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A tasting of current vintage, top Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs

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There are very few common Pinot Noirs in the Russian River Valley. Certainly, given the number of producers (in the hundreds), the level of quality is extraordinarily high, especially when we have two vintages in a row—2012 and 2013—that both were very fine, although it looks like ’13 has the edge in terms of consistency.

This was brought home to me following the tasting of RRV Pinot Noirs I arranged last week. In general, I found two different types of wines: darker, more robust and fuller-bodied ones that also tend to be higher in alcohol, and paler, more delicate ones. And yet, some higher alcohol wines can be delicate, while some lower alcohol wines can be dark and heavy. In wine, as in life, beware of generalizations; and don’t go drawing conclusions based merely on alcohol level!

All the wines were tasted blind; identities weren’t revealed until the very end. (Note: I am currently paid by Jackson Family Wines, which owns Hartford Court and Siduri.) We had six or seven people, and the conversation was lively. Not everyone agreed on everything, but I think there was plenty of unanimity in the room, especially concerning the overall quality of these dozen fine wines.

Here are my notes, with scores:

Peirson Meyer 2012 Miller Vineyard. $40, 14.9%, 150 cases. Loved this wine. Complex nose of red cherries, cocoa, sandalwood, cola, persimmons, orange zest, cinnamon and clove. A little heat from alcohol, but not too much. Very high quality. The vineyard is south of Graton, at an elevation of 500 feet. The winemaker/co-owner, Robbie Meyer, has worked at Peter Michael, Lewis and Jericho Canyon. Good for a newish winery to score this well against far more famous veterans. Score: 93.

Paul Hobbs 2013 Ulises Valdez Vineyard. $70, 14.1%. Darker in color, richer and denser than A, despite lower alcohol. Go figure. A bit soft and over-extracted, with cherry pie, cocoa and pruney flavors. Ripe and voluptuous, but a bit too thick for my tastes, and some hard, bitter tannins in the finish. The vineyard is in the Green Valley, near Sebastopol. Score: 88.

Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate. $57, 14.5%. Rich garnet-ruby color. Very aromatic, lots of crushed cherries, rose petal, tea, dried herbs, baking spices. Quite tannic at this time. Complex, layered, but very young. Give it at least six more years. The vineyard is in the Sebastopol Hills area. Score: 92.

Joseph Swan 2012 Trenton Estate. $59, 14.3%, 447 cases. Pale, translucent ruby color leading to delicate, complex aromas of golden tobacco, cranberries, persimmons, cola, cinnamon and clove, sandalwood. Feels delicate and silky, but quite intense in fruits and spices. Nice toast. Good finish. Gentle and lovely now. I thought it will age well, but others disagreed. Score: 93.

Siduri 2013 Keefer Ranch. $46, 14.2%. Pretty ruby color. Fine quality wine. Tasting a bit one-dimensional now, but it’s a pretty dimension. Classic Russian River Pinot: dry, silky, good acidity, nice cherry-cranberry fruit. Lovely to drink now. If I were teaching a class in Pinot Noir 101, I’d use this. Score: 91.

Rochioli 2013 Estate. $60, 14.5%. Good color. Jammy pie flavors (raspberries, cherries). Nice dusty tannins, good acidity, smooth finish. Somewhat oaky and a little rustic. A bit on the light side. This is Rochioli’s basic estate Pinot Noir, not the block bottlings which tend to be superior. Score: 89.

Hartford Court 2012 Fog Dance. $65, 14.7%. Big aromatics: baking spices, smoke, masses of cherries, raspberries, blackberries, plums, sweet vanilla, balsam, wild mushrooms. Ripe, flashy tannins, good acidity. A flamboyant, showy wine that drinks well now and will improve. Also, ironically, an intellectual wine: I kept coming back and finding more. Score: 94.

Failla 2013 Keefer Ranch. $45, 13.7%. A pretty wine, polished and supple. A little disconnected now in the mouth: the oak, raspberries, tannins, acidity and spices haven’t knit together yet. I suspect most people will drink it now, but you really should age it unti 2020. A few tasters found it a bit hollow, but not me. Score: 92.

