On a recent trip to Sonoma, we had the opportunity to catch up with Bettina Sichel of Laurel Glen Vineyard. We first wrote about Laurel Glen two years ago, before the devasting fires of 2017. It was great to hear first-hand how Sonoma has recovered from one of the worst wildfires in the region’s history.
Laurel Glen is one of the top Cabernet Sauvignon producers in the Sonoma Valley. Sonoma has a wonderful diversity of different terroirs within its 17 different AVAs. Consequently, Sonoma grows a wide number of different grapes that are made into wine. Sonoma’s next-door neighbour, Napa Valley, has a more homogenous climate; one whose heat and dryness work very well for growing Cabernet Sauvignon. That singularity of focus has equated Napa Valley with Cabernet Sauvignon in many consumers’ minds. Sonoma’s diversity has prevented the valley from being associated with just one grape. While Sonoma may not have the same recognition for Cabernet that Napa does, that certainly does not mean that Sonoma is not producing top quality Cabernet. Laurel Glen is proving that point.
Bettina drove us to Laurel Glen’s estate vineyard high up on Sonoma Mountain. On the drive up we talked about the 2017 wild fires. We had seen some of the destruction firsthand as we were in Sonoma just two weeks after the fires were put out. We can tell you that the destruction we saw was immense. Two years later things of have greened up, but there are still signs of what happened. Burnt trees and cars, houses being re-built, scorched ground. The fires were not confined to Sonoma; Napa, Lake, Butte, Mendicino and Solano counties were all affected as well. In all, 250 separate fires burned from October 9 to October 31. Roughly a quarter of a million acres burned. The estimated cost of the destruction is $14.5 billion. 44 persons lost their lives, 192 others were injured, making this the deadliest wildfire event in the past 100 years.
Bettina told us how devasting those fires were to all of the people in the Valley. The psychological toll of losing your home, and all your possessions to fire cannot be over-estimated. Bettina knows. She lost her home in those fires.
As we approached the Laurel Glen Vineyard, we saw that its beauty had been retained. The vineyard faces east, looking over the Sonoma Valley below and across at the Mayacamas Mountains that separate Sonoma and Napa valleys. It is a beautiful view, and a very peaceful space. Most of the vineyard was spared in the fire. Bettina told us how vineyards make natural firebreaks.
But block 4, that sits at the highest elevation and had the oldest vines (planted in the 1970s) did not make it. The old, gnarly, wooden trunks, remain but there were no chutes growing off them. Bettina told us they will be ripped out and new Cabernet Sauvignon will be planted, with a tighter spacing. They will also go with the double Guyot trellis system, used in the rest of the vineyard, that trains the canes to follow an arc which promotes more even ripening.
Bettina told us how they had only picked a part of the vineyard before the wildfires. Those grapes that were left did have some smoke taint. Fortunately, some early November rain helped wash some of the smoke off. The grapes were all carefully washed in the winery which further reduces the smoke influence. They saved the skins from the grapes harvested pre-fire and then poured the must from the post-fire grapes over those skins. This innovation further reduced the smoke influence. The 2017 crop was vastly reduced, but they did manage to make good wine from the post-fire harvest that had only a hint of smoke. Bettina, always the optimist, told us how 2018 was a wonderful vintage, with a virtually problem-free growing season and a big harvest.
The 2017 wildfires will always be remembered by those who survived them. This tragedy, like most others, brought the community together. The wine-growing community faced extraordinary challenges in that vintage, but perseverance and innovation helped many, and certainly Laurel Glen, get through it. Most of us know that vines need to struggle to produce good wine. It is years like 2017 that teach us just how much vineyard managers and winemakers have to struggle to make good wine.
As we tasted through the current Laurel Glen releases, and a back-vintage too, we asked Bettina how she thought climate change was affecting the wine world. She told us it is affecting Sonoma, but not in the obvious way of just more heat, “We haven’t seen uniform warming but we are seeing warmer winters, which means that the bud break is happening sooner. We’ve also been seeing cooler, wetter springs which means bud break has been interrupted by bad weather. It’s why we had a small crop in 2015 & a small crop in 2016. We had these cold wet events which interrupted flowering. Warmer winters means that the vines come out of dormancy earlier making them subject to typical spring weather, which here can be very cold and wet, and that cold wet weather has lasted later than in the past.”
Picking may be occurring a bit earlier, but the early bud break means that “hang time” is really just as long. She told us that making good wine has always been about adapting to the conditions that Mother Nature decides to give you. Climate change is another one of those conditions and Bettina and her team at Laurel Glen will continue to adapt to those conditions and continue to make top quality Cabernet Sauvignon.
2017 Laurel Glen Rosella Rosé
Made from 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% from a field blend of old vines, this is a serious and intensely flavoured Rosé. Wonderful on its own, this would even be better with food. We get flavours of cranberry and tart watermelon with hints of spice on the long finish. Good back end acidity that you would expect from a Rosé but the big surprise here was the textural component: lots of body making this a more muscular Rosé and in a good way. One of the top Rosés we have tasted.
Excellent (USD$30 at tasting room)
2016 Laurel Glen Counterpoint Cabernet Sauvignon
Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with Cabernet and Merlot from Sonoma Mountain neighbours Pickberry Vineyards and Murray Vineyards. The most forward wine in the lineup this is soft and approachable, with a seductive mouthfeel that shows rich texture. The flavours tend toward the blackfruit end of the scale: black cherry, currant and plum. Back end tannin is ripe and not at all coarse and keeps this wine well defined and in great balance.
Excellent (USD$50 at tasting room *particularly good value for this quality level)
2015 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon Estate
Right from the very first sniff you know this is serious Cabernet! A gorgeous perfume of blackberry, cassis, vanilla and hints of baking spices greets your nose well above the glass. This wine is full bodied and shows plenty of structure. The tannins are polished and will no doubt integrate more over the next few years, making this a great candidate for the cellar. The finish is long with notes of cedar and forest floor, making this wine evoke a high quality St. Estephe. Delicious!
Excellent+ (USD$90 at their tasting room)
2009 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon Estate
Laurel Glen Cabs are built to age and this 10 year old showed that in spades. We took a bottle to dinner that night and it paired wonderfully with food. Grown by the previous owners just before Bettina took over, this shows a slightly more rustic style than more recent Laurel Glen Cabs. But the mountain fruit signature was still there: intense dark fruits on a solid frame shows long life. Black cherry, blackberry and plum gain further complexity from the cedar and mineral notes. Not quite at the level of gorgeous texture of the more recent Laurel Glens, but delicious just the same.
2013 Laurel Glen Lot Series 45 Cabernet Sauvignon
The Lot Series are an homage to the earlier Laurel Glen Cabernets of the 1980s and 1990s. This is the second Lot Series, this first being the 2012, Lot Series 44, so-named because the vintage was 44 years after the Estate Vineyard was planted. This is a more rustic take with bigger tannin. Full body, structured and built for the long haul, this wine is jammed full of blackberry, cassis, spice and cedar notes. Hints of dark chocolate infuse the long finish. Just a baby today, this will develop for another decade and probably two.
Excellent (USD$125 at their tasting room)