New North Coast AVA Proposed

Winegrowers petition to establish Pine Mountain-Mayacmas sub-appellation

by Jane Firstenfeld
Pine Mountain-Mayacmas AVA
High above Alexander Valley, Silverwood Ranch grows premium Bordeaux varieties in the proposed Pine Mountain-Mayacmas AVA.
Cloverdale, Calif. -- Winegrape growers and vintners from Mendocino and Sonoma counties petitioned the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade Bureau to create a 4,600-acre American Viticulture Area, tentatively called the Pine Mountain-Mayacmas AVA. No, that’s not a typo: Although the name Mayacamas is well-known within the wine industry as both a mountain range and a Napa County winery, Mayacmas is the official spelling used on USGS maps, and hence it was used as a geographic modifier to pinpoint the location of this particular Pine Mountain. In the petition as published, TTB specifically requests comments about the alternate spelling, as well as any conflicts with existing brands.

Like most AVA petitions, it’s taken years to “perfect” and publish the application, which was submitted by Sara Schorske on behalf of a handful of grapegrowers and land owners on the mountain, which rises to a 3,000-foot altitude above Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. Schorske, of Compliance Service of America, Portland, Ore., who has been instrumental in previous AVA petitions, forwarded the map displaying the proposed borderlines and property owners, noting that the map is 4 years old.

Tim Ward is vineyard manager for Sky Pine Vineyards and its BobDog Wines, the only winery currently operating on Pine Mountain. His database regarding the AVA proposal goes back to 2006, when he and owner Kandy Ward joined with “six or eight” of the 10 growers on the mountain at the time to get the petition started.

Ward, who farms 15 acres of red Bordeaux varieties, currently sells about one-third of his fruit to wineries that have included Jordan, Clos du Bois, Geyser Peak and boutiques including Rezonja and Eric Guerra. This year, he hopes to use two-thirds of his crop for the 900-case BobDog estate brand. Sky Pine is within Sonoma’s prestigious Alexander Valley AVA, but, Ward and other Pine Mountain growers pointed out that Alexander Valley does not accurately describe Pine Mountain grapes, most of which are grown above 2,000 feet elevation.

Given the elevated, remote terrain and cost of farming, Ward noted, that Pine Mountain grapes command premium prices -- as much as 20% more than average Sonoma grape prices in normal years. Northwest breezes (today, 8 knots) keep the vines dry and mildew-free, even following a rainy winter, and vineyards there are above the frost line, negating the need for frost control. Sky Pine draws its water from “a good well,” Ward said, and most of his neighbors source irrigation water from ponds and lakes.

Historic roots
Tin Cross Vineyard
The proposed AVA has a long history of grapegrowing: This archival photo from Tin Cross Vineyard was taken more than a century ago.
Ward recalled that when the Alexander Valley AVA was approved, “there was a fight” about whether Pine Mountain should be included. Only by locating a now-abandoned field of old vine Zinfandel on the mountainside, and a dilapidated winery once owned by the Ratto family, were the Pine Valley vineyards annexed.

Tara Sharp, who with her husband Ben Sharp manages Tin Cross Vineyards for the Foster family, told Wines & Vines that she has ancient land grants dating from 1856 and attesting that one-half acre of grapes had been planted there the prior year. The Sharps now farm 40 acres of red Bordeaux and Chardonnay; almost all are custom-crushed for the Sharps’ 1,000-case Capture estate wines. The 240-acre estate has another 50 plantable acres, but the Sharps, who farm organically (although they don’t plan to get certified), are happy with the current production and hope to retain the property’s biological diversity.

Barry Hoffner, listed on the 4-year-old AVA map as having 45 acres “under development,” was among the prime movers during the application process, which he said took at least five years to reach its current, official state. In the interim, he’s leased 50 acres to Benziger, which is cultivating “mountain varietals” for its Imagery brand. He also farms 15 acres, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, at his Silverwood Ranch. Most of this goes to Francis Ford Coppola Winery, except for a few tons destined for Trentadue Winery winemaker Miro Tcholakov, for use in his Miro Cellars label: The first, 2008 vintage will be released later this year.
Pine Mountain-Mayacmas AVA
Proposed Pine Mountain-Mayacmas AVA
Hoffner likened Pine Mountain’s situation to that of the diminutive Rockpile AVA “carved out of the Dry Creek AVA with little relationship to Dry Creek” geographically. “We’re carved out of Alexander Valley with almost no relation to it,” from the size of the vineyards (typically under 50 acres), to the climate and terrain.

In terms of acreage, 94,000-case Seghesio Family Vineyards is top dog on the mountain. The Healdsburg winery owns 200 acres on Pine Mountain, but although some preliminary work has been done, according to CEO Peter Seghesio, the vineyard is still under development. “We’re planning to put in about 30 acres (of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) in the next two years, once the AVA is approved,” he said.

Chuck Reichel and his wife Corinne produce less than 300 cases annually of Respite Cabernet Sauvignon from their 20-acre Pine Mountain vineyard. The 2006 vintage retails for $48 per bottle, but only because of the economy, Reichel said. “It should be $65. It got 91 from Parker.” The 2007 earned 93 Parker points. Reichel believes that, if approved, the new appellation will be beneficial for his operation.

To date, no comments have been posted at the TTB website, although most of our sources assured us that many favorable comments have been submitted. Recalling the lengthy, contentious and eventually successful struggle to create the Calistoga AVA despite well-financed protests from brands using the Calistoga name but not Calistoga grapes, Wines & Vines phoned 5,000-case Mayacamas Vineyards, well outside Pine Mountain-Mayacmas in Napa. We were told the winery had “no comment” at this time.

In the meantime, the petitioners seem confident that their proposal will win approval, and that they will benefit from it. With their tiny plots and rugged terrain, it’s “all hand-harvest and specialized tractors,” Hoffner said. “The cost of farming is more expensive. We have to grow premium winegrapes.” Still, he added, “As an owner, you want to feel pride. When your wine’s going into a smaller, designated-vineyard wine, that’s where the pride comes in.”

To read the petition and comment on line, visit ttb.gov/wine/wine-rulemaking.shtml. Comments must be submitted by July 26.
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