Sonoma has a new AVA, not a big deal for a County with over a dozen; but for the bushy bearded mountain man who planted and maintains many of its vineyards, it’s huge. Phil Coturri now has an opportunity to showcase the area he helped create – Moon Mountain.
The Moon Mountain District AVA consists of 40 vineyards, approximately 1,500 planted acres, and 11 bonded wineries. Phil Coturri has farmed almost half of these properties at one time or another during his 40 year vineyard management career, with all of his work being certified organic by the CCOF or Biodynamic by Demeter.
Located alongside the western slopes of Mayacamas Mountain, the range that separates Napa from Sonoma, Moon Mountain rises from 400 to 2,200 feet. It is an aptly-named arid, remote, lunar-like moonscape so pocked with deep hollows and craters that being there feels like standing on the moon.
The rocky red soils of Moon Mountain have excellent drainage and are primarily volcanic ash – called Sonoma Volcanics – which were formed from 5 million year old prehistoric lava flows of andesite, tufa, obsidian and basalt with a thin top layer of clay loam. A molten magma mille-feuille or Napoleon cake of distinct mineral layers chock-full with red powdery goodness.
Rainfall drains down the Sonoma Creek’s eastern tributaries thru the wetlands into San Pablo Bay. Like most mountain sites, the vines are less vigorous and really need to work hard by throwing down deep taproots to sip water and receive nutrients, as such yields are low (2–4 tons per acre) but the fruit is very concentrated with smaller berries and intense mineral rich flavors.
The Moon Mountain District is a perfect place to grow Zinfandel and Bordeaux varietals such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It has a distinct microclimate marked by temperature inversions, so when it’s chilly on the Valley floor it’s significantly warmer on Moon Mountain.
Frost risks are mitigated by southern Bay influences mixing with dry inland air from the north. A dogleg-like bend in Sonoma Valley’s topography on the northwestern side of Sonoma Mountain thru Bennett Valley creates a gap that funnels temperate west winds from the Pacific Ocean which blend with south breezes coming up from San Pablo Bay.
It All Started At Monte Rosso
Moon Mountain is historically significant and cradles one of California’s most important estates, the Monte Rosso Vineyard (“Red Mountain”) which was originally planted in 1886. Many, many harvests ago, Phil Coturri spent his salad years as a farm hand at Monte Rosso, learning about nurturing vines from the fabled old school vineyard master Joe Miami. The area had a specific gravity for Phil and he never left her orbit.
Since the 70’s, Phil has been active sculpting the Moon Mountain landscape, planting and replanting hundreds of thousands of vines, conserving her forests and preserving the Mountain’s majesty. Phil staked his claim, developed his business reputation, and even built his personal residence within the AVA’s designation – on Norrbom Road, 5 miles straight up above Sonoma Plaza.
For four decades now, Phil has been ahead of the organic curve and pioneered large scale cultivation of organic and Biodynamic viticulture in California. Being poisoned himself is what made Phil turn towards holistic methods and changed the way he approached farming. He was accidentally dosed with the widely used herbicide Paraquat and was sickened by its toxins.
This was during the age of the Apollo missions. America was searching for new possibilities, and the EPA had just formed after the harmful impacts of Monsanto’s Agent Orange were exposed. A movement was underway and brought with it new reasoned voices: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Rodale Institute and Earth Day calling for regulation and examination of the environmental costs these products were having on the earth. It was out of this that Phil made it his personal mission to do his part in conserving biodiversity on his section of the planet.
At great financial and career risk, Phil dared to navigate a different course in the vineyard world and chose a path away from commercial techniques of farming with harmful petrochemicals. This was not an easy decision, especially without any support from the wine industry for natural winegrowers. He needed an owner to start with, and in 1974 Myron Frieberg of Dos Limones Vineyards partnered with him and commited to be totally organic.
To be a client of Phil’s today means that the vineyard owner must be on board and fundamentally agree that the land and the surrounding countryside is a living organism. The farm, whether big or small, is managed and run as an ecological whole. He adapts his operations to accommodate the uniqueness of each individual property. There are no innate size limits to being sustainable and successful; as long as the unique needs of the earth, the critters and people who live on the farm are adequately addressed.
Without a doubt, the single most important person in the process of making wine is the grape grower. You must have high quality ingredients. No matter how modern your winery facility is, or how talented the winemaker is, without amazing grapes it is impossible to make great wine.
They underwrite the risk of dealing with the vagaries of mother nature; unpredictable weather, drought, heavy rains, fire, pest pressures, mildews, plant diseases and frost concerns are ever present.
A viticulturalists responsibilities and worries grow exponentially during the fall. The best are grizzled veterans who have just about seen it all and mark their lives around the harvest, which is easy for Phil Coturri to do because his birthday is the first week of October.
A vineyard manager never retires, it is a completely consuming occupation that it takes precedence over everything else in life. Don’t ever count on Phil attending your wedding, kids Bar Mitzvah, or anything else during autumn. Anything other than picking grapes isn’t on his schedule.
Illustrious & Esteemed
At 61, Phil is finally receiving the recognition his lifetime of work deserves. Against the odds, through bullheaded persistence, hard work, common sense, and some luck, he defied the conventional farming industry and persevered. In August 2013, Phil was honored by the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction for his deep commitment to organics and vital contributions to the community of Sonoma. And on October 1st, 2013 the Moon Mountain District was officially approved.