Dutton-Goldfield 2012 Dutton Ranch Freestone Hill Vineyard. $58, 13.5%, 613 cases. Pretty dark. Feels big and full-bodied despite the lowish alcohol. Dense, glyceriney. Could be more delicate, but it could be an ager. Oodles of black cherries and blackberries, orange rind, cinnamon, smoke. Considerable oak is evident. Hold until 2020, when it could easily be a 93-94 point wine.

Gary Farrell 2012 Hallberg Vineyard. $39, 14.2%. Nice to see this venerable winery doing well despite all the ups and downs of ownership. Combines delicacy with power. Intense flavors, firm tannins, some minerality underneath the bitter cherry candy and mushroom flavors. Very complex and layered, but needs time. Best after 2020. The vineyard is in Green Valley, near Sebastopol. Score: 93.

Dehlinger 2012 Altamont. $70, 14.8%. Oak wood and spice notes dominate, along with strong tannins. Buried underneath is raspberry compote, sour cherry Lifesaver candy and exotic baking spices. Supple mouthfeel, very high class wine, noble, but young. Altamont is from a hilly section of the estate vineyard, which is south of River Road, in the cool, foggy Laguna Ridge section of the valley. Wait until 2020. Score: 94.

Hartford Court 2012 Hailey’s Vineyard. $65, 14.6%. A wonderful wine. At first I was suspicious of the tremendous extract (raspberries, black cherries, kirsch liqueur) and considerable oak (44% new French) but then the innate strength and elegance hit me. A flashy, sexy wine that grew complex as it breathed, giving off notes of balsam and tamari. There is a core of iron-driven firmness I associate with Gold Ridge soils. Very impressive for drinking now and will age. Score: 94.


Tasting Russian River Pinot Noir, and a shoutout to Gallo

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My weekly tasting at Jackson Family Wines tomorrow is exciting even for jaded old me. It’s of current release Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs. The lineup as now scheduled is:

Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate

Dehlinger 2012 “Altamont”

Gary Farrell 2012 Hallberg Vineyard

Dutton Goldfield 2012 Dutton Ranch Freestone Hill Vineyard

Siduri 2013 Keefer Ranch Vineyard

Rochioli 2013 Estate

Joseph Swan 2012 Trenton Estate Vineyard

Failla 2013 Keefer Ranch

Paul Hobbs 2013 Ulises Valdez Vineyard

Peirson Meyer 2012 Miller Vineyard

Hartford Court 2013

La Crema 2013

Pretty impressive, eh? With the exception of the Peirson Meyer—which I’d never heard of until a friend recommended I try it—I have a long, rich relationship with each of these wineries and their winemakers/proprietors.

The Russian River Valley is such a vast place, with so many wineries, that I could have broken it down into several regional tastings, such as Middle Reach, Green Valley and Laguna Ridge. Maybe I should have, and maybe I will someday. As things turn out, most of the wineries in tomorrow’s lineup are from the southern stretch of the appellation, with quite a few from Green Valley, although nowadays that appellation seems to be falling out of favor; wineries seem to prefer Russian River Valley or Sonoma Coast. I wonder why that is. The Rochioli, which comes from the north, in that sense is an outlier, as is the La Crema, a blend from various valley vineyards. Still, I hope we’ll get a sense of what Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is all about. What makes one different from Carneros, or Fort Ross-Seaview, or anyplace else?

The neat thing about these regional and varietal tastings is that the smallest imperfections, as well as the greatest highlights, of the individual wines are so much easier to perceive than if you’re just drinking the wine alone. Last week, for instance, the Donum 2012 West Slope really had everything a Carneros Pinot Noir should have—but if you’d tasted, say, the Saintsbury Lee all by itself, you might not have realized it was missing a certain something. Tasting is all about context, then, which can be a problem, because if you taste a lesser wine immediately following a very great one, the former will suffer by comparison. Yet if you’re tasting flights, there has to be some kind of order. The question is, how do you determine it?

