California North Coast: Eyes Wide Open


As is our custom, we present our reviews of new releases from Sonoma County and neighboring North Coast appellations in a series of installments over the coming weeks. This report focuses on the 2020s and the 2019s, which I first covered in last year’s article. There’s a lot to talk about, so grab a glass and settle in. This might take a while.

2020 – Here We Go

The first of the 2020s are hitting the market. Before we get into the details, no, 2020 is not a total write-off, and yes, there are some outstanding wines for readers to consider. But – and it is a big but – 2020 is a wine-by-wine proposition with a very high degree of variability, even within specific producers’ portfolios. It is a vintage to approach with extreme caution. 

I certainly don’t have a crystal ball, so the reviews in this report represent how the wines show today. Of course, that might change over time, which is one of the great frustrations with this vintage, as I explain in further detail below. I have kept drinking windows narrow, not because the wines won’t age – some will – but because I think it is only prudent to be checking in on these wines in the cellar pretty frequently. I would not be planning on long-term cellaring given the significant uncertainty surrounding this vintage. Some of the views herein might change or evolve as I taste more wines.

Two-thousand twenty is an especially difficult vintage for Pinot Noir. Many wines will not be bottled at all. Mark Aubert opted to use his best fruit for the appellation-level Pinots, so there are no single-vineyard Pinots. Ted Lemon will bottle only his Mays Canyon Pinot among the Sonoma vineyard-designates and smaller amounts than normal of his Anderson Valley Pinots. At Rivers-Marie, there are no Sonoma Pinots, only the Bearwallow, which is also from Anderson Valley, one of the brighter spots of the vintage. At Occidental, on the other hand, Steve and Catherine Kistler plan to bottle all of their 2020 Pinots, in smaller volumes than normal, but all the wines.

Chardonnay largely fared better because of its thicker skins, the timing of harvest and the fact that Chardonnay is vinified without skin contact. Even so, winemakers were pretty cautious and pressed the wines lightly. As readers will see from the notes in this report, even the Chardonnays that have been or will be bottled present quite a bit of variability.

This stretch of vineyards off Bodega Highway includes some of the top sites in the West Sonoma Coast, including Platt, the Occidental ranches, Joseph Phelps Quarter Moon, and several more recently planted vineyards.

Zinfandel – A Bright Spot

Zinfandel is shaping up to be the success story of 2020. In some places, like Contra Costa County, a naturally warm microclimate combined with an early year resulted in fruit that was picked before any fires broke out. It is vineyard-by-vineyard and wine-by-wine in many of other regions. Some 2020s are terrific, but others won’t be bottled at all.

There is a lot of discussion about Zinfandel these days. Obviously, Zinfandel ripens earlier than most other varieties, and that was a huge plus in 2020. I have also heard that, genetically, Zinfandel does not contain one of the compounds that binds with volatile phenols, which could explain why at least some 2020s turned out well. Other winemakers and experts believe that older Zinfandel vines ‘breathe’ more than younger vines, which allows them to expel toxins more easily, and that this might explain why some wines are less affected by smoke. These are all nascent fields of study. I am certainly not an expert, but very intrigued by what we might learn in the coming years.

The 2020 Growing Season & Wines

Naturally, the big story of 2020 is fires, which raged for weeks on end at the end of the growing season and during harvest. Even before the fires, 2020 had been very challenging. There was some rain over the winter, but generally 2020 was a very dry and hot year. Drought conditions stressed vines and lowered yields significantly. Violent summer storms with high wind gusts and lightning strikes sparked a series of fires in what came to be known as the LNU Lightning Complex fires that burned for an incredible six weeks.

The LNU fires broke out on the night of August 15-16. Once the severity of the fires was evident, producers were faced with some pretty stark choices. It was basically triage – deciding what fruit might be saved and what would almost certainly be lost. A little fruit was in, but not much. For sites that were close to approaching full maturity, the choice was to either harvest slightly underripe fruit immediately and have a guarantee of wine, or wait it out and potentially lose everything. Some producers asked growers to make heavy fruit drops in order to accelerate ripening, as Ted Lemon did at Littorai.

