Small Sips of California Pinot Noir: Just Drink It
In recent weeks I tasted through a large number of primarily new releases from California producers. The
tasting confirmed my general impression that there were more superb wines produced in the 2005 vintage than
in the 2006 vintage. That said, I found many, many 2006 Pinot Noirs that warrant your attention. The buzz
among the wineries and confirmed by my barrel tastings to date, indicate that the Pinot Noirs from 2007 in
California will be among the best ever made. The 2008 growing season has been very difficult, complicated by
frosts, heat waves, inopportune periods of rain, uneven weather patterns, and even smoke. Yields will be
noticeably reduced in 2008 but like any uneven vintage, the top producers will be up to the challenges.
Seeking out the best vintners regardless of vintage is my goal. When you, the reader find some of my
recommendations to your liking, ignore the vintage hype. I say forget the year, pull the cork and enjoy. If the
wine in front of you gives you pleasure, then it is a good wine.
2005 Dubakella Trinity County Pinot Noir
13.9% alc., $30. Sometimes good Pinot Noir turns up in
the most unexpected places. Andy Carini produces Dubakella Pinot Noir from a vineyard in Hayfork,
California, about half way between the cities of Redding and Eureka, in Trinity County. Directly east of
Humboldt County, Hayfork sits about midway between the best northern coastal Pinot Noir regions of
California and the better Pinot Noir regions of Oregon. The wine is named for Mt.Dubakella, the tallest
mountain you can see from Andy’s winery in Hayfork. It is a Wintu (local Native American tribe) word
for “black rock.” Andy began working with this vineyard just before harvest in 2004. The location is
uncharted grape growing territory, but seems to be a natural fit for Pinot Noir. The vineyard sits at 2,700 ft on a
south facing slope overlooking the Hayfork Valley (the valley floor is at 2,200 ft). The soils are rocky loam with
veins of limestone throughout. The climate is very Burgundian with a short, but intense, growing season with
only two months of the year sure to be frost free (July and August). Summer day to night temperature swings of
50 degrees are the norm! Hot days and almost cold nights. The vineyard was planted to clones 115 and
Pommard on 7 acres (there is 2 acres of Pinot Gris) in 1998 and is certified organic. Andy says, “On paper
everything works and sounds nearly perfect. I am just about to the point where I feel I can state with certainty
that in practice it is even better than on paper. As my years working with this vineyard pass, and we fine tune
our farming to the site, the wines are proving that this is a place for great Pinot Noir, perhaps one of the very
best places in the state for it.” Andy’s winemaking style emphasizes as little manipulation as possible. The only
additions to the wine are yeast and minimal sulfur dioxide. There is no watering down, acidification, spinning
cone, copper, color boosters, fining, or filtration. The wine is a true representation of its place of origin and the
vintage. 90% of the grapes are de-stemmed followed by a cold maceration. After inoculation, the fermentations
last between 10-14 days in small 200 gallon open top fermenters. Multiple daily punchdowns are followed by
pressing directly to 100% French oak. Typically, aging is for 18 months
and the wine is bottled directly off its gross lees. Order winery direct at
A cherry bombast on the nose and an
appealing loamy earthiness to the ornate black cherry and black
raspberry flavors. Lithe and clean with a refined mouthfeel and a
refreshing finish. An impressive wine well crafted and flashing great
charm. The price is ridiculously low considering the effort taken in
farming this isolated vineyard and crafting this unique wine.
2006 Alpen Cellars Trinity County Pinot Noir
13.0% alc., $16. Alpen Cellars is
located in a small valley beneath the Trinity Alps of northern California. The climate
features warm summer days with cool mountain nights. Keith Groves is the
A medium-bodied Pinot Noir with interesting scents of confected
cherries, cedar, wildflowers and herbs. Primarily red fruits on the palate, especially
strawberry, with subtle woodsy and earthy accents. A bit tart with a short, dry
finish. This wine will appeal to those looking for an off-road and different Pinot Noir
Anderson Valley - Mendocino County
2006 B. Kosuge Wines Manchester Ridge Mendocino Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., 300 cases, $40. From a
vineyard located in the boonies (many miles toward the coast from Boonville) at 2,000 feet. The location
and climate are more akin to the Sonoma Coast than Anderson Valley. Byron Kosuge is a Pinot Noir and
Syrah specialist who formerly was the head winemaker at Saintsbury.
