Recent California Pinot Noir Releases
I often get asked, “Who are your favorite California Pinot Noir producers?” I often mention Alysian and I have
often received a blank stare in return. Few know the label and know that Gary Farrell is the proprietor and
winemaker. Farrell is one of the longest tenured Pinot Noir winemakers in the Russian River Valley. He
became the winemaker at Davis Bynum in 1978 but had assisted Davis Bynum with the Pinot Noirs produced
at that winery for a few years prior. Farrell crafted the inaugural Pinot Noir for Rochioli Vineyard & Winery,
trading winemaking for grapes for his own inaugural release in 1982 of 50 cases of Rochioli Vineyard Russian
River Valley Pinot Noir. Farrell gradually built the reputation of his eponymous brand and in 1998 joined with
business partner William Hambrecht to build his own winery on Westside Road. Gary Farrell Vineyards &
Winery was sold in 2004, passed through several hands and is now owned by the Vincraft Group. The rigors
of producing wine in large quantity under corporate ownership took its toll on Farrell and he felt he was losing
the close connection to all phases of winemaking. He left Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery permanently in
2006 to produce small lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from select Russian River Valley vineyards. Gary
Farrell Vineyards & Winery still produces excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay under the direction of Susan
Reed who trained under Gary Farrell, but the winery’s offerings carry his name only.
Farrell partnered again
with William Hambrecht to found Alysian (ah-liss-ee-uhn), a Greek word referring to an endeavor arising from
intuitive creativity and artistic resolution. Alysian, which specializes in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and
Chardonnay was quietly launched with the 2007 vintage due to non compete agreements but these expired in
2011 and Farrell has become more of a spokesperson for his label. I met with him for the first time in 2011 to
taste his 2008 Pinot Noirs. He is soft spoken, calm and polite with an attractive smile and a golf tan. Farrell
has always been shy and never enjoyed a highly visible marketing campaign to attract attention to his wines
and he never will. He prefers to let the wines speak for themselves. If you are interested in wines of elegance
and balance, wines that exemplify intense flavors at modest extraction levels and lower alcohols, it is time for
you to become acquainted with Alysian wines. Farrell’s goal is well summarized in a quote from a recent
Alysian newsletter: “Thankfully, many consumers and winemakers are beginning to favor a more elegant and
refined style of wine. It is not that we seek less flavor, texture or depth; it’s simply that we understand
abundance and generosity in wine is achievable without excessive extract and alcohol.” Visit the website at
www.alysianwines.com to join the mailing list and obtain current releases.
The 2009 vintage was stellar in California with generous flavors at modest alcohol levels. The growing season
was relatively cool and the ripening process was steady delivering very good levels of flavors and acidity at
lower sugar levels. The excellent acidities are reflected in the pH and TA readings for the three wines reviewed
below. Yields were modest but quality was very high. Farrell feels that 2009 was the most enjoyable grape
harvest of his long career. The Alysian appellation blend offering, the Russian River Selection, is unique in that
Farrel assembles this wine before he creates the vineyard designate wines and is not an afterthought. A
number of wineries create appellation blends with poorer quality barrels deemed unacceptable for the winery’s
finest wines. In contrast, Farrell says, “Our appellation blends are nearly always among our most exciting and
These are wines of pedigree and impeccable balance that scream for food. The ultimate table wines.
2009 Alysian Russian River Selection Pinot Noir
13.8% alc., pH
3.41, TA 0.73, 2,231 cases, $40. Fruit from Rochioli (Pommard). Allen
(777), Starr Ridge (115 and 777), Floodgate (Martini and Dijon clones),
and Hallberg (Cruz clone and 828). 100% de-stemmed, aged 10 months
in 40% new (Francois Frères and Rousseau) and 60% one and two year
old French oak barrels.
