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Pinot Noir Shootout Favorites

Through my participation in preliminary tastings and the final tasting, I was able to sample almost 100 Pinot Noirs. One trend in style that seemed to characterize the tastings was that a number of the wines lacked the elegance, finesse, texture, and sensuality of Pinot Noir. Tasted blind, these generously fruited rather than classy or complex wines possessing high alcohol and heavy oak could easily be mistaken for Syrah. They had enormous richness and concentration, but lacked the proper balance of acidity, alcohol, texture, and tannins. A lack of acidity was noteworthy in a number of the wines. Acidity is crucial for refreshment, food, and aging. I like to call these wines “P-no-no-R”. There were, however, several excellent Pinot Noirs that I can recommend. Remember, these wines were not the judging panel consensus favorites, only my personal preferences. In talking with other judges, however, there was often consensus of opinion that supported the pedigree of these Pinot Noirs.

An interesting list of flavor and aroma components in Pinot Noir was compiled by Barbara Drady of Affairs of the Vine and handed out to the judges. I would like to share this list with you as it highlights the most commonly encountered descriptors in Pinot Noir. It is by no means a complete list. Cherry, raspberry, raspberry jam, strawberry, strawberry jam, rose petals, pine pitch, orange peel, oak, violets, peppermint, tangerine, coffee, chocolate, cinnamon, earth, cedar, grapefruit, barnyard, black cherry, quinine, Coca-Cola (I would add Dr Pepper), smoke, pomegranate, rhubarb, cranberry, tea, roasted tomato, blackberry, blackberry jam, wet leaves, mushroom, vanilla, plum, licorice, rose, mint, spearmint, currant, and dried cherry.

2005 Bogle Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

17,000 cases, $13. The Bogle family has been farming in California since the mid 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1968 that father and son, Warren and Cris, planted wine grapes in Clarksburg, along the Sacramento River. Today they farm over 1,200 acres in the Sacramento Delta. They are better known for several other varietals than Pinot Noir, but beginning with the 2003 vintage, they have really hit the mark with Pinot Noir. This Pinot was aged 12 months in French and American oak. There is widespread retail distribution. · This was one of my highest scoring Pinot Noirs. The aromas of raspberries, cherries, roses, and a hint of oak are voluptuous. Mixed berry and black cherry fruit are racy and sexy. The soft texture is Elvis on velvet. The tannins are soft and coating and the finish is clean and bright. A complete wine that sings with food. It is almost impossible to find Pinot Noir of this quality at this price point. Stock up.

2005 Casa Barranca Wines Laetitia Vineyards Arroyo Grande Pinot Noir

125 cases, $25. A relative new producer located in Ojai which I have featured in past issues of the PinotFile. Casa Barranca wines are available on the website at www.casabarranca.com. The winery is not open for tasting. · This Pinot is one spicy dude. Bing cherries, nutmeg and cinnamon are featured throughout. The finish offers lively acidity and the whole package is very drinkable. Crafted with 30% new oak, the tannins are very soft. Understated, but really true to the varietal and a suitable dinner companion.

2005 King Estate Oregon Pinot Noir

22,000 cases, $26. Located southwest of Eugene, this beautiful thousand-acre estate has 250 acres of organic vineyards, a grapevine grafting and propagation facility, nursery, orchards, and a lush organic garden. The winery is styled as a grand European chateau. The 2004 Domaine Pinot Noir is sourced from the estate vineyards and includes four Dijon clones (113, 115, 375, 538). Aging is done in 67% new oak for 16 months. The wine is available on the webite. · This is not a Pinot for wimps. A very rich, monstrous nose of red and black fruits highlighted by vanilla oak leads to a well-endowed Pinot of great allure. The finish lasts for what seems like an eternity. A great sipping Pinot. At 12.9% alcohol, you can indulge heartedly.