A potpourri of scents including
brambly cherries, candied apples, exotic woods, vanillin and winter spices. Mouth filling dusty red
cherries that are nicely spiced with echoes of oak. Velvety texture with integrated tannins and a good acid cut.
A complete wine with excellent balance and length.
2005 Goldeneye Confluence Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., $75. This vineyard is
adjacent to the headwaters of the Navarro River with varying exposures and soils.
Sweet, richly oaked dark
cherries, redwood, and old wine cellar scents. Restrained dark Pinot fruits with a faint chemical taste I can’t put
my finger on. Fairly elegant with fine-grained tannins. A decent wine that may need some time to become
more expressive, but there isn’t much going on right now.
2005 Navarro Vineyards Méthode à l’Ancienne Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
13.7% alc., $33. The top of the line Navarro Pinot Noir. The name refers to
gentle punch downs of the fermenting must. The grapes come from the very
cool northern “deep end” part of the Anderson Valley and are mostly estate
grown. There is a variety of clones including Dijon 113, 114,115, 667, 777,
Pommard 4 and Martini 13, and two field blends of Chalone and David Bruce,
all planted on various rootstocks using different trellises at elevations of 300 to 1,300
A fragrant wine that picks up intensity and interest with time in the glass. Deep,
rich black cherry, herb and hay scents. Full-flavored but elegant and beautifully
composed with crisp acidity. Cherry-driven flavor profile with savory herbs. A
ballerina in full-flight.
2006 Adobe Road Winery Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
15.3% alc., 1350 cases, $39. Owned by Kevin and
Debra Buckler, this winery is located in the cool Sonoma Coast town of Petaluma at 1995 S. McDowell Blvd.
Founded in 1999, production is 5,000 cases of Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The interesting tasting room features a display of racing cars (Kevin is a well-known sports car racer). The
winemaker is Frank Dusak. The 2005 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir was one of the top wines at the 2008 Pinot
Noir Shootout and sold out quickly.
The wine pulls you in with attractive aromas of wild berries, earth, pepper, oak
and a nice touch of barnyard. Dark-fruited with a strong tug of oak that competes with the fruit. Softly textured
with a clean finish that leaves a little heat in its wake.
2006 Adobe Road Winery O’Neel Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
15.3% alc., 250 cases, $48
Gregarious nose bursting with rich black cherries, well-toasted oak and oak spice. The earth-dusted and oak-imbibed dark stone fruits are discreetly
concentrated with tannins that are soft and supple. The balance is admirable with
alcohol that is well integrated.
2006 Verve Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.6% alc., 145 cases, $28. Clones 115, 777,
Pommard and Beringer. Vines average 12 years of age. Harvest Brix 26 average. 100% de-stemmed,
fermented in open-top fermenters, manual punch down of cap, 3 days cold soak and 21 days total cuvaison
average. Aged an average of 17 months in 30% new French oak and bottled aged 4 months.
Charming aromas and flavors of red current, cherry, cola and root beer. Caressing
in the mouth, fine tannins, appealing lightness and very easy to drink.
2006 Derbès Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
13.7% alc., 428 cases, $40. Cécile
Lemerle-Derbès is a master winemaker who has made fine wines throughout the
world. This wine was sourced from Sweeney and Moore vineyards. Clones 115 and
777. Hand harvested and sorted, de-stemmed, cold soaked for 2 days, inoculated
with Burgundy yeasts, total cuvaison 22 days. Barrel aged for 15 months in 50% new
This is a wine for those that prize subtlety and restraint. Attractive scents
of cherry cola, loamy earthy and barnyard. Very tasty demure cherry cola, spice and
smoke flavors. Clean, pure and sleek with great delicacy and perfect balance.
2005 Flowers Andreen Gayle Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
13.9% alc., $50.
A rich core of black raspberry,
black current and black cherry fruit with an appealing earthy and gamy aspect. Restrained, sleek and
seductive with defining acidity that makes this wine a perfect dining companion. Match this with cassoulet and
you will be on your knees.
2006 Iron Horse Vineyards Estate Green Valley of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., cases,
$40. From vineyards in the cool, foggy Green Valley planted in Goldridge soil.
The aromatic profile features
cherries, herbs, oak, stalk and a little good Pinot stink. Redder fruits lead the attack. Silky and fairly lightweighted.
A decent wine that carries too much fruit that is on the green side (?unripe).
