Ross Cobb at Gramercy Tavern
The son of a globe-trotting naval officer, David Cobb was neither a winemaker nor one of the billionaires that plunked down millions of dollars to own an eponymous California winery: He was just passionate about pinot noir with a well-developed intellect.
The same discipline that Cobb applied to achieving his three science degrees (B.A. in marine ecology and an M.A. in each biology and the philosophy of science) he focused on climatological and soil types for growing pinot noir in Burgundy and California. His studies led him to the Sonoma Coast in the seventies.
But, there were two impediments: Only a handful of Burgundy aficionados were drinking American pinot noir in the 1970s and 1980s, and everyone in the wine trade said the Sonoma Coast was too cold for growing any grapes, let alone the fickle and difficult pinot noir. But Cobb had done his homework, and his analysis told him to purchase land on the Sonoma Coast. In 1989, he began planting pinot noir in his new Coastlands Vineyard.
Located in Occidental and at the far end of Sonoma County, the 14-acre Coastlands Vineyard sits on a 900-to 1,200 foot ridge receiving a constant flow of cold winds from the Pacific Ocean four miles away. The cool summers and extended warm fall weather combine to produce grapes with ripe fruit flavors, high acidity and low sugar content that translates into alcohol levels more in tune with Burgundy’s 12.5 to 13 percent than the typically higher level found in California.
In 2001, after years of experimenting with making wine for himself and selling grapes to Williams Selyem winery, Cobb decided to make a small commercial batch of pinot noir. He teamed with his agroecologist son, Ross, who brought seven years winemaking experience for California wineries ranging from the large-scale Ferrari-Carano to the inventive Bonny Doon to pinot noir specialists Williams Selyem and Flowers. They produced a miniscule 130 cases of Cobb Wines Coastlands Vineyard Pinot Noir.
Cobb entered the following vintage into “In Pinot Veritas,” a competition organized by the world-renowned French barrel maker Tonnellerie Francois Freres. In the blind tasting of 31 pinot noirs, the judges awarded frst place to the 2002 from Cobb Coastland Vineyards.
I first tasted Cobb pinot noirs in 2012 with its 2008 Coastlands and Emmaline Ann Vineyards. I was struck by the intersection of California and Burgundy: rich fruit flavors from the former, and a structure of minerality, acidity and restrained alcohol borrowed from the latter. Production of all Cobb wines is a few hundred cases or less, but a few days after the tasting, I tracked down a case of the Emmaline Ann Vineyard.
Patience and discipline are good traits for wine collectors. Over the years, I treat myself to a bottle every six to nine months, observing the wine’s evolution while enjoying its elegant balance of black-cherry and cranberry flavors, and integrated tannins and acidity. The 2008 Emmaline Ann reminds me of Premier Cru Beaune and Santenay wines. I retain three bottles in my cellar.
Earlier this year, I arrived at Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern with great anticipation for a tasting with Ross Cobb of a selection of his family’s 2013 and 2012 pinot noirs and 2013 chardonnay.
Ross began the tasting with the 2013 Cobb Mariani Vineyard Chardonnay. While I was inhaling the rich pear scent that reminded me of Grand Cru Burgundies, he said the vineyard is one-acre near the Tomales Bay, one of the coldest parts of the Sonoma Coast. He spoke about the 13-year-old vines producing spectacular fruit, while that very fruit-in juice form-was leaving trails of lemon and vanilla flavors across my palate. And, I was making a mental note about the low acidity and not a trace of alcohol in my mouth when I heard him say “only 65 cases were made.” 90 points. If you can find it, retail is about $75.
The red wines started with the 2013 Cobb Coastland Vineyard Diane Cobb Pinot Noir named for Ross’s mother, Diane.This wine is made from a parcel of the vineyard planted 26 years ago. With few varieties of pinot noir planted in the Coastlands cool coastal conditions, Diane Cobb established a nursery with 20 varieties of pinot noir. From those pioneering days comes the grapes yielding red fruit-aromas with cinnamon and white-pepper accents. Its medium body supports black-cherry fruit flavors with soft tannins; in wine jargon, its feminine texture honors the name on the wine’s label. 90 points. 275 cases. Retail is about $75.
From another section of the Coastlands Vineyard comes the 2012 Cobb Coastlands Vineyard Old Firs Block Pinot Noir. Made from grapes of the oldest vines that are grown at the highest altitude (1,200 feet) and next to a stand of 275-year-old Douglas Fir trees, this wine showed a toasted oak and smoky nose when poured. But after 25 minutes of aeration, the Old Firs Block reveled its black-cherry and hints of Asian five spice powder. It is bigger bodied than the Diane Cobb wine and displays its youthful bitter cherry and tannins in the long finish. If you buy this wine, cellaring it for two or three years will reward you. 92 points. 300 cases. Retail is about $80.
While the 2013 Cobb Rice-Spivak Vineyard Pinot Noir sits six miles from the Pacific Ocean and at a lower elevation of 300 feet, Ross said this vineyard is often blanketed with fog and fanned with cold ocean winds. Its translucent cherry color, and strawberry and cranberry aromas and flavors are laced with suggestions of cinnamon and cloves. Its delicate texture and gentle acidity make the wine instantly appealing. 90 points. 225 cases. Retail is about $75.
I was not disappointed when I held my glass of the 2013 Cobb Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir. This two-acre vineyard sits 800 feet above the Pacific Ocean in one of Sonoma Coast’s coldest microclimates. Ross said the vines received the most shade and fog of his vineyards. For me, Emmaline Ann is all sunshine.
I was enthralled with the 2013’s clove, white pepper, strawberry and cherry aromas and flavors that hung above my glass like a windless summer cloud and held their place on my palate with mild tannins and acidity. I didn’t say anything to Ross the winemaker about how the Emmaline Ann was a continuation of the 2008 Domaine Ramonet red Chassagne-Montrachet Clos St. Jean that I had the night before with my dinner.
But I did mention to Ross that I also had a few bottles of the 2009 Cobb Emmaline Ann in my cellar. We discussed how it is a little bigger and richer than the 2008 version, and I confessed I preferred the 2008’s more angular style.
There are only 175 cases of the 2013 Cobb Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir. I don’t know how many are remaining in the marketplace, but I’m going to deplete it by one. 92 points. Retail is about $75.