These were gut-wrenching decisions to make. First, many regions in northern California are quite rustic and hard to access. The logistics of getting around from place to place as fires raged were daunting. Temperatures cooled in late August, so that bump of ripeness that might have helped did not arrive. Fires blocked natural sunlight, which is so critical during the final phase of ripening. Labs quickly backed up such that the time for testing fruit for smoke taint reached as much as two months. Some producers resorted to mini-fermentations in order to submit musts rather than grapes, but people figured that out pretty soon and those waiting times became impractical too. Other wineries shipped their samples to labs as far away as Australia, once they realized that was the fastest way to get results back. But for many, 2020 was a vintage of making decisions on instinct, with little or no hard data, and simply hoping for the best. To top it off, all of this happened in the early days of COVID-19, pre-vaccines.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that warm weather early on turned out to be a saving grace, as many vineyards were close to optimal maturity. In a more normal year, there would have been materially less wine produced.

The Vinous Sonoma Valley Collection of Maps. Note that the images in this collage are not exactly to scale. The Moon Mountain District and Central Corridor maps are done in our customary format, while Bennett Valley, Sonoma Mountain and Los Carneros (Sonoma) are done in half-size format because of the smaller size of those regions. 

Some Thoughts on Smoke Taint

Smoke taint is a tricky thing. For starters, it is not very well understood and the tools for measuring it are limited. Extent of exposure depends on a number of factors, some of which are obvious, including proximity to the smoke, duration of exposure, the effect of wind and others that are less obvious, such as the difference of old versus new smoke.

Some of the compounds that trigger elevated readings are the same compounds toasted barrels add to a wine. This is why the only testing on wine that is reliable – or as reliable as it can be – must be done on wine before it sees oak. But it’s more complex than that. Sensory perception and lab readings don’t always align. Many winemakers have told me of submitting wines with known smoke exposure for testing that do not test positive, and others with no smoke exposure that do come back positive. 

In tasting, wines from mountain appellations or varieties like Syrah that are high in naturally occurring volatile phenols (the same markers of taint) often display charred, savory and gamy qualities that are similar to those found in truly tainted wines. The biggest marker of taint in wines, in my experience, is not the flavor profile, but rather a very strong drying quality in the tannins that is hard to get off the palate.

So much remains unknown. For, example: do vines ‘store’ smoke taint such that the effect of smoke exposure is cumulative over time, or does a vine internally ‘re-set’ each year? To what extent does vine age affect how a vine processes smoke exposure? Can essentially benign, below-threshold bound glycosides become problematic volatile phenols as wines age in bottle? 

The big take away is that it is clear much more work is needed in this field.

A Framework for 2020

Given that there are so many kinds of wines in 2020, I thought this framework might be helpful. The wines of 2020 fall into four groups with regards to smoke taint: 

I. Unaffected. Some 2020s are unaffected by taint, either because they were picked early, are from regions were smoke was not an issue, or benefited from favorable location.

II. Not Tainted, but Affected. Where growers chose out of necessity to pick ahead of optimal maturity, the wines have good freshness but lack flavor development and body. These wines aren’t all bad or flawed per se, but they don’t have their typical depth, either. Think of biting into a piece of fruit that is not ripe.

III. Tainted. Some wines are simply too marked by smoke to be commercially viable. Thankfully, it appears most of these wines won’t make it to the market, but some undoubtedly will, especially in the form of lower-end wines where treatment may hide taint for a year or two. 

IV. Not Obviously Tainted Today, but Tomorrow? The reality is that collectively we don’t know a lot about how smoke taint compounds react over time. I expect that some wines that to do not show obvious signs of taint will show them in the future. I have seen that with some 2018 Howell Mountain Cabernets, for example.

Should I Buy The 2020s or Skip the Vintage?

This is the question consumers have been asking for months. Collectively, I think we have all gotten used to the idea that California vintages are some version of good to great. When I say all, I mean all – producers, critics, consumers and trade professionals. And why not? After all, California boasts climatic conditions that are ideal for the cultivation of grapes and the production of high-quality wines. The challenges growers and winemakers in Europe face on a regular basis are rarely seen. 

But 2020 is not about frost or heat spikes or rain events at critical moments. This is not about diligence in farming or attention to detail or less desirable fruit that can be culled out at the sorting table. The 2020 vintage is not about any of those things. It is a vintage marked by record drought, searing high temperatures, and then catastrophic fires that raged uncontrolled for weeks just before and during harvest. Fires that forced vineyard managers and winemakers to make unthinkable decisions, all in the midst of grave personal danger and during a global pandemic that was still in its early days. 

The stark reality is that 2020 is a vintage fraught with unthinkably difficult conditions for producers and ultimately highly irregular quality. It is simply not realistic for anyone to expect to see a large number of wines with huge scores. It’s just not. Ideally, tasting wines in advance of purchase would be the way to go, but that is impractical, if not completely impossible, for most consumers.

