October 2015 Issue of
Wines & Vines
Winemaker Interview: Ross Cobb
Sonoma Coast Pinot specialist details his approach
While winemaker Ross Cobb was studying biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the late 1980s, his father, David, was establishing Coastlands Vineyard in the Freestone/Occidental area of California’s Sonoma Coast. As he helped his dad on weekends and during the summer, he fell in love with viticulture and decided to switch to the environmental studies department, where he studied agroecology and sustainable agriculture.
After graduating in 1993, Cobb worked at Ferrari-Carano, Bonny Doon Vineyard and Williams Selyem, which was buying fruit from Coastlands Vineyard. Cobb had remained involved in the family vineyard and had made some non-commercial wines from the site, but working at Williams Selyem gave him an additional opportunity to work with Coastlands fruit. In 2000, Cobb joined Flowers Vineyard; in 2001, while still at Flowers, Cobb and his father started Cobb Wines, with Ross as the winemaker.
Cobb Wines now works with four vineyards, including Coastlands, and produces 1,200-1,500 cases of Pinot Noir per year.
Wines & Vines: Why did you decide to pursue a more elegant, lower alcohol style for your Pinot Noirs?
Ross Cobb: I was introduced to Pinot Noir through people like Burt Williams at Williams Selyem, Ted Lemon at Littorai, Steve Doerner at Cristom in Oregon, Jeffrey Patterson at Mt. Eden, Josh Jensen at Calera, Tom Dehlinger, Steve Kistler and Tom Rochioli. In my early days, I didn’t have a lot of experience with Burgundy, but I found I had a preference for the wines made by everyone I just mentioned. I especially appreciated the more elegant style and subtle expression of ripeness in the wines that Ted Lemon and Burt Williams were making. In making Pinot Noir from my early 20s to early 30s, I started to appreciate wines that were in the alcohol range of 12.5% to 14%. Often, I found wines above 14% (alcohol) a bit clumsy for my palate and not as ageable.
At 30, I took my first trip as an adult to Burgundy and spent two weeks tasting incredible Pinots ranging across the style spectrum. This included everything from the sort of riper, more extracted wines that were also going in and out of vogue in California to wines that were modern and not too rustic. But I also tasted a lot of elegant wines that showed less winemaking influence. Over the next decade, I took nine or 10 more trips Burgundy. I also tasted a lot of Oregon, Sonoma and Central Coast Pinots. I found that the beautiful expressions of Pinot at lower ripeness were almost always the ones from great vineyards and vintages, and that these were wines capable of aging for 10 to 15 years. In contrast, the wines that were more extracted and showy in the short term were not as long-lived in the bottle.
W&V: Why are your vineyard sites in the Freestone/Occidental area well suited for this type of Pinot?
Cobb: Everyone talks about cool-climate Pinot Noir, but the truth is there is a huge difference in the temperatures throughout the various regions. For Pinot, the relevant weather for the growing season is basically March through October. In Freestone/Occidental, we have relatively mild weather in the 60s from March through May. Because of our elevation, we don’t have many frost issues, and because of our proximity to the ocean, we don’t have issues with extreme heat on the ridge tops. During what are typically the warmest months (June, July and August) for many areas, the coastline of Sonoma is inundated in a summer fog. So in Freestone/Occidental, we can get temperatures in the 50s in June, July and August. On the flipside, we have less fog in September, October and November.
The vineyards in Freestone/Occidental are mostly between 400 and 1,200 feet in elevation. As a result, most of the vineyards I work with (Emmaline Ann, Jack Hill, Rice-Spivak and our own Coastlands Vineyard) are above the heavy fog, but not completely above it. Freestone/Occidental has a little lower elevation than other coastal areas like Fort Ross/Seaview, which are closer to 1,400 to 1,800 feet, and tend to be above the cooling summer fog. We typically pick two to three weeks later than Fort Ross/Seaview. We usually pick in early October; they pick early to mid-September.
