The little appellation that could . . .
With only 189 acres, Esterlina Vineyards Cole Ranch American Viticultural Area is the nation's tiniest AVA, proving that small can be beautiful.
Jon Bonné, Chronicle Wine Editor
The original article can be found on SFGate.com here:
(02-23-07) 04:00 PST Ukiah -- Blink and you'll miss it. And how could you not? Drive into the hills west of Ukiah on Highway 253, and you'll be minding boulders, rutted dirt trails and precarious switchbacks. Climb higher, above 1,400 feet, and you might, just might, catch a glimpse of grapevines. If you notice them at all, you'll have found Cole Ranch, the smallest wine appellation in the United States.
The American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), designated by the federal government to highlight wine areas of special significance, are typically 1,000 acres or larger. The Russian River Valley encompasses some 127,000 acres. Napa's Mount Veeder is 15,000 acres.
By comparison, Cole Ranch is just 189 acres, according to the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, with 55 under vine. Oakville's To Kalon vineyard, home to the Robert Mondavi Winery, has 10 times as much vineyard land. Undoubtedly, the Cole Ranch site is charming, a remote, odd-shaped canyon valley nestled into the hills.
It was on a drive along the 17-mile Boonville-Ukiah road in 1971 that John Cole, whose name would eventually grace the ranch, found inspiration.
"I came over the hill and saw that valley, and said, 'Well, why aren't there grapes there?' " Cole recalls.
Cole Ranch is often considered a footnote in the realm of California wine -- a tiny patch of land yielding tiny amounts of wine. Certainly it is not an easy plot to farm. Cold nights, late harvests and frugal yields make for a lot of work and relatively little return -- not exactly an easy sell in Mendocino, whose restrained wines already have to shout to be heard in a world of steroidal fruit bombs.
In other words, farming the ranch's vineyards has always been a labor of love. But it's one that its owners have gladly undertaken.
"What we love is when you get it right here, when you get the right year, it's like nothing else," says Eric Sterling, winemaker for Esterlina Vineyards & Winery, whose family bought Cole Ranch in 1999. "The Pinots are closer to Burgundy than anything else I've tasted in the United States."
Though Bonterra Vineyards' McNab Ranch lies on the other side of a mountain to the south, Cole Ranch has few immediate neighbors beyond mountain lions and wild pigs. A lone steer owned by the Sterlings often wanders near the vines. The 253-acre ranch that encompasses the appellation produces a minuscule 150 to 250 tons of grapes. For an area its size, many wineries would harvest double that.
But what the appellation lacks in production, it makes up for in the unique quality of its fruit.
The ranch possesses a curious microclimate, with notably less heat and more rain than Ukiah, just a few miles away. The high elevation and cold nights extend grapes' ripening time over a month longer than nearby vineyards while maintaining a buoyant level of acidity. That marked acidity is the defining trait of Cole Ranch wines. The wines are remarkably delicate, yet earthy, with bright fruit flavors. Almost every year, Cole Ranch Rieslings have an electric edge.
And if most Cabernets are a case study in "more is more," Esterlina's Cabernet Sauvignon is a model of restraint, with vibrant red-fruit flavors and finessed oak overtones. In cool years, it can taste vegetal; in warmer years like 2002, it has the modest balance that's an increasing rarity in Cabernet in California and elsewhere.
Cole Ranch is a further rarity in that it's one of a handful of AVAs with a single owner. Currently, that's Esterlina, founded by Eric Sterling, his brothers and their father, Murio.
The Sterlings also farm Esterlina's estate vineyard in Philo, and they own Healdsburg's Everett Ridge Vineyards and Winery, on the edge of the Dry Creek and Russian River valleys.
When it came to Cole Ranch, they decided to keep nearly all the fruit for themselves, though they share a bit of Riesling with their neighbors at Philo's Handley Cellars, and some Pinot Noir with Vision Cellars in Windsor. But for most of the past 31 years, Cole Ranch was a source for other people's wines. Big names such as Chateau St. Jean and Fetzer relied on it for grapes that made some of their best-loved bottlings.
"The Riesling was great," says Paul Dolan, who used ranch fruit when he was the winemaker at Fetzer in the late 1970s. "We made some beautiful Riesling up there."
The ranch's climate makes it a challenge to ripen grapes: Riesling struggles toward a modest target of 22.5 Brix, a measure of sugar in the fruit. But the climate also helps keep the wine's acidity hovering around a pH of 3, a rarity in California, which lends the wines a vitality and freshness more characteristic of German or Alsatian wines. Over the years, the lengthy ripening seasons have frequently induced natural botrytis, or noble rot, which concentrates the fruit's sugars and adds a honeyed intensity.
