In some ways, California is an odd place when it comes to wine. Regions tend to become associated with a particular variety: Napa with Cabernet, Santa Barbara with Pinot Noir, Lodi with Zinfandel. It's not that these regions can't do anything else well, it's just that they really excel with these particular varieties.
, on the other hand, seems to be able to do quite well, though the appellations within the County are indeed best known for specific wines. For example, Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel or Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon just seem to fit together naturally. But when it comes down to it the grape that just might be most associated with Sonoma County turns out to be Pinot Noir.
I'm not saying Sonoma is best suited to Pinot Noir
(though there are regions where the grape really excels), but given the relative popularity of Pinot Noir, and the myriad locations within Sonoma County where the grape thrives, I'm also not surprised Sonoma is becoming known as “Pinot Country.”
It doesn’t hurt that one last piece of the puzzle seems to be falling into place: winemaking. There are still plenty of outsized, effusively fruity Pinots coming out of Sonoma, but the move has decidedly been away from exaggeration and towards restrained expressions of terroir. There are probably a lot of factors that play into this, from improved farming practices to a detailed understanding of the effects root stock and clones have in specific soils, but ultimately the marketplace is deciding that it likes what it sees.
Of course, many critics still fawn over wines that are powerful and packed with fruit. But there’s also been a resurgence of interest in wines that offer complexity even if that means vegetal and herbal elements are present in the wines. At the same time, many people are realizing that a wine needn't be 12% alcohol, nor 15% alcohol, to show well. Rather it needs to be ripe, and in many cases in California that means 14% plus alcohol, even if you might never know it simply from tasting the wine.
In short we, both consumers and producers, are beginning to accept Pinot Noir for what it is rather than trying to mold it into what we would like it to be. That's why when you look to Sonoma, you think of Pinot Noir so often. Winemakers in the Russian River Valley started the movement, or rather gained the earliest recognition for the region as Pinot Noir Country.
I was fortunate to be able to spend some time recently with Walter Schug. If you really want to better understand the story of Pinot Noir in California, it's worth listening to some of my interview with Walter
. While we’re all pretty familiar with the pioneers of Cabernet
in California (keeping in mind that as the first winemaker at Joseph Phelps, Walter certainly has to be included in that esteemed group), Walter has somehow remained a bit under the radar, despite his instrumental work in developing Pinot Noir in California, and in recognizing Carneros
as one the key terroirs for Pinot Noir in the state. I also spend a few minutes discussing Carneros terroir with Schug winemaker Michael Cox, who filled me in on some of the details of the appellation, though one fundamental influence, the wind, made itself entirely apparent!
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.
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.
I became familiar with John Holdredge's Pinots (and Zinfandels!
) in about 2006, when I stumbled on a few at a dinner in Sonoma that summer. I was smitten and worked to get the wines distributed into the New York market, where I was happy to introduce them to an audience looking for lighter-style California Pinot Noirs. They were a great success. And while I didn't see any Zins at Holdredge on my last visit, I hardly missed them. Seriously, the current line-up chez Holdredge is fabulous and one could certainly argue that no one is making better wines than John. Different, of course, but better?
The style here is a combination of classic, ripe Californian fruit with all the incumbent alcohol and hands-off winemaking, and the results speak for themselves. Where one all too often finds six different vineyard wines tasting of winemaking when visiting a tasting room, here you find six different wines with only the suggestion of a winemaking style that favors the gentle influence of oak and the subtle roundness it brings to wines. With pricing that ranges from the low $30s for the Russian River
Bottling to $50 for the Single vineyards, these wines remain relative values in the marketplace.
While it's a bit early, the 2011’s are the current release on the Holdredge website
, and you should be on the lookout for the 2012 Rochioli Vineyard. It's a knockout Pinot and along with John's 2012 Schiopettino (all full of warm cherries, spice, a little ink and minerals), it’s simply an awesome wine.
