When we are children, we don’t necessarily comprehend what our parents do for fun, and when we do, we rarely approve. As a teenager, the view from Ross Cobb’s room included a few dozen Pinot Noir vines that his father, David Cobb, a marine biologist and environmental scientist, had planted in the backyard of their Mill Valley home. The fact that his parents were spending their Tuesday and Thursday nights taking viticulture classes at the Santa Rosa Junior College, and their weekends looking at land in Sonoma meant very little to him.
“It seemed like a funny hobby, but I could care less. I was just happy that they were gone during the day, on the weekends” laughs Cobb. His father had actually been making wine at home for several years before that, and it was this wine, a magnum of 1981 Zinfandel whose grapes he had helped his father pick that made for Cobb’s first taste of wine.
“I didn’t know this until just a few years ago,” says Cobb, “but my Dad had been to Burgundy in the mid-Seventies when he was finishing a PhD program. He bought some amazing bottles, and wandered out into the vineyards and drank them, and sat there thinking that the hills looked a lot like those around the Bodega Bay Marine Lab where he had spent some time. He came back, dropped out, started working full time, and then went back to school at Berkeley part time and in the course of the classes he was taking he decided to write a paper on the future of the California Wine Industry. His paper was about how the cooler areas of Sonoma County were going to be the future of Pinot Noir in California. That was 1978, but already he had this dream of retiring someplace with a view of the ocean and planting a vineyard.”
Some people have dreams that remain fantasies, and some have the persistence to pursue them, no matter how unlikely. David Cobb and his wife doggedly pursued their dreams, and just as Ross was finishing high school, the family sold their house in Mill Valley, and moved north to Occidental where his father had purchased a piece of land on the crest of a hill. While he worked full time, David Cobb planted five acres of Pinot Noir by hand at the age of 52, on a hill overlooking Bodega Bay. This was 1989, when the leading viticulturists of the time at U.C. Davis were still suggesting that the odds of ripening Pinot Noir so close to the ocean were dicey at best.
That the first five vintages of fruit from his vineyard were purchased without a track record by Burt Williams at Williams-Selyem says a lot about just how seriously David Cobb took this little hobby of his. And by the time he had finished his sophomore year at U.C. Santa Cruz, his son Ross was taking it a lot more seriously, too. Working in the vineyard with his father and beginning to taste wines that it produced had a profound, if somewhat subconscious effect on Cobb. Not enough to make it clear to him that his future might lie in the wine business, but enough to convince him that his interests lay in agriculture and ecology rather than biology.
Graduating with a degree in Environmental Studies, Cobb moved to the city and did the most logical think he could think of. He got a job working at Whole Foods, where his inability to remember the constantly changing schedule meant for a short tenure as a cashier and an even shorter tenure in the wine and cheese department. He worked in the cellar for a day or two at Williams-Selyem during the harvest, tagging along to see how his dad’s project was doing. It was fun and he was mildly interested.
“Then I went to work for an engineering company doing pre and post-dredging analysis of water quality. I should have known it was a bad sign when all the engineers were trying to convince me to go out and find something better to do with my time” says Cobb.
Cobb’s mother, Diane, eventually came to the rescue.
“She sent me a clipping from the classifieds, with two jobs circled. One was a job at Iron Horse Vineyards, and the other was a lab tech at Ferrari Carano winery,” says Cobb. The dim light bulb that had begun to flicker in the back of Cobb’s brain burned brighter still as he puttered around the lab testing wine samples at Ferrari Carano, and convincing them to set up a soil lab.
After spending four years at Ferrari Carano, Cobb was clear that his future lay in the the wine industry. From there he went to Bonny Doon Vineyard, a six month period he describes as “the most stressful six months of my life.” Overwhelmed by the dizzying number of products, brands, and experimental processes that founder Randall Grahm was involved with at any one time, Cobb was rescued by a call from Burt Williams who needed a lab tech for the winery. Even Grahm recognized it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
And so Cobb’s deep love affair with Pinot Noir began. At 28 he was working at perhaps the country’s hottest Pinot Noir producer. Apprenticing under winemaker Bob Cabral, Cobb had the opportunity to spend as much time in the vineyards as he did the cellar.
“I was doing everything from washing barrels to helping choose new vineyard sites. I was the assistant enologist and viticulturist,” says Cobb.
In 2000, after two and a half years, Cobb left, and decided he had to make his own pilgrimage to Burgundy, But before he left David Hirsch, who had decided to start making his own wine from his vineyards, asked Ross to be his winemaker. Ross told him that after his trip to Burgundy he had set up a harvest job working at Flowers Winery, but that once he was done, it sounded like a pretty good idea.
“After harvest, Greg [LaFolette, the Flowers winemaker] told me that he was going to quit, and that the new winemaker was going to be Hugh Chapelle, and that he had told Hugh that he needed to make me assistant winemaker. It turned out that Hirsch wasn’t ready to get started yet, so I settled in at Flowers” remembers Cobb.
Cobb’s tenure at Flowers would last eight years, the first three as assistant winemaker, the last five as head winemaker. Hirsch eventually was ready to make his own wines, but as Cobb was committed to Flowers, he hired Vanessa Wong instead.
In 2001 Cobb began to make a small quantity of wine under his own label, Cobb Wines, which Flowers graciously lent him the cellar space to do. But his first efforts on his own wines were filled with more questions than answers.
“For my first five vintages, I spent time each year traveling to Burgundy, and I would always bring my wines. I kept returning with my head ringing from the criticism I got for them — about the perceived high alcohol and too much oak. I was sensitive to this criticism and every year I’d become more conservative with my oak regime, drop my ripeness a little bit and see what happened. Basically those five years I spent refining my personal palate and finding my real source of inspiration,” says Cobb.
