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Expensive & Allocated Crimson Liquid: Are Cult Pinot Noirs Worth It?

Produced in very small quantities, impossible to find unless you are on the mailing list, expensive, absurdly priced on the secondary market, and often sold on the secondary or auction market rather than consumed, there are certain domestic Pinot Noir collectibles that strive to set the standard against which other domestic Pinot Noirs are measured. These wines can also carry disparaging titles such as “monuments to elitism” and “toys for millionaires,” but are more often affectionately referred to as “cult-classic collectable” wines. The mailing lists for these wines have frequently been filled for years, and often there is a waiting list to get on the mailing list. Williams Selyem was probably the first Pinot Noir producer to achieve cult stardom, a cult winery before cult was cool, and is credited with originating the mailing list.

I decided to taste a sampling of domestic Pinot Noirs that are very highly rated by the wine press, so much so that they are difficult to source and can quickly thin your wallet. Are they worth the exalted prices? I concluded that the wines were all exceptional examples of California Pinot Noir that are certainly worth it if you can afford it. Remember, there is no such thing as exceptional cheap Pinot Noir. PINO stands for “price is no object.”

Of the myriad of Pinot Noir produced domestically, much of it is what I would call a beverage, while only a small percentage is "wine." The Pinot Noirs reviewed here are truly "wines," that represent a special commitment to quality and therefore understandably demand a high price.

A subject for another day is the escalation of wine premiumization, something the Wine Curmudgeon wrote about recently: “The wine premiumization stranglehold gets tighter,” stranglehold-gets-tighter/.

Except for the Soliste wines that were obtained directly from the winery through a mailing list, and the Sea Smoke and Patz & Hall Pinot Noirs that were sent to me for review, all wines were purchased from the retail marketplace and the prices reflect that sourcing.

2012 Mail Road Wines Mt. Carmel Vineyard Blocks 2, 3, 5 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., $90. A project of Ronald Piazza and Michael Palmer who own Mt. Carmel Vineyard. Winemaker is Matt Dees with Ruben Solorzano managing the vineyard that was originally developed by Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton. Mail Road Wines produces wines exclusively from Mt. Carmel Vineyard. 100% de-stemmed, aged 11 months in 42% new French oak barrels. · Dark reddish purple color in the glass. This is a boldly extracted and hedonistic wine, almost akin to a fortified wine, featuring aromas of blackberry, cassis, raisin, dark chocolate and cocoa nibs, and richly extracted flavors of boysenberry, black raspberry and blackberry fruits. The tannins keep the sheer power in check and the silky texture invites indulgence. A peek of alcoholic warmth shows up on the finish. The wine is not my favorite stylistically, but has merit. Score: 92

2014 Occidental “Bodega Headlands Cuvée Elizabeth” Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $160. Steve Kistler, co-founder and winemaker of Kistler Vineyards for 37 years, established a new Pinot Noir label called “Occidental” owned and operated by the Kistler family. The project is dedicated to producing Pinot Noir from the Freestone-Occidental area. A modern winery has been built on a ridge top adjacent Bodega Headlands Vineyard capable of producing 7,500 cases of Pinot Noir annually. This wine is one of four released in the spring 2016. · Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. Engaging nose that picks up interest over time in the glass, offering scents of black cherry, sous bois, baking spices and sweet oak. Modest in weight, with a core of dark red cherry and raspberry fruit flavors, with a slight earthy underpinning, and a proper infusion of oak highlights. The tannins are nicely integrated, and the cleansing finish has spectacular length with endless waves of cherry goodness. Still outstanding the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Score: 94

