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Thomas George Estates: On the Upswing

When I last made a significant mention of Thomas George Estates in the PinotFile in 2008, the iconic Davis Bynum Winery on Westside Road had been sold to the Baker family of Toronto, Canada. I visited President Jeremy Baker back then at a time the winery was undergoing a much-needed complete renovation. The exterior and interior of the old winery, which had been a hops processing room next to a former kiln, was being transformed into a modern winemaking facility with the latest winemaking equipment. The winery was expanded to allow eventual production of 16,000 cases annually, and the tasting room was upgraded, retaining its original location, but outfitted with a modern flair.

In 2010, caves (singularly unique to Westside Road) were built into the adjacent hillside to function as a barrel aging facility as well as an additional tasting and entertaining area that would appeal to wine romanticists. New landscaping was added to create an attractive outdoor picnic area. When I visited recently, I was amazed at the transformation. The winery had become a destination, a sterling, hi-collared addition to the Middle Reach array of prominent Russian River Valley Pinot Noir producers with an appeal to wine aficionados of all ages.

The wines of Thomas George Estates have been infused with a new spirit and quality as well. The estate Baker Ridge Vineyard (formerly Lindley’s Knoll), which sits in a prime Middle Reach location adjacent the Williams Selyem Estate Vineyard and Arista estate vineyards, was revitalized and partially replanted under the direction of noted viticulturist Ulises Valdez. The Baker Ranch Vineyard now consists of 21 acres of Pinot Noir, 4 acres of Chardonnay and small amounts of Grenache and Viognier. The winery acquired the 26-acre Starr Ridge Vineyard on Windsor Road and the 14-acre Cresta Ridge Vineyard in the Green Valley appellation, both premium sources of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The new winemaker, Chris Rossi, is a University of California at Davis graduate who left an eight-year stint as winemaker at Christopher Creek to join Thomas George Estates. Like Jeremy Baker, Rossi is young and enthusiastic and has instituted modern winemaking techniques, beginning with the 2008 vintage.

The 2007 Thomas George Estates wines were made by a different winemaker and included a number of non-estate grape sources. After the winery officially opened in January 2009, these wines were offered and I received a number of disappointing reports about the wines from visitors. The 2008 vintage wines now available were the first produced in the new winemaking facility under the direction of Rossi are impressive and are a world apart in quality. Beginning with the 2009 vintage, essentially all Pinot Noir and Chardonnay was estate grown. The crew at Thomas George Estates is pictured below (L to R, Chris Rossi, Jeremy Baker, Operations manager Sean Tevik, and one of three winery dogs, Muki).

In January 2011 I tasted several 2008 Pinot Noirs out of bottle as well as a 2009 Russian River Valley bottling and a 2009 sparkling wine. I re-tasted several wines at home a month later. The 2008 and 2009 vintages will be the last for Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir as the winery concentrates solely on Russian River Valley vineyards. Rossi de-stems the grapes and uses a basket press for gentle pressing. New oak is kept to a minimum: no wine receives more than 40% and I found that none of the wines showed a heavy-handed oak influence (which I prefer). The ultimate goal of the winery is to feature primarily Pinot Noir (50% of bottlings as vineyard designated and 50% in the Russian River Valley blend) and Chardonnay, with a few other limited varietal bottlings and sparkling wine for fun.

2009 Thomas George Estates Saralee’s Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Blanc

14.0% alc., pH 3.20, 190 cases, $27. Whole cluster pressed to tank, fermented and aged in stainless steel with no malolactic conversion. · Straw color in the glass. Attractive aromas of white peaches, exotic flowers and green apples. Pleasingly dry and crisp with flavors of peaches, pears, honey and roasted nuts. A pleasant change from Chardonnay. Serve slightly chilled as a refreshing aperitif. Good.

