When veteran winemaker Steve MacRostie went looking for a new vineyard to plant his chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah he discovered Wildcat Mountain in the Carneros/Sonoma region. "I felt Wildcat would push the envelope, something untried. The cooler climates, the stressful site, the thinner soils; this is not a safe place to set up a farming operation. In a business sense it was probably rather stupid," he said plainly.
Stupid or not, MacRostie planted 4 acres of syrah, 23 acres of pinot noir and 23 acres of chardonnay, all on volcanic soil with elevations ranging from 500 to 700 feet overlooking San Pablo Bay. His Wildcat Mountain Vineyard is the coolest site in the area and straddles the Carneros and Sonoma Coast appellations. The site itself is 1500 acres of pastureland where dairy cattle still roam the undulating hillsides as they have for decades. From the very top of the vineyard, assuming it's a clear day, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge, Oakland and the Mayacamas mountains to the west. But it is the fog, funneled through San Pablo Bay from the cold Pacific Ocean that is the most frequent guest on Wildcat Mountain. "Often we're not above the fog or below it," says MacRostie with a grin, "we're in it." And if it's not the fog, it's the wind. The vines are literally windswept, bent back by the consuming force of wind off the bay, running up the mountain and pummeling the vines like a boxer with too much confidence.
"There's a haunting beauty to this place," MacRostie says, and he's correct. Though it is an odd choice for a vineyard, isolated and abused by Mother Nature, once you find yourself standing in its midst, it seems that it's the perfect place, where soil, prevailing breezes for cool climate varieties and well drained soil all complement each other to bring forth great wines. "What I didn't know was how windy it would be here and how difficult that would make the farming," he adds. "The vines read the climate as being cooler than it really is and they slow down their activity. We don't have monstrous crop levels and we don't drop fruit. In fact, we're challenged in the other direction, how to get more crop." Additionally, the andesite soil Steve works with (andesite is a course volcanic soil, common along the Pacific Coast mountains) stresses the vines that ultimately create wines of uncommon depth and complexity that MacRostie has become known for.
Being a tinkerer at heart, a man who was drafted in the U.S. Army as a cryptographer, he put his mind to finding a solution. "I didn't realize how difficult it would be to get a decent set and a reasonably sized crop. So, we started to prune later in the season so we could get a later bud break to target better weather." This may mean changing pruning by only a week or two, but as any good farmer knows, a few days of good or bad weather can make or break a season. So far, the adjustment is working, though the yields are still low and probably always will be. Wildcat produces usually less than 2 tons of fruit per acre. Some of that fruit goes into the MacRostie label but the majority goes into the Wildcat Mountain label. "There was a time when I thought I'd have excess fruit to sell off. What was I thinking?" He says with a laugh. Any viticulturist innately understands that they must be plant physiologist, soil scientist and meteorologist rolled into one and MacRostie gladly accepts the role.
Steve MacRostie has been making wine for nearly 35 years, first as the winemaker for Hacienda Winery in Sonoma when they opened their doors, then with his eponymous label that he started in 1987. He's been successful from the start of his career "on a wing and a prayer," he tells me. Though MacRostie Winery produces merlot, cabernet, rose, and chardonnay from both Sonoma and Napa Valley fruit, MacRostie wanted to focus his energy on his two loves, chardonnay and pinot noir, therefore the Wildcat Mountain label was created. All this, of course, is a far cry from his original plan of pursuing a medical degree. But while stationed in Europe for the U.S. Army, he had the chance to travel. "The military was a great experience," MacRostie says, "I was able to tour Spain, Italy, and the Mediterranean." The GI Bill helped him study at U.C. Davis when he returned to the States and in 1974, right after graduation, he was hired by Hacienda Winery. "I've been naively lucky," he tells me.
He recently hired Kevin Holt as the winemaker for MacRostie Winery and Vineyards, allowing himself more free time to focus on building the Wildcat Mountain site and understanding its inherent uniqueness. "I'm intrigued with soil. I've kicked the dirt in places like Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa Valley. Every spring we do soil analysis to evaluate the health of the vines." Though his vines looked Spartan during my visit, there's an unmistakable feeling that this particular vineyard is becoming suited to its environment, an evolutionary process happening in the present tense. "I don't know what the magic of terrior is," MacRostie says, "but Wildcat Mountain has it."