2014 Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., 1,056 cases, $75. Sourced from three small blocks within the larger Hyde Vineyard combining new and older plantings of the Hyde-Calera selection and include coveted grapes from the “old field.” Patz & Hall has sourced grapes from Hyde Vineyard since 1995 and several sections of the vineyard are planted exclusively for Patz & Hall. 10% whole clusters, wild and cultured yeast fermentation, aged in French oak barrels, 60% new, and bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. Intoxicating perfume of black cherry, pomegranate, black grape juice and sweet oak. Full-bodied, with earthy flavors of black raspberry, blackberry and black cherry framed by slightly grainy tannins and complimentary oak. A very honorable wine with a succulent mid palate, a silky mouthfeel and a palate-staining finish. Even better when re-tasted later in the day from a previously opened bottle. A dreamy ode to Larry Hyde’s legacy. Score: 96

2014 Paul Hobbs Ulises Valdez Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., $72. Calera and Beba clones planted in 2002 in Goldridge soil. Yield 2.7 tons per acre. Harvest Brix 25.2º. 7% whole cluster inclusion. 5-day cold soak, 16 day total maceration. Indigenous yeast fermentation. Aged 15 months in French oak barrels, 65% new, spontaneous malolactic fermentation in barrels. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Dark reddish purple color in the glass. Aromas of blackberry jam and spice draw the nose into the glass. A full-bodied charge of blackberry and black currant flavors meet the palate in a big and bold style that balances power with harmonious tannins and acidity. Velvety in the mouth, with a luscious finish that shows a slight waft of alcohol. Still exceptional the following day when tasted from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Score: 94

2014 Peter Michael “Le Caprice” Fort Ross-Seaview Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., $116. · Moderately dark reddish purple color in the glass. This wine left me grasping for superlatives. Lovely aromas of black cherry, dark berry and spice. A melange of purple and black fruits elevate the mid palate and finish in this superbly balanced wine offering added notes of clove spice, anise, vanilla, and sweet oak. At once both succulent and refined, with a peacock finish that goes on forever. Still superb the following day from a previously opened and re-corked wine indicating a long life ahead. Extraordinary in every respect. Score: 98

2014 RAEN Freestone Occidental Bodega Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.1% alc., 150 cases, $80 (sold in 6-packs, sold out). The winegrowers are Carlo and Dante Mondavi, fourth generation vintners born and raised in Napa Valley. RAEN stands for Research in Agriculture and Enology. 80% whole cluster inclusion, 16- day maceration, wild yeast fermentation, aged 10 months in neutral French oak barrels. Bottled without fining or filtration. · Moderately dark reddish purple color in the glass. Fruit never shows up on this very savory nose featuring aromas of underbrush, earthy flora and pine. Intensely fruity in a mid weight plus style plush with purple berry and plum flavors infused with a savory and slightly herbaceous thread in the background. The sandpaper tannins add textural interest and the finish has glorious intensity and length. The high percentage of whole cluster inclusion dominates the profile of the wine but without undue tannin. Unchanged the following day when tasted from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Score: 92

2014 RAEN Home Field Fort Ross-Seaview Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.0% alc., 200 cases, $80 (sold in 6-packs, sold out). Fermented with 65% whole cluster, 16-day extended maceration, indigenous yeast fermentation, and aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 0% new. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderately dark reddish purple color in the glass. Aromas of dark red cherry and berry along with underbrush and sous bois evolve slowly in the glass. Very similar in all respects to the Freestone Occidental bottling, but with more fruit expression and less savory overlay. Styled as a middleweight plus offering, featuring flavors of dark red and purple fruits, this wine’s fruit really clings to the palate. The tannins are polished, and the deep red cherry finish is spectacular. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the nose was more expressive and the palate was filled with joyful waves of fruit with sous bois integration. (Note: I had a second bottle of this wine at a restaurant several months later and the wine was not nearly as good so you have been warned) Score: 94