Crazily fragrant with soaring florals, spiced orange rind, cranberry, and tart cherry aromatics. This enters the mouth with a firm burst of ripe fruit delivering plenty of texture early on but remaining tense and vibrant on the palate, with lovely zesty red berry fruit cut with super fine-grained, lightly dusty tannins. The finish is long and precise, dominated by raspberry fruit that offers impressive purity and persistence. 93 points
700 cases, 6 vineyards, 13 clones
Cola, chalk, animal fur and a touch of smoke all top the core of wild cherry fruit found on the nose. In the mouth this is smooth and polished, with a seductive texture that is both rich and supple. The mid-palate is packed with dark berry fruit framed with a bit of spice, all leading to an earthy back end and long finish that features a nice transparent mineral note that cuts through the lingering wild cherry fruit. 91 points
A little stemmy and floral on a nose that is a bit low and yet quite perfumed with a hint of peppery spice; high toned and showing a touch of oak. This is surprisingly round in the mouth and even a little slick in an appealing way, offering a broad yet transparent feel that shows nice freshness with the early hints of watermelon accenting the woodsy, wild raspberry fruit. Elegant with a fairly long finish, this is impressive but it is also fairly large-scaled in this line-up. 92 points
Very perfumed on the nose with layers of sweet spices, violets, ginseng, smoke, a little licorice and pollen. In the mouth this is a little candied, delivering sweet raspberries and maraschino cherry flavors up front in a polished, plump, easy drinking style. There’s good length here and the fruit flavors do add a bit of a darker profile on the finish, but bright acidity keeps this fresh. There are moments when this seems a bit heavy and dull with all the fruit here. Not exactly my style, but certainly well done. A blend of nine distinctly different clones. 91 points
This smells quite ripe, with hints of plummy fruit and candied blueberries on the nose paired with a fine cinnamon edge and a little stemmy floral note. On entry, one senses more of an oak imprint here than with the other bottlings. The style is smooth and ripe, if a little on the softer, sweeter side of things, with lots of slightly candied black cherry fruit. There’s a nice spine of fine tannins that add some contrasting mouth grab here and persist into the long, powerful finish, which does show a bit of alcohol. Fairly intensely fruit and notably structured in this line-up. 91 points
Fleshy fruit on the nose is framed by a hint of pencil lead, sharp with an almost spricotty freshness and sweetness to the perfumed red cherry and strawberry fruit. This is almost a bit soft in the mouth, but just when you think the broad, mouth-filling texture is going to go over the edge, the wine pulls back and shows the polished and smooth Holdredge style underpinned with a delicate yet supportive structure. This is downright seductive with a core of juicy red raspberry and strawberry fruit that pops on the back end with excellent inner mouth perfumes, ending with a very soft, seductive, and persistent finish. Just lovely. The name comes from the clone used for this wine: Martini. 93 points
This has a stunning nose, high-toned and floral, with spicy, lightly smoky accents to the earthy small berried fruits that offer up a nuanced beet root note. Soft yet structured, there is lovely depth here with a rich front edge followed by nice nuanced spice notes and very pure, defined red berry and black cherry skin fruit that shows off nearly perfect integration. This remains very perfumed on the back end, with a little savory olive wood note on the long finish that features a nice hint of cherry pie. This is flamboyantly wide open and absolutely gorgeous. 94 points
As I mentioned in my introduction to this article, Walter Schug is one of the pioneers of California Pinot Noir, and that should come as no surprise since Pinot noir is in his blood. Walter was born at the Staatsweingut Assmannshausen estate in germany's Rheingau region, and many might be surprised to learn that this corner of the Rheingau has long been famous for Pinot Noir. Formally trained as a winemaker in germany, Walter came to California in 1959 with his late wife Gertrud, who was also from a winemaking family, and together they set out to help develop the burgeoning California wine industry.
With Pinot in his heart, it wasn't long after Walter became the winemaker at Napa Valley's Joseph Phelps winery that he turned his attention toward Pinot Noir, and fine Pinot Noir at that. With limited vineyards suitable for the production of top quality Pinot Noir in the Napa Valley (it's just too hot, according to Walter), he set his sights on the cooler corners of the appellation and experimented with Pinot Noir at Joseph Phelps. Unconvinced by the wine, the winery produced their last Pinot in 1980, freeing up a source of grapes for Walter, and the rest is history.