My view is that consumers should buy the wines they always buy, understanding full well that the wines may not be up to their customary levels. The overwhelming majority of producers I cover for this report and that Vinous readers are interested in are not owned by billionaires, but rather by hard-working, young winemakers who are pursuing their passion. These wineries need your support. It has been a rough few years. Most people have now forgotten that winemakers dealt with sustained power losses and lack of water at the end of the 2019 harvest, as wines were being made. Then there was 2020. Two thousand twenty-one looks good quality-wise, but yields are low. “We will get through 2020, but if we have another vintage like that we might be finished,” many winemakers have told me, a fear shared by pretty much everyone.

Most wineries in this report (when it is fully published) sell part of their production direct and part through distribution. Naturally, margins are significantly higher on the direct side of business. For wineries that operate with this model, the direct portion of the business essentially subsidizes the rest of their operations. Whether or not that is an optimal structure is a discussion for another time. But it is very much the reality. 

However, the relationship between consumer and winery selling direct is a two way street. I am not sure how many wineries truly understand that. In my opinion, wineries should reward consumers who buy difficult vintages like 2020 with a bump in status, greater allocations in the future and whatever else they can think of to recognize loyalty. While we are at it, let me say that first-come, first-served allocations are a horrendous, anti-consumer strategy for selling wine. Consumers who can afford wines that are sold direct are busy people with busy lives who have other things to do than check their email all day long waiting for the latest email offer to hit. The idea that someone who is newer to a list but who replies to an offer first might receive greater access to highly coveted wines than a loyal long-term customer who simply replies later is abhorrent. To be fair, some wineries compensate for this with tiered releases, advance allocations and other tools to prevent the scenario above from playing out. But the best system is allocations that are guaranteed for a specified period of time.

Notable West Sonoma Coast vineyards, from top left and moving clockwise: Hirsch, Wayfarer, Flowers – Sea View Ridge and Flowers – Camp Meeting Ridge.

On The Brighter Side…

This report also includes many new releases from the 2019 vintage. As I reported last year, 2019 is especially strong for Chardonnay but less so for Pinot Noir, which suffered from a bit of dilution caused by heavy spring rains. Sonoma Cabernets, on the other hand, are incredibly exciting. The same is true of Zinfandel-based blends. The 2019s are more forward and fruity than the 2018s, with less overall complexity and pedigree than their older siblings. I doubt that will be much of a concern though, especially for readers in search of wines that drink well now.

Last, but certainly not least, astute readers will note the increasing presence of wines from Santa Barbara County in this report. Why? When many of today’s leading producers were getting started the natural temptation was to make wines from numerous vineyards. Then, a few years ago, many winemakers made the decision to focus on sites closer to home, vineyards they could visit easily on a regular basis in order to check in on farming and generally have more of a pulse on their fruit. Given the events of the last few years, wineries have decided that a diversification of sites is not only a good thing, but it may be an actual necessity in order to ensure that not all sites are affected by dramatic local events like fires. Santa Barbara is a six-hour drive from Sonoma and Napa, so it is not exactly around the corner, but it is home to a number of world-class vineyards that are increasingly supplying fruit to winemakers in Northern California. I expect that this trend to continue.

Vinous Maps – The Latest

A few years ago, we began a project to map the vineyards of Sonoma Valley. That Vinous Sonoma Valley Collection consists of six maps; a large poster-size map of the entire Sonoma Valley AVA and five smaller maps focusing on the Moon Mountain District, Sonoma Mountain, Bennett Valley and Carneros AVAs. A map of the Central Corridor, which is not an AVA, but a distinct part of Sonoma Valley that deserves a separate discussion, rounds out the collection. In this map we focus on Bennett Valley.

Our next Sonoma project is the West Sonoma Coast. That, too, is a large undertaking. I thought it would be fun to share some of the work so far with illustrations in this report. The West Sonoma Coast Collection will include a large map of the entire AVA, maps of the nested AVAs (so far that is Fort Ross-Seaview), and then a range of single property maps. Our goal with these maps, as always, is to create the new standard of reference-point vineyard maps for California and the United States.

What’s Next?

Readers can expect this article to be updated on a regular basis. Logically, there will be fewer reviews because so many 2020s won’t be bottled. But the 2021s are right around the corner.

© 2022, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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