Cole Ranch is nothing less than a laboratory for cool-climate grape growing. Vine buds often break in early May, a full month later than in Sonoma. Frost is present up to 10 months a year; in 2005, the Sterlings had to spray water for frost protection 17 times.
"It's almost like a European growing season, only longer, because you have the California climate," says Chris Sterling, one of Murio's sons and Esterlina's vineyard manager.
Big temperature swings
As harvest approaches in November, daytime temperatures in the 80s give way to nights in the high 30s, often with a 50-degree swing as the sun sets. During a January visit, a clear frost line on the dirt marked off where a patch of Merlot began.
"It's definitely, far and away, the hardest vineyard we have to farm," says Eric Sterling, who is a physician as well as Esterlina's winemaker. "Most people in this industry thought this ranch was too much of a pain to deal with."
Consider the different grapes growing in close proximity. Riesling can be found on several plots, a proper match for the chilly site. At a modest 3 tons per acre, the Riesling is a relative workhorse compared with the old-vine Cabernet Sauvignon, which scarcely clears 2 tons per acre. The Cab's acidity is so high that Esterlina holds back the wine for an extra year or two to mellow before release.
Young-vine Pinot Noir sits on the eastern edge, nudging up against redwood-dotted slopes, arrayed to soak up every last drop of sunshine as the sun ducks in and out between the surrounding 2,200-foot peaks. The Pinot is even stingier in its yields. Ten acres provide just 9 tons of grapes for Esterlina's reserve Pinot, less than one-quarter of the average in the Russian River. And yet, across a creek from the Pinot plot lies chunky vines of the ranch's 30-year-old Cab vines, which by all logic shouldn't even be in such a temperate spot. Pinot and Cabernet nestled together? It's all part of Cole Ranch's odd history.
In 1971, Ohio native John Cole left his job at a real-estate firm, romanced by the California wine boom of the early '70s. He began studying at UC Davis, where advisers suggested he hunt down vineyard opportunities on the North Coast. During a drive back from the Mendocino coastline, he saw the outlines of a worn-out sheep ranch.
Planting a vineyard
In late summer of '71, Cole bought the 385-acre property and set to work. There was much to do. He had to dam up a spring-fed lake high above the ranch's flat pastures, creating a gravity-fed water source. A climate study was necessary. Vine rootstock was a challenge to find. It took two years before he planted 32 acres of Cabernet and 18 acres of Riesling vines, some of which -- including the Cab, planted on hearty St. George rootstock -- are still producing fruit. Because irrigation could slow down the grapes' maturing process and seemed likely to delay what was already a late-ripening crop, Cole initially dry-farmed his plot. (Some limited irrigation came later.)
Two years later, in 1975, he was ready for his first harvest. Then reality hit. "It got into probably September. I hadn't sold anything," he says. "I was talking to Barney Fetzer one day ... and he said, 'I can't take your grapes, but I heard Chateau St. Jean is looking for Riesling up here.' "
So Cole headed down to Sonoma, where Richard Arrowood was running the Kenwood-based winery, and made a deal.
The following spring, St. Jean's vineyard manager, Bernard Fernandez Jr., came up to visit with a couple bottles of wine. Cole was shocked -- and flattered -- to find his name on the label.
On the label
"We put designations on those wines that deserved it," recalls Arrowood. "We were very surprised at how it turned out, so we designated it Cole Ranch."
St. Jean was making a name for itself with late-harvest Rieslings, and for the next two years, Cole's fruit made one of the standouts in St. Jean's lineup. But in 1978 the Fetzers, still on their way to becoming Mendocino moguls, took interest, just as St. Jean was starting to focus solely on making Sonoma wines.
Before long, both Riesling and Cabernet were headed down the hill to the Fetzer facility in Redwood Valley. The arrangement would remain well into the 1990s, even after the Fetzers sold to wine and spirits corporation Brown-Foreman in 1992.
By 1981, with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms beginning to approve the first of the American appellations, Cole decided to try and formalize the name. At the time, it was anyone's guess whether AVAs would have real commercial value, but Cole says, "I just sort of knew in my heart that it would be of increasing importance someday."
In his April 1981 application, Cole highlighted his site's cooler climate -- 2,868 degree days (a measure of optimal heat levels for vineyards), compared with 3,460 down the hill in Ukiah -- along with up to 13 inches more rainfall, and an elevation that made it, at the time, "one of the highest altitude vineyards" on the North Coast. He included press clippings that praised the quality of Cole Ranch wines.
In May 1983, John Cole's ranch became the smallest appellation in America. It remains so today.
