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A tasting of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs

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And what a fabulous tasting it was. This was really one of the most interesting sessions I’ve been to in years. For one thing, the level of wineries was exceptionally high, as it tend to be in this sprawling appellation. We’re also dealing with two very good years, 2012 and 2103.

As usual—and as we saw in our tasting of Russian River Valley Pinots last week—two styles of wine emerged: one paler in color and generally lower in alcohol, and the other darker and more full-bodied. It was quite impossible to rule one style or the other out: both succeeded. Of the fifteen wines we tasted, I scored each at 91 points or higher.

Here are my notes, from highest on down. They generally accorded with the group’s findings. All the wines were tasted blind during our 2-1/2 hour session, which included plenty of spirited conversation.

Williams Selyem 2012 Precious Mountain, $94, 13.6%. Over my years at Wine Enthusiast, this bottling became my favorite of the winery’s many vineyard designations. Once again, it didn’t disappoint. Gives off a tremendous perfume of aromatics: spices, sandalwood, toast, persimmon, sassafras. In the mouth, delicate but intense, bone dry, with masses of sweet fruit and a long, spicy finish. Such sophistication, so high-toned. A real beauty, and will age. Score: 97.

Hirsch 2012 Block 8, $85, 13.4%. The official appellation beginning with the 2013 will be Fort Ross-Seaview. The wine has a beautifully clear, prismatic translucence. It is delicately perfumed with strawberry and pomegranate jam, black tea, rose petal, smoke and dusty spices. Rich, spicy, complex, bone dry, with great acidity. Shows the wild, feral quality you often find in these Fort Ross Pinot Noirs. An intellectual wine, with mystery; feminine. Score: 96.

Hartford Court 2012 Seascape, $70, 14.4%. The vineyard is west of Occidental. The wine is young and fruity, with tons of raspberry jam, wild mushroom, root beer, black tea and exotic spice notes. Shows smooth, complex tannins and great balancing acidity. A dramatic, compelling wine, with a very long finish. Will certainly age. From Jackson Family. Score: 95.

Wild Ridge 2012, price unknown, 14.5%. A brilliant translucent ruby color. Absolutely luscious. Delicate and silky, with fabulous spices and raspberry-cherry fruit, cocoa powder, mushrooms, forest floor earthiness. Great acidity. This is a Jackson Family Wines brand that I wasn’t all that familiar with. The vineyard is in Annapolis, at an elevation of 900 feet. Score: 95.

DuMol 2012 Eoin, $79, 14.1%. This was the only wine in our tasting that was grown east of the 101 Freeway. The vineyard is east of Petaluma, influenced by the Petaluma Wind Gap. The aroma began with oak, and the first impression was of a jammy wine, with persimmons, blackberries, cherries, root beer and orange zest. Smooth tannins, great acidity. Later, a peat moss tang emerged. A lovely wine for holding until 2018, at least. Score: 95.

Littorai 2013 The Pivot, $70, 13.1%. The estate vineyard is between Sebastopol and Freestone. The wine is very dry and tart with acids, with some floral notes. The lowish alcohol shows in the light, delicate mouthfeel. Very pretty and supple, with complex rose petal, tart strawberry, black tea and brown spice notes. I couldn’t help but think of charcuterie with this wine. Give it another 5 years. Score: 95.

Joseph Phelps 2012 Quarter Moon Vineyard, $75, 13.8%. A darker color suggesting greater extract. Tremendous fruit, almost sappy: raspberries, cherries, cola, sassafras, cocoa dust. Showed an iodine, peat note, like an Islay Scotch. Tons of spices: clove, star anise, pepper. Rich, heady, dramatic, full-bodied. A great overall impression The vineyard is in Freestone, at 500 feel in elevation. Score: 95.

Hartford 2012 Far Coast, $70, 14.8%. The vineyard is up near Annapolis. This was a substantial wine, darker in color and full-bodied. Erupted in freshly ripe cherries and persimmons, with an earthy, mushroomy note. Feels rich and harmonious, with fine tannins and brisk acidity. Certainly a wine that needs time to evolve. Best after 2018. Score: 94.

Siduri 2013 Hirsch Vineyard, price unknown, 14.1%. One of the more delicate entries, and quite similar to the Hirsch Block 8, although of course the vintage is different. Lots of black tea, licorice, sweet raspberry, rhubarb and even some leather flavors. Exotic and savory. Feels elegant, spicy, complex, but needs time. 2018 and beyond. Another Jackson Family Wines wine. Score: 94.

Martinelli 2012 Blue Slide Ridge, $95, 15.2%. Good ruby color, with tremendous aromatics: violets, rose petals, raspberries, cola, black tea, cinnamon, clove and cumin spice. Lots of charm, with zesty acidity and rich tannins. Fancy and complex, but I found a touch of heat in the finish, which must have come from the relatively high alcohol. Still, Score: 93.