2005 Lost Canyon Winery Saralee’s Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

340 cases, $40. This winery is one of my perennial favorites and I seem to often pick their wines out at blind tastings. The winery has a new tasting room adjacent to the winery on the Oakland bay front. The wine will be released in the spring. I picked this one out as a favorite in both the preliminaries and final judgings. The website is www.lostcanyonwinery.com. · The beautiful aromatics feature red and black fruits enhanced by spices and a little exotic wood. Plenty of toasty cherries are offered in a nicely structured wine with a silky texture. A lingering finish makes this a really classy wine.

2005 Annapolis Winery Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

250 cases, $42. This family-owned winery is located 3 miles from the Pacific Ocean at 1,000 ft. It is open daily from 12 to 5 for tasting and picnicking. · A lovely, bright fruity nose is complimented by flavors of strawberries, baking spices, and vanilla. The flavors are well integrated and although this elegant Pinot Noir lacks a persistent finish, it is nicely balanced. The website is www.annapoliswinery.com.

2005 Belle Glos Los Alturas Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Monterey County Pinot Noir

1234 cases, $50. This label is under the Caymus umbrella and the wines have gotten better every year since the first releases in 2001. Chuck Wagner’s son, Joseph, handles the viticulture and winemaking for this label. The wines are distributed to fine wine retailers. No website. · A Pinot with very expressive aromatics featuring cherries, vanilla, and sweet oak. Nice depth and richness of flavor with fine tannins and a clean finish. The best Pinot I have had from this producer. Very sexy label and bottle with red wax draped around the neck (and a nice wax tab for easily removing the wax at the top to access the cork).

2004 La Rochelle Winery San Vicente Vineyard Monterey County Pinot Noir

355 cases, $20. La Rochelle Winery focuses on small lots of Pinot Noir. Formerly Mirassou, the winemaker Tom Stutz crafts several vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs of high quality. A tasting room is open each afternoon in the Livermore Valley. The wine is available on the website. · You won’t find a better $20 Pinot anywhere. The nose is nicely spiced with nutmeg and cardamom. Light on the palate, there are attractive spice and mocha highlights to the red fruit core. The tangy finish completes this nicely balanced and very drinkable Pinot Noir.

2004 Villa Mt Eden Grand Reserve Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

2400 cases, $22. A steal from a Napa producer known more Chardonnay and Cabernet. The winemaker is Mike McGrath. The wines are distributed to fine wine stores. · This Pinot is heavenly scented with red stone fruits, pomegranate, mocha and toast. The flavors are rich and complex highlighted by exotic spices and earthy red fruits. There is a solid backbone of acidity and tannins.

2004 Castle Vineyards & Winery Sangiacomo Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir

107 cases, $26. Castle is located in the historic Buena Vista region of Carneros. The winery was founded in the 1990s by winemaker and vineyard manager Vic McWilliams who focuses on small lots of hand-crafted wines. Total production is 3,500 cases. A tasting room is located on the Sonoma town plaza. The website is www.castlevineyards.com (this wine is not listed on the site for sale so phone 707-996-1582). · I really liked this Pinot. It starts off with a spirited nose of black cherries and spice (notably cinnamon). The flavors repeat the aromas. Oak is nicely integrated here. Perfect weight and balance. I hated to spit this one out. My highest scoring wine of the preliminary tastings.

2004 TR Elliott Three Plumes Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

320 cases, $32. Theodore R Elliott is the man behind Elliott Family Cellars, a very small producer of Pinot Noir in Santa Rosa. He has many years experience as a grape grower and winemaker including a stint with Sonoma Cutrer. His wines are perfect examples of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. This wine and his other cuvee (Queste) won Gold Medals at the 2006 Sonoma County Harvest Fair. The two Pinot Noirs he produces are cuvees from two vineyards - Vine Hill and Hallberg (formerly Goldridge). The wine is composed of three clones - 115, Pommard 5, and 777. Aging is in 36% new oak. The wines are available online on the website at www.elliottfamilycellars.com. · A nicely perfumed Pinot with cherries, rhubarb, and Asian spice. Elegant in style with plenty of appealing Pinot fruits and herbs enhanced with deft wood and spice. A welcome food partner as well.