Well, if you’re doing—let’s say for the sake of argument—Bordeaux, I suppose it makes sense to lead up to the First Growths by starting with Seconds or Thirds. And even with the Firsts you might want to put Latour after Haut-Brion and Margaux. But we don’t have classifications in California, so arranging the order of the wines is more of a problem. You could taste by alcohol level—going from lowest to highest. But if you did, it wouldn’t really be “blind” because you’d know the alcohol levels, which would tell you something you wouldn’t otherwise know, and possibly contaminate or bias your findings.

Anyhow, while worrying about the order of wines in a tasting of Carneros Pinot Noirs is the sort of thing I think about, it’s not going to keep me up at night.

* * *

I’m very glad to learn that Gallo has bought the old Asti property. I fell in love with this historic place in the Alexander Valley after researching and visiting it while writing my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.

The Asti campus is large and complex, with many beautiful old brick buildings, situated along the old railroad tracks that brought wine from these parts down to the big cities in the 1800s. It’s filled with history–Andrea Sbrabaro is a character out of a novel–and is a fabulous place to visit, only it’s never been open to the public, and most of the buildings were run down because nobody cared enough to restore and protect them. I hope Gallo does. Please Gallo, sink some money into Asti and build it into a historical/educational center!


Alcohol level in Pinot Noir: a question of shifting fashion

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Writer David Darlington makes the case, perhaps unwittingly, for how hard it is to explain why alcohol levels are higher in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir than they used to be, in his article, “Accounting for Taste,” in the April issue of Wine & Spirits. (Sorry, I can’t find a link online.)

After first positing that today’s wines are, in fact, higher in alcohol than, say, twenty years ago—an unarguable statement—David makes his position immediately known, calling “so many so monstrous.” At one point, he even calls them “dangerous.”

Now these are awfully harsh words: surprisingly so, coming from the guy who wrote what is possibly the best book on Zinfandel ever, “Angels’ Visits.” But let us grant that Pinot Noir is not Zinfandel.

After having slammed so many Pinots, David at least has the reportorial curiosity to ask why alcohol levels have risen. He phrases his question thusly: “Are the winemakers responsible, or is it attributable to something beyond their control?”

And then cannot answer the question. Which is, of course, beyond his own control, for the fact of the matter is, there is no one answer why alcohol levels have increased. David certainly did his homework, interviewing multiple winemakers in an effort to find out why. Here are ten causes they suggested to him:

  1. vertical shoot positioning, as opposed to the California sprawl of old
  2. the market
  3. ratings
  4. consumer preferences
  5. climate change/global warming
  6. Dijon clones
  7. longer hangtime
  8. super strains of yeast
  9. younger vines
  10. warmer fermentations

Well, that’s pretty much the whole nine yards! By article’s end, the reader’s impression can only be confusion. Why are alcohol levels higher now than they used to be? Who knows? Pick a reason—pick any reason—pick them all! But what does any of it have to do with Russian River Pinot Noir being “monstrous”? Well, with that remark, David at least is honest, if hyperbolic, about his bias.

The winery that David holds up for particular praise is Small Vines. I personally can attest to the quality of their Pinot Noirs: I gave them eight 90-points-or-higher scores over the years, and since I left, Virginie Boone has given them another four. With all this talk of low alcohol, I was curious to know what Small Vines’ levels have been. Google brought me to The Prince of Pinot; this article shows that alcohol levels in Small Vines Pinot Noirs varied between 13.2% and 14.5%, with seven of the 15 wines The Prince reviewed above 14%. This is not particularly low, and is in league with most of the Pinot Noirs I reviewed from coastal California, which were anywhere between 13.8% and 14.5%.

I’m glad David quoted the great Merry Edwards, who reduced the low-alcohol movement in Pinot Noir to incoherence. “The fashion norm is shifting now,” she told him; “people are listening to Raj Parr (the In Pursuit of Balance ringleader), and French marketing has convinced people that you should pay a lot of money for wines that are light and watery. I’m on the opposite side—we’re not in France, we’re in California”

Light and watery! You go grrl! When one has been in the arena as long as Merry (she’s been making wine since 1974), one sees “fashion” come and go with merry-go-round (excuse the pun) regularity—and one learns not to succumb to it.