By 1983, Walter was producing Pinot Noir in California under his family's name and the wine has remained in much the same style ever since. If you need a vivid illustration of how the U.S. wine market has changed, consider that many of the earliest vintages of Schug Pinot Noir were actually exported to Germany. The wines were more familiar to the German palate than the American palate, being relatively light in color and body, a result of unabashed Old World winemaking. Even today, one finds neutral oak ovals in the cellar, used to age the Pinots. Intervention is kept to a minimum and the wines show it: these are wines that really speak of fruit and terroir, not that they are fruity, but the flavors do not show significant oak or winemaking influences. The prices here are very attractive, ranging from roughly $20 to $40 a bottle.
Sweet wild berry and wild strawberry aromas are joined by hints of smoke and herb stem. This is a light-bodied, picnic style wine with small tannins and a hint of iron on the palate, which shows a fine peppery edge to the core of cherry and strawberry fruit. Easy going, with a nice finish that shows some earthy, forest floor complexity and a little minerality on the finale. 87 points
The spicy nose shows a little sweetness with red berry, cranberry and cherry notes over a nicely integrated toasty oak base note, all topped with hints of watermelon and rose petal. This shows off big tart wild cherry fruit on entry, followed by a lovely core of cran/raspberry fruit, flecked with gentle hints of earth, herb and mineral. There’s some very clean fruit here, with a clear mouthfeel that’s surprisingly fresh (from the nose I might have expected more sweetness). Just lovely, fresh and pure Pinot. 89 points
Deeply aromatic, with light cola and sassafras spice notes topping bright cranberry/cherry fruit. On entry this shows a lovely initial note of a earth and old wood followed by nice spice accents. While this is a touch soft and broad in the mouth, a touch flannelly even, the barely perceptible supple tannins offer nice gentle support. With a nice hint of truffle funk on the mid-palate accenting the core of fresh red fruit, and just a hint of red plum skin astringency, this shows delicate textural and flavor complexity, though it’s the core of fruit that really shows great follow through on the finish. This possess a fine suggestion of the sweetness and ripeness to its core of barely ripe raspberry flavors. 91 points
Ripe with an almost peachy aspect to the cherry fruit on the nose that gains sweetness with notes of cherry pie and a hint of blackberry. There’s some oak here as well, with a little black spice, some toast and a hint of allspice. Medium-plus full in the mouth, this is a touch chewy, with solid depth of dark red fruit and just a tiny bit of green herb spice and forest floor adding some nuance. The oak shows up as a little sweet nuttiness and contributes to the nice edge of tannin on the finish. This is very smooth and elegant, with solid spice tones on the lightly tannic finish. 91 points
Kathy Inman has quietly been producing some truly compelling Pinots in Sonoma, even when her style of wines (lower in alcohol, fresh and crisp) was decidedly not in favor. Today the pendulum has swung and Kathy's wines have a bit of a cult following. Perhaps it's their delicacy, or the winery's commitment to the environment, featuring a first (for me) electric car charging station in the parking lot, as well as devotion to organic farming methods and avid use of recycled materials from cars, from the steel used in the tasting room to recycled paper used for wine shippers.
All of this certainly plays into the ideal of a winemaker, but ultimately what counts is what makes it into the bottle, and with Inman that is purity and finesse. Almost all the wines produced, with the exception of the Rosé and the Pinot Gris, are allowed to ferment spontaneously, and there is a minimum of intervention practiced here. There are there Pinots produced here, ranging in price from $35 for the Russian River appellation Pinot to $63 for the Single Vineyard bottling. The winery tasting room is surrounded by the estate vineyard, known as Olivet Grange, and it's with this wine that one gets the fullest expression of the delicacy and detail that Inman wines can provide. Not bad for a winery that was only established in 2000.
