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MacPhail: Get On the Wagon

James MacPhail began to produce Pinot Noir from North Coast appellations beginning in 2002 under the MacPhail Family Wines label. A native son of Marin County in a family with roots in the area dating to the 1880s, his background includes a broad range of interests including dairy farming near Tomales Bay and ventures into appliance retail, building materials and natural gas. He became an accomplished classical pianist and bagpiper. In 1983, MacPhail was the youngest to swim across the Golden Gate and remains a nationally ranked Masters Class competitive swimmer.

MacPhail developed his winemaking skills at Quivera, Pellegrini and Merry Edwards, and quickly focused on Pinot Noir. After making wine in rented space for six vintages, he built a 5,000 case winery and tasting room in Healdsburg in 2008 where he crafts about 4,000 cases annually of Pinot Noir sourced from the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley. The winery has a rural barn aesthetic and employs passive solar design and daylighting as well as a waste water wetland system for production waste to cleanse waste water that can later be used for irrigation.

In 2007, MacPhail became the winemaker for Sequana Vineyards. These wines are crafted in much the same style as MacPhail Family wines but the focus is on sourcing grapes primarily from the Green Valley of Russian River Valley and the Santa Lucia Highlands. Production at Sequana Vineyards is 11,000 cases per year. Recently, MacPhail joined The Hess Collection bringing along MacPhail Family Wines while continuing his work as the founding winemaker for Sequana Vineyards. The Hess Collection has acquired the MacPhail Family Wines brand as well as existing inventory.

The colorful wine label of MacPhail Family Wines features a Radio Flyer wagon filled with grapes. This along with the winery’s marketing program are very eye-catching, attracting my interest initially several years ago. Early on, I found the wines a little hit and miss and stylistically they were often a bit generous in alcohol, ripe and oaky. The wines did improve in the bottle over time because of bright acidity. Recently I had the opportunity to taste the 2009 vintage Pinot Noirs from MacPhail and I came away with renewed interest and a more favorable impression. Oak still plays a role in the wines but is more restrained and complimentary, and the wines all show admirable balance. The 2009 Pinot Noirs are all quite approachable now, although the vineyard designated Pinot Noirs will benefit from more time in the bottle. I think the wines will appeal to every Pinot Noir lover.

The winemaking regimen is as follows: grapes are hand picked and hand sorted, 100% de-stemmed and undergo a 5-day pre-fermentation cold soak. Fermentation is begun with indigenous yeast and then inoculated. Native malolactic fermentation occurs in barrel. Batonnage is performed weekly for 3 months. The wines are aged 11 months in 40% to 100% new French oak barrels and bottled unfined and unfiltered. All the 2009 wines reviewed here were released in the fall of 2010 except the Wightman House and Vagon Rouge which are scheduled for fall release in 2011 (the Home Girl Pinot Noir is a spring release).

MacPhail Family Wines is open for tasting by invitation and appointment only and usually MacPhail makes himself available for these tasting sessions. Visit the website at

2009 MacPhail Home Girl Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., pH 3.67, TA 0.57, 135 cases, $29. A blend of all (10) single vineyards sourced by MacPhail. Approximately one foot of wine at the bottom of each bottling tank was moved back to barrels (40% new) and aged for another five months, then bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderate reddish-purple color in the glass. Rather flat nose offering dark red cherry, baking spice and leaf aromas. Cherry-driven, slightly candied flavor with some oak showing up on the finish. A lighter styled wine with fine-grain tannins, a bright texture, and bright acidity on the finish. Drink now. Decent.

2009 MacPhail Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., ph 3.60, TA 0.63, 1,195 cases, $39. Sangiacomo, Pratt, Wildcat and Gap’s Crown vineyards. Multiple clones including Dijon 113, 114, 115, 667 and 777, Pommard, 2A, 9 and 23. Aged 11 months in 40% new and 60% 1 and 2-year-old French oak barrels. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Nuanced aromatic profile featuring scents of strawberries, black cherries, savory herbs and old wood. Medium-weighted core of earthy dark red fruits possessing a wild, exotic flavor and a slight green undertone. There is a fine dusting of tannins and adequate acidity. A solid wine that is nicely crafted, but doesn’t excite. Good.

