Hiking Rockpile with Clay Mauritson
Grape vines are stress junkies. The harder they have to work for water and nutrients, by way of sending their roots deeper into the soil, the better fruit they produce. Under these circumstance, yields might be lower and berries might be smaller, reducing the skin to juice ratio and therefore providing greater phenolic range. Phenolics and anthocyanins are chemical compounds in the grapes that heavily influence a wine's color, texture, aromas and flavors. The more of those compounds present at harvest, the greater the potential for a layered, complex wine. Conversely, a pampered vine, like those planted to valley floors where the soil is fertile and water abundant, is not likely to make particularly intellectually engaging or long lasting wines. And so the search for bad soil and hard to get at slopes remains at the forefront of quality winemakers' minds.
This is why the Rockpile AVA is so fascinating. In some plots, the topsoil is hardly present and the slopes are steep enough to give you a solid glutes workout, if you decide to follow the winemaker up and down the rows. Or, if you're really out of shape and your allergies are making it tough to breathe, you can watch from the road above. I had such grand intentions when I asked winemaker and friend Clay Mauritson if we could hike through his family's Rockpile vineyards. He needed to pull grapes for sampling in the lab anyway, so the timing worked out. But after the first plot, I decided to save my breath and flabby ass by keeping the truck company while Clay and his national sales rep, Brittany, got the job done. It was a lovely way to spend the morning, meditating on the serene landscape and taking a billion iPhone snaps for commemoration.
about rockpile ava
The American Viticultural Area is a relatively young one, granted official status in 2002. But the land has been known as Rockpile since at least 1858 and in 1884, Clay's ancestor H.P. Hallegren planted grape vines on the valley floor here, shipping all the wine he made home to Sweden. By the 1960s the family estate had grown to 4,000 acres, all but 700 of which were taken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and later became Sonoma Lake after the completion of Warm Springs Dam in 1983. At first, it seemed the remaining land was only suited to sheep grazing, but by the early 1990s a few proprietors saw the rocky soils and mesoclimate as potentially producing great wine. In 1992 Rod and Cathy Park of Rockpile Ranch planted the first present-day vines, and Clay's brothers Thomas and Chris Mauritson started planting not long after.
This is mountain fruit. Elevation in grape growing can have many benefits, like a long growing season which allows for riper fruit while maintaining high acids. In Rockpile, where vineyards must be planted no lower than 800 feet above sea level and up to 2,100 feet, an elevation agreed upon because above 800 feet, the famous valley fog doesn't cover the vineyards. This is another aspect that makes Rockpile so unique. The absence of fog, which gathers on the lake's surface instead, means the fruit here gets more sun and less moisture on the berries, which in turn means an absence of rot in the vineyards. A constant gentle wind around 5 mph and gusts reaching 20 or 25 mph also help keep the berries dry. Healthy fruit makes good wine. It's slightly cooler up here than it is in Dry Creek valley AVA, which overlaps Rockpile, and slightly warmer in the evenings than in the valley. Such moderate temps encourage even ripening, which is a common issue with both zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.
Interestingly enough, I don't think there are any white varieties growing in Rockpile. Wish I'd thought to ask why not when I was resting upon the escarpment. The Bordeaux red grapes are standards alongside zin, tannat and some heritage Port varieties including tinta cão, touriga nacional, sousão, and tinta Madeira, from which Clay makes a Port style red. Each vineyard is made up of multiple plots that are planted on slopes that face either southwest or northwest, each angle lending subtle differences to the fruit. The iron-rich clay and clay loam soils are relatively shallow here, and bits of granite rock are found on the surface in some vineyards. There are 17 different registered soil types in Rockpile. That's a lot! In part, because of the Healdsburg-Rogers Creek fault that runs right through the appellation.
It's a special place, one I wouldn't mind revisiting.
A few Mauritson Rockpile standouts:
"Cemetery" vineyard Zinfandel 2013
Powerful dark fruit and wild blueberry notes with savory, smokey hints. This vineyard straddles the Rogers Creek fault line (photo directly above) with a wide range of soil types. Big structure, will definitely ease-up with time. $47 per bottle; 536 cases produced.
Sold out at the winery but you can still find it on wine-searcher.
"Rockpile Ridge" vineyard Zinfandel 2014
There's one percent of petit verdot in here, an old thick-skinned Bordeaux varietal that adds color and some tannin. Grown at almost 1,200 feet elevation, this zin throws up dark fruit with raspberry notes and firm tannins that don't over-dry. $41 per bottle; 1,175 cases produced.
Buy direct from the winery or check it out on wine-searcher.
"Rockpile Ridge" vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
With a little merlot and malbec, 3% each, this cab is intensely perfumed with black fruit and coco hints. Great structure on the palate with a hint of velvety sweetness on the finish. Would love to try this in ten years. $50 per bottle; 757 cases produced. Buy direct from the winery or check it out on wine-searcher.