Scallop Fossil, River Gorge
Scallop Shelf is obviously a typo. Shouldn’t it be Scallop Shell? Perhaps. When preparing the vineyard for planting, we found scallop and nautilus fossils in our soils. We researched the geology of the region and learned that we farm in an outcropping of marine soils. Our hilltop was a former sea-bed uplifted about 5-7 million years ago along the neighboring San Andreas Fault which created the bedrock of the Pacific Coast Ridges 250 million years ago. Like geology and want to know more? I suggest you read Vanessa’s article I Exert for Dirt. For our purposes, what is important to understand is we farm in nutrient poor marine soils, low in clay content, with moderate topsoil depth that drains slowly. This allows for our saturated soils – we get on average 60+ inches of rain per year – to retain just enough water to feed the vines as the water table drops for most, if not the entire, growing season. The poor soils mean we do not have to fight vigor from too much nitrogen or other nutrients; in fact, we add compost every year that we make from our pomace (skins, stems, yeast cells.)
As for shelf, when you stand on our porch and look south you will notice the former ocean bed forms a shelf where the Wheatfield Fork of the Gualala River has cut a path to the coast. I have hiked off the southern end of the vineyard and you have to hold on to trees to keep from sliding down the hill to the river 600 feet below. Steep. That river is our conduit to the Pacific Ocean. The fog sneaks up the river valley to embrace, if not downright smother, the vineyard in the evenings. Around noon the coastal wind blows bringing cool wind dropping temperatures into the 60s on average. So, the shelf is key to our micro-climate. But Scallop Shelf? King Solomon would have loved the name.
Scallop Shelf is characterized by a floral, red-fruited profile with grace, elegance, and natural beauty. The blend is a majority of the Pommard selection which, in our vineyard, offers a distinct orange rind flavor not the deep cherry flavor you find in wines made from the Pommard clone in warmer climates. Dijon clones 115 and 777 provide the mid-palate depth and roundness with Swan and Mount Eden selections accenting the fruit flavors with high tone floral scents. Over the arc of the fifteen vintages we have made the Scallop Shelf Pinot noir the winemaking has remained almost identical but the character of the wine has slightly changed. The bright, orange rind inflected nose and jasmine aromas remain. The elegant profile and brisk acidity that commands a second taste, and a third, persists. The main difference is in the nature of the fruit expression and the savory finish. The raspberry and jasmine qualities in the aroma have evolved and become more nuanced and multi-faceted adding in some brass and turned earth notes. The acidity keeps the wine focused on the mid-palate, as usual, but the dried pine needle and forest floor quality often found in Pomarium has crept under the Scallop Shelf tent and adds ballast to a lifted wine. It is not so easy to peg this as the lighter or brighter wine any longer. I used to be a “Scallop Shelf” guy as many of you likely were but over the years the other two estate cuvées have become so interesting that from vintage to vintage and occasion to occasion I drift among the three. Yet, there is something about the Scallop Shelf Pinot noir. When I have an “important” bottle request from someone I want to be sure to impress, I grab a bottle of Scallop Shelf. Not every time, but often. I have confidence in its complexity, in its individuality. Not different to be different ignoring pleasure, but different in a compelling way. Kind of how I like my people, too.
The Art of Blending
We were pioneers in this region of the West Sonoma Coast when we planted the first 30 acres of vines in 1998. We were tinkerers, uncertain what clones would best express our site and how much of each would be ideal in a wine. We now farm 13 clonal selections of Pinot noir strewn across 34 acres kept distinct by clonal selection. There is no Ama block. No Scallop Shelf block. Nope, no Pomarium block, either (thank god, everyone would call it the dog pound). I am often asked by an uninitiated person how these cuvées can be different as the grapes come from the same vineyard? After tasting them, this question is usually followed by “wow, the cuvées really do taste different! Huh?” Here is why we think this is and how each came into being.
We pick the 13 clones of Pinot noir in 25-30 separate picking blocks. Each block may have different sensory characteristics due to the clone, the soil, the aspect, the rootstock, and the ripeness at picking. Some lots may emphasize fruit, some may have little fruit expression but are earthy. Some may have deep bass notes, some might be light and floral, and on and on. These blocks are vinified and aged separately and blended before bottling to make the three Estate Pinot noirs and our Sonoma Coast cuvée.
When making blends, Vanessa is much like a painter. Painters apply layers of paint to a canvas to create depth, light, color, and shape. Working with more than 25 pinots Vanessa has at least 25 individual paints she can layer to bring forth the voice of the vineyard in three distinct wines. There should be an overall harmony and individual character to each cuvée but within that style there will be top notes, middle notes, and bass notes that support one another and result in a complex tasting experience.
Up until the 2005 vintage, we made one Peay Pinot noir named the Estate. Monthly, Vanessa would refine the potential blends and we would taste them blind to determine the 2005 Estate Pinot. Two potential cuvées rose to the top but the three of us found it difficult to agree on which was the single best expression of Pinot noir from our vineyard. One was bright, elegant, and aromatic; the other was darker-fruited, brooding, and earthy. All the trial blends had great acidity and forest floor flavors that lingered on the finish – a hallmark of our Pinot noirs in all our wines in any vintage. Inevitably, neither blend represented the majority of the Pinot in barrel. So, we decided to pick our two favorites and make two Estate Pinot noirs.
Alas, we needed names to differentiate the two Estate wines. They needed to be evocative of our site and meaningful. We could opt for Peay III, IV, V like George Foreman so eloquently named his sons (there is a VI and a Jr.) Perhaps, not. At the time, we could not name them after our children, either – which appears to be popular among wineries – as we were childless. Summer was nigh, however, and we needed to print labels so we pulled out a white board and started to brainstorm. Here is what came of our naming: Pomarium, Scallop Shelf, Ama, Sonoma Coast, Savoy, Elanus. Each cuvée has something unique to say about Pinot noir from our Estate vineyard.