It can be hard to resist fashion, if all you want to do is appeal to the latest trend. But winemakers who are dedicated to their art are not slaves to fashion. They stay the course; they know that style goes in and out, but that true quality in winemaking, as exemplified by Merry Edwards, remains undeterred by these perturbations in the critical aether.


To the Green Valley for a book signing!

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I’m driving up to Occidental today, on the far edge of the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, for a book signing at a winery called Fog Crest. I’m not familiar with their wines, and I don’t know the proprietors, but they invited me up, bought a bunch of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and are putting me up for the night at the nearby Inn at Occidental, so what’s not to like about that?

That book was published in 2005, after a writing and editing effort that took about two years. Prior to that, I’d tried hard to get a book publishing deal. It was an era when having a book was the crowning glory to your reputation as a wine writer, but actually getting a book deal was hard. I’d written sample chapters, sent them to agents and publishers and worked the grapevine diligently, alas to no avail; nobody seemed to want my book.

Then serendipity struck, in the form of a phone call from an acquisitions editor at University of California Press. He invited me to lunch and, over sushi in Berkeley, informed me that I could write a book – about anything I wanted – as long as it was about wine – and U.C. Press would publish it.

Wow. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen. But it did. I came up with the idea for Journey – based on Heart of Darkness (alternatively, Apocalypse Now), I conceived it as a year-long journey from one end of the Russian River to the other end, where it spills into the Pacific, exploring along the way the region’s culture, plate tectonics, climate, personalities, food scene and, of course, winegrowing areas and wines. Because U.C. Press didn’t have a large budget like some for-profit publishers, they couldn’t afford a photographer, so I took my own pictures – with a throwaway camera. In the end, the rustic nature of the pictures echoed the book’s artisanal nature: I call it “the terroir of Steve” from a writing point of view.

I wrote one more book after that for U.C. Press, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, but by the time we started talking about a third book, I’d begun this blog, which, after more than six years, has amounted to perhaps two million words, the equivalent of many books. I always thought that said something about the nature of wine writing: that it’s migrated to the Web. Of course, wine writers still write wine books, and they still get reviewed, but somehow, a wine book doesn’t seem to have the glory it used to anymore. The times they are a-changing.

My readers know that I make a big deal of the art of writing. In Journey, something came over me that I can only liken to possession: I felt like it wasn’t me writing it, but some wonderful force that was expressing itself through me. It’s a terrific little book, if I do say so myself. When I proposed it to my editor, I told him, “I want to write a book people will read 100 years from now.” I was well aware of the brief lifespan of 99% of wine books: they come and go like gnats. Today, Eric Asimov is praising them in the New York Times: tomorrow, they’re in the remainders bin of the local bookstore. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted to capture a moment in time, in a particular place (the valley of the Russian River), in such a manner that later generations would read it and go, Ahh, that was an interesting time and place.

I haven’t been up to Occidental in years, so this trip will have some nostalgia. Today will be quite warm and sunny; we’re in the pleasant grasp of our last heat wave of the season before the rains come and transform the Russian River Valley into a dripping enchantment I once likened to Middle Earth in a storm. That is, if the rains come: we all hope they do. I don’t want to see Guerneville and adjacent towns flooded, as they so frequently have been, but we all are hoping for torrents to fall and fill our reservoirs.

Have a great weekend!


A day in coastal California’s micro-climates

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It was 101 degrees in Calistoga yesterday when I left, around 4:30 p.m. By the time I reached St. Helena it was down to 94. Then 87 in Napa city. As I crossed the Benicia bridge, across the Carquinez Straights on the 101 freeway heading back to Oakland, I could see, there in the distance, a huge, glowering wall of dark gray hovering on the horizon. At first it looked like the smoke from a forest fire; but it wasn’t, it was the coastal fog.

