The Tiniest Appellation in the US:
Diversity in the Cole Ranch AVA
The soils on the 60 acres of planted property are very diverse, making the tiny appellation ideal for a range of vines.
March 9, 2007
Today, Cole Ranch is owned by the Sterling family of Esterlina Vineyards(Anderson Valley) fame, who purchased it in 1996. Already owners of several vineyards in Alexander Valley and Russian River, in addition to their Anderson Valley property, one wonders what endeared them to the Cole Ranch.
When asked what makes the Cole Ranch appellation unique, Steve Sterling, Director of Marketing, tells me that it is really a one of a kind situation. The soils on the 60 acres of planted property are very diverse, making the tiny appellation ideal for a range of vines. The Riesling does well in the limestone areas, while the Cab and Merlot do nicely in the gravelly parts. The Chardonnay, once planted in the loamy portion of the vineyard, has now been grafted over to Pinot Noir. And the results are impressive.
Although its previous acclaim was for its Cabernets, the Cole Ranch appellation is today primarily known for its Riesling and Pinot Noir. At the 2006 Mendocino Wine Competition, the 2005 Esterlina Cole Ranch Dry Riesling was a Gold medal winner and a Sweepstakes finalist, The 2004 off-dry Riesling was featured on a White House menu in June 2005, and the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Emerille Lagasse have paired it with crème brulée and foie gras, choosing it over the usual Sauternes.
Steve is one of the four Sterling sons involved in the Esterlina Winery operation (and most recently Everett Ridge in Sonoma), along with Eric, who is the winemaker, Chris, the vineyard manager and assistant
I asked Mario how he stumbled upon this tiny gem. He told me that rather than starting from scratch, his philosophy was to buy distressed old vineyards from older owners and nurse them back to health. Scouting around California, his eye happened upon the Cole Ranch property off highway 253 between the Sanel Valley to the East and the Anderson Valley to the West. The vineyards were indeed distressed, in need of serious rehabilitation. “My sons wanted to rip out all the Riesling and get Pinot and Merlot growing there,” recalls Mario Sterling, the elder statesman of the family. “But something told me that Riesling was worth saving. There was a reason it had been planted there, after all.”
He is glad he stuck to his guns. It didn’t hurt that he consulted the crush report and seeing that Riesling was on the decline, decided to be one of those anti-momentum investors. It paid off handsomely. Steve has had great success opening restaurant doors and wine lists with the beautifully aromatic Rieslings, and then the Estate Pinots and Chardonnays file in nicely behind.
He has established highly successful by-the-glass programs with the Rieslings, Pinot and Cabernet. But it’s the Rieslings that consistently draw in new wine club members. And it’s not only their own efforts that are garnering acclaim: Handley Cellars is making an outstanding Riesling from Cole Ranch fruit: their 2005 dry-style effort was a Gold medalist in the 2006 Mendocino County Fair. And also took Gold in the 2007 San Francisco Chronicle Competition.
As good as the Rieslings are, and they are terrific, the Cole Ranch Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, in the hands of winemaker Eric Sterling, are powerful examples of what higher altitude fruit can deliver — when Mother Nature cooperates.
The current releases, the 2002 Cabernet and the 2004 Merlot are really delightful, exhibiting big cherry and berry flavors, a hint of spice and great textures. As Steve points out though, with the 2004 vintage, “It was such a good year in Mendocino that if you made bad wine, you screwed up!” It’s apparent that neither the winemaker nor the vineyard, in this case, screw up very often. Maybe Mother Nature has a soft spot in her heart for this tiniest of appellations.
~ Laura Ness, Regional Correspondent