There’s a touch of cola or kukui nut on the nose over lovely layers of rhubarb, beet root and red fruit fruit, with subtle hints of stems and a very fine green edge. This is very light on the palate, with aromatic rose petals, red cherry and cranberry fruit, and just a touch of older wood adding a gentle earthy cast. There’s plenty of nice red fruit on the finish, which shows a little pasty tactile quality adding fine tension that lengthens the finish. 90 points
Big and spicy on the nose, with a deep olive wood briar accent to the rich blackberry fruit that’s topped with nuanced floral and lightly smoky aromas. This is smooth and moderately rich in the mouth, with a layer of baby fat covering the fine-grained tannins and supporting acidity. A nice tart, almost black cherry note dominates the palate and drifts off on the finish, which does show a bit of heat. A bit more than I’m used to from Inman. 89 points
Lightly aromatic on the nose with a lovely gentle sweetness of waxy ripe red cherry over a light camphor base, topped with intriguing hints of rosewater. This is wonderfully light, crisp and focused in the mouth, with excellent snap of almost tart but ripe red cherry and cranberry fruit framed by hints of cinnamon and rhubarb. The finish shows lovely purity and energy, with persistent raspberry flavors and the merest hint of tannin offering a touch of mouth grab. 91 points
A bit of a mystery to me—I've come across Woodenhead wines before, though Zinfandel and not Pinot. The founders Nikolai Stez and Zina Bower both have a connection to William-Selyem, and while I can only imagine that it was there they met, it's also not a stretch to see that their shared passion for this style of wine was fostered at Williams-Selyem.
Woodenhead doesn't own vineyards, preferring instead to buy fruit from some of the best vineyards in the neighborhood. There's some merit to this arrangement, leaving family farmers to do what they do best, while allowing Nikolai to focus on what he does best: winemaking. A native Californian, and indigenous Russian Riverite since age one, Nikolai knows these lands and he is leveraging his winemaking experience in an effort to produce Burgundian-style wines in California. Around since 1997, Woodenhead still remains mostly under the radar, with limited production for many of the wines. Prices span the typical $30 to $60 range for wines that are firm and elegant with a lovely blend of fruity and savory flavors, all wrapped up in a rather seamless and nearly plush texture.
A little high-toned, with floral edges to the dusty sweet red fruit that shows a hint of tariness on the nose along with a streak of obvious but unobtrusive French Oak, which is more spicy than toasty. This is a touch soft on entry, with easy red fruit and vanilla ice cream flavors that pick up a nice hint of forest floor and a touch of minerality on the mid-palate, almost. Finishing tight and focused and even a little steely, with lightly flavored clay/earthy-toned cranberry fruit that shows a soft candied edge. A rather soft, easy drinking style of wine. 89 points
Loamy on the nose and full of sweet root vegetables, beet root, caramel and root beer aromas packed into the powerful earthy nose. On entry, this shows nice acid-driven yet very ripe raspberry fruit with a silky, supple texture backed up by plenty of spice, forest floor and incipient mushroom notes. The super fine tannins add plenty of texture here, making this is a little too rich to be silky, so call it cashmere. The long, elegant finish shows more of a slightly maraschino cherry tone, along with a touch of spice. This is quite complete with lovely texture and flavor profile. 91 points
A hint of candied stem greets the nose along with a very floral aroma that is light and high-toned on the nose with a hint of medicinal licorice-based spice and ginseng. Soft, broad and supple in the mouth yet not lacking structure, there’s a biggish core of black cherry fruit with hint of strawberry and something vaguely recalling pineapple on the palate. The flavors are pronounced, if subtle and kind of seamless. The finish is zesty with the tannins offering a lovely driving edge to the long, slightly medicinal herb flavors layered over the candied strawberry fruit. 92 points
A little smoky and rich, with dried cherry aromas topped with lightly spicy rhubarb top notes. This is crystal clear on the palate, though with a hint of toasty sweetness that lends this a bit of softness in the mouth even though there’s significant acidity supporting the slight earthy, slightly tree bark-edged cranberry fruit. That fruit is nicely fresh and awfully pretty, framed with nuanced oak. Though it does lack a touch of depth and complexity air does bring out attractive inner mouth perfumes. The acid, along with a touch of sweet tannin, does show up on the moderately long finish with has a sweet, toasty almond edge to it. 89 points
Porter Creek is a small operation in the Russian River Valley that makes a wide range of wines, and for once I'll go ahead and include non-Pinot wines in a Pinot article. Why? Because the winemaking style here offers a consistency across varieties that make these the perfect wines to branch out with. All the wines are fresh and pure on the palate, lively and possessing an Old World energy along with fantastic aromatics.