Medium reddish-purple color in the glass. Bright
aromas of Bing cherries, cola and baking spice rise out of the glass,
persisting over time. Moderately concentrated flavors of cherries wrapped in
supple tannins and framed by bright acidity. Fat in the mouth with a richness
only Russian River Valley Pinot Noir can deliver. I love this wine for its pure
exuberance. Like cherry pie day at cooking school: cherries, baking spice and very interesting results.
2009 Alysian Floodgate Vineyard Rock Hill Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
13.9% alc., pH 3.40, TA 0.705, 159 cases, $55. Floodgate
is located in the heart of the Middle Reach. Rock Hill (Block 16) was
planted in 2000 on one of the rockiest knolls on the property resulting in
low vigor). Dijon 777. 100% de-stemmed. Wild and cultured yeast
fermentation following a 5-day cold soak. Aged 13 months in 45% new
(Francois Frères and Rousseau) and 55% one and two year old French oak
Medium reddish-purple color in the glass. Aromas of underbrush,
dark red cherries and berries and dark red rose petals. Think wild cherries
sprinkled with herbs and flowers. Discreetly concentrated core of dark cherry
and cranberry flavors strike an impression on the mid palate and linger with a pleasing citrus-flavored berry
finish. Great cut and vibrancy. Not as luscious as the Russian River Selection, but more nuanced, offering a
different experience with each sip.
2009 Alysian Rochioli Vineyard Edgewater Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
14.3% alc., pH 3.37, TA 0.71, 240 cases, $65. Only Williams
Selyem and Alysian receive allocations from this vineyard. Clones 115,
777 and Pommard. 100% de-stemmed. Wild and cultured fermentation
lasting 11 days with manual punch downs daily. Aged 13 months in 45%
new (Francois Frères and Rousseau) and 55% one and two year old
French oak barrels.
Medium reddish-purple color in the glass. Riper,
darker fruited aromatic profile consisting of a complex melange of deep red and
purple stone fruits with a hint of potpourri. Mouth filling presence with well-proportioned
tannins and acidity keep the wine in line. Reasonably assertive but
light on its feet. Impressive persistence on the finish highlighted by citrus-flavored cranberries. Unlimited
Proprietor John Sweazey developed a passion for wine as a Stanford University undergraduate, pursued a
successful career in real estate finance, and sold his business in 2003 to found Anaba, a winery in western
Carneros. The name, Anaba, refers to the anabatic wind that blows in Sonoma. The Pinot Noir and
Chardonnay wines are sourced from cool vineyards in Carneros and other properties in Sonoma County (a
Soberanes Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir is new for the 2010 vintage).
The winemaker is University of California at Davis graduate Jennifer Marion. All fruit is de-stemmed, fermented
in one ton open top vessels and aged 11 months. The Pinot Noirs are all very similar in aroma and taste. They
are solid and well-crafted fruit-driven examples of Pinot Noir. If you like Kosta Browne Pinot Noir, you will
probably enjoy Anaba Pinot Noir which are similar stylistically.
A tasting room is located at 60 Bonneau Road at the intersection of Highways 121 and 116 (photo below). Visit
www.anabawines.com. Anaba Chardonnays are reviewed later in this issue.
Frank Family Vineyards
This Napa Valley winery is located at the historic Larkmead Winery site in Calistoga, and is well known for its
Cabernets, Chardonnays and sparkling wines. A Pinot Noir program was launched with the 2007 vintage,
using grapes from the 138-acre Lewis Vineyard in Napa Carneros, and other vineyards in the Carneros region.
The winemaker is Todd Graff. The tasting room, housed in a 1930s Craftsman home in Calistoga, is very
popular, having won the San Francisco Chronicle reader’s choice for Best Tasting Room in Napa in 2010 and
2011. The 2009 vintage Pinot Noir was previously reviewed favorably and these two 2010 releases are
commendable followup releases. Visit www.frankfamilyvineyards.com.