Lynmar 2013 Terra de Pormissio, $70, 14.3%. A darker wine, made from grapes purchased from this well-known Petaluma Wind Gap vineyard. Big, rich and full-bodied, but a little heavy, with extracted, jammy raspberry fruit and some meaty bacon. Delicious, but could be defter and more delicate. Almost like Grenache. Hold until 2018 and see. Score: 93.

Wayfarer 2012 Wayfarer Vineyard, $90, 14.5%. One of the darkest wines in the flight. At first, the aroma was muted. It took a while for the black cherries, black tea and persimmons to emerge. Quite full-bodied and tannic, a bigger, bolder style that needs time to develop. Despite the power, there’s plenty of harmony. From Jayson Pahlmeyer. Score: 93.

Hartford 2013 Land’s Edge, $50, 15%. The wine is a blend of the Far Coast and Seascape vineyards. I found some heat from alcohol, but otherwise, the wine is rich and exotic, with sassafras, raspberry, gingerbread cookie, cinnamon and clove aromas and flavors. Some sweet glycerine around the edges. I would certainly love this with a grilled steak. Score: 92.

Peay 2013 Pomarium Estate, $56, 13.5%. From way up near Sea Ranch, in Annapolis. I called it a “pretty” wine. Tons of sweet red fruit and berries, very spicy, with nice oak application. Some earthy herbs add interest. Polish, supple, easy to drink, with great harmony. I may have missed something; others liked it more than I did. Score: 91.

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A COMMENT

Last week I blogged at my disappointment by the S.F. Chronicle’s wine coverage, or lack thereof. I got an email from the newspaper’s managing editor, who felt that I had done The Chron a disservice. She wrote that her team is doubling down on our wine coverage, have a new critic/writer starting next week and plan several new publications around our wine and spirits journalism.” The new wine writer, whom I do not know,  previously was at Wine Spectator.

Well, as Donald Rumsfeld famously observed, there are unknown unknowns in life. I did not know that the Chron is planning on this greatly-expanded new wine coverage, because how could I? I subscribe, I read the paper every day, and I saw nothing to alert us readers to these new realities. I welcome them: As I wrote, the Chron is Northern California’s biggest newspaper, at the gateway to wine country. I’ve read it daily for close to 40 years. No one can be more pleased than I that they are once again going to cover wine.

  1. Steve,

    Kitty Morgan actually started with the Chronicle near the end of 2013. She’s Assistant Managing Editor overseeing the Food & Wine sections (along with Style and, I believe, Home & Garden). If anything, I believe she would be the direct report for the new wine writer. You can read about Kitty here:

    http://insidescoopsf.sfgate.com/blog/2013/12/09/kitty-morgan-to-join-the-san-francisco-chronicle-as-assistant-managing-editor/

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. Kyle Schlachter says:

    I apologize if I missed it, but who are the other member of these tasting panels and what is the purpose the these Pinot noir series. I think the format of going through the regions one by one has been interesting and informative.

  3. It remains to be seen what it is that will be “new” in the Chron’s coverage of wine. Let’s wait to see who this new writer is and what experience he/she might actually have.

    It is hard to see what the Chron might do by way of greatly expanded wine coverage short of using quality writers as the Chron did back ten years ago or more. I don’t know if JonBon chased them all away or the Chron simply decided to stop using great and knowledgeable writers like Tim Tiechgraber and Jordan McKay, among many others, to supplement the wine section for economic reasons.

    But, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize that the Chron’s food coverage is now all about lifestyle and not about depth and experimentation. The choice of Kitty Morgan to oversee everything, with her long background doing the same thing at Sunset Magazine, speaks volumes about where the Chron has been lately.

    Let’s see if the new winewriter is a person of consequence like a Patrick Comiskey or a Jordan McKay or another in the Morgan’s growing list of “hip, young” writers. I am guessing the latter.

  4. The Hartford Far Coast was my favorite of the WOW Festival tasting this weekend, on both Saturday & Sunday. A real stunner, yet to reveal everything to come….

  5. Jim, agree it was a great wine.

  6. “The Chronicle stopped spending resources on wine coverage because of a lack of advertising revenue from the wine industry.” That was a direct quote from a former ad executive at the paper. There is no longer any wine coverage in USA Today for that exact same reason. Ironically, the Wall Street Journal is balls out on wine simply because exotic, luxury-driven stories about wine draw eyeballs. The theory being, eyeballs will eventually lead to revenue. It remains to be seen whether the San Francisco can return to its former glory days with a new wine columnist.

