The evolution of cult wine
EUGENIA UHL PHOTOGRAPH
HOW ARE lush, grape-laden vineyards situated along the chilly Pacific Ocean coast in northern California related to America’s third coast? Both areas, and their attributes, are absolutely defined by the sun.
We certainly don’t need to enumerate the sun’s contributions to beautiful beaches, long summers, and mild winters experienced by residents and visitors along the Gulf Coast, however many have never considered the sun’s role in the climate of the rugged, fog-drenched California coastline, where even in summer a jacket is a good and necessary accessory. All you have to do is ask the grapes and they would tell you, sunshine is key to their existence. (Grapes can talk – in their own way – but more on that later.)
Throughout Northern California (really, the whole area surrounding San Francisco and northward), winemaking has taken root. The countryside is, literally, covered with grape-growing agriculture and the resulting wineries.
Take a pleasant two-hour drive from the Golden Gate Bridge and you will find a particularly fertile and fascinating area located fully within Sonoma County known as the Russian River Valley. Named for early settlers, the Russian River meanders over a wide land area, beginning well east of the Pacific Ocean but finding its final moments there.
From the air, the path of this minor, commercially unnavigable waterway is very easy to follow because surrounding the river’s path are unique flora quite different from plants in other areas of Sonoma County. Close to the river, soil is rich and loose, a result of the river’s flooding in eons past that left behind just enough nutrients for low-height grapevines to grow canopies of large leaves entwined by curling limbs. The riverbanks also provide the perfect location for soaring redwood trees, which grow in clusters and resemble great cathedrals.
Along the last 50 miles of this river, the carved valley provides a perfect conduit for the cat-footed fog that creeps from the Pacific Ocean to areas well inland. This fog cools the area in the evenings, softening the effects of the sun’s heat during the day.
And this makes the grapes very happy. The fruit loves the sunshine, but also the morning and afternoon fog, which creates a balance so the development of fruit and its sugars is easy, gentle and even.
Let’s leave this pastoral setting where grapes thrive and check in on just about any fine dining establishment along the Gulf Coast to peruse the wine list. There, among wines from around the globe, is a regional favorite – La Crema.
La Crema’s birthplace in the Russian River Valley, and the recognition of its high quality, is evidenced by its ubiquitousness. Relatively high production does not detract from its value, nor from its many fans who can’t seem to get enough.
La Crema is managed by two proprietors, sisters, who happen to be the offspring of California wine magnate Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson fame. These siblings divide the duties of winery management and don’t compromise on their products, which are adored mainly by American wine lovers but which are recognized all over the world.
Laura Jackson Giron and Jennifer Jackson are involved in marketing, management of operations and personnel, and have stamped their collective vision on this winery. They both grew up in the area, so their long-time knowledge of Sonoma County agriculture and meteorological patterns bolsters the entire operation.
Now add another lady to the picture: Melissa Stackhouse, the winemaker. Having earned her degree in Viticulture and Enology from the much-respected University of California at Davis, one of the great “wine universities” of the world, Melissa has worked in vineyards and wineries in other parts of California and in Australia.
She has always had a passion for the grapes of Burgundy, France, and that preference sets the tone at La Crema. The region of Burgundy in north central France doesn’t feature a pantheon of different grapes. This area’s reputation for making great wines is built on just two wine grapes – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Melissa focuses on these Burgundian beauties to craft wines of elegance and power, in a style with a nod to Burgundy but done as only northern California can. The long, sunny days and cool, foggy evenings and mornings, coupled with the soils of the Russian River, allow ripening that presents the fruit in its best condition. And unlike Burgundy, where northern European weather can sometimes work against the grapes, California is capable of delivering the correct result almost every year.
La Crema utilizes two Burgundian grapes. Chardonnay grapes are made into white wines. Pinot Noir grapes provide the reds. The winery also works with Syrah, a grape that makes bolder wines with more body. Syrah, the primary red wine grape of the northern Rhone Valley in France, has found a happy second home in Australia where it is known as Shiraz.
At La Crema, the Syrah is not the main attraction, and, in fact, is not widely distributed. It is, however, made in Melissa’s style of coaxing out the best qualities of the fruit while not overwhelming the palate of the taster.
The secret of La Crema’s success and acceptance is that their wines can be enjoyed on their own or with a meal. You don’t have to be an oenophile to fully appreciate what is in the glass. You don’t have to analyze the wine, seeking levels of malolactic fermentation, residual sugars, influences of oak, volatile acidity, or other wine-speak and wine geek pursuits.
The wines of La Crema are pleasurable and fun. Proof – almost every year, before a new vintage of La Crema is released, the previous vintage sells out in the marketplace.
This leaves consumers, at certain times, without access to the wine. This further means that when the wines are released, people buy and save bottles for future consumption. (And so the pattern goes on.)
Sometimes the wines are on the shelves and in the restaurants, and sometimes they are not. That’s how “Cult Wine” status is conferred – the people speak.