If you stand perfectly still in one of California’s northernmost vineyards, you’ll hear the fog condensing on the leaves, coalescing into dewdrops, and falling to the ground with a little pop. Welcome to a day in the life of John Cabot: farmer, father, and Humboldt County viticultural pioneer. He and wife Kimberly have grown grapes on this new frontier since 1998, and suffice it to say, they’re onto something: Today’s 2015 had me thinking of the legendary Pinots of Willams-Selyem, those boundary-pushing pioneers of another era.
Each vintage has been an opportunity for the Cabots to refine their craft, bringing their terroir into focus through careful organic farming. Cabot’s Humboldt County Pinot Noir evokes the deep gorges, turquoise rivers, and ancient forests of this raw landscape. Can’t get outside as much as you’d like this winter? This wine will make you feel like you’ve just spent the day hiking among the redwoods. It’s the liquid incarnation of fresh air: bright, supple, and concentrated. Best of all, the Cabots’ traditional techniques impart the elegance of a wine three times its price. That’s no surprise if you consider the similarities in climate between Humboldt and Burgundy—both extraordinarily cool, with longer growing seasons that enhance flavor development and physiological maturity in Pinot Noir. Every cell of this wine is firmly New World, but the overall effect of such respectful winemaking is a thoroughly Old World sense of balance. Thankfully we don’t have to choose anymore—this wine is literally the best of both worlds, a beautiful (and shockingly well-priced) ode to a new Californian frontier.
John and Kimberly are true homesteaders. They went to college in Humboldt and never left, just moving a little further inland where the salty ocean spray wouldn’t affect their vegetable garden. In a county better known for a much-more-lucrative crop (cannabis), wine grapes and vegetables play a distant second fiddle. But if you love a place, you want to taste it in your food and feel it in your wine. And no one loves Humboldt County more than the Cabots. Planting vines was a natural step in their self-sufficient lifestyle, and it was exciting to pioneer an entirely undiscovered wine region. Each of their three small vineyards was hand-planted by a team of local friends. The Cabots home estate is in Orleans, about 100 miles from the Oregon border. It marks the convergence of three separate wilderness areas, making it one of the most biodiverse regions in the continental U.S. And if that wasn’t enough, the Klamath River rushes by just a few minutes walk away—though John dry-farms wherever possible. While they don’t pay for certification, organics are “just a way of life” for the Cabots. Making delicious, transparent wines and taking care of their land is reward enough.
John’s a self-taught winemaker; those first wines in the early 2000s were only considered worthy if Kimberly reached for a second glass. In addition to their three estate vineyards, the Cabots recently signed leases with two of the finest vineyards in the Southwest Humboldt region. And good thing, too. Recent vintages of Zinfandel and Syrah from their other vineyard holdings have all suffered from smoke taint after wildfires. All the affected juice was either declassified or dumped; an intensely emotional decision that’s ultimately the best choice for their consumers and their brand. Thankfully their contracted fruit was entirely unaffected, and Pinot Noir production has taken main stage in their lineup as a result. Their Humboldt County Pinot Noir is a blend of both secretive, forest-enclosed vineyards. “Elk Prairie” (40 percent of the blend) is planted to Dijon, Pommard, and old Martini clones and has never received irrigation, pesticides, or herbicides. “Lost Coast Vineyard” (60 percent) is a mere three miles from the Pacific Ocean, right in the path of that salty coastal fog which creates such tiny yields and magical acidity. Both vineyards are surrounded by National Forest and scenic river—the purest environment possible for some of the most elegant and satisfying Pinot Noir I’ve tasted from California.
These vineyards are some of the most northerly in California, and fruit ripens at a leisurely pace. Harvest is often pushed to the very last week of October, when shorter days and drastically cooler temperatures mean enhanced flavor development but much lower sugars in the phenolically perfect fruit. At harvest, the grapes are rushed to Cabot’s winery where they are destemmed and cold-soaked for one week prior to fermentation on ambient yeasts. After a week of fermentation and a week of extended maceration, both lots were pressed into a variety of neutral French barrels and aged for 18 months. This Pinot Noir was bottled unfined and unfiltered.
Cabot’s 2015 Humboldt Pinot Noir is still a vibrant dark ruby with pink edges in the glass. Four years of age are barely noticeable, just softening the acidity to a gentle stroke of watercolor across your palate. The aromas are pure and spicy: elevated cherry and stewed cranberries take precedence. Nutmeg and cedar give a warming lift to the nose, rounding out those high-toned fruits with evocative chai tea and deep coniferous forest notes. The palate is the perfect balance between lean and lush, brimming with delicate tannins and acidity tinged with maritime salinity. There’s the slightest hint of fresh mushroom and wet forest floor—no surprise considering the 2015 is just entering its ideal drinking window and the vineyards coexist so seamlessly with the surrounding flora.
That brings me to the most natural food pairing possible: mushrooms. The first rains have fallen and it’s time to get out there with a basket and your guide book. Try topping rich oven-baked polenta with a heaping pile of wild foraged mushrooms, parmesan and fresh thyme. The forest-inspired flavors of this velvety Pinot will provide all the inspiration you need to make room for a little wilderness on your kitchen table.
Pinot Noir 100%