2014 Sea Smoke “Ten” Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.56% alc., pH 3.46, TA 0.62, $82. Released October 2015. The name is derived from ten low vigor French clones planted in the Sea Smoke Estate Vineyard. While “Ten” incorporates all ten clones, it is also a barrel selection of the richest and most extracted wines of the vintage. It is the deepest and most robust Sea Smoke Pinot Noir. The amount of new oak has gradually been reduced as has the amount of toasting as part of the ongoing winemaking evolution. 100% de-stemmed, 1 to 4-day cold soak, inoculated with cultured yeasts, total maceration time of 16 to 28 days. Both free-run and press wines were racked to oak barrels. Aged 16 months in French oak barrels, 70% new. · Moderately dark reddish purple color in the glass. Upon opening, oak-infused aromas and flavors combine with a fruit-charged core of dark cherry, blackberry, pomegranate and spice. The wine showed much less oak overlay when tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle when the fruit became front and center. Boldly styled, with delicious fruit expression, supportive tannins, and integrated acidity. A masculine interpretation of Pinot Noir, yet not highly muscled, offering a soft, approachable tone, and a refreshingly juicy finish. Decant this beauty when you pull the cork. Score: 94

2014 Sequitur Ribbon Ridge Oregon Pinot Noir

$100. A new project from winemaker Mike Etzel (Beaux Frères) and his spouse Carey Critchlow. A blend of 15 clones (including Coury “clone,” and California heritage clones including Calera, Mt. Eden and Martin Ray) grown biodynamically on never-farmed soil in Ribbon Ridge. The 12-acre vineyard is planted adjacent Beaux Frères’ Upper Terrace Vineyard. Cool fermentations are carried out using indigenous yeast in several different vessels. There was moderate use of lightly toasted new oak barrels from a variety of tonnelieries. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. An impressive debut wine, offering alluring aromas of cherry, rose petal, spice and pine needle, and mid weight flavors of baked cherry pie, ripe strawberry and spice. Impeccably balanced, with a sleek mouthfeel, and a finish replete with black cherry goodness. At once elegant and highly flavorful, this beauty is pure and refined. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the wine still had me singing its praises. Score: 94

2013 Soliste Extravagant Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.2% alc., 23 cases, $100. Very best grapes selected through multiple passes at harvest. 50% whole cluster fermentation. Aged 16 months in a French oak barrel from Tonnellerie Rousseau. MonoClone®: single vineyard, single clone, single barrel source. · Moderately light reddish purple color in the glass. Intoxicating aromas of cherry, wild strawberry and exotic spices. Suave and sexy, with mid weighted flavors of black cherry and whole cluster driven hints of pine sap, root beer, spice and edible rose. Eloquent in style with impeccable balance, the wine offered gossamer tannins, and a spice-fueled finish that was revelatory. I relished the whole cluster integration in this wine as well as its acidity that can enable many food matches. When tasted the following day, I was still “ga-ga” over this wine. This wine shows what Pinot Noir can offer when a dedicated vintner commits to meticulous viticulture and vinification techniques based on a fanatical devotion to Pinot Noir. Score: 97

2013 Soliste L’Ermite Rouge Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.7% alc., 23 cases, $100. 50% whole cluster fermentation. Aged 22 months in a French oak barrel from Tonnellerie Rousseau. · Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. Deeply perfumed with both fruity and savory aromas of cherry, spice, wine cave and stalky stem. A little more riper fruited than most Soliste Pinot Noir bottlings, yet highly engaging with mid weight racy flavors of cherry, marionberry and spice. Fine-grain tannins, impeccable balance, and a long finish suggest a Chambertain character. Score: 93

2012 Wayfarer Mother Rock Wayfarer Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., $115. Named for Wayfarer Vineyard’s sandstone substrate, this wine is a blend of clones 37 and Dijon 777. · Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. Soaring aromas of blackberry jam, cassis and ripest strawberry. A boisterous wine on the palate, with exhilarating flavors of blackberry and black raspberry that attack with purpose, fill the mid palate with expansive resolve, and dance mightily on a finish that goes on and on. Even better the next day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle when spice nuances appeared to embellish the fruit. Easy to run out of superlatives for this one. Score: 97

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