Graton Ridge Cellars
The Paul Family were originally Russian River Valley apple growers, but like many Gravenstein apple
operations in this region, the apple bins gave way to grape bins and the rustic farm stand that offered apples
and apple juice was transformed into a modern tasting room facility open daily at 3561 Gravenstein Hwy (118)
N, in Sebastopol. The Paul Family Vineyard is planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The
winemaker is Nick Legg. Both a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and a Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Noir
are offered. Visit www.gratonridge.com for wines and check out the great collections of recipes.
george wine company
George Levkoff has a thing about lower case but his Pinot Noirs are nothing but upper class. Trained and
inspired by Burt Williams of Williams Selyem, he launched his eponymous label in 2003 with 150 cases of
Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir. His Pinot Noirs quickly caught the attention of top sommeliers at restaurants in Las
Vegas and New York, and his wines have quickly achieved cult status. I have been a fan from the beginning,
entranced by the elegance and sensuality that his wines deliver. George is a one-man operation, performing
every step of wine production from sorting grapes to hand bottling and numbering each bottle, personally
marketing the wines, and even delivering. The wines are highly allocated to a mailing list with very limited fine
restaurant distribution (a number of the restaurants are noted on the website). The 2010 wines are sold out.
Visit www.georgewine.com and get on the mailing list.
Loring Wine Company
Proprietor and winemaker Brian Loring has come a long way. Inspired by the Pinot Noirs of Calera Wine
Company, he developed his winemaking skills working under winemaker Norm Beko of Cottonwood Canyon
Winery in Santa Maria Valley in the late 1990s. A software engineer by trade, Brian was one of the first
boutique Pinot Noir producers to enter the wine production game cold, a path that many have subsequently
followed in California. Unimpressed by his good fortune and success, he has shared his enthusiasm and
knowledge freely, and inspired a number of others to venture into the Pinot race including Jamie Kutch of Kutch
Wines, Andrew Vingiello of A.P. Vin, and the partnership group at Pali Wine Company.
Loring’s success has been predicated in part on his ability to acquire first-rate Pinot Noir grapes from
prestigious vineyards. His philosophy is, “ The fruit is EVERYTHING.” His wines have caught the attention of
the consumer and wine press with their hard-to-ignore deep colors, ripe, showy, sappy fruit, and generous oak
character. Over the years, Loring has moderated his style, choosing to pick at somewhat lower sugar levels to
reduce the alcohol levels, and although the wines remain intensely fruit-driven, they have better acidity, less
oak notes, are less boozy and better balanced. My reviews of the 2010 vintage wines below reflect this. He
continues to have a solid following and sparkling press reviews and remains firmly committed to his vision for
Pinot Noir. He has gradually increased production, pursuing an ultimate goal of 3,000 cases annually. He
crafts his wines in a leased facility in the Lompoc “Wine Ghetto,” while still employed in a day job as an
independent software contractor. Chardonnay (see review later in this issue) is also offered and occasionally
other varietals appear.
The 2010 Pinot Noirs reviewed here are all full-bodied, fruit-driven and very similar in flavor profile. The wines
exhibit noticeable but not intrusive oak support, moderately high alcohols, relatively mild tannins, soft textures,
and reasonable finishing lengths. It is a style of wine that has been criticized by some winemakers in California
who profess that balance can only come through lowered extraction, ripeness and alcohol levels, yet the Loring
Pinot Noirs are nicely balanced and in the case of the Durell bottling, impeccably balanced.
Additional 2010 Loring Wine Company Pinot Noirs not reviewed here include: Russell Family Vineyard Paso
Robles, Aubaine Vineyard (San Luis Obispo County), Cargasacchi Vineyard (Sta. Rita Hills), Rancho La Vina
Vineyard (Sta. Rita Hills), Clos Pepe Vineyard (Sta. Rita Hills), and three appellation blends from the Central
Coast, Russian River Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands.