Bigger and more looming it grew as I drove south. In Richmond, I entered the maelstrom. The blue sky, the picturesque distance disappeared into the gloom; Mount Tam, to the west, vanished as completely as if it had been wiped off the face of the world. The temperature dropped until it was 65 degrees: nearly 40 degrees lower than when I’d left Calistoga, just 1-1/2 hours before. The fog hung low through Albany and north Berkeley, then evaporated as I got to Oakland, where it was again sunny, and the temperature had gone back up to the mid-70s. This was as beautiful, as classic an illustration of Cailfornia’s summer coastal climate as you could possibly wish for. It’s why northern Calistoga specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon (good Charbono, too), why Carneros is good for Pinot Noir, and why the near East Bay is too cold for any serious grapegrowing.

I’d been in Calistoga for a visit and tasting (of various Pinot Noirs) at Atalon, which is part of Jackson Family Wines’ portfolio. It’s on Tubbs Lane; nearby are Summers, Chateau Montelena, Tamber Bey and others. This is the warmest part of Napa Valley, its northwestern-most pocket, where the cooling influence from the Bay pretty much fizzles out. Bo Barrett once told me that there’s something he calls “the Calistoga Gap”—no, not part of the clothing store chain, but a low place in the Mayacamas through which, he said, cooler air from the Russian River Valley funnels in, moderating the temperatures. This may be so; to get to Calistoga from the Russian River Valley (as I’d done that day), you drive east up Mark West Springs Road as it roller-coasters over the mountains, twisting and turning its way towards Highway 128/29. But it’s not clear to me that the Russian River Valley air can actually find its way “over the hill”, to any meaningful extent. Maybe one of my smart readers can explain this. (I had Gus beside me, in the passenger seat, and for a while he seemed like he might throw up, because his little tummy doesn’t do well on twisting mountain roads. But he didn’t.)

The Tubbs Lane part of Calistoga is a distinctive place. To my eye, it’s a bowl of sorts: not like Napa Valley further south, in, say, Oakville or Rutherford, where you have the mountains (Mayacamas and Vacas) neatly lining the western and eastern sides, with the valley broad and expansive inbetween, like the sheet on a bed. Along Tubbs Lane there seem to be mountains everywhere except to the south; it is thus more of an amphitheater. Mount St. Helena looms immediately to the east: this picture, taken at Atalon, only hints at its majestic presence.

StHelena

 

On the other side of the mountain, of course, is Lake County.

That 101 temperature yesterday in Calistoga shows how we’re in the midst of a long, severe heat wave here in California. That’s on top of the drought. The state has had some forest fires, but mainly in the Sierra Foothills and around Yosemite; the coast has largely been spared—so far. Everybody’s hoping it will continue to be. The heat is expected today—as I write these words—to be even worse than yesterday, not good news for anyone, including the grapevines that are so close to being harvested in record-early time.

Although it’s only August 1, I haven’t heard that growers are particularly worried. In fact, the scoop is that it will be another fine harvest, coming after 2012 and 2013. Lest anyone think vintage doesn’t matter in California, the evidence proves otherwise. At the Pinot Noir tasting at Atalon, which we did blind, we tasted through multiple Anderson Valley and Russian River Valley wineries, in two flights: the 2011 and 2012 vintages. There was no comparison. The 2011 flight contained some good wines but overall was disappointing. The 2012s by contrast were fat, lush, opulent. There wasn’t a single loser among them.

Have a great weekend!


The “neighborhoods” of the Russian River Valley

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Last Saturday’s tasting and panel discussion on “The Neighborhoods of the Russian River Valley,” sponsored by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association as part of their winter “Pinot Classic” event, was interesting, as these terroir-oriented seminars always are. But, as I told the audience, for me at least it smacked of “déja vu all over again.”

 

YOGI

 

The theme was to see if we could isolate and identify the characteristics of Pinot Noirs from three different “neighborhoods” of the greater Russian River Valley: Green Valley, Laguna Ridge and the Middle Reach.

 

RRVMap

 

To help walk us through an understanding of these regions were four talented winemakers: Michael Browne (Kosta Browne), representing Green Valley; Rod Berglund (Joseph Swan), representing Laguna Ridge, and Mark McWilliams (Arista), representing the Middle Reach. Our panel moderator was Mike Sullivan (Benovia), whose long career in the Russian River Valley gives him broad, general oversight.