2006 Landmark Grand Detour Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
$33. Landmark is known for its excellent Chardonnays, but has been
making a fine Grand Detour Pinot Noir for several years now sourced from
several Sonoma Coast vineyards including Kanzler, Keller Estate, Gap’s
Crown, Flocchini and Armagh. This winery has a consistent track record
with Pinot Noir and the wines are year in and year out always excellent as
well as sensibly priced.
Alive with the scent of Bing cherry, cola and oak
spice and flavors of dark berry fruits complimented by a sumptuous edge of vanillin
oak. Well-proportioned and beautifully crafted, I liked this a lot.
2004 Littorai Thieriot Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.4% alc., 240 cases, $65.
They say that perfect Pinot Noir hasn’t been made yet, but this one comes
darn close. Lovely cherry aromas complimented by subtle oak spice and
loamy earthiness all carrying over to the palate. Demure yet potent with a
persistent aromatic finish. Perfectly balanced and complete in every way.
Thieriot Vineyard is a superstar among California vineyards and is clearly my
favorite Pinot Noir year in and year out from Ted Lemon at Littorai.
2005 Littorai Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
13.5% alc., 84 cases, $65.
Darkly fruited perfume
with notes of hay and grass. Similar flavor profile with the fruit showing considerable restraint. Silky with
powdery tannins and assertive acidity producing a short, tart finish. Needs patience.
2003 Radio-Coteau Marsh Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.4% alc., 74 cases, $40. This wine is
from a 1.3-acre vineyard planted to Swan selection located west of Occidental and farmed by owners Peter
and Barbara Marsh.
Black cherry dominated scents with a hint of alcohol and cocoa dust. Lush red cherry fruit
subtlety spiced,showing good persistence on the long, chewy and brisk finish. Still drinking nicely.
2006 W.H. Smith Marimar Estate Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
Note: both this wine and the 2006 Maritime Vineyard
Pinot Noir were a noticeable departure from the 2005 vintage Pinot Noirs from W.H.
Smith. The 2005 wines were dense, tannic and big, requiring decanting to enjoy.
The 2006 wines are much more approachable.
An elegant, even feminine wine featuring nicely oaked dark red cherry fruit with
a sidecar of baking spices. Powdery tannins create a smooth texture and the clean
finish shows balanced acidity.
2006 Williams Selyem Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.2% alc., $34.
Strawberries, red cherries, allspice and a
hint of pine resin on the nose. Light-weighted tart red cherry and blueberry flavors. Soft, cozy and feminine
with brisk acidity. Simple but enjoyable.
2006 Williams Selyem Sonoma County Pinot Noir
13.9% alc., $42.
Light crimson in color with a slight
haze. Beautiful candied cherries, new oak and a little barnyard stink on the nose. Lightly spiced cherry flavors
with an earthy edge. Simple and short, losing interest with time in the glass.
2006 Willowbrook 2006 Marin County Pinot Noir
14.4% alc., 245
cases, $38. This is the first Marin County Pinot Noir from Willowbrook
Cellars. From a low-yielding vineyard (less than 2 tons per acre) in an
area known for late, lingering fog and intense, cool winds from Point
Reyes. The vineyard is leased from Corda Vineyards and farmed by Mark Pasternak. Owner John Tracy and winemaker Joe Otos have been making
superb single-vineyard Pinot Noirs for six vintages from their winery in
Sebastopol. The fruit was gently de-stemmed, 70% whole cluster fermentation,
four day cold soak, aged 11 months in French oak barrels.
Very ripe black cherry and plum aromas with a hint
of oak, char and roasted nuts. Rather exotic dark wild berry flavors which are haunting. All velvet in texture
with a pleasing citrus note to the tangy finish. Perfect with grilled meats.
2006 Acacia DeSoto Vineyard Napa Valley Carneros Pinot Noir
14.6% alc., 348 cases, $55.
needs some air time or decanting to fully blossom. Dark stone fruits with a smoky edge which are soft and
clean in the mouth. Discrete acidity predicts this wine will benefit from some more bottle aging.
2005 El Molino Rutherford Napa Valley Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., $30 (
Vivid, fresh black raspberry fruit with an appealing underlying minerality. A hint of raisin and tea adds interest.
Nicely weighted with fuzzy tannins and a dry finish. Perfectly fine.
2006 Judd’s Hill Napa Valley Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., $25. This winery is owned
and operated by generations of the Finkelstein family - Art, Bunnie, Judd and Holly.
The family has been making wine since the 1970s.
