Sonoma, aka Pinot Country

How Pinot Noir is coming into its own in a diverse appellation

A Wonky Appellation
It's that wind, a cooling wind that brings with it fog and freshness from the Pacific Ocean that has created so many interesting and exciting spots for Pinot Noir in Sonoma. The Sonoma Coast, at least the true Sonoma coast, is the most directly impacted appellation. 
Without getting sidetracked into a discussion of the appellation, as far as appellations go, the Sonoma Coast is huge and covers such diverse topography, mesoclimate, and soil types as to be one of the least useful—at least when it comes to helping define a wine's style—in all of California. Running through the Sonoma Coast is the break in the coastal mountain range known as the Petaluma Gap, which delivers these winds to parts of the Russian River Valley, Bennett Valley, Sonoma Mountain, and finally Carneros appellations.The cooling effects of that wind makes the difference between Cabernet Country and Pinot Country in Sonoma. 
If you've ever been to Sonoma in the summer you know it can get plenty hot, certainly too hot for “cool climate” Pinot Noir. Well, that is both right and wrong. It's hot enough to get Pinot as ripe as you want it, and it's also hot enough to develop sugars in the grapes more quickly than actual cool climate growing regions, so like it or not you're not going to get ripe fruit with 13% alcohol with any consistency. Of course recent vintages that have actually been cool have allowed winemakers to produce some impressive wines at (and even below) 13%.  It's also cool enough at night and in the morning before the fog burns off to keep wines fresh and juicy, with mouthwatering acidity, classic red fruit flavors, and even a little stemmy/herbal savoriness that many people, myself included, enjoy in their Pinot. In some ways it's the best of both worlds, yet it seems people are just figuring this out. 
Changing Expectations
I'm sure there are many out there who would happily expound on what you should taste from each of the appellations. This cherry being typical of one spot, that berry of another, minerality from here and violets from there. We all know the drill. Me, I'm not well versed enough, or convinced in fact that much of this is known when it comes to Pinot Noir in Sonoma. Recall the Sonoma Coast. No one could pretend to outline what you should taste in a wine from the Sonoma Coast simply because the appellation is too big and too diverse. Layer viticultural and winemaking practice over the myriad fruit sources and you don't get any signature whatsoever. To be blunt, for me Pinot Noir is as much if not more about the producer than the vineyard. Yes, the true Sonoma Coast should be leaner and more chiseled than say the Russian River Valley, where we've been trained to expect cola, and spices and every berry under the sun, but it's simply not that cut and dry—and frankly not that important.
Sonoma will never be Burgundy, or Oregon, or New Zealand. It is, however, already producing some amazing wines from Pinot Noir planted in the right spots, farmed well, and handled with care in the cellar. It's time to celebrate the wonderful diversity of Pinot Noir, and there's no better place to do that than Sonoma. There are so many wines that are distinct and expressive of place that remain well priced, that it really can be a buyer's market out there. You just have to know where to look. I certainly don't know all the secrets of Sonoma Pinot Noir, but I did find plenty to like during my recent visit there. Here are five fascinating producers. 
Porter Creek

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Sonoma County Wines

Holdredge Pinot Noir Russian River Valley (2011)
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Holdredge Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Bucher (2011)
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Holdredge Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Selection Massale (2011)
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Holdredge Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Rolling Thunder (2011)
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Holdredge Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Mazie Rose (2011)
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Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (2010)
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Schug Carneros Pinot Noir (2010)
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Schug Carneros Estate Winery Heritage Reserve Pinot Noir (2009)
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Inman Russian River Pinot Noir (2009)
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Inman Family Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Thorn Ridge Ranch (2009)
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Inman Family Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Olivet Grange Vineyard (2009)
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Woodenhead Pinot Noir Russian River Valley (2008)
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Woodenhead Vintners Pinot Noir Humboldt County (2008)
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Woodenhead Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Wiley Vineyard (2009)
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Woodenhead Pinot Noir Wet Kiss Russian River Valley (2010)
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Porter Creek Chardonnay Russian River Valley (2011)
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Porter Creek Viognier Russian River Valley Timbervine Ranch (2011)
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Porter Creek Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Fiona Hill (2010)
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Porter Creek Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Hillside Vineyard (2010)
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Porter Creek Carignane Mendocino County Old Vine (2010)
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Porter Creek Zinfandel Russian River Valley (2010)
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Porter Creek Syrah Russian River Valley Timbervine Ranch (2010)
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  • Snooth User: outthere
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    324443 3,599

    Great write-up GdP! John Holdredge is a character and just visiting with him is just as fun as tasting his wines.

    Apr 12, 2013 at 3:28 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 198,685

    Thanks, you got that right, but I would still want to taste his wines, even if it had to e without him!

    Apr 12, 2013 at 3:36 PM

  • Snooth User: InWineTruth
    Hand of Snooth
    220106 1,634

    Greg, this is a good list of SoCo Pinot. How about DuNah(estate & Sangiacomo) and the irrepressible T.R.Elliott, and the Carneros grower Mahoney Vineyards? Consistently, damn fine wine!

    Apr 13, 2013 at 8:16 PM

  • Walter should know better than to make a comment about Napa not being able to make Pinot Noir. School House Pinot Noir made from the small berry clone of the Romaine de La Conti has been famous for years and bringing in big bucks since Schoonmaker planted the vines in the 1950's. Granted it was only available in restaurants and one or two retailers in the Bay area on a yearly allotment basis at about $500.00 a case on average, however it was unarguably the best Pinot made in California bar none. Now I don't know if it is still produced, as I heard at one time they had disease problems in the vineyards, but it would be interesting to do a blind side by side tasting with some of the Johnny come lately's. Same could be said of tasting some of Louis Martini's wonderful 1940's & '50's Zinfandel's against the current contenders. A much unknown and underrated wine.

    Apr 14, 2013 at 8:17 AM

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