2004 D’Argenzio Bacigalupi Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

460 cases, $36. This winery was started in 1997 by twin brothers, Ricci and Ray D’Argenzio. Building on their family heritage of winemaking, they have crafted small lots of Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley since their first release in 2000. · This Pinot has a bright nose of red fruits. Richly oaked red fruits carry through to a lingering finish with moderate fine tannins. A full-flavored style with generous oak features.

2004 Kenneth Volk Vineyards Sierra Madre Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

340 cases, $36. Kenneth Volk was the long-time owner and winemaker at Wild Horse Cellars which is now under the Beam Estates umbrella. He has reinvented himself with this new label. Kenneth is a legend in Santa Barbara County, having made his first Pinot Noir under the Wild Horse label in 1983. Visit his nicely composed website at www.volkwines.com for more information. His wines may be purchased on the website. · The nose offers plenty of crushed cherries, but also some interesting barnyard notes. Flavors of dried cherries and pomegranates lead to a crisp and lengthy finish. The tannins are supple and the whole package is nicely balanced. This Pinot really exploded with a little rare beef.

2004 Davis Family Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

900 cases, $38. I have participated in the Pinot Noir Shootout for two years now, and every time a Davis Family Pinot is in the lineup, I pick it out as superb. Guy Davis hand farms 7 acres of Pinot Noir from which he produces a single-vineyard estate Pinot Noir each year. His wines are consistently outstanding and available at his tasting room in Healdsburg or through the website. · This Pinot is medium-bodied with an expressive nose of spicy cherries. Cherries and raspberries with a touch of oak saturate the midpalate. The mouth feel is velvety. The finish is satisfying and clean. A complete wine.

2004 Woodenhead Morning Dew Ranch Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

166 cases, $46. This producer was featured recently in the PinotFile. Nikolai Stez spent 17 years working crushes at Williams Selyem. He now crafts small production, artisan Pinot Noirs of great interest. Woodenhead wines may be purchased on the website. · The wine has a pure red fruit nose of great elegance. Very lush in the mouth with plenty of spice and vim. More fruity than complex, with plenty of power to thrill. A Lolita.

2004 Patz & Hall Chenowith Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

692 cases, $47. Patz & Hall have been making highly-coveted Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays for years. The wines are a joint effort between winemakers James Hall and Anne Moses and the sales and marketing team of Donald and Heather Patz. This is the first release from this vineyard located in the hills above Green Valley. The planting is all Dijon clones. The winery opened a wine tasting salon in Napa which is available for private and seated tasting by reservation for $35 (85 Bordeaux Way, Suite A, Napa, 707-265-7700). · The wine has an attractive deep purple robe. Lovely aromas of cherries, cola and spice waft from the glass. I wanted to drink the nose. The flavors follow in step but are restrained in comparison to the nose. A solid wine with brisk acidity and a touch of dryness on the finish. Right now the nose trumps the flavors but time in the bottle may change that.

2004 D’Argenzio Klopp Thorn Ridge Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

286 cases, $48. · Hi-tone Bing cherries star in the nose with a hint of violets. The flavors are a cherries jubilee with enticing cola and spice notes. There are some darker stone fruits peeking out here as well. The finish is dry and satisfying. I picked this out as a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir before the unveiling. A Gold Medal winner at the 2006 Sonoma County Harvest Fair.

2004 David Bruce Winery Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

1412 cases, $55. Despite very large production, this Santa Cruz Mountain winery continues to craft very attractive Pinot Noirs. The 2004 David Bruce Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (4996 cases, $40) was also tasted and decent. The wines enjoy widespread retail distribution and are available on the winery’s website at www.davidbrucewinery.com. · This wine has it all: a deep, fruity nose, sweet and juicy Pinot fruits, velvety texture, and a crisp finish.

