Scouting Annapolis: an abandoned apple town turns to vines

Wine And Spirits Magazine

Back in 1998, I spent a morning with Jess Jackson on a ridge in Annapolis, the spine of a large property he had recently acquired where he planned to farm pinot noir.

He’d purchased the land in ’97 from the Ohlsons, a local family with a large stake in this northwestern corner of Sonoma. As Jackson strode up the ridge, he pointed out the apple drying barn, the low, forested canyon to the west and a turn-of-the-century farmhouse on the next rise. Mary Peterson had been born in that house and moved all of two miles to this neighboring ridge to live with her husband, Ernie Ohlson, Sr. He’d since died, but she was planning to live out her nineties here. Under the terms of the deal with Jackson, she had the Ohlson house until she passed on, along with a view across to her old family homestead, which was soon to be surrounded by vines.

Just about the same time Jackson was striking this deal, the owner of the old Peterson place was talking with Nick and Andy Peay. The brothers had been scouting the coast for affordable land suited to pinot noir, staring at the white spots on topo maps of Mendocino and Sonoma and knocking on doors when Andy happened on a real estate listing at the general store in Annapolis.
“We were looking for land that was cooler than Carneros or the Russian River Valley,” Nick Peay recalls. “In warm climates, pinot is fuller, but less aromatically interesting.” They were hoping that an untested and affordable area like Annapolis might be good grape growing land. It was a town and a part of Sonoma that time had forgotten; 19th century homesteaders had timbered the land, then locals had been growing and drying apples for the army until the end of World War I. “By 1920, five thousand people had left and the town had emptied out,” Peay says. There was plenty of vineyard activity to the south in what would become the Fort Ross–Seaview AVA; here, closer the Mendocino border, Basil Scalabrini had planted gewurztraminer and sauvignon blanc in 1978 for what would become the Annapolis Winery, though it remained under the radar.

The fact that a lot of Sonoma’s old apple orchards had been turned into vineyards didn’t necessarily mean this one would work. “We had contingencies based on whether this site could grow great pinot noir,” says Peay. “We wanted well-drained, poor soil—you want to start with deficiencies and build back what the plant needs. You can never ameliorate a rich soil.” It turned out the Peterson Ranch shared the same soils as the Olson Ranch: eroded sandstone that had once been the ocean floor of an inland sea.

Nick was working at Storrs, while Vanessa, his wife, was winemaker at Peter Michael. Once the land was theirs,Nick worked harvest at Flowers while he and Andy planted the vines—a lot of what they went with, in parallel to what the Jacksons were planting nearby, were the chic new Dijon clones, material selected for Burgundy’s climate and soils, which are not really parallel to these coastal extremes and this latitude. “We don’t have the same arc of sunlight here as in Oregon or Burgundy,” Nick says. “Around September ninth or tenth, our days are the same length, then they get shorter more slowly so we have a longer fall.” They also decided to experiment with some
marsanne, roussanne, syrah and zinfandel.

But before they even had a crop, they grafted over the zin and most of the roussanne to heritage clones of pinot noir, selections from Calera and Swan. They’ve kept the syrah, which, along with more recent plantings at Steve Campbell’s vineyard, makes a strong argument that Annapolis produces some of the most compelling syrah in California.

In fact, it’s the peppery, wind-bitten syrahs that keep drawing me back to Annapolis, more than the deep, richly textured pinot noirs. The fruit of the pinots tends to be darker here than more transparent examples from Fort Ross–Seaview, grown on higher ridges more fully exposed to the sea (consider the East Ridge from Hirsch or the Sea View Ridge from Flowers).

Jeff Stewart, who makes the wines for Hartford Court from the Olson Ranch (now called the Far Coast Vineyard), finds the pinot noirs from Annapolis tend to be more vibrant than the wines from their Seascape Vineyard in Occidental, structured with big, broad tannins. “They’re silky rather than hard,” Stewart says. The depth of flavor and floral tannin of pinots in Annapolis are not far from the relative lightness and snap of the syrah, a sort of land bridge between the two varieties.

Stewart says there are now close to 15 growers in Annapolis, including Brice Jones at Emeritus, the Putnams next door and Campbell to the north. The old Peterson Ranch is now 53 acres of vines, the Olson Ranch now planted to 150 acres. As the pinot noir vines mature and settle into these ridges, the delicacy and transparency of their fruit may yet emerge.

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