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The New Saintsbury

I was recently in Napa (I know, hard to believe), and stopped by Saintsbury to talk with the newest winemaker, Jerome Chery. I had been impressed with the 2004 vineyard-series Saintsbury Pinot Noirs. The 2004 Saintsbury Lee Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir and the 2004 Saintsbury Brown Ranch Carneros Pinot Noir both made my 2006 “All-American” Pinot Noir teams. Somehow, I had never visited Saintsbury, although I have been a fan of their wines for many years.

Saintsbury cofounders David Graves and Richard Ward celebrated their winery’s 25th anniversary last year. They were true pioneers in Carneros. After meeting in 1977 at University of California Davis where they were taking classes in enology, and realizing they had a shared passion for Pinot Noir, they started Saintsbury in 1981. This was about the same time as another well-known Pinot producer, Williams Selyem was starting out in the Russian River Valley (the winery is celebrating 25 years in 2007). They decided to stake their claim in Carneros and sourced all of their grapes from that appellation. Carneros had the right climate for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but the clay soils generally drained poorly and the low annual rainfall made water for irrigation very precious. Despite no real business plan and very little money, they took the plunge. They released 2000 cases of Pinot Noir from purchased grapes in 1981 and have never looked back. By 1991, production had increased to 35,000 cases and their Pinot Noir was on practically every restaurant wine list in the United States. Graves and Ward like to kid about their success, thankful because “Our attitudes and work habits make us otherwise unemployable!”

Saintsbury is named in honor of George Saintsbury, a journalist and Professor of rhetoric and English literature at the University of Edinburgh. He was also a wine lover and in 1920, at the age of 75, published Notes on a Cellar. This was an unusual collection of opinions and notes about wine and other alcoholic drinks as well as reminiscences about his wine cellar and wine dinners over the years. One of his famous quotes was: “It is the unbroken testimony of all history that alcoholic liquors have been used by the strongest, wisest, handsomest, and in every way best races of all times.”

Saintsbury owed its success through the years to offering a high quality to value ratio. In addition, the wines have been consistent from vintage to vintage and have offered elegant, ripe fruit with supple textures. The wines have gotten a bit riper in recent years, but have never gone too far to the dark side. Saintsbury has about 13 acres of vineyard around their unpretentious and weathered barn-like winery (photos on next page show winery and original plantings of Pinot Noir) and own the Brown Ranch Vineyard nearby, but they source most of their grapes from Napa Carneros growers through long-standing relationships.

The legacy of Saintsbury will show the following distinctions: (1) They limited their production to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and focused on one appellation only (Carneros became an American Viticulture Area in 1983), (2) They were one of the first to plant the Pommard clone of Pinot Noir (1986), (3) They were vineyard pioneers, using vertical shoot trellising in their vineyards at a time most vineyards were still either head-trained or used two-wire California sprawl, (4) They planted the Brown Ranch Vineyard in 1992 (23 acres of Pinot Noir, 8 acres of Chardonnay) using the newer Dijon clones 115, 667, and 777 along with Pommard, (5) They routinely avoided filtering their wines since 1989, and (6) They were one of the first wineries to produce a vin gris of Pinot Noir. They first made theirs in 1989 from a saignee of a portion of the crop to concentrate the wine and named it Vincent Vin Gris.

Through the years, the Saintsbury lineup of Pinot Noirs has included Garnet, Carneros Pinot Noir, Reserve Pinot Noir, and since 1996, Brown Ranch Vineyard Pinot Noir. The Chardonnay program has consisted of a Carneros and in some vintages a Reserve Chardonnay.

Frenchman Jerome Chery joined Saintsbury as winemaker with the 2004 vintage. He succeeded Brian Kosuge who left Saintsbury in 2000. Chery has a well-traveled background including apprenticing with Littorai’s Ted Lemon from 2000 to 2004. 2004 marks a significant change in Saintsbury, for they abandoned their Reserve bottling, and began a series of vineyard designate Pinot Noirs from Napa Carneros. Chery’s training and experience with Lemon, who espouses terroir-based vineyard designate Pinot Noirs, made it natural for Saintsbury to make the transition. Chery says his goal is to improve the aromas and texture of the Pinot Noir lineup. From my experience in tasting the 2004 and 2005 wines, he has shown great prowess in achieving his goal.

Over the last several months, I tasted through the entire lineup of 2004 Saintsbury Pinot Noirs. During my recent visit, I also sampled the 2005 vintage vineyard designate Pinot Noirs with Jerome. This was the first vintage that Jerome had complete control throughout the growing season to completion of the wines. He feels that 2005 was a better vintage than 2004 overall, and happily for consumers, there is more wine available. The wines were bottled in August of 2006, and will be pre-sold in March and officially released April 1 (no joke). Based on my tasting, I would allocate some space in your cellar for these magnificent wines. I liked them all and will certainly purchase some of each for my own future enjoyment.

2005 Saintsbury Brown Ranch Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir

Great stuffing here and a finish that is like wings on an angel.