My role, in Rod Berglund’s words, was to be “the cleanup hitter and let us know if what, from an outside observer standpoint, what we say makes sense or if we are all just full of [it].” I thus spoke last.

I must now briefly digress to quote some passages from my 2005 book, “A Wine Journey along the Russian River.” This is from a section called “Carving Up the Valley”:

After the 2001 harvest, a group of [Russian River Valley winemakers] began gathering to taste the wines from different parts of the appellation. Their focus, obviously, was on Pinot Noir … The object was to see whether it made sense to carve up the valley into sub-AVAs … The vintners would get together every so often for a few hours to taste and see whether they could detect consistent differences in the wines … Exactly where these divisions are and what they should be called are years away from being determined … the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association itself has suggested three sub-AVAs: the Middle Reach, Laguna Ridges [sic] and the Santa Rosa Plain (counted as one), and Green Valley, which has had AVA status since 1983. You can think of this as a warm-cool-cold continuum.

I wrote those words in 2004. Now here we are, ten years later, and it’s as if I wrote them yesterday. Pretty much the same winemakers, talking about the same topic—it’s as if the last ten years hadn’t ever happened.

Why these new AVA processes take so long (and they always do) is a matter of complexity; no small reason is simply because people are busy, and it takes a great deal of effort to come to agreement (especially in so large and crowded a place as Russian River Valley). Still, I confess to finding it surprising that this particular process has dragged on for so long. There’s no question that the Russian River Valley needs to be broken up into smaller, more meaningful AVAs. At 96,000 acres (according to Wine Institute), it’s the 21st biggest AVA in California (of more than 100), bigger than Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain combined—and you can throw Santa Rita Hills in there for good measure and there’s still a skosh of acreage left over.

As I wrote in “Journey,” “[T]he Middle Reach does deserve its own AVA status.” I believe this on several bases: historical (the name “the Middle Reach” is very old, by California standards, and Pinot Noir there dates to the 1960s) and because the wine quality is so high and so consistent across all properties. Indeed, the Middle Reach probably has the greatest quality overall because, being the warmest part of the valley, it ripens the grapes well even in cooler years, whereas a place like Green Valley—the coldest neighborhood—may struggle in a chiller like 2011 and even in the more moderate 2012 vintage to get the grapes to full maturity. A well-made Middle Reach Pinot is spectacular on release, yet we know from the experience of older wineries (Rochioli, Williams Selyem) that the best bottles are capable of twenty years of development.

I think Laguna Ridge also makes sense. You have there wineries whose Pinot Noirs are lush, tannic and earthy, and need time to develop in the bottle. I think the current thinking now is to separate out Laguna Ridge (in the hilly south-central part of the valley) from the Santa Rosa Plain to the east, which makes sense; but that leaves unnamed a huge swathe of Russian River Valley, stretching roughly from Highway 12, east of Highway 116, northward almost to Windsor, and containing some of the Russian River Valley’s most famous wineries and vineyards. It surely deserves appellation status too, and why not Santa Rosa Plain? Although, as I noted in “Journey,” Rod Berglund at that time had suggested a Windsor Hills AVA for the more northerly part of this stretch.

I had written, too, that Bob Cabral had suggested a West River AVA (to pick up where the Middle Reach trails off), while Dan Goldfield had suggested dividing Green Valley into Upper and Lower (based on elevation); and I’m sure there are others with even more creative ideas. So we can begin to see why this process of new AVAs takes so long. This is complicated stuff!

I wish the Russian River Valley Winegrowers well in this latest push. As I wrote in 2004, things then seemed to have been put on hold, “but that has only slowed, not stopped, the momentum for sub-appellating the valley.” My hope is that, with last Saturday’s public event, the momentum has been regained.

(P.S. As I noted in “Journey,” and Rod Berglund again reminded us on Saturday, legally and technically there is no such thing as a “sub-AVA.” All AVAs are created equal, it seems, in the eyes of the government! But for conversational purposes, I have no problem referring to sub-AVAs.)

 

GusWine

Gus was there too


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