But then in 2006 Cobb broke through to someplace new.
“I was out in this little vineyard called Emmaline Ann, with incredibly low yields, and I did a quick measurement, and decided to call the pick at 22 brix. But then when we had gotten the fruit in, I measured it again and it was 21 and change and I freaked out, thinking I was an idiot and I had rushed the pick. But what could I do? So we made the wine. It was sitting there in the Flowers cellar, fermenting with all the other lots, and everyone, all the interns from Australia, Germany, France, and New Zealand, everyone said it smelled the best of all the fermenters. And it did. The wine was 12.8% alcohol, and 3.3 pH after malolactic fermentation.That was the first wine of my career where I felt like I was pushing into new territory for what was possible in the New World,” remembers Cobb.
Cobb hasn’t looked back since he crossed the threshold. In 2008 he left Flowers winery. In 2009, David Hirsch finally hired him as winemaker, and between his own small label and Hirsch, Cobb stays pretty busy. Cobb Wines makes about 1000 cases of wine each year.
When California winemakers refer to their wines and winemaking as Burgundian, pretense is more often at work than philosophy. Not so with Cobb, who won’t make such claims about his wines, but who admits that he grows his fruit to ripen at brix levels that make most California winemakers shudder in horror. Thanks to his yearly visits to Burgundy, he has gradually been using more and more whole clusters, and refining his cold soak and periodic punchdowns. He ferments entirely with native yeasts, preferring to add no nutrients. His one nod to modernity is the use of commercial malolactic bacteria, which he believes results in less volatile acidity and fewer problems with spoilage bacteria. By inoculating his wines for their secondary fermentation (” i use about 25% as much as the package says I should,” he admits) he has now gotten to the point where he doesn’t feel like he needs to filter them before bottling.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with him and taste through his most recent four vintages of wine made from the Emmaline Ann Vineyard, which nestles into the trees on a hill above the town of Freestone, and the Rice-Spivak vineyard, which sits southwest of the town of Sebastopol at a lower elevation.
These wines, as every taste of Cobb’s wines I have had, excite me greatly. The have a vibrant energy that is positively electrifying, and perhaps the most complimentary thing I can say about that is that they all but demand to be drunk. If you are interested in wines that represent the fringes of what is possible in California Pinot Noir, I cannot recommend them highly enough.
2006 Cobb Vineyards Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of red apple skin, wet earth, tree bark, and orange peel. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful crisp crabapple, raspberry and wet earth quality. Wonderful acidity and a taut brightness that is quite attractive, with very little trace of tannin. Light on its feet, balanced, and quite pretty. 12.8% alcohol. 166 cases made. Score: Between 9 and 9.5 Cost: $68. click to buy.
2007 Cobb Vineyards Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry, wet stone, and a hint of citrus peel. In the mouth the wine has a gorgeous silky texture, though with very little weight, and a steely or stony quality that makes the raspberry fruit taut and resonant in the mouth. Darker earth and wet stone qualities have a wonderful lift and brightness at the end, and the finish has a remarkable zesty citrus note after a few seconds that is really charming. 35% new oak. 13% alcohol. 310 cases made. Score: Between 9 and 9.5 Cost: $68. click to buy.
2008 Cobb Vineyards Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry, with wet stone and green herb undertones. In the mouth, faint traces of chalky tannin, wet earth and tart raspberry and sour cherry flavors bounce lively across the palate. Stony and lean and bright and delicious. 13.1% alcohol. 5% whole cluster fermentation. 370 cases made. Score: Around 9.5 Cost: $68. click to buy.
2009 Cobb Vineyards Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and green herbs with hints of citrus. In the mouth, bright and juicy raspberry, wet earth and citrus peel flavors burst with fantastic neon acidity and floral notes. Light tannins, powdery and sweet. Long finish and wonderful balance. 20% whole cluster fermentation, and 30% new oak. 13% alcohol. 260 cases made. Score: Around 9.5 Cost: $70. click to buy.
2006 Cobb Vineyards Rice-Spivak Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry, wet earth, and floral notes. In the mouth, bright raspberry, cherry and wet stone flavors have the faintest sweetness to them and faint tacky tannins. Gorgeous acidity and balance make this wine incredibly easy to drink. Great texture. Long finish with bright, juicy notes of citrus and apple peel. 35% new oak. 13.8% alcohol. 405 cases made. Score: Around 9.5 Cost: $68. click to buy.
2007 Cobb Vineyards Rice-Spivak Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and cola nut with hints of wet earth. In the mouth, the wine offers incredibly silky texture and lightly sandpapery tannins that wrap around flavors of raspberry, cola and wet earth. Excellent acidity and wonderful balance, moderate finish. 13.3% alcohol. 360 cases made. Score: Around 9.5 Cost: $68. click to buy.
2008 Cobb Vineyards Rice-Spivak Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of floral and raspberry notes with hints of struck flint. In the mouth tightly wound flavors of raspberry and wet stones mix with an underlayer of forest floor and cola. Light tannins with the quality of wet chalkboard linger with black raspberry quality in the finish. 13.5% alcohol. 450 cases made. Score: Between 9 and 9.5 Cost: $68. click to buy.
2009 Cobb Vineyards Rice-Spivak Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of spices and raspberries with hints of forest floor. In the mouth, the wine is explosively juicy with raspberry and citrus qualities mixed with stony wet earth notes. Tacky tannins grip the edge of the mouth. Hints of green herb linger on the finish. 13% alcohol. 24% whole cluster. Score: Around 9.5 Cost: $70. click to buy.
In addition to these two bottlings, Ross makes a Pinot from his family’s Coastlands Vineyard, and from two other small vineyards near Occidental.