2005 Saintsbury Cerise Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

The first vineyard-series Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley. This vineyard is on a hillside near Philo, low-yielding with small berries. The challenge here is to tame the extraction. · This is a big and dark wine with dusty tannins on the finish. I would cellar this a year or two before indulging.

2005 Saintsbury Lee Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir

A supple mouth feel, good tannic backbone, very long finish. This will be a Oscar winner.

2005 Saintsbury Stanly Ranch Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir

Fruit-forward, lip-smacking, and ready now. Drink this one first.

2005 Saintsbury Toyon Farm Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir

Like a soft pillow, this beauty finishes clean with fine-grained tannins.

2005 Saintsbury Vincent Vin Gris

13.5% alc., $13. · Perfectly fine for a Pinot Noir rosé. A very light pink-orange colored wine whose structure and punch defies the faint color. The nose is appealing with orange peel, juji fruit, and anise and the flavors include strawberry and pomegranate. There is a little richness on the palate and tangy acidity.

2005 Saintsbury Garnet

13.5% alc., 16,300 cases, $20. 20% estate fruit. · Light in color, this is a fresh, early drinking style of Pinot Noir. There is a surprising amount of structure and heft with a substantial tannic backbone. There is noticeable oak influence, but plenty of fruit to counterbalance it. Alot of Pinot for less than $20, and an excellent daily drinker.

2004 Saintsbury Carneros Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., 21,400 cases, $30. Sourced from Lee, Toyon Farm, Stanly Ranch, Brown Ranch, and other Carneros vineyards. · This Pinot has a little more body and complexity than the Garnet. It is otherwise similar in being a fruit-driven style with deft oak and brown spice. A thoroughly decent quaffer, but I preferred the Garnet for drinking now.

2004 Saintsbury Brown Ranch Chardonnay

14.5% alc., $32. As an additional side note, look for my interview with winemaker Jerome Chery on Grape Radio. · An excellent wine with an appealing creamy texture. Topical fruits and bananas in the nose, butter and mineral highlights in the middle, and a clean finish. A very nice compromise between the big, oaky Chards and the more austere, stainless fermented Chards made in California today.

2004 Saintsbury Lee Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 2,850 cases, $45. This Carneros heritage vineyard is farmed by Ira Lee, now 85 years old. Pommard and Swan clones of Pinot Noir are included.. A beautiful wine that is just perfect. · The nose is rich with spicy cherries and vanilla and there is a magnificent complexity of flavors including cherry pie, herbs, tea, and Oriental spices. Very clean, silky in the mouth, and perfectly weighted. Superexcellent.

2004 Saintsbury Stanly Ranch Carneros Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 4,560 cases, $45. Stanly Ranch Vineyard was originally owned in the 1950s by Louis Martini and the Wente family. It was here that the historic clonal trials of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were carried out that became the source of Martini and Wente clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that are widely planted in California today. In 2001, the vineyard underwent a modernization, with planting of modern clones, tighter spacing, and vertical trellising. Saintsbury has been sourcing grapes from Stanly Ranch since 1984 and Stanly Ranch grapes have formed the foundation of the Carneros and Reserve bottlings in the past. Saintsbury gets to “cherry-pick” the best vines. This Pinot contains 667 clone only. · A very nicely crafted Pinot with intriguing aromas of dark cherries, browned toast, and anise duplicated in the flavors. The wine finishes cleanly with lively acidity and lingering toasty oak aromas.

2004 Saintsbury Toryon Farm Carneros Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 4,260 cases, $45. This vineyard sits on a property that was originally a horse ranch, and today, the owners Ed and Camile Penhoef run a dressage training facility adjacent to the vineyard. This vineyard is separated from Saintsbury’s Brown Ranch Vineyard by the famous Hyde Vineyard. · This wine is composed of 115 clone grapes I have tasted this wine twice. Several months ago I found it quite closed with aromas of mushrooms and earth dominating. There was appealing red fruits but with a herbal, astringent and tannic note to the finish. I tasted it again at the winery recently and the rough edges in the finish had disappeared. It showed very appealing Pinot fruits, a silky texture, and suede-like soft tannins on the finish. Perhaps it was the presence of the winemaker, but the wine honestly tasted significantly better the second time and presumably additional bottle age did the trick.

2004 Saintsbury Brown Ranch Carneros Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 5,100 cases, $60. This is the flagship Pinot Noir in the Saintsbury lineup and is worth every penny. · It is the most stylish of the wines with a certain breeding apparent. This is a Pinot to spend time with as the aromas and flavors of cherries, black raspberries, currents, roses, cola, cinnamon, and damp leaves come and go with fascinating and ever changing combinations. The entire spectrum of Pinot fruits can be detected. The wine is light on its feet with very good balance. A true collectable that will hold your interest for years to come.

Saintsbury has a very informative website at www.saintsbury.com. There is a mailing list and wine club which offers first crack at these wines. With fairly high production, there is decent retail distribution as well. For inquiries or to order, phone the winery at 707-252-0592. Jonathan Nahrgang is the Director of Sales and Marketing and is eager to supply you with any wine information. There is a very friendly crew here, the whole operation is very unpretentious, and visits are possible with a pre-arranged appointment.
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