“Sense of place” is often bandied about in conversations about wine. Wines should not only be delicious but they should reflect their terroir – where they are from and the conditions unique to the vintage. The Rockpile AVA in Sonoma County is one of our favorite sources of wines that epitomize where they are from. Located at the far western end of the Dry Creek Valley, for me the wines (especially Zinfandels) from this area make me think of a combination of the power of Paso Robles with the complexity of the Russian River Valley.
So, when Clay Mauritson, in response to my inquiry about Karen and me visiting with him at his namesake winery during harvest, suggested that we spend the morning out in Rockpile to get grape samples, that sounded pretty exciting to us.
Mauritson is not too far from the entry to the Dry Creek Valley just west of Healdsburg. We met Clay there at 8 AM and headed west to Rockpile. Along the way Clay told us about some of the area’s history and the impact that Clay’s family has had on it.
Clay’s family emigrated from Sweden. Clay told us that “they settled in the Rockpile area of Dry Creek Valley and began growing grapes immediately, circa 1868. In 1884 my great, great, great, grandfather attempted to export wine back to his homeland of Sweden.” The homestead and ranch had grown to about 4,000 acres until 1968 when the Army Corps of Engineers acquired 3,300 acres of the land owned by the Mauritson family by virtue of eminent domain due to the perceived need to build a dam, thereby creating Lake Sonoma. Clay said, “When we lost the Rockpile property, my grandparents purchased the ranch in Alexander Valley where they continued growing grapes. The Rockpile property was used for livestock: sheep and cattle, but we did not resume growing grapes there until 1998.” But it wasn’t until Clay returned from college and worked in the winemaking industry in the area that he made the decision that the Mauritson name should actually be on wine bottle labels as the winery. The Mauritson winery was officially born with the release of its first vintage in 1998. The modern winery and tasting room was opened in 2004.
It didn’t take long for Clay to revisit the Rockpile area and realize its potential for making great wine. The Mauritson Rockpile Zinfandels are some of my all-time favorites. Rockpile was granted official AVA status in 2002, due primarily to the efforts of Clay’s dad Thom along with Rod Park and Jack Florence Sr.
Clay also discussed how happy he was with the current 2018 harvest. The growing season had been virtually perfect. Sometimes near the end of the growing season, the threat of impending heat spikes or rain could impact when the grapes are picked. Not this year. The grapes only needed to be picked when they were ready to be picked. Clay said that they test the grapes early and often at Mauritson, so they can plan the optimal picking window. He explained you can do a lot of things at the winery but you “can’t change the flavors” – those happen in the vineyard.
Walking the vineyards with Clay as he pulled samples to take back to the winery for testing, I felt a new appreciation for an AVA that has always been at the top of my list of favorites. And since I wanted to play “winery helper” and carry the buckets that Clay was filling, I also felt a greater appreciation for the hard work that happens in the vineyard, especially those steep ones in Rockpile. I am sure that Clay would have finished sooner without me, but my excuse is that I am 63 and out of shape while Clay is 20+ years younger and still looks like he did in his football playing days at Oregon.
We spent a couple of hours in the vineyards and I admittedly weenied out and let Clay walk at least one of them alone. But now it was time to head back to the winery and taste some wine.
While when I think of Mauritson I automatically think of Zinfandel, I soon found out those aren’t the only varietals that Clay is making, and making well, I might add.
We tasted through several wines:
2017 Mauritson Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley – I really liked the richness of this wine.
2017 Mauritson Chardonnay, Alexander Valley
2016 Charlie Clay Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley – Clay makes this with/for renowned Chef Charlie Palmer; the only wine he makes with purchased grapes.
2015 Mauritson Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley – Excellent in its own right, this was a great lead-in for the Rockpile wines…
2016 Rockpile Zinfandel, Rockpile Ridge Vineyard
2016 Rockpile Zinfandel, Cemetery Vineyard
2016 Rockpile Zinfandel, Pritchett Peaks Vineyard
All three of these wines were excellent representations of what Rockpile is known for.
We also tasted three more wines from Rockpile:
2016 Rockpile “Madrone Spring” blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Syrah
2015 Rockpile “Buck Pasture” blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc.
2015 Rockpile Cabernet Sauvignon, Rockpile Ridge Vineyard
All of these showcased the intensity of the Rockpile fruit.
Whew. Clay makes a lot of wines and we didn’t even taste all of them. But, as an added bonus we got to taste one of the wines from Clay’s single soil Cabernet series, which focuses on producing Cab from four distinct soil types. We had the 2014 Clough and it was outstanding.
Something else to consider: Annually in August, Clay Mauritson and Chef Charlie Palmer co-host the Project Zin event in Healdsburg. This is a gathering of winemakers and chefs to benefit Down Syndrome Association North Bay. The winery lineup is Zinfandel heaven and August now looks like a pretty good time to visit the area.
You’ll find that several wineries make wine from Rockpile grapes – some even own vineyards in Rockpile and other just purchase grapes from the area – and you’d be hard pressed to find wine from this AVA that you won’t like. But I heartily recommend that you at least start your enjoyment of Rockpile wines with the family that had so much to do with putting Rockpile on the map in the first place – Mauritson.
2859 Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Michael Perlis has been pursuing his passion for wine for more than 25 years. He has had the good fortune of having numerous mentors to show him the way, as well as a wonderful wife who encourages him and shares his interest. After a couple of decades of learning about wine, attending events, visiting wineries and vineyards, and tasting as much wine as he possibly could, he had the amazing luck to meet Eve Bushman. Now, as Contributing Editor for Eve’s Wine 101, he does his best to bring as much information as possible about wine to Eve’s Wine 101 faithful readers. Michael is also Vice President of Eve Bushman Consulting (fka Eve’s Wine 101 Consulting) http://evebushmanconsulting.com/ and President of MCP Financial. Michael can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.