we’ll sell online, through a wine club and rely on informal marketing. The full story, in the end, is the quality. We’re trying to define a standard for the AVA. We want to do it together, and find very good winemakers to promote our quality.”

Without the AVA, he believes, “People would be much less justified in investing the energy into producing extraordinary grapes. We work together to have a higher standard. The AVA is the platform, the opportunity to separate ourselves. To make it meaningful, we have to make it very good. We are all in agreement. It’s our common goal.”

Imagery Wines is the first to release designated wine from the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA, its 2010 Malbec. Imagery is growing 11 varieties on the mountain; “Not all are mature; Malbec is the first,” said Jessica LaBounty, director of marketing for Imagery and its parent, Benziger.

“We’ll probably be doing some blends with Tannat, Teroldego and Tempranillo, but our intention now is for single-variety wines.” Current production from Imagery is about 10,500 cases per year from various appellations, sold 100% consumer direct at the tasting room and through the wine club.

“In general,” LaBounty said, “Whenever you can be as specific as possible there is a benefit to the winery. It’s an opportunity to educate the consumer,” and the smaller the defined space, the better.

“Sonoma is not like other places with a tremendous amount of continuity,” she pointed out. “For Imagery in particular, the whole spirit of the brand is discovery and tasting things you’ve never tasted before, about educating and sharing; standing at the bar and explaining why we’re planting what and where.”

Posted on 10.10.2012 - 11:09:03 PST
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Barry Hoffner