Straddling the Mayacama mountain range are 20 stunning acres of well-refined vineyards cultivated with meticulous care. The location is Sonoma County’s Santa Rosa high atop Spring Mountain. Cornell Vineyards is perched between 1600 and 1900 feet. This is the land where clouds pass so close you can almost reach out and touch them. Where terrain and weather are untamed. A frontier of wild yesterdays where stagecoaches once traversed.
The vineyard was re-established in 2001. Cornell focused efforts on a number of developmental and exploratory years. This due in part to the difficult and diverse terrain. With modest terracing, strategic planting with vines in balance with the land.
To get to this remote area, you must travel the narrow & winding mountain roads where one careless move could propel you over a cliff. The original vines existed well before prohibition when the Russian settlers were first making wine. It’s a history almost lost to nature with wild overgrowth peppering the land. Cornell Vineyards has a unique location many would envy. It’s advantages of proximity to the sun & UV rays with the wild, untamed weather maintains a consistency of cool. It’s located at the top of Spring Mountain, accessible from both Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
The wine is 18 years in the making. I’m meeting with winemaker Graham Wehmeier to talk about this relatively new wine and the challenges he and the vintners had to contend with in this remote location.
With an altitude of 1900 feet, the vineyards of Cornell are amongst the highest in Sonoma County. The land is wild, lusty and peppered with beautiful wildflowers, brush and an abundance of trees. Taking in the landscape one can see what Henry and Vanessa Cornell imagined when they purchased the 200-acre parcel that would soon become Cornell Vineyards. The weather is fascinating. Solid sun all summer long, but there are moments of literally heart-pounding conditions. I experienced my first bout of real brain freeze shooting in the outdoors at Cornell Vineyards with a squall of wind, hail and something close to snow. This weather lends credence to the unique nature and taste of the wine. Like many of the best places to grow grapes in the world, their soils are diverse. The terroir contains a generous mix of prehistoric seabeds and volcanic rock to loamy clay and sandstone. The hills are rich in possibility.
It is the solitude of this location that is most impressive. The only sound you hear from the top of the mountains is wind screaming by or on other days raindrops. The clouds reveal the heavens with sunlight and rainbows as they pass by at eye level. Here the grapes linger on the vine longer than in the valley while developing more intense flavor at an altitude almost unheard of for Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma.
Cornell Vineyard’s strategy is not for the faint of heart. Over the past 18 years, different rootstock & clones were planted to determine those that would thrive in the diverse soils and rolling terrain. The warm afternoons and cool, fog-free mornings are a plus. No scorching 100 degree heats like the valley floor gets. Bud break is later than the valley floor, as is the harvest. Stylistically Cornell picks earlier than many others.
The winemaking is under the tutelage of one Françoise Peschon. A sought-after wine consultant in Napa & Sonoma, she is a San Francisco native. Peschon found a passion for wine through her trips to Napa and later enrolled in UC Davis earning a degree in Fermentation Sciences. Wine travels took her to Bordeaux where she attended the University of Bordeaux. She is known in the wine industry for her light touch, finesse, and understated elegance.
Considered relatively small in terms of wineries in Sonoma, Cornell Vineyards are structured in 20 blocks for a total of 20 acres (approximately 30,000 vines). Bordeaux varietals are their focus: Cabernet Sauvignon (17 acres); Merlot (1 acre), Petit Verdot (1 acre); Malbec (one-half acre), and Cabernet Franc (one-half acre). Like many wine producers creating exceptional wines, Cornell Vineyards uses only a small percentage of the very best vineyard lots.
Just their 2nd release, the 2014 Cornell Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon is already a standout. Made up of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, and 3% Cabernet Franc. It was aged 19 months in 70% new French barrels (lends to a softer influence of oak than its American counterpart). It has an intensity rarely found in a wine this young. Deep purple in color, there is a brilliant play on acidity. Black fruit, a touch of vanilla, and the wildness of its terroir come through as a light herbal quality. The finish is long and lusty with tannins that tantalize, not overwhelm. Priced at $150, 642 cases, cellar for 20+ years.
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