Fort Ross features the California vineyards closest to the Pacific. (photo by Renee Wilmeth for Wine and Whiskey Globe)

I have a friend who, in recent years, has taken an annual visit to Sonoma with her husband. They spend their time visiting winemakers, seeing friends, and discovering the best small, high-quality pinot producers in the area. I asked her recently if she’d heard of Fort Ross Vineyard, famous for having the California vineyards closest to the Pacific Ocean. “Yes!” she answered. “We’ve been there.”

That’s who you want to taste with. We set a date for dinner to try some current releases. “We have some older bottles,” she added, “so we’ll bring something out of our cellar.” It was a perfect excuse to gather some fellow wine lovers and enjoy an evening of Pinot Noir. 

Lester and Linda Schwartz, owners of Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery, planted their first vines on this remote part of the Sonoma Coast in 1994 and made their first vintage in 2000. Since then, this small but mighty producer has put itself on the map—quite literally, as the owners were instrumental in creating the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, first recognized in 2012. Their 53-acre site produces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinotage.

This region, with some big name neighbors like Martinelli, Flowers, and Pahlmeyer, is unique for its elevation and cool climate. Perched at 1,200 to 1,700 feet above sea level, vines here get the benefit of the cool ocean air above the fog layer.

The landscape is rugged with high cliffs, rocks, trees, and wind. Some of the Fort Ross-Seaview Vineyard is less than three-quarters of a mile from the ocean. But with careful study and clone selection, they’ve made it work. 

2017 Sea Slopes Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($35)

A nice entry-level offering sourcing grapes from further afield than just the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, it still bears the markers of cool climate Pinot. Peppery with lots of spice on the nose, this juicy red-fruit wine is “fairly intense.” Tasters noted the density and a 13.9% ABV which made it a little hot, but brought out the cherry, raspberry and rose petal nose. “It’s a big ol’ boy,” said one taster; the wine opened up nicely in the glass later in the evening. (5,440 cases made).

2016 “FRV” Pinot Noir Fort Ross Seaview-Sonoma Coast ($52)

The winemaker notes they picked these grapes at night, even though harvest was unhurried. They clearly took great care and it shows. This intense wine gave us plum, dark cherry, earth and violet notes on the nose. More than one taster compared this to a Burgundy and nearly everyone noted the bright, acidic finish with spice and even a bit of chocolate.  (309 cases made)

2016 Stagecoach Road Pinot Noir Fort Ross-Seaview ($80)

The theme of this wine was “balance,” but tasters also noted the “complexity” required for this wine to improve with age. With a 13.8% ABV, this Pinot has what it takes to cellar for a decade, again bringing comparisons to age-worthy Burgundies. With a deep cherry nose and medium spice and velvety texture, our conclusion was that after even a few years, everything will integrate in this bottle and really shine. (140 cases made.)

2013 Pinot Noir Fort Ross Vineyard Fort Ross-Seaview (N/A)

Fun fact: The actual Fort Ross was a Russian trading outpost established on the Sonoma coast in 1812. (Today, it’s Fort Ross State Historical Park.) This bottling featured a Bicentennial Commemorative label and the special recognition was well-deserved; everything we’d tasted in the previous wines was perfectly integrated in this one, showing how today’s younger wine “evolves into an even more lovely wine.” It offered the great “dusty” nose that I love on an old California Pinot, red fruit, and a long finish. “It’s happy in my glass,” declared one wine-lover. 

And we were, too, enjoying these wines long into the evening.