2009 MacPhail Gap’s Crown Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., pH 3.45, TA 0.65, 320 cases, $49. This vineyard is in the Petaluma Gap region of the Sonoma Coast. Clones 115, 667 and 777. Aged 11 months in 40% new and 60% 1 and 2-year-old French oak barrels. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. The aloof nose features demure scents of dark stone fruits and smoky oak. In the mouth, the juicy dark plum, blackberry and black raspberry fruit comes alive accented by underpinnings of anise, ash and complimentary oak. The nicely ripened fruit is robed in gossamer tannins and the wine finishes with modest length. Good.

2009 MacPhail Raye’s Hill Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., pH 3.82, TA 0.56, 178 cases, $49. Clones 667 (33%) and Pommard (67%). Harvested at 27.5º Brix. Aged 11 months in 50% new and 50% 1 and 2-year-old French oak barrels. · Moderate reddish-purple hue in the glass. Aromatically shy initially, but opens nicely over time in the glass to offer scents of black cherry pie, red plums, sandalwood and underbrush. Very polished in the mouth with impressive mid-palate intensity of delicious black cherry, strawberry and raspberry spicy fruit wrapped in fine sweet tannins. A wine of impressive breeding and balance. This clonal mix always seems to delight me.

2009 MacPhail Toulouse Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., pH 3.86, TA 0.54, $49. Clones 115 (30%), 667 (30%), 777 (30%) and 2A. Aged 11 months in 60% new and 40% 1 and 2-year-old French oak barrels. · Initially, oak-derived aroma of coffee predominates, fading over time with the emergence of shy black cherry fruit and a little barnyard. Tasty core of red fruits enhanced with notes of spice, sandalwood and oak with a slight coffee accent. Crisp with lively acidity. Good.

2009 MacPhail Wightman House Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., pH 3.94, TA0.55, 66 cases, $55. 100% Martini clone. Aged 11 months in 66% new French oak barrels. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. An enticing and thoroughly seductive wine that offers an hi-tone perfume of dark berry jam, spice, vanilla and the slightest oak. Discreetly concentrated, earth-kissed flavors of blackberry and plum sauce with a hint of tar and oak. The texture is dreamy soft. Finishes dry with impressive persistence. Very little Martini clone is planted in the Anderson Valley so this is a very distinctive wine representing an impressive expression of this clone that will hold the interest of any serious Pinot Noir connoisseur.

2009 MacPhail Vagon Rouge Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., pH 3.73, TA 0.57, 117 cases, $59. 5 hand-selected barrels. Sourced from Toulouse, Wightman House, Frattey Shams, Raye’s Hill and Ferrington vineyards. Aged 11 months in 100% new Tonnellerie Ermitage Medium Toast French oak barrels. · Moderately intense color in the glass. Shy nose offering aromas of cherry crisp, spice, briar and subtle oak. Soft and smooth on the palate with satisfying flavors of red cherries, cardamon spice, and sandalwood enrobed in firm fine-grain tannins. Nicely composed with oak playing a complimentary supporting role. Picks up interest over time in the glass and is even better the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Keep this one under wraps for a couple of years and then plan a special dinner around it. Very Good (+).

2005 MacPhail Toulouse Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

14.9% alc., 400 cases. Clones 2A, 777, 667 and 115. Native fermentations. Aged 11 months in French oak barrels. Unfined and unfiltered. · Moderate reddish-purple hue in the glass. Very alluring nose offering scents of black cherries, dark berry compote, brioche, cola, vanilla and subtle oak. Medium-weight flavors of black cherries, raspberries and cranberries finishing with zingy citrus and oak in the background. Tannins have softened and the mouthfeel is all silk and satin. Good (+).

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