Hiking Rockaway Vineyard With Doug McIlroy

Ξ October 27th, 2008 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine News, Wineries |

Of the many fine activities offered at the recent Wine Blogger’s Conference was an assortment of Sonoma Vineyard Walks organized by Zephyr Wine Adventures. Among the listed Vineyard Walks was Alexander Valley North,
“Alexander Valley North: This walk starts at the Geyserville Inn, heads across the Russian River and through vineyards and farmland to the hillside property of Rodney Strong’s Rockaway Vineyard. Participants will be accompanied by long-time grape grower Jim Murphy. This is the longest walk option and is perhaps four miles.”
This was the best choice for me and a dozen other souls including, of course, Russ Beebe, of Winehiker. To walk a vineyard from the Alexander Valley floor, at an elevation of approx. 200 feet, up to the Rockaway hillside Vineyard, topping at 750 feet, would offer insights into important contrasts in growing and harvesting techniques, irrigation, yields, and terroir, especially when led by Rodney Strong’s brilliant viticulturist, Doug McIlroy.
Alas, it was perhaps a bit too much to ask for. An equally important contrast is the pace of the group on what quickly became a vigorous, though modest hike. And some preferred networking or quiet reflection in such a peaceful place. In any event, what follows are some of the lucid comments by Doug McIlroy made on our way to lunch and a taste of Rodney Strong’s new Rockaway wine.
It is important to add that Mr. McIlroy answered every question exhaustively. Indeed, I am greatly encouraged by Zephyr’s vineyard tours if this gentleman is the measure of the intellectual competence and rigor to be had in a guide.
Doug McIlroy on the Geology of the locale
Near here you have the lateral faulting of the San Andreas Fault. There are pieces of granite actually on Bodega Head here in Inverness at Point Reyes that have come all the way from the Tehachapis and that’s how they figured out how long it took, how fast that fault is moving. As that fault is moving there are lots of stresses on sub faults off of the San Andreas, and what happens as the faults are running up against and moving passed each other they pull valleys apart. The Alexander Valley is actually a place where the valley has been pulled apart by the faulting on either side. And the hills are starting to rise. We have one of the larger faults in Sonoma County, the Maacama Fault, and we’ll be able to see that when we get up the other side.”
On the Soils
“What we have here on this ranch are pretty much ocean bottom sandstones, so they’re very well drained, rocky sandstones, greywacke, and those kind of things. They are really poor, low in fertility, and tend to be highly acidic, too, and you’ll see some of our red grapes with alot of red color in them, that’s because they have a phosphorous deficiency from the low pHs.
As the valleys get pulled apart, eroded down, the river is undercutting them, and it’s taking all the sediments from the area and depositing them in the valleys. The soils you saw today down on the Murphy Ranch, where you were walking along the flood plain of the river, are newer alluvial deposits in very recent geological history, whereas these hillside soils were deposited and formed under the ocean millions of years ago.”

“And in the valley below, where you started your walk, that’s another upper terrace of the river from where it’s eroded down. So you have river terraces, these benches which are really great vineyard sites throughout the Alexander Valley, all the way from the southern Alexander Valley into Cloverdale. We have a combination of these new alluviums, older alluviums, and these Franciscan soils, and a little volcanic debris, lots of different parent material in the soils. We like what we have here, very well drained and low in fertility.”
On Low Yields and Great Wines
“A lot of people think low yields give you great wines, that you can make a vineyard better by cutting back the yield. That’s counterintuitive. What’s really going on is that low-yielding sites have a tendency to give a higher wine quality, there is that correlation. There’s a little more stress, but you don’t want too much stress where the vines are really struggling. You want them to be somewhere in between, like the Three Bears where it’s just right, not too hot, not too cold! And you find that little sweet spot right here, that’s what we’ve got here.
And as you go up the Alexander Valley it gets warmer. The focus has been on Jimtown. We believe what makes this place more special for Cabernet is that it’s a little bit warmer. Jim might have even said, in the old days, that Cloverdale was too hot for Cabernet. Why did we even make that border at the Alexander Valley? At another of our ranches, eight miles up the valley, there you get more Napa-like wines because Napa County is a little bit warmer than Sonoma County. We’re finding that among the wines we’re making we like those from the warmer sites.”
“We have the Crown where we’ve made wines all along, down in Jimtown, and seven miles, five miles up the valley we’re here at Rockaway, and then another seven miles up the valley is the Brother’s Ridge, they progressively get warmer, and they produce distinctly different wines. You get a terroir-effect from the climate as well as the soil, each a little different.”

