Weed, Grapes & Redwoods: A Different Kind of CA Wine Country

A new wave of winemakers has the community of Cazadero wrestling with the implications of its growing viticultural success. Tess Bryant explores a region caught somewhere between Coors-drinking “hip-necks” and risk-taking grape growers.

The boundaries of Cazadero, an old logging town built amongst towering redwoods, lie within a roughly 10-mile span, beginning at the shady banks of Austin Creek and ending in a series of ocean-view ridges that reach as high as 2,000 feet above sea level.

Since the early-1980s, pioneering grape growers and winemakers like David Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, Ted Lemon of Littorai and Ehren Jordan of Failla have made a name for pinot noir here. And today, small producers like Enfield Wine Company and Sandlands are continuing the risk-taking tradition of experimental growing and winemaking in this rugged and remote terrain with remarkable results.

But like many of the small towns dotting the Sonoma Coast, Cazadero has been largely left in the dust of its neighboring boomtowns—like the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley. For most of its residents, the luxurious image of California’s wine country has long been a distant, golden haze. Yet the arrival of a new wave of winemakers has Cazadero’s diverse community wrestling with the implications of the town’s growing viticultural success.

As the winemaker and vineyard manager of Turley Wine Cellars in Napa, Tegan Passalacqua has been purchasing zinfandel from George Bohan’s Cazadero vineyards since 2003. Bohan’s father planted the town’s first vineyard in 1971 to both merlot and zinfandel. Though the zinfandel was successful, the merlot always struggled to ripen.

“Well-farmed merlot from this vineyard could have been world class, but I realized it would be more fun to make trousseau than merlot on the coast,” says Passalacqua. “George [Bohan] thought the idea was in the same spirit as his father’s trial plantings—that this was a way to keep the legacy of the coast going.”

Life in the Cazadero woods is less about wine than it is about a daily allowance of Coors tallboys and a thickly rolled joint. Though not as conspicuous as the neatly lined hilltop vineyard rows that can be seen while driving along western edges of Fort Ross Road, marijuana has been a far more present crop in these woods over the past four decades.

With George’s permission and cuttings from the Luchsinger Vineyard in Lake County, Tegan grafted the just over one-acre vineyard of merlot to trousseau, and made his first vintage in 2012 under his Sandlands label.

In 2010, John Lockwood of Enfield stumbled upon a tiny, organic cabernet sauvignon vineyard in an area known as Tank Hill, just one ridge east of the Bohan ranch. With the ocean and its inevitable threat of cool air and fog lurking nearby, most would consider cabernet in Cazadero a stretch. But Lockwood saw it as an opportunity.

“I’m just a lucky asshole to have stumbled across this vineyard,” he says with a laugh. Previously, much of the fruit had been made into jam and sold at local farmers’ markets. When John started picking the fruit there was just enough for four barrels. With a full crop in 2013, there was enough for 10.

There are few cabernet sauvignon bottlings produced in California today that compare. With a large dose of whole cluster and just one new barrel out of 2013’s 10 barrels, the wine is wild and gamey with a touch of green, while retaining a juicy freshness. This is a wine that—along with the wines of Arnot-Roberts and Cathy Corison, among others—challenges the stereotype of boozy, oak-laden California cabernet and asserts, with acid and verve, that cabernet sauvignon can be just as elegant as the state’s greatest pinot noirs.

The backdrop to Cazadero’s growing viticultural success is the town itself. Many would assume that Cazadero—or, more affectionately, “Caz”—which is just a stone’s throw from the Russian River and 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean as the crow flies, to be at the heart of California’s exalted wine county. The reality is that it’s far from it.

Life in the Cazadero woods is less about wine than it is about a daily allowance of Coors tallboys and a thickly rolled joint. Though not as conspicuous as the neatly lined hilltop vineyard rows that can be seen while driving along western edges of Fort Ross Road, marijuana has been a far more present crop in these woods over the past four decades.

Visible along the single street of Cazadero is a post office, a hardware store and a general store, each of which could easily have been plucked from a 19th-century photograph. Often the road is empty, but spend an afternoon idling on the store’s porch with a cold bottle and you’ll see San Francisco refugees from the ’60s and ’70s picking up milk and mail, sheep farmers and family members squeezed onto a single ATV, the children of cattle farmers on horseback sidling into town or logging trucks transporting loads of felled redwoods—the third crop in Cazadero’s holy trinity of grapes, marijuana and redwoods.

In the words of Joe Hirsch, David Hirsch’s son, “We’re a mishmash of west-coast lefties, hippies, rednecks and best of all—hip-necks.”

My parents moved into a Cazadero cabin (44 acres, but no electricity or water) as young hippies in the early 1980s, right around the time David Hirsch first began to plant Hirsch Vineyard. But until I began working at the winery with Hirsch and his family in 2009, I’d only heard rumors about the vineyards planted on the hilltops surrounding Cazadero.

In these whisperings, there was no discerning between those who cared for the land—or perhaps even revitalized it, as Hirsch did—and those who clear-cut ridgelines without a care for the local ecosystem. For some of the community, anyone who associated with grape growing belonged to a special breed of evil—out to not only destroy the privacy that a remote, rural town affords, but willing to deface virgin land for commercial purposes.

As a child, Elisa Hellenthal—whose family owns a 17-acre pinot noir vineyard, which they began planting in 1980—remembers a scene at the local elementary school where schoolmates, who clearly got the idea from their parents, informed Elisa the sprays her father was using in his vineyard would result in the deaths of everyone within a 100-mile radius.

“Certain people felt threatened,” says Hellenthal, whose surname can now be found on many sought-after pinot noir bottlings, like John Raytek’s Ceritas label. “[They thought] maybe we were going to turn into the next Napa.”

Though there is little chance the vineyards will have such macabre consequences as Elisa’s school friends suggested, the town’s landscape is indeed changing. Last year saw the first establishment of a tasting room in the area; and in 2011 a new AVA, Fort Ross-Seaview, was drawn up within the Sonoma Coast AVA encompassing Cazadero. The roads are busier, and the wine shelves in the Cazadero General Store, however dusty, are stocked.

To worry Cazadero will become the next Napa is a long shot—those who choose to live in such a secluded part of the world would be averse to such change.  However, the benefit, from a vinous point of view, is outstanding. I never would have guessed Cazadero could be more than towering redwoods and gardens full of marijuana. But between the old guard of winemakers and the new, Cazadero has become the unexpected epicenter of some of the most interesting, boundary-pushing wines currently being made in the country.

“When a variety is in the right site it has a balanced tension. If it is too easy or too hard, forget it,” says David Hirsch. “How you come into a new place to figure this out is the tough thing—there’s no book about it.”

Perhaps the same can be said about Cazadero and its residents as we strive for balance between desiring to remain at the fringes of civilization, and accepting the changes these celebrated vineyards inevitably bring. The hope is that, in true hip-neck form, “A logger, a dope grower and a grape grower can all stand around together and have a couple of beers and a laugh,” says Hellenthal. “And everything is okay.”

[Image: Hirsch Vineyard in the fog.]

Tess Bryant Casey has been working and drinking in the Bay Area wine industry for the past five years at Hirsch Vineyards and Arlequin Wine Merchant and now mans the western helm for T. Edward Wines. She lives in Oakland.