We met Clay Mauritson, owner and winemaker of Mauritson Winery, early on Saturday morning at the Mauritson winery and followed him up to his family vineyards in the Rockpile AVA. Rockpile is a small AVA that is situated high above Lake Sonoma. This is a chaparral environment, dry and rocky, with steep hillsides. By the looks of it, you would hardly expect any vineyards to grow here. Yet, at Rockpile there are roughly 148 acres of vines that are stressed to the max and produce big, full-flavored and complex wines. The Mauritson Family owns 40 plus acres of vineyards at Rockpile.
This is not a normal morning at Rockpile. The air is thick with fog and you can barely see more than 100 yards. What makes this area so special is the fact that Rockpile is 800 feet to 2000 feet in elevation. With Lake Sonoma below, an inversion layer is created so it always has sunshine while the rest of the Russian River wine region is in fog. On most days, the afternoon brings strong winds from the Pacific Ocean that stress the vines and causes them to lose water. Yet all the vines look amazingly healthy at this time of the year.
We took a wonderful walk with Clay, trudging up and down the hillside vineyards. One vineyard was so steep we had to hang on to the fencing so we would not go tumbling down the hill. It is beautiful here and very quiet. Clay tells us about each block of vines and some of the challenges of growing grapes at Rockpile. There is little water at Rockpile so that is always a concern. Clay spots wild turkey tracks and sighs about the havoc these birds create on the grape clusters. It seems they like to peck their way down a row of vines. He points to the Tannat block and tells us that last year those grapes suffered smoke taint from the forest fires. He doubts he will be able to use any of the juice from those vines.
Clay and his family have just planted the last of the vineyards that they will grow here. It has taken them 13 years to complete the planting of their entire vineyards. There is so little water here that they have planted the vineyard blocks in stages. The young vines require moisture to thrive. As they mature, they receive less water and their grape clusters are all dropped so that all the energy of the plant can be used to grow deep roots in search of water. This year two blocks of vineyards are mature enough that they can be dry farmed. The new vineyard will use most of the available well water.
The wines of Rockpile are in high demand. Because the vines are so stressed at Rockpile, there is not a lot of juice that comes from these grapes. 148 acres of vineyards does not make a lot of wine at Rockpile. The Mauritson Winery specializes in Zinfandel and they make four Zinfandel wines from different blocks. They also produce a Petite Sirah, a Malbec, Syrah and two red blends. One of these blends is a Portuguese blend of several Portuguese grapes. If you see a Rockpile wine on the shelf at your local wine shop, do yourself a favor and purchase a bottle. Be forewarned that these wines are big, so match your food with something just as big. A nice slab of juicy pork ribs will go just fine.