Owned and operated by a father son duo, Alex and George Davis, the vineyards at Porter Creek are all certified organic and on their way to being certified biodynmaic. The winemaking is described as Burgundian, and I would bet that applies across the board, and as I alluded before, this is one case in which you really can sense that in the wines. The use of oak is modest and judicious, and the fruit seems to possess that fine combination of ripeness and freshness that one can obtain in California through careful farming and a certain comfort with warm climate alcohol levels. The wines are not inexpensive, ranging between $35 and $65 a bottle for the Pinots, but for an introduction to the house style the $24 Carignane is a steal, and the Zinfandel and Syrah, both in the mid $30s are beautiful interpretations of those varieties.
There’s a lightly sweet fruity top note to the Asian pear fruit on the nose, which picks up lovely spice nuances with air. On the palate this is clear and tense, full of green apples with a hint of fig at the core, all framed with textural touches of green plum and lemon curd on the back end that leads to a clean, apple peel finish full of lovely bright acid. Clean, bright and focused, this is enjoyable, but has the promising feel of a young wine. 91 points
A little earthy on the nose, with lovely floral, almost rose petal, aromas topped with lychee and pineapple. In the mouth, this is a little sweetly fruited up front, but with attractive freshness to the apricot fruit that shows some some golden raspberry character in a very clean and bright style. This shows lovely energy in the mouth, with late-arriving honeysuckle perfumes and a lovely bright orange-tinged finish that is impressively long. About as good a new world Viognier as I’ve had. 93 points
Bright on the nose with a bit of a stemmy/floral/dark oily herbal element to the dark, almost curranty fruit. This is a little soft on the palate and broad in the mouth, full of earthy forest floor aspects to the wild red cherry and wild raspberry fruit. Finishing with lift and energy, this picks up a minty aspect to go along with the rich, earthy/clay base. Light and fresh, both easy going and fairly complex. This is delicious. 91 points
Complex on the nose and downright Burgundian, with burnished wild cherry, mineral, gorgeous raspberry fruit, and a touch of old wood, all topped with nuanced smoke notes. There’s nice concentration to the bright red cherry fruit here and it all remains tense on the palate, with fine acidity and a wonderful base of fine-grained tannins. The mid-palate shows off precise mineral cut and leads to a finish full of wild cherry preserves with tons of balancing acid and real finesse. This is a pretty brilliant wine. 93 points
Bitter apple, oil, shale, and juniper show lovely purity, freshness and intensity on the nose, with hints of gamey meats and nuanced, slightly smoky dark berry fruit topped with a hint of tar and lots of wild plum. In the mouth this is a bit rustic with firm but well judged tannins, but the masses of wild plum up front, followed by pure bright acidic red berry fruit, quickly buffer the tannins. This is a superbly honest wine with just has a touch of richness on the back end, and while it really has a drop dead gorgeous nose, it is a bit simple in the mouth. Still I would willingly drink a lot of this. 89 points
Classic bramble berry, the Zinfandel nose is bright and perfumed, with just a kiss of oak lending a smoky edge to the powerful nose. Marionberry and boysenberry pop on the entry of this surprisingly medium to light-bodied wine that shows full-on bright acids on the palate. This has a lovely texture, a little chewy with deep fruit, and terrific balance that leads to a bright, clean finish with hint of jammy Lingonberry fruit, and lingering dusty tannins. This asks to be guzzled. 92 points
Co-fermeted with about 5% Viognier
This comes on strongly, with peach, honeysuckle and jasmine aromas on the nose that are joined by alluringly briny green Sicilian olive notes along with layered hickory smoke, green peppercorn, clove and savory grilled beef aromas, with the floral notes eventually turning more toward the violet end of the spectrum. On entry this is a bit tannic and chewy with bright acids supporting blueberry and blue plum skin fruit. This needs some time but already shows an attractive level of richness with a bit of a northern Rhône texture that’s a touch austere. The flavors are slightly reticent, but mimic the nose with its blend of ripe fruit and savory, peppery characteristics. Super promising and decidedly Old World. 92 points