New owners on the scene
By the mid-'90s, Cole was enjoying the fruits of the wine boom. "But I could see that all booms end sometime," he says. His contracts with Fetzer had ended, and he put the property on the market, where it sat for several years.
Enter the Sterlings. Originally cattle ranchers and grape growers during the 1960s in the Central Valley, they had since bought vineyards in the Russian River and Alexander valleys. One day while driving the road between Ukiah and Boonville, they saw the For Sale sign.
"We just dropped by to take a look but, and I'll tell you the truth, my Dad just kind of fell in love with it," says Eric Sterling. "We liked the fact it was self-contained." In 1999, $1.6 million later, Cole Ranch was theirs.
Cool climate challenge
Then came the tough part. The Sterlings replaced Chardonnay with Pinot Noir. But, as they quickly learned, farming the ranch is like tanning in Seattle -- an exercise in chasing every last ray of light. Even with the vines planted for maximum exposure, the surrounding hills provide shade in both the early morning and the afternoon. At peak growing season, Sonoma vineyards might get 13 hours of sunlight; Cole Ranch gets nine.
The family decided to become their own best customer. They bought Philo's Pepperwood Springs winery in 2000 and renamed it Esterlina. Using nearly all the ranch's grapes gave them a vital level of control over farming.
"If you had to survive off this as just a grape grower," says Eric Sterling, "I believe it would be pretty hard sledding."
Cole Ranch will never become easier to farm. The climate remains a challenge even to experienced farmers, the need for hand pruning and harvesting limits its productivity and the steep terrain prevents expansion. And yet an amphitheater-shaped 4-acre plot will soon be planted in either Zinfandel or Syrah. Neither is an obvious pick for such a cold site, but then, neither was the Cabernet.
Vineyard foreman Chris Lopez, who has worked Cole Ranch -- and lived on it -- for nearly two decades, and his crew of two must decide, row by row, how best to tend the vines. Between uneven slopes and the ever-shifting sun, a single row can require several different amounts of pruning. In just 100 feet, you can walk from the one of the warmest spots in the vineyard to the coldest.
This close attention to detail, and the resulting wines, just goes to show that small can be beautiful.
And at a time when appellations are sometimes seen more as marketing tools than anything else, Cole Ranch has managed to prove with the quality of its fruit just how different it actually is.
"When you get up here and you farm it, and you see how it's different from
any other place that I'm aware of, it makes sense," says Eric Sterling. "And I
think you have to know the ranch the way John did to appreciate that."
The downside to wines from a small appellation such as Cole Ranch is that there aren't many bottles to go around.
Esterlina makes most of the wines from the appellation's fruit. The 2004 Esterlina Reserve Cole Ranch Pinot Noir ($50) is sold out, but the 2005 Esterlina Cole Ranch Riesling ($18), packed with lime flavors and hints of tropical fruit, masks a sizable amount of sugar with impressive acidity. The 2005 Esterlina Cole Ranch Dry Riesling ($19) is more bracing, but with a lush texture that will improve over the next few years. The 2004 Esterlina Cole Ranch Merlot ($20) is particularly bright and spicy for that grape variety. And the 2002 Esterlina Cole Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon ($20), with its juicy notes of cherry and cedar, is the current release.
Milla Handley at Handley Cellars makes a Riesling from Cole Ranch most years. The 2005 Handley Cole Ranch White Riesling ($17) is lacy and tangy, with flavors of lime and guava overlaid by white mineral.
Vision Cellars in Windsor also produces a tiny amount of Pinot Noir from Cole Ranch fruit. Both the 2004 Vision Cellars Cole Ranch Pinot Noir (141 cases) and 2005 Vision Cellars Cole Ranch Pinot Noir (154 cases) are $65 per bottle.
-- Jon Bonné
E-mail Jon Bonné at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AppellationAmerica.com also has a nice section on Esterlina's Cole Ranch AVA
About Esterlina Vineyards and Winery
Esterlina Vineyards is a Philo, California-based winery that produces exceptional wines in limited quantities. Owned and operated by the Sterling family, Esterlina has vineyards in sought-after appellations such as the Russian River Valley , and the Alexander and Anderson Valleys . Notably, the family exclusively owns one of America 's smallest appellations, Cole Ranch, in Ukiah , California , from which it harvests fruit for its outstanding Riesling, Pinot Noir and Merlot.
A trip to Esterlina's wineries and tasting rooms is truly a memorable event: Combine award winning wines with the personable Sterling family and friendly Esterlina tasting staff, and add two beautiful winery settings. Cumulatively, these attributes give visitors a picturesque and unforgettable reprieve from the typical hurried tasting room experience.
Esterlina Vineyards: “Quietly making wines that are too good to ignore.”™