My father thought the climate and soils on the uplifted marine terraces directly in from Bodega Bay and Jenner would be ideal for elegant Pinots. He found and planted the land for our Coastlands Vineyard in 1988 and 1989. It’s at 1,200 feet and just 3.5 miles from the ocean. Over the past 15 years of Cobb Wines, we have acquired long-term contracts on three other Freestone/Occidental vineyards near Coastlands. Because of the lack of fog at these sites in September and October, I have a lot of leeway as a winemaker to choose when I want to pick. Some winemakers pick later by choice unless rain is coming. I like to pick earlier in October. If you were to pick at four different times, you could make four completely different wines—from underripe to overripe. Beyond what I do in the vineyards, 90% of winemaking is the picking decision.
W&V: Have you identified what you think is a sweet spot for the alcohol ranges in your wines?
Cobb: The alcohol level between 12.5% and 14.5% seems to be suitable for most varieties of wine. Pinot does especially well within these ranges. Personally, I don’t really enjoy any wines over 14.5% (alcohol).
W&V: How do your vineyard practices help you achieve the style you’re looking for?
Cobb: The yields on the far west Sonoma Coast and at our vineyards are typically 1.5 (tons) to a maximum of 3 tons per acre. We pay very careful attention to canopy management including leafing, shoot thinning, green dropping and véraison fruit thinning. The level of detail achieved in the vineyard determines your ability to pick the fruit at moderate ripeness profiles. Especially the green and véraison fruit dropping, which can be done two to three times between July/August and pre-harvest. The use of sustainable viticulture and being as organic as possible (without losing crop) allows for minimal intervention during fermentation. Whereas some wineries may include additions of yeast food, enzymes and fining agents, I have found that if the work is done meticulously in the vineyard through
canopy management and green dropping, then I’m able to pick the vineyard at beautiful maturity and full flavor at 22º to 24&o rdm; Brix.
W&V: How do you decide when to pick?
Cobb: The picking decision for Pinot Noir in Freestone/Occidental near Bodega Bay, where our vineyards are, may be different than picking decisions in other appellations. Assuming that the viticultural work was done, and the season provided desirable weather (no major heat spikes in between fog coverage), then I’m interested in picking low—22º to 23.5º Brix—if the flavors are complex and the acidity is not too aggressive. I typically like to pick on
the cusp of strawberry to cherry fruit aromas, while the Brix, pH and TA are still in balance. Also, I have found that both the Brix and fruit expression can continue to elevate during cold soak, so if I am working with an outstanding vineyard I can pick a little before the perceived ripeness has been reached.
On a practical note, the vineyard manager/owner and I have to be in great communication three to four weeks before harvest. The ability to pick when you want to pick—at the exact day, time and fruit temperature—can only be achieved with excellent communication. I usually give the vineyard manager seven to 10 days’ notice to make sure that the picking crew, equipment and transportation are all arranged. Having established a rough picking date, I will fine-tune the time as I get closer. By
three days before, I have established an exact time.
W&V: How do your winemaking practices help you achieve the Cobb style?
Cobb: As I’ve mentioned, for me, picking decisions are most important, assuming that the vineyard management and upkeep are of highest quality. This said, there are many things that can create a larger impact. For some winemakers, their influence on the final wine (beyond picking decisions) is more like 50%-60%. This influence can be seen in the new oak, enzymes for extraction, acids and nutrients for yeast in the fermentations. That’s not my approach. I have found that the work I’ve done in vineyard, and setting the exact day of harvest, allows me to do very little manipulation in the winery. I use approximately 30% new oak, versus a more common 50% for high-end Pinots. I have also found that aging my wines from 15 to 22 months in 30% new oak—the period of élevage—achieves a beautiful elegance, where the integration of oak and fruit seems to be the ideal. Over the years, I’ve experimented with longer aging and less new oak.
W&V: Do you ever add water or acid in your winemaking?
Cobb: Adding water isn’t necessary due to my picking decisions. Picking between 22º and 23.5º Brix achieves a natural alcohol level of 12.5% to 14%. Besides, even if you pick at 29º Brix, and water back to 24º, it still tastes like 29º. Also, because of the quality and maturity of the vineyards I work with, I very rarely use organic tartaric acids. On the rare occasions when I do, it is not to increase acidity or tartness; it is to precipitate out the excessive potassium from the juice. In my 25 years of winemaking, there have been a few years with excessive heat events, where one or two lots needed to be adjusted, but not due to excessive ripeness or late picking. It was more due to shrivel of dehydration in a hot growing season.
A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.
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