2009 Thomas George Estates Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., 1,280 cases, $38. To be released March 1, 2011. 100% estate fruit, clones 777, Pommard, 114, and 115. Aged 11 months in 31% new French oak barrels. · A nose to die for featuring bright aromas of black cherries, raspberries and Asian 5-spice. Delicious black cherry bombast with a hint of clove and earthiness. The hedonistic flavors are intense and persistent, and enrobed gently in fine-grain tannins. Plenty to like in this medium-framed wine that is très Russian River. This wine is a definite step up from the 2008 vintage bottling.

2009 Thomas George Estates Sparkling Brut Rosé Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

12.5%, 90 cases, $50. 100% Dijon clone 115 from Starr Ridge Vineyard picked at 19.5º brix the first part of August. · This inaugural sparkling wine release is one of only a handful of sparklers made by Russian River wineries. The pink salmon robe is attractive, the fine bead is welcoming, and the strawberry, citrus and candied cherry flavors are alluring. The wine is crisp and clean with an uplifting and refreshing finish that draws one back to the glass. Will work beautifully both as a celebratory event wine and a fashionable table wine. Very good.

2008 Thomas George Estates Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.7% alc., pH 3.64, 719 cases, $38. 55% clone 115, 32% 459, 13% 828 from Bush Family Vineyard and Windsor Oaks Vineyard. Aged in 38% new French oak barrels. · Nicely composed aromas and flavors of spiced cherries and berries, and cola and with gossamer tannins. A solid, very drinkable wine. Good.

2008 Thomas George Estates Campbell Ranch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., pH 3.50, 336 cases, $48. The Campbell Ranch Vineyard is located near the town of Annapolis in the true Sonoma Coast. Clone 777. Aged 18 months in 33% new French oak barrels. · The aromas and flavors are more savory than fruity with a hint of tar evident. Well-endowed with plenty of tannic backbone. Needs time to open. Decent.

2008 Thomas George Estates Baker Ridge Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., 186 cases, $55. A blend of all blocks in the vineyard including 55% Dijon, 25% Swan, 15% Pommard and 5% Wädenswil clones. Aged in 37% new French oak barrels. · Moderately deep reddish-purple color in the glass. Scent of dark cherries and berries with hints of violets, wet leaf, marzipan and raisin. Rich and ripe, with fullflavored array of dark fruits including black currants with hints of cola and spice. Soft and silky in the mouth. Veers to the ripely flavored side. Good (+).

2008 Thomas George Estates Lancel Creek Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.6% alc., pH 3.59, 478 cases, $55. This vineyard is farmed by Ulises Valdez. 48% Pommard and 52% 777. Aged in 39% new French oak barrels. · Brooding aromas of plum sauce, cigar box and graham. The flavor in this wine strikes a chord with me. I liken it to a black cherry dark chocolate truffle without the sugar. Hearty but silky tannins support the generous dark fruits leaving a smooth impression on the palate as the finish lingers on and on. Very good (+).

2008 Thomas George Estates Baker Ridge Vineyard Backbone Block Russian River Valley Noir

14.5% alc., pH 3.58, 60 cases, $65. Baker Ridge is located up an adjacent hill from the winery, at an altitude of 280 feet. This wine is sourced from a Martini clone block planted in 1990 by Davis and Hampton Bynum. Aged in 33% new French oak barrels. · Moderately deep reddish-purple color in the glass. The wine offers a bright array of aromas with staying power in the glass including scents of berry jam, spice and subtle oak. Charming core of perfectly ripened cherry and berry fruits with a hint of brown spice set off by bright acidity and caressed by firm but abiding tannins. Impeccable balance for the long haul. Very classy juice.

Thomas George Estates has an impressive, easily navigable website. Live views of the wine cave, winery and vineyards are offered. All wines are sold through the online store. The tasting room at 8075 Westside Road is open daily from 11:00 to 5:00. Events and picnics may be planned at the winery or vineyards and can include the “Toastermobile,” a portable kitchen offering gourmet meals at any of the winery’s picnic areas or Cave. Four ranching guest houses have been renovated and are available for rent with wine club members receiving 50% discounts for their stay. 707-431-8031. Pictured right are the new concrete wine fermentation tanks from Sonoma Cast Stone used for white wines. The tanks breathe similar to wood but do not contribute oakiness.

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