Deep, darker fruited, jammy
aromas with hints of mocha and tropical fruit. Rustic ripe fruits on the attack with an
unusual malt and marzipan bent. Smooth, light and nicely composed except for a
trailing bit of heat on the finish. A bit off the beaten track but will have some fans.
Santa Cruz Mountains
2005 McHenry Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir
13.6% alc., <200 cases, $20.
From a 2-acre vineyard Bonny Doon at 1,800 feet elevation, five miles from the
Pacific Ocean. Aged two years in French oak.
Dark ruby violet in color. The fruit in
this wine is veering toward raisin and seems riper than the 2004 vintage. The red
stone fruit is discreetly oaked and interesting accents of spice, pepper and forest
floor make for a delicious drink. Soft, clean, and seamless. Easily approachable and
a delight to drink.
2006 Mount Eden Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir
13.8% alc., 870
cases, $43. A historic estate founded in 1945. This wine is from older Pinot Noir
selections grown at 2,000 feet above the Santa Clara Valley floor. Jeffrey Patterson
has been the winemaker since 1981. .
Muted and delicate aromas of herbed berry
fruit with a hint of sage and pumpkin spice. The nose opens and gains intensity with
time in the glass. A light, elegantly styled wine featuring herbed berry fruit that is
slightly tart and a little austere secondary to the brisk acidity. This Pinot Noir screams
for food and I found it a perfect accompaniment to chicken curry. This is not a wine
for those who prefer a hunky, extracted, bold style.
2001 Arcadian Pisoni Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir
$82 (current retail). Joe Davis crafts this
wine differently than many working with Pisoni fruit. He picks less ripe and strives for balance and elegance.
sturdy wine that is still supple. Ripe, smoky dark fruits, oak spice and barnyard on the nose. Cassis, plum and
earth flavors leading to a dry and citric finish with zippy acidity. Drinking beautifully now.
2005 Cima Collina Chula Viña Monterey County Pinot Noir
13.85% alc., $28.
This vineyard lies in the foothills of the Gavilan Mountains and is exposed to warm
afternoons, cooling breezes and fog.
Very ripe fruit aromas tending toward mixed fruit
jam and raisin. Similar ripe fruit flavors on the palate including raisin and root beer.
Soft in the mouth with fine-grained tannins, admirable elegance and balance.
2006 Cima Collina Monterey County Pinot Noir
14.2% alc., 1,249 cases, $26.
This wine is a blend of various growing regions in Monterey County.
Very ripe dark
red fruits that are cooked and jammy trending toward raisin and prune flavors. Silky
texture, fine tannins, lively acidity and a dry finish. Well-crafted and easy to drink, but
the fruit is a bit shallow and too overripe for my taste.
2006 Cima Collina Tondre Grapefield Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., 158 cases, $48.
This vineyard sits in the southern reaches of the Santa Lucia Highlands above the fog line. Clones 115,
667 and Pommard. Minimalist winemaking by Annette Hoff. Aged 11 months in 40% new oak barrels.
Complex and demure scents of oak, herbs and spearmint coat the lovely dark red cherries, red current
and raspberry fruit. The palate is rich yet smooth and soft as an angel’s hair with great persistence.
2006 Pey-Lucia “Frisquet” Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir
14.2% alc., 375
cases, $37. From a 34-year-old site with breezy afternoon sunshine and chilly
(“frisquet” is French for very cool), foggy mornings. Down the road from Garys’
Vineyard and bordering Rosella’s Vineyard. Owner and winemaker Jonathan Pey
also crafts beautiful Pinot Noirs from Marin County (Pey-Marin).
color. Rich, sumptuous nose of black cherries and rose petals. Hi-toned black
raspberry fruit which fills the mouth and coats the tongue. Almost viscous in texture,
yet light in weight, with very fine tannins and balanced acidity on the back end. Earth
and grilled meat notes add interest.
Santa Rita Hills
2006 Sanford Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., $40.
of black cherries, smoke, minerals and a hint of alcohol. Plentiful, dirt-crusted cherry and black raspberry fruits
embrace the palate. A peculiar chemical taste and a bit of bitterness on the finish ruin the experience.
Disappointing considering the pedigree of this vineyard.
2006 Sanford La Rinconada Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., $40.
Flat out great nose
featuring a showy mixture of cherry, raspberry, oak, baking spice and earthy aromas. Lush spiced red cherry
fruit showing perfect ripeness and excellent length. Silky textured with an endless echo of the scents and fruit
on the finish marred only by a little heat.