In the world of great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the words “cool climate” have become shorthand for a more refined and elegant style of wine, where complex and delicately layered aromas evolve into beautifully delineated flavors, underscored by racy natural acidity. Those who aspire to make the most thoughtful and sophisticated expressions of this kind of wine practice their craft on the extreme cool-climate edges of California viticulture. Perched seven miles from the Pacific Ocean on a mountaintop, Albatross Ridge is a vineyard on this edge. Situated at an elevation of 850 to 1,250 feet, it is a cool, windswept location, where the temperature rarely gets above 85 degrees, and the overall growing degree days are a mere 1,650-1,950 annually. This provides Albatross Ridge with one of the longest growing seasons in all of California, allowing the grapes to gradually ripen, while maintaining acidity, complex flavors and exceptional structure.
Designed by Brad and Garrett Bowlus, with the assistance of renowned viticulturist Dr. Alfred Cass, Albatross Ridge’s 25 acres of vines are planted as a mosaic of 12 distinctive vineyard blocks. Featuring different elevations, exposures, soil makeups and clonal selections, this vineyard diversity allows Winemaker Garrett Bowlus to accentuate the complexity of the site in the wines of Albatross Ridge. The vineyard includes eight blocks and four clones (828, 777, Pommard and 115) of Pinot Noir, and four blocks and two clones (96 and 15) of Chardonnay. The vines are the finest Burgundian clones, all of which were chosen for their suitability to the extreme site, and their ability to create complex, elegant wines. In addition, because the vineyard was planted with the drought-tolerant 1103P rootstock, the vines can be farmed with an absolute minimum of water. As a result, Albatross Ridge uses approximately ¼ of the water per vine of an average vineyard.
One of the defining features that makes Albatross Ridge so special is its unique soils. Though it reaches elevations as high as 1,250 feet, the vineyard’s soils are made of ancient uplifted marine seabed. These diatomaceous, limestone and shale soils are similar to those found in Burgundy, and are optimal for growing complex Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, with rare and distinctive mineral qualities. With steep grades up to 25%, these well-draining soils also contribute to the vineyard’s low yields, which on average, are well under 2 tons per acre. In fact, 2 tons is a very big crop at Albatross Ridge.
Guided by Garrett, who is in the vineyard every day, Albatross Ridge is farmed by hand, incorporating traditional techniques and the latest technology. Because Brad and Garrett believe a meticulous, hands-on approach translates into a more pure and authentic reflection of the site—and therefore, higher quality wines—Albatross Ridge is also farmed 100% organically. “My wife, Jill, and I view our vineyard as a multigenerational commitment,” says Brad. “Our grandchildren play among these vines, and one day I hope that they will help farm them. Cultivating our land organically is an important part of this long-term view.”
In keeping with the hands-on approach that defines Albatross Ridge Garrett and his team personally work on every single vine as many as a dozen times each vintage to do things like shoot thinning, cluster thinning, leaf pulling, removing unflowered clusters, shoot tipping, trellis wire lifting, veraison fruit drops and much more. While this is a remarkable level of handwork, tailoring techniques to the needs of each vine in each individual vintage ensures the absolute highest quality fruit. In addition to producing phenomenal grapes for its own wines, this approach has also garnered the praise and attention of other growers and winemakers, most notably Copain, which has been making its acclaimed Laureles Grade Chardonnay exclusively using Albatross Ridge fruit since 2011.
“Great people need great character,” says Brad Bowlus, “and great wines need great land. Whether it’s the first growths of Bordeaux, the grand crus of Burgundy, or the finest vineyards in the New World, great wines always have their roots in a remarkable piece of land. We believe that Albatross Ridge is a very special place to grow wine. As a family, our goal is to apply the thoughtful care and rigor necessary to allow it to realize all of its natural potential.”