The winery’s tasting room is open Friday through Sunday from 12:00 to 5:00 and Monday through Thursday by
appointment (805-742-0478). Brian’s sister, Kimberly, is involved in the winery as well. Visit the website at
www.loringwinecompany.com. The wines are sold through a mailing list with limited retail distribution. Prices
This is a very interesting wine project headed by David Mahaffey who planted Heron Lake Vineyard in 1980 in
the Wild Horse Valley east of Napa Valley. A boutique grower and producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,
Olivia Brion is a partnership between Mahaffey, vineyardist John Newmeyer who lives on the isolated property,
and physician and epidemiologist Mark Oberle, M.D.. The Wild Horse Valley appellation (approved in 1988) is
the coolest region in the Napa area and the Heron Lake Winery is the only winery in the appellation. The
vineyard is planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on very rocky soils rich in minerals. The vines struggle to
survive and yields are low which translates to intensity of flavor. The vineyard will be fully organic in the spring
Mahaffey has been making wines in the Napa Valley for 30 years and has been the winemaker for Heron Lake
Vineyard since its first vintage in 1985. Olivia Brion is the epitome of an estate winery where the vineyard and
winery are located on the same site, and the wine is produced exclusively from estate fruit and bottled on site.
Until recently, nearly all the Chardonnay was sold to Newton for their premium bottlings, but the fruit is now all
retained for the Olivia Brion Chardonnay.
Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are held for 17-18 months before release as Mahaffey believes the wines
need the extra time for full development.
The story of Olivia Brion, the inspiration for the winery’s label, is well detailed on the website at
www.heronlakewinery.com. The wines are sold primarily direct to consumers through an order form on the
website. Current production is 800-900 cases of estate Pinot Noir and 1,000 cases of estate Chardonnay. The
Chardonnay is reviewed elsewhere in this issue.
I visited Heron Lake Vineyard & Winery recently and the photos of Heron Lake and the Heron Lake Vineyard
follow. Only a thirty minute drive from Napa, but a whole different world redolent of beauty and serenity.
John Ogden and winemaker Tim Olson started this boutique winery in Sonoma County in 2002, offering about
1,000 cases a year of Pinot Noir and Rhone varietals. Tim Olson began crafting wine in his home garage well
over 20 years ago. Influenced by Charlie Wagner (Caymus) for whom he worked, and Burt Williams (Williams
Selyem) whom he admired, he crafted some excellent wines at Tarius Wines in Santa Rosa before launching
the Olsen Ogden label. Olson Ogden wines have garnered numerous awards in wine competitions and
received considerable raves from the wine press. Olson Ogden wines are sold through a mailing list with
limited retail distribution (www.olsonogdenwines.com). Tasting is available at the co-op tasting room, Vinteca,
in Santa Rosa. Manchester Ridge Vineyard is pictured below.
Kimberly Pfendler keeps her deceased spouse’s memory alive through this label that offers Pinot Noir and
Chardonnay from four estate vineyards in the Petaluma Gap region of the Sonoma Coast. Noted winemaker
and viticulturist, Greg Bjornstad, was the initial winemaker and vineyard manager, replaced for by John Raytek
in 2010, with Greg returning in late 2011. The 2010 Pinot Noir reviewed here was finished by Greg. Visit the
website at www.pfendlervineyards to purchase the wine.
I have written extensively about winemaker Scott Rich and his consistently stellar Pinot Noir lineup. He started
his label in 1993, sourcing fruit from unique terroirs that are challenging and expressive. I caught up with him
at the recent World of Pinot Noir to talk about his latest releases. He has been crafting Pinot Noir from Red
Dog Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain and Adastra Vineyard in Carneros for several vintages now and he has a
good handle on the fruit from these two sources. Both wines are very good, but the Adastra Vineyard Pinot
Noir is the best he has made from this vineyard. All Talisman wines are held for at least a year in bottle before
release. Talisman wines are available through a mailing list and the website store at www.talismanwine.com.
