When talk turns to the great California Cabernet producers of the 1980s and 1990s, the topic of conversation invariably turns to Napa Valley, with a geek genuflection to the Santa Crux Mountains. Generally overlooked and sometimes intentionally slighted are the wines of Sonoma County, but within the folds and peaks of Sonoma’s valleys lie some remarkable vineyards and winemakers.
While better known for Zinfandel or Pinot Noir, Sonoma County has always produced fine Cabernets and some, like Patrick Campbell’s Laurel Glen, have firmly established its reputation among winelovers as unique, age worthy examples of Cabernet that could only come from the historic Sonoma vineyards.
With the recent sale of Laurel Glen, now in the able hands of Bettina Sichel, it’s no surprise that the Laurel Glen team is on the road showing off a vertical of vintages, new and old. I was fortunate to attend one edition and the results surprised even me!
Laurel Glen Vineyard, from which Patrick Campbell has produced the eponymous red wine since 1981, is a bit of an anomaly. Planted entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon, this rugged 16-acre vineyard is set atop Sonoma Mountain. Originally planted to mixed blacks back in the late 1880s, the historic 3-acre vineyard was replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon in 1968 and finally was purchased by Patrick in 1977.
Since then the vineyard has expanded to its present dimensions, always using the genetic material that has been culled from the original vines planted in 1968. With the relatively recent replanting of the vineyards (most vines predate 1996), the average age of the vineyard is right around 25 years, a mature vineyard by any stretch of the imagination.
Along with the vineyards, the wine industry is almost as mature and the changes that Patrick has implemented over the years reflect this growth. The crown jewel in all of this may be Bettina’s hiring of Tony Coturri to handle to conversion of the vineyards to organic farming while bringing on David Ramey as a consulting winemaker. A powerhouse duo that caps three decades of evolution that has seen Laurel Glen wines move from a period of early harvest and acidification, to early harvesting with deacidification, to finally late harvesting for acid balance.
This late harvesting for acid balance has been the last bump in the road for California – in fact, for all warm climate winemakers. The latest theories tend to indicate that certain techniques such as dry farming, organic farming and a more vigorous vegetative cycle may contribute to lower sugar levels at a level of fruit ripeness that provides this acid balance that is our current holy grail.