On Wildlife
“On the top of this hill there’s a Bald Eagle that nests here every year. Were you here in March you’d probable see it more than likely, sometimes coming with fish from the river and taking to the nest up there. And you can see Golden Eagles on this ranch, their habitat is mostly in the back country of Sonoma County. You do see alot of wildlife around here. It’s kinda cool. It’s one of the nice thing about doing what I do, to come out to these ranches. You never know what you’re going to see.”
On Grape Ripeness and Rockaway Wine
“I don’t really look at seeds. I’m looking more at the skins. A lot of people talk about hard, crunchy seeds but I’m really looking at what is happening in the skin. So, to begin with, I’ll chew them up a little bit in my mouth, just the skin, and I’ll rub it in my fingers to see its color extraction. With Cabernet, it tends to release quite a bit of color just rubbing the skins; Petit Verdot will release quite a lot of color.
But what we’re looking for is that silky tannin, that mature, soft tannin, that’s when I talk about phenolic ripeness. But one of the consequences of doing that is that the grapes become elevated in sugar. Well, as you know, when you have a lot of sugar you’re going to get a lot of alcohol. You know, people talk about should we have wines that are 13% alcohol or 15% alcohol, I say if you want phenolic ripeness and you want that soft, supple tannin, alcohol is a consequence of that. And alcohol, actually, can be your friend. It can give you mouthfeel in itself and it causes more extraction in the fermentation process.
And another thing that happens when you pick these wines they’re higher in pH, so your perception of tannin… they don’t seem as coarse, because of the higher pH. So a lot of the controversy about these highly extracted wines is how do you get there and make these kinds of wines without doing all these other things. We try to minimize those impacts of how much sugar they might end up with and those kind of things. If you like wines that taste like this they’re gonna be over 15% alcohol.
They’re going to be just as age-worthy because they have a lot more tannin, but it’s softer tannin. The alcohol will actually help them age. The other thing they’ll have is fruit, natural fruit. David Ramey is our consultant, I don’t know if you know that, and he talks about wines that aren’t made this way, that are made at a lower brix, lower pH, the more coarse wines, and he always said that what the French called an age-worthy wine, well, that’s a way of selling a wine from a poor vintage. The best vintages in France are where you get higher alcohol, where you get the softer tannin. If you have these softer tannins, if you have fruit, you’ll always have fruit. If you don’t have fruit you’re not going to have fruit.
Sure, if you have a fairly tight wine that’s acidic, that is age-worthy, it will get better with time, definitely, it will evolve. You’ll see more of an evolution in that wine. That’s kinda our philosophy. We’ve moved toward the more extractable, softer wines.”

Question from the group, “What was the pH when the grapes came in?”
“Somewhere in the 3.8 range. Potential alcohol somewhere between 15 and 15 and three-quarters. Somewhere around there.”
Great thanks to Doug McIlroy for his time. For those interested in this kind of immediacy and openness, this specialized knowledge of a vineyard and a given winemaking philosophy, for those bored out of their minds with the Hallmark Card limitations of the tasting room experience, I strongly encourage those folks to put on their boots, and like our mothers used to say, go outside and play. Go tour a vineyard.
A final note: though I’m loath to write tasting notes I will weigh in on the Rockaway. Having learned the pH and brix of the wine I have to say it tasted unusually stable by which I mean finished. There was no mystery. I am sure both a dealc and an aggressive acidification was necessary. One must understand that this wine was sent out for a quick promotional review, the success of which hinged on accessibility. My feeling is that Rodney Strong found a way to promote an underperforming, troublesome vineyard. I would not be surprised to learn they might quietly search for a buyer somewhere down the road.


5 Responses to ' Hiking Rockaway Vineyard With Doug McIlroy '

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  1. Dirty said,

    on October 29th, 2008 at 7:21 am

    Great coverage of the hike. This was a great walk and extremely educational.

    Interesting thoughts on Rockaway

  2. David J said,

    on October 30th, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    Wish I had the talents & energy to be in a couple of places at the same time– walking SaraLee’s was fairly instructional, too, with Dan Moore & the winemaker (I think) at Swan’s, whose name escapes me– but being in yr company & Russ’s would have added another layer of excitement & fun to the planned content.
    Cheers– will try to stay in touch & if Guillermo Payet of Local Harvest can find time to meet, I should be in Santa Cruz sometime just before or just after Thanksgiving.

  3. on November 6th, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Hey there. Glad you liked the hike at Rockaway and I am happy to hear that you enjoyed Doug. He’s a wealth of info and insight, for sure. The one thing I want to clarify is that we believe that Rockaway is one of our best vineyards, certainly not one that we’ll want to sell. It, along with the others you mention, Brother’s Ridge and Alexander’s Crown, are our very best.

  4. Administrator said,

    on November 6th, 2008 at 10:49 am

    Robert, your answer is good enough for me. I wish you folks all the best.

  5. Robby said,

    on November 3rd, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Recently tried Rockaway at a WS grand tasting here in NYC where I was told the name of the vineyard was related to an owner’s growing up in Rockaway, NY. Those of us who live on the Rockaway peninusla (and enjoy wine) are lookikng to confirm this…

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