North of Fort Bragg, Highway 1 becomes a two-lane country road meandering through coastal towns that are little more than speed traps with live bait and beer. The Northern California landscape turns from redwoods to scrub pines and finally opens up to a barren plain sloping down to the sea.
That's where an incongruous sight meets the eyes: a vineyard and winery right on the edge of the waves. Pacific Star, 12 miles north of Fort Bragg, must be the only winery in the world where wine fans can watch migrating whales from the tasting room.
In fact, the two-acre vineyard may not be in the right place. The vines look as if they wish they were growing somewhere else, in a warmer place free of sea fog, salt spray and biting wind.
No matter. The vineyard adjoining the winery seems to be mostly symbolic. Pacific Star's focus is a range of luscious red wines from very old vineyards in the warm inland valleys of the Mendocino Plateau. The growers have names like Bartolomei, Ventura and Graziano. Their vines have names like Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Charbono and Carignane.
At a time when claiming some connection with California history is an increasingly popular marketing ploy, these old vineyards are the real thing--heritage vineyards planted by Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and lovingly tended by their children and grandchildren.
"Those vines have been passed through generations," Pacific Star founder and winemaker Sally Ottoson says. "The land is paid for, and the taxes are low. They don't have to pull out the old vines and replant to Merlot or Chardonnay in order to make money. And the new generation realizes what a treasure they have."
Ottoson, who has made wine in the Napa Valley (at Star Hill) as well as on the Mendocino coast, turns small lots of grapes from those low-yielding old vines into some of California's most distinctive wines--with a little help from the sea. Apparently, there is more to the winery's location than stunning views: The nature of the place seems to have a significant effect on the character of the wines.
For example, Ottoson says the incessant pounding of the surf clarifies the wines naturally, eliminating the need for fining or filtration. "In Napa," she notes, "the wines are still pretty soupy at the first racking in January. Here, they're already bright and clear."
She believes that particles are precipitated out of solution by the steady subterranean vibrations caused by waves crashing into the coast's many sea caves, one of which extends right underneath the winery. She likens the phenomenon to the riddling process that clarifies Champagne by gentle agitation of the bottle over many months.
"The larger solids sift down and drag the smaller particles along," she explains.
Another site-specific aspect of Pacific Star winemaking is salt. It's everywhere; with the mighty Pacific churning constantly just outside the winery doors, everything is covered with a fine layer of sea salt. That includes the barrels, and Ottoson believes the coating of salt on the barrels has a dramatic effect on wine quality.
"While I was still making wine here and in Napa, I noticed a big difference in topping up barrels (adding small amounts of wine to compensate for evaporation). I had to add twice as much wine here as I did in Napa, but it should have been the other way around because it's cool here and hot and dry in Napa."
She realized that because sodium chloride draws out water, the salt coating on the barrels was effectively concentrating the wines inside. Again, there's a reference to French methodology. This might be considered a natural version of reverse osmosis, a technique practiced in Bordeaux to remove excess water from grapes diluted by heavy rain at harvest.
While we talked on the deck above the winery, I leaned on the railing and gazed out across the blue expanse, looking for the telltale spouts of gray whales. Below us cellar workers rolled newly-washed barrels out on the tarmac to dry in the ocean breeze. On impulse, I touched my tongue to my forearm where it had been resting on the deck rail. Sure enough, it was salty.
Ottoson maximizes the osmotic effect by aging the wines in barrel longer than usual, using older, neutral barrels to avoid the sharp flavors and tannins of new oak. This is the winemaker's equivalent of the grape grower's "hang time." The wines mature slowly, becoming softer, rounder and more complex while the aromas and flavors intensify. It's like what happens to grapes hanging long on the vine, except that the wines don't turn raisiny and lose acidity the way grapes do.
"No one has examined this scientifically," admits Ottoson, "but it's obvious."
Indeed, Pacific Star wines are striking for their concentration and luxuriant textures. My favorite in a recent tasting was the '96 Charbono, which has just been released after four years in barrel. It has the kind of deep richness and intensity of flavor one finds in a slow-simmered sauce, balanced by lively acidity.
Charbono is Pacific Star's specialty, and Ottoson's pride and joy. "I want to be the Queen of Charbono," she declares.
Charbono is a curious grape. Like Zinfandel, it has obscure European origins. It was mistakenly imported and planted as Barbera by Inglenook in the Napa Valley during the late 19th century. Not until the 1940s did UC Davis geneticist Harold Olmo determine that what was thought to be a rather distinctive clone of Barbera was not Barbera at all, but rather the obscure Charbonneau (also called Douce Noire, and possibly the same as Italy's Dolcetto) of France's mountainous Jura region. In its homeland, it was known for producing rather stolid and undistinguished wine but, like many other no-account European grape varieties, it sang in the fine volcanic soil of Napa Valley.
Inglenook identified the Charbonneau vines interplanted with the Barbera and began bottling a separate wine as Charbono--with immediate and lasting success. Inglenook Charbono was one of California's first cult wines. It still has a passionate following among California collectors, including many Napa Valley winemakers who still have bottles from the 1940s and '50s.
There are only about 200 acres of Charbono in the state, concentrated primarily in the Calpella area of eastern Mendocino County and the upper Napa Valley. In recent years the biggest buyers have been Parducci and Fife Vineyards; smaller producers such as Pacific Star, Bonny Doon and Topolos have had to compete for the rest. However, Parducci bottled its last varietal Charbono in 1996 and this year finally relinquished its long-term contracts.
That put a new supply of Charbono grapes up for grabs. They were split by Pacific Star and Fife. As of the 2000 vintage, Pacific Star's Charbono production soared from 300 cases annually to around 1,000.
Fife's production increased from 800 to 2,500 cases. So Ottoson isn't quite the Queen of Charbono yet, but she can certainly claim royalty.
Meanwhile, a cult has grown up around all of Pacific Star's ocean-aged wines. Many customers make a point of trekking up the coast to pick up their allocations personally, picnicking and even camping on the bluff by the sea. They also provide enthusiastic free labor during harvest.
But Ottoson says she has no intention of playing a Napa-style cult wine game. "I've made a conscious decision to keep prices reasonable and make the wine available," she told me. "I want this magic place to be part of people's lives."
Smith is writer-at-large for Wine & Spirits Magazine.