2004 Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery Starr Ridge Vineyard Dijon Clones Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

179 cases, $60. Gary Farrell Pinot Noirs are a benchmark for the Russian River Valley and are consistently excellent. The 24-acre Starr Ridge Vineyard is owned by Gary and Debbie Farrell. The wine is available on the website. · The style is one of power with elegance and eminent age ability. This Pinot starts with very pleasing aromatics featuring bright red cherries, rhubarb and roses. The fruit has great purity and persistence with lovely depth of flavor and is enhanced by tasty oak. The whole package finishes with a good tannic backbone and acid edge.

2004 Laetitia Vineyard & Winery Laetitia Vineyard Arroyo Grande Pinot Noir

440 cases, $65. Laetitia has a colorful history going back to 1982 when Champagne Deutz first planted vineyards in the Arroyo Grande Valley. Since 2001, the winery has been under the ownership of businessman Selim Zilkha and the wines have starred ever since. The current winemaker, Eric Hickey, has been at the helm since 1990. The wine may be purchased at the winery’s website: www.laetitiawine.com. · This Pinot is nicely perfumed with spicy cherries and floral notes. A little cinnamon candy peaks out as well. Elegant and soft, the palate is all Pinot with emphasis on finesse over fruit heaviness. This finish is clean and zippy.

2003 Copeland Creek Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

348 cases, $30. This is another producer that I have recommended in the PinotFile. Winemaker Don Baumhefner has a touch with Pinot Noir and he is developing quite a following. I seem to pick out Copeland Creek Pinot Noir in several blind tastings as a favorite. The wine may be purchased from the website. The 2004 vintage is quite good also and will be released in the spring of this year. · The style here is elegant with plenty of bright cherries, toasty oak, spice and hint of citrus to satisfy. Great scent, juicy, and lovely Pinot delicacy.

2003 Gloria Ferrer José Ferrer Select Carneros Pinot Noir

11,400 cases (1,900 6-packs), $35. All of the major California sparkling wine producers now produce still Pinot Noir and the wines have become quite good. This Pinot Noir is a reserve bottling sourced from the winery’s 335-acre Carneros vineyard. It is composed of the 43 best barrels in the cellar and made in honor of the founder, José S Ferrer. The wine is available at the winery which is open daily for tours and tastings. The website is www.gloriaferrer.com. · Dark ruby in color, this plush wine starts with aromas of crushed blackberries, black cherries, and mocha and carries the theme through to the finish. The texture is noticeably silky. Moderate dusty tannins arrive with a rush at the back end.

There were a number of other Pinot Noirs that did not leave me, as the French say, aux anges (floating with angels), but they were perfectly fine and decent examples of the varietal. These wines can often be more Burgundy-oriented and because of a more minimalist and acidic style, do not show well in a tasting lineup with more flashy wines.

2004 Carneros Creek Winery Carneros Pinot Noir 1000 cases, $40. A shy girl in the back row.

2004 Domaine Carneros Estate Carneros Pinot Noir 1043 cases, $60. A cinnamon treat.

2004 Estancia Stonewall Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir $25. Very restrained nose.

2004 Hallcrest Vineyards Vista Del Mare Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir 167 cases, $35. Cherry-vanilla Dr Pepper with a lengthy finish.

2004 La Rochelle Garys’ Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 95 cases, $75. For oak lovers

2005 Flying Goat Cellars Dierberg Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir 425 cases, $42. Simple and fruity, but well-made.

2005 Ste Michelle Wine Estates Erath Vineyard Oregon Pinot Noir 50,000 cases, $16. Rich palate with hints of tobacco and oak.

2005 Fess Parker Winery Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir 1664, $25. A big cherry pie.

2005 Dr Konstantin Frank Finger Lakes New York Pinot Noir 560 cases, $25. Fresh strawberry jam with oak dust.

2005 Hahn Estates Winery Monterey Pinot Noir 22,000 cases, $18. Exotic woods, hi-profile tannins.

2004 Carneros Della Norte Los Carneros Pinot Noir 400 cases, $48. Burgundian austerity with appeal.

2005 Tom Eddy Monks Gate Yamhill-Carlton Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 191 cases, $55. Rose petals on a soft pillow.

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