The winery is not open to the public and does not have a tasting room but four times a year the doors are open
for open houses. Occasionally a private tour and tasting is possible (707-996-9050). The wines are made in a
warehouse complex known as Eighth Street Wineries in Sonoma (visit www.eighthstreetwineries.com).
Owner and winemaker Kristie Tacey specializes in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Her initial career path was
biotechnology and in 2000 worked on the Human Genome Project. While living in the San Francisco Bay area,
she become intrigued by wine and winemaking. After working as an assistant winemaker at the former East
Bay winery, Lost Canyon, and later as part of the winemaking team at JC Cellars, she launched her own label
in 2009. She now has a Certificate in Winemaking from University of California at Davis. Her husband, Jason
Wilinski, is her Brand Manager, support and mind behind. The Tessier wines are available by e-mailing Kristie
at email@example.com and can be found at several San Francisco Bay retailers and restaurants. Tasting
is by appointment. Visit www.tessierwinery.com. I was particularly impressed by the appealing textures of all
three of the 2010 Pinot Noirs.
The name, Tessier, is the original French version of Kristie's last name, Tacey. The Tessier label depicts a photograph through a
microscope of yeasts budding (a clever depiction since yeasts are the work horses in winemaking). The winery’s tag line is catchy: “Science as Art.”
Three Sticks Wines
Founded by Bill Price in 2002, offering Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from the 130 acres of
Durell Vineyard that he owns (his former spouse, Ellie Phipps Price, owns 60 acres of Durell Vineyard and
makes wine under the Dunstan label). Three Sticks is a teenage nickname given to him by surfing friends who
teased him about being named William S. Price III. The winemaker is Don Van Staaveren assisted by Tracey
Bledsoe. Three Sticks Wines is one of the few California wineries to succeed with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and
Cabernet Sauvignon. Due to the limited production, the wines are sold through an allocation list at
www.threestickswines.com. Most of the fruit from Durell Vineyard is sold to numerous prestigious wineries.
Toretti’s Family Vineyard
Robert Torres, a restaurateur and rancher, planted 5 acres of Pinot Noir in 2000 on his family’s 10-acre estate
in the Santa Maria Valley and began producing wine under the Casa Torres Vineyard label in 2006. He
subsequently changed the label to Toretti’s Family Vineyard. The name is a combination of Robert’s spouse
Marlene’s maiden name, Maretti, with the surname Torres. The Maretti family is one of many Swiss families
that left Europe to settle on the Central Coast in the early 1900s. The initial winemaker was Lane Tanner, later
replaced by Paul Wilkins (Alta Maria, Native9), who has worked magic with the fruit from this vineyard. The
wines are available by mail, fax or phone through the website at www.toretti.com. I first encountered the wines
at the recent Pasadena PinotFest and came away very impressed. Total production is 950 cases annually of
Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay. A tasting room is planned. 805-714-0622.
This winery needs no introduction. Director of Winemaking, Bob Cabral, and his winemaking staff have
Williams Selyem headed up and up fifteen years after the winery’s acquisition from Burt Williams and Ed
Selyem. The wines continue to pile up the awards and scores and Cabral received a “Winemaker of the Year”
award from Wine Enthusiast magazine recently. The estate vineyard wines are superb and the non-estate
vineyard sources such as Rochioli, Hirsch, Peay, and Ferrington would be the envy of any winery. This is a
large operation, with multiple individual bottlings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel each vintage. A new
winery is a testament to the label’s success, seemingly way too modern and “Napaesque” along side this
venerable strip of legendary Westside Road wineries, but visual exciting nevertheless. The winery is not open
to the public, but tasting is available for mailing list members. Visit the website at www.williamsselyem.com. A
mobile app has been launched that features a cellaring guide with Drink or Hold recommendations, aging
windows, original winery tasting notes, and a community notes section to add your own comments. Point your
smart phone to www.williamsselyem.mobi.