If Linda Schwartz is half as beautiful as her voice, she’s a radiant queen. Partly, it’s the South African accent, blending upper-crust English plumminess with a curious Dutch/Australian quality. Partly, though, it’s the dramatic flair this woman channels in every phone call. And because I’ve only ever met Linda through the phone—while talking about the tiny Fort Ross Vineyard, which she owns with her South African husband, out on the Sonoma County coast—her voice has for me become the person. (If you listen to NPR, think of how powerfully Terry Gross becomes a person in your mind, through her voice; consider also that she never interviews people in person, I’m told, even when her interview subjects are in the same town.)
My last encounter with Linda’s voice was in a conversation about the varietal known as Pinotage, which plays roughly the same role in South Africa that Zinfandel does in California, and is equally uncommon elsewhere. “In 1925, at the University of Stellenbosch, in South Africa,” she told me, breathless at the very thought, “a professor of oenology and viticulture named A. I. Perold became frustrated that it was so hard to grow Pinot Noir—that it would rot on the vine, that if you had any error at all it just made a transparent mess of a wine—so he thought, ‘What if I cross it with a grape that is hardy, like Cinsault (which was also called Hermitage), and that’s a heavier cropper.’ [Pinot + Hermitage = Pinotage] His object, really, was to grow a Pinot Noir on steroids. But the result is not that at all. The leaves are different, the grapes are different, and the skin is thicker.”
Linda has a graduate degree in music composition and music theory, her husband is a lawyer, and they moved to San Francisco back in the 1970s. In 1988, they bought the Fort Ross property, which had no vineyards and was not then in a well-known grape-growing region, as a place to weekend. It’s a spectacular stretch of coast, and I’d do the same thing if I had the money; but that coast is also the one that will soon, doubtless, get its own AVA as the True Sonoma Coast, or Sonoma Coast West, or something of that sort. If you follow these things, it is often said that this tiny bit of wind-swept oceanfront mountainside is the single most promising Pinot Noir terroir in North America, which is to say the one most likely to approach the glories of Burgundy. Nobody’s saying the wines yet rival the best Burgundies, but there’s a sense that they might. So if you own land there, and you get into growing grapes there, you can be forgiven for feeling a sense of excitement, destiny, and possibility.
As Linda told the story, once she and her husband did begin growing grapes in earnest, they started to think about their homeland’s most popular and distinctive wine; like a Californian from Lodi, say, living in Hungary and wondering if he couldn’t grow Zinfandel on that land he’s just acquired outside Budapest. As a result, the Schwartzes were the first private growers to bring Pinotage budwood into the United States—a ridiculously long process that required that wood to spend five years in quarantine at UC Davis.
Why do I like this story? What do I see in it? I guess I see a human element, South Africans looking homeward. That pride of place that infects everyone, no matter where she grew up—and that can set a person off on a quixotic quest.
“We battled with tannins at first,” Linda told me, talking now about their struggle to make fine wine from a grape more commonly associated with plonk, “because we treated it like Pinot Noir, but eventually we realized that you’ve got to be very gentle and you’ve got to work out exactly when to pick because there’s a very small time at the top of the bell curve when it’s either not ripe or too ripe, and we’ve also learned that it mustn’t be overcropped. We have to grow all our fruit on the cordon candelabra system, and [we] dropped the yield by 50 percent because Pinotage doesn’t have a reputation for being one of the finer wines, because …”
You get the point, I’m sure: on and on, experimenting and playing and struggling. They didn’t even know when to pick the stuff in that first year, and they asked their consulting winemaker and he said, “I think we need to pick it when it feels like lactating breasts.” Linda laughed her beautiful laugh and told me that her husband replied, astonished, “You can remember that?”
Do you know that effect? When the voice of sophistication drifts for a moment to the bawdy? I’m reminded of a great-aunt of mine, at Christmas many, many years ago, when she heard that I’d been surfing on a tropical island: She told me about her last visit to the tropics with her husband and how they’d made love on the beach. But just so you don’t get the wrong idea: I loved that great-aunt. She was dynamite.
Anyway, yes: There is a wonderful-world-of-wine story here, too, of the eccentric variety, all about this oddball grape taking root across the world, and producing a wine utterly unlike the versions back home, and unlike anything else in California. But the story resonates so much more when you think of these two South Africans growing it … for what reason? Why?
I do like the wine, incidentally, as you’ll see below.
2004 Fort Ross Pinotage
Grapes: 100 percent Pinotage
Wood: 15 months in French oak, 20 percent of it new
Appellation: Sonoma Coast (for the record, this is one of those AVAs that’s so large and weirdly drawn as to be meaningless from a terroir standpoint)
Alcohol: 14.7 percent
Other Data a Person Might Make Some Sense Of: They only made 396 cases of this stuff, plus 51 cases of half bottles
Price: Soon to be released, priced at $32 from the winery
My Tasting Notes: I opened this wine on a Saturday night and was startled, at first, by the strength of the tannins and the high acidity, surrounding a core of pure red fruit. My initial reaction was that it would evolve in the bottle for a long, long time, but over time I noticed that it was already evolving in the glass. It came to seem like a wine that needed real breathing time, and that really did flower over an hour, letting the fruit emerge through its terrific backbone. I hope I get to try the same vintage in 10 or more years, just to see what it becomes.