Ask any sommelier certification candidate about Cole Ranch, and you’ll likely get either a smile or a grimace, depending on the test results.
Cole Ranch pops up frequently in test questions because it is the nation’s smallest American Viticultural Area (AVA) and because one family owns the ranch, making it an American monopole. The owners of this patch of terroir, the Sterlings, are former cattle ranchers whose focus has shifted to wine. Patriarch Murio and his four sons are all active in the family business: Eric is the winemaker, Steve heads up sales and marketing, Chris is the vineyard manager and assistant winemaker, and Craig handles legal affairs and sales. The family owns and operates both Esterlina Vineyards & Winery in Anderson Valley and Everett Ridge Winery in Dry Creek Valley.
The tiny, 200-acre Cole Ranch AVA is tucked away in Mendocino County, just off Highway 253 (Boonville Road), about 15 miles northwest of Hopland and Highway 101, and about 94 miles north of San Francisco. Part canyon, part valley floor, it is so varied in terrain and exposure that only 70 acres are planted to vine in the few amenable patches of open, flat land—some of it gravel, some limestone, and some a mixture of loam and red shale. The rest of the ranch provides a thriving, natural habitat for deer, wild boar, wild turkey, blue jays, rattlesnakes, and many more animals, as well as a sense of privacy that only such a remote location can offer.
Driving west along the highway, I see no sign or address marker, just a fence. When I cross the threshold and head down the gravel road to the interior, I feel swallowed whole. Gone are any sights or sounds of civilization, and in their place, a twirling kaleidoscope of nature—birds and trees, hopping rabbits and prancing deer, knolls, rocks, boulders, little patches of vines, and sky. It’s as if I were stationary and the scenery moving around me, like some vinous Alice in Wonderland. Heading toward a bush dripping with huge, ripe blackberries, I am cut off at the pass. Murio saw “the biggest rattlesnake of his life” here, Steve warns me. It was thicker than a magnum of wine and about 15 feet long. Enough said.
Murio often spent time here on weekends when he was driving around California looking for distressed property. During the week, he was a cattle rancher, first in Merced County in the Central Valley, then up in Potter Valley in Mendocino County. Steve fondly recalls his childhood—he and his brothers picked up hay bales, drove tractors, milked cows, and hung out with the Gallo kids. When Murio retired from the cattle business, he was itching to do something more in agriculture, so he started investing in vineyards and wineries. His first purchase, which he named after the family’s cattle brand, was the Lazy S Vineyard, an Alexander Valley plot that he bought from an Italian doctor in 1994 and then replanted block by block. In 1997, he acquired a Russian River Valley vineyard in Forestville, now known as the Sterling Family Vineyard, which is still the source of Esterlina's Russian River Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In 1999, he stumbled across Cole Ranch, a property that had already been on the market for several years. By the time he made an offer, he was competing with a “suit” from a major winery, but his offer was accepted. He also purchased the Anderson Valley property for Esterlina in 1999 and, finally, Everett Ridge in 2006.
John Cole, the retired engineer who sold his property to the Sterlings, had planted vineyards and put in a road, deer fencing, and a lake and dam up at the highest point of land. The lake feeds a complex network of underground pipes for drip irrigation, which, to this day, runs without electricity. Talk about off the grid! At less than $2 million, the property was a steal. Building the pipe network alone would cost millions today. AVA status was icing on the cake: Cole had petitioned for and been granted an AVA in 1983, becoming the first subappellation in Mendocino County. But the challenge for the Sterlings lay in the capricious combination of high elevation, highly irregular landscape, and long, deep shadows instead of sun on all but a few sweet spots.
At the time of purchase, the ranch was planted to Cole’s favorites—Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Cole made wine for himself, but sold most of the fruit to customers including Fetzer Vineyards and V. Sattui Winery. The 1984 Fetzer Cabernet Sauvignon, made with Cole Ranch fruit, won a gold medal at the California State Fair in Sacramento, bringing instant recognition to the up-and-coming appellation. The Sterlings have made few changes, other than replacing Chardonnay with Pinot Noir, budding over some of the old-vine Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Riesling, and stocking the lake with bass. Although they keep most of the fruit for their own wineries, they still sell some to Handley Cellars, Tobin James Cellars, Jordan Winery, and Vision Cellars.
Moving down the dusty gravel road, Steve points out Pinot Noir vineyards to the left, planted on undulating patches of loam and red shale. Punctuating the rows are great russet walls of dirt and rock standing 20 feet high. On the right, he indicates Cabernet Sauvignon vines planted in the 1970s. Where the flat, gravelly land runs into tree-topped hillsides, the vineyards stop. On the left, we pass a similar blockade—a 100-foot knoll, with a massive boulder and trees taking up valuable vineyard real estate. It, too, will remain, says Steve, although there are several other areas on the ranch that will be relatively easy to put into production for new plantings of Syrah and Petite Sirah.
Elevations range from 1,400 to 2,000 feet, with most of the vineyards at about 1,800 feet—making Cole Ranch higher than the neighboring “cool-climate” Anderson Valley. Still, in the height of summer, daytime temperatures easily reach 110ºF. Nights are cool, however, with temperatures commonly dropping to the 60s, thanks to the elevation as well as the proximity to the coast, about 12 miles due west. The growing season is long, and the harvest is well paced rather than hectic, the only problem being an occasional inability to fully ripen the Cabernet Sauvignon. It is nonetheless the No. 1 grape planted on the ranch, followed by Merlot, Riesling, and Pinot Noir.
Both Cole Ranch Pinot Noirs I tasted shared a richness of fruit, especially dark and stewed fruits, but the winemaking, especially the rather lavish use of oak for such delicate wines, masked any further sense of commonality. As for the Bordeaux varietals, the market is well established, and the small amount of wine produced from Cole Ranch sells out quickly, despite its subtle, straightforward, and sometimes herbaceous style.
The Riesling vines are planted on limestone soil along the floor of the property, called the Cole Valley. After the harvest, Eric and Chris Sterling and Everett Ridge winemaker Dick Schultz get together, sample the lots, and divide up the grapes for their two bottlings. The fermentation for the off-dry version, simply labeled “Riesling,” has been stopped in the past two vintages at 1.7% residual sugar—about half the average for other Rieslings from California, Washington state, or upstate New York. Eric doesn’t want to hide the grape’s varietal character or the sense of terroir, which expresses itself in lime, petroleum, orange-blossom, and chalk notes. The wine is stainless-steel fermented, but aged sur lie for four months. The Dry Riesling, with only .1% RS, is fermented in stainless-steel drums and aged sur lie for seven months. Neither wine sees oak. Botrytis is a non-issue as well, according to Schultz: “Botrytis growth at Cole Ranch is spotty at best, nowhere near the frequency of the Anderson Valley.”
Riesling is definitely the headliner of this remote, rugged little valley, and it comes complete with its own Abe Lincoln story. “The new 2007 Dry Riesling was chosen as a feature wine at the White House last week,” Steve tells me. Joining the White House sommelier on the Sterlings’ customer list are restaurants ranging from Michael Mina’s Sea Blue in Las Vegas to Sushi Ran in Sausalito, Calif. It’s really a slam dunk for a restaurant program: great with food, an underdog varietal, America’s smallest AVA, and a monopole to boot.