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Living On the Edge: Napa Vintners Venture to The Coast

Glimpses of waves crashing against the shore can be seen through patches of fog, yet the late-October sun is warm and bright. Guests of the first annual Fort Ross-Seaview wine festival are shedding layers. This is what it feels like to be 'above the fog line,' a term you often hear from grape growers in what is coined 'the true Sonoma Coast.'

"If it weren't for the altitude, there is no way you could grow grapes out here," laughs one winemaker. We're surrounded by a field of native grasses enjoying a lunch prepared by local chefs and paired with the region's wines. Both the actual Fort— built by Russians in the mid-1800's — and the sea are visible from our camp — making for a dramatic setting to understand this unique and isolated region that many associate more with mushroom foraging than winemaking.

We're all still recovering from the long drive along an impossibly winding, but incredibly scenic road when the first course arrives — a potato soup prepared by the newly Michelin starred Terrapin Creek and paired with a 2006 Martinelli Reserve Chardonnay. We're feeling better in no time.

I had tasted many of the wines from this AVA before — Hirsch, Wild Hog, Failla — and believe them to be some of the very best Pinot Noir in California. But I was surprised to see a couple of big names from Napa Valley on the day's menu. It's kind of like running into someone from home when you're traveling to an exotic new place — while it's nice to see a familiar face, it is also vaguely disappointing.

As it turns out, both Pahlmeyer and Del Dotto have owned land out here for years — since 1997 and 2006, respectively. Sure, some of the old timers are disgruntled by the presence of such, ahem, big swinging dicks, but if respecting the land, understanding the terroir and making a wine with a sense of place is the goal here, their efforts seem genuine.

I run into Bibiana González Rave, the lovely and gregarious new winemaker for Pahlmeyer. She has taken the ambitious albeit unlikely route from Columbia by way of Burgundy to make wine here, on the extreme Sonoma Coast. A student of viticulture, she says she is excited by the opportunity to oversee the vineyard management in addition to making the actual wine.

She enthusiastically pours me a taste of the Wayfarer Vineyard Pinot Noir. I brace for myself for something Napa in style and I'm pleased to be wrong. All the things I associate with this region — the soaring acidity, the delicate floral notes, the deep sense of earth that is felt as much as it is tasted, are there. She promises me a tour of the vineyard sometime and I enjoy the thought of this small, spunky woman out there — above the fog line — in a land of tough old farmers with bushy mustaches.