  7. KCPhillips says:

    I tasted at least 7-8 of the wines you list here at the WOW Festival (too many to keep track of) this past weekend. My faves: the Littorai Pivot, Hartford Seascape, and Wayfarer.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    There are two comments on the San Francisco Chronicle awaiting “moderation.”

  9. Bob Henry says:

    “Stand-Alone Food Section Faces Demise in Bay Area” (New York Times, November 13, 2013)

    Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/14/business/media/san-francisco-chronicle-plans-to-end-its-prized-food-section.html?_r=0

    “Managing Editor’s response to New York Times” (San Francisco Chronicle, Nov 13, 2013)

    Link: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Managing-Editor-s-response-to-New-York-Times-4980846.php

    “SF Chronicle Launches New Food+Home Section” (KQED, Jun 28, 2014)

    Link: http://ww2.kqed.org/bayareabites/2014/06/28/sf-chronicle-launches-new-foodhome-section/

    What I’ve NOT found: any mention of a new wine scene writer. Or a press release announcing a re-dedication to covering the wine scene.

  10. Bob Henry says:

    Meanwhile, an updating of these articles . . .

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section
    (October 10, 2005, Page C1ff):

    “Black & White and Read by Fewer”

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2005/oct/10/business/fi-newspapers10

    By James Rainey
    Times Staff Writer

    In a recent e-mail chat about the future of their business, several young New York Times reporters concluded with dismay that most of their friends don’t subscribe to the newspaper.

    . . .

    A Media Management Center study reached an even more alarming conclusion regarding younger readers — estimating that by 2010, only 9% of those in their 20s will read a newspaper every day.

    . . .

    From The Wall Street Journal “Business & Tech.” Section
    (August 3, 2015, Page B1ff):

    “For the New York Times, A Gamble on Giveaways”

    Link: http://www.wsj.com/articles/for-new-york-times-a-gamble-on-giveaways-1438556347

    By Lukas I. Alpert
    Staff Reporter

    When New York Times Co. launched its NYT Now mobile app last year, hopes were high internally that it would appeal to younger readers and ease them into the habit of paying for quality news.

    But after a few months, it was clear that the subscription service, a cheaper and slimmed-down version of the main Times app, wasn’t meeting expectations. In the end, only about 20,000 people agreed to pay $8 a month for it, well short of the newspaper’s target of 200,000, said two people familiar with the matter. In May, 13 months after its launch, the Times made NYT Now free.

    The change signaled a shift in digital strategy at the Times toward courting young readers with free content rather than trying to turn them into subscribers right away. . . .

    That approach has the Times experimenting, to varying degrees, with making its content available across a multitude of platforms, from Facebook Inc.’s Instant Articles program to Apple Inc.’s coming News app to messaging platform WhatsApp and even on Starbucks Corp.’s mobile app.

    . . .

    The Times is trying to address a problem faced by all traditional publishers, including The Wall Street Journal: Younger readers now get their news from a wider variety of nontraditional sources—and it is usually free. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that six out of 10 people between the ages of 18 and 34 said they got some political news on Facebook, compared with just 17% from the Times.

    “We need to build habits to get people to come back to us every day,” said Alex MacCallum, the paper’s assistant managing editor for audience development.

    . . .

    “The problem the Times has is that they have no more revenue streams to mine,” said one former New York Times executive. “The real risk is that if you start making your content free elsewhere, it may end up giving no incentive to new readers to start paying, and that could cause a dangerous spiral as time goes on.”

    . . .

  11. Charlie, I hope you’re wrong.

  12. Rumor has it that the new winewriter is 24 years old and has done mostly background pieces at the Spectator. I did get a note from a winery owner who apparently knows the person and had good things to say–like “be patient, there is potential there”.

    One thing does stand out for me in retrospect. Both you and I were sheer novices when we got our starts. Now we are the alta kakas of winewriting.

  13. Okay, I had to search for alta kakas, so the education part of the blog is clearly working.

  14. Bob Henry says:

    “altakaka”?

    I thought that was one of the high (alta) mountain ranges in Mendoza.

    Ver veyst?

  15. Bob Henry says:

    A Google search reveals no press release announcing The Chronicle’s new wine writer.

    Officially acknowledged writers:

    http://www.sfgate.com/foodwriters/

  16. Chron writer unveiled on Thurs AM at http://www.cgcw.com.

  17. Bob Henry says:

    Who is Esther Mobley?

    A backgrounder:

    “Finding a Job You Want: It Started in a Vineyard”

    Link: http://www.myjobcation.com/blog/working-a-wine-harvest

  18. Bob Henry says:

    Her writings for Wine Spectator:

    Link: http://www.winespectator.com/author/index/id/452

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