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Part IV: Tasting Pinot Noir from the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA

Seven representative wines from the 2010 and 2011 vintages were offered for tasting at the “Diamonds in the Sky: Taste the Terroir of the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA.” All the wines were stellar so there is no need to make qualitative judgments.

David Hirsch talked about the two vintages offered for tasting in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. 2010 was very challenging and he likened it to an unruly adolescent who was hard to manage. The winter was rainy and total rainfall was over 100 inches, but that was not particularly unusual as heavy rainfall is customary for the area. What distinguished 2010 was the long periods of cool weather during the spring and summer, with overcast skies, fog and biting winds. The result was an uneven crop set and extensive millerandage making farming for balance daunting. Two inches of rain preceded harvest and after the first few days of harvest, temperatures shot up into the 90 degree range causing the fruit to become quickly ripe all at once. The 2011 vintage in contrast was a “rocking chair vintage” in that the summer temperatures were very consistent, with only one day reaching 90 degrees. It was a vintage growers could sit back in a chair on their deck, look out over the vineyard, and let nature take its course.

All wines underwent native primary fermentation and malolactic fermentation, except the Martinelli bottling which was vinified with inoculated malolactic fermentation (information on Wild Hog bottling not available).


2011 Red Car Estate Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., pH 3.79, TA 0.522. 900-1000 feet elevation, southeast aspect, 3-10% slope, Calera, 828 and 777 clones on 420A rootstock, Ohlson Ranch sandstone soils. Average Brix 22.7º, 10% whole cluster, aged 14 months in 29% new French oak. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Very shy nose but very appealing core of vivid dark fruits, a silky texture, admirable balance, and very good finishing fruit intensity. Should be marvelous in another year.


2011 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

12.8% alc., pH 3.60. 1150-1400 feet elevation, northeast aspect, 5-37% slope, Swan, Pommard, 114,115 and 2A clones, 3309 rootstock, tight 3.33 x 3.33 spacing, Hugo Atwell Complex soils. Average Brix 21.7º, 25% whole cluster, aged 15 months in 25% new French oak. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. Nicely perfumed with dark red fruits and spice. Very flavorful and savory with good acidity appealing texture and impeccable balance. An exceptional wine that is still young.

2010 Hirsch Vineyards “San Andreas Fault” Estate Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.0% alc., pH 3.57, TA 0.57. 1300 feet elevation on average, various aspects, 0-45% slope, Pommard, Mt Eden, Swan 114 and 777 clones, various rootstocks, various soils. Average Brix 22.9º, 100% de-stemmed, aged 18 months in 35% new French oak. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. The nose is closed for business. Delicate flavors of cherries and cranberries with briar-themed oak in the background. Noticeable tannins with a smooth mouth feel and short finish.

2010 Martinelli Three Sisters Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., pH 3.85, TA 0.59. 1100 feet elevation on average, south and east aspect, 0-35% slope, clones Pommard, 115 and 777 on 101-14 and 3309 rootstocks, Josephine and Goldridge soils. Average Brix 23.8º, 100% whole cluster, aged 10 months in 57% new French oak. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Effusive aromas of black cherries and black raspberries with generous notes of toasty oak. Oak-dominated core of plush, sappy dark red and black fruits with a highly seductive, velvety mouth feel. Very ripe in character. Alcohol peaks out on the finish.


2011 Fort Ross Vineyard “Sea Slopes” Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.0% alc., pH 3.71, TA 0.59. 1250 to 1750 feet elevation, southwest aspect, 5-30% slope, Calera, Pommard, Swan, 115 and 777 clones on 101.14, 3309, 110R and 420A rootstocks, various clay and sandy clay loam soils. Average Brix 22º, 5% whole cluster, aged 10 months in 20% new French oak. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. Shy aromas of red fruits. Crisp and lean, featuring flavors of red cherries, pomegranate and cranberries with a touch of spice. Soft tannins make for easy drinking. Could pick up intensity over time in bottle.

2011 Failla Estate Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.45% alc., pH 3.85, TA 0.55. Southeast aspect, clones 777, Swan and Calera, 101.14 rootstock, Franciscan Complex soil. Average Brix 23.5º, 20% whole cluster, aged 12 months in 30% new French oak. · Medium reddish-purple color in the glass. Deep, dark fruit is the theme on the nose and palate. Juicy, with good acidity, balanced tannins and a generous finish. Picks up a spicy, savory bent over time.

2010 Wild Hog Vineyard Estate Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.0% alc., no other information available. · Dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Aromas of dark stone fruits and nuts. Juicy and crisp on the palate, with a middleweight core of oakkissed black fruits, grainy tannins, and a brooding finish. Still a bit tight and disorganized.

There were 36 participating wineries pouring at the WOW Grand Tasting. A number of the wines being offered I had already reviewed so they were not re-tasted. I did not taste every wine as I was having too much fun talking Pinot, chatting with old acquaintances and making new friends, but I have listed below the wines that really caught my attention when I did some serious tasting. None of these wines are inexpensive because of the high farming costs, but they are at the top echelon of California Pinot Noir being produced today.

The venue at The Barlow in Sebastopol was perfect for the WOW event. The Grand Tasting was held outdoors inside a tent on grass. Attendance was significant but the winery tables were easily accessible to the eager pinotphiles. There was a good buzz of excitement and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The highlight of my day came when I met Tom Dehlinger for the first time!


2011 Benziger Family Winery de Coelo Quintus Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 13.0% alc., pH 3.64, TA 0.63, $75. 25-acre Biodynamic® estate vineyard. Quintus and Terra Neuma are two distinctive blocks.

2011 Gros Ventre Cellars “First Born” Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2011 LaRue Wines Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 150 cases, $68. 17 months in 33% new French oak. 19

2011 Littorai The Pivot Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Ted Lemon’s estate vineyard adjacent the winery.

2011 Littorai Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2010 Pahlmeyer Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Wayfarer and Hallberg vineyards. Winemaker Erin Green’s last vintage at Pahlmeyer. Newest winemaker for Sonoma Coast wine is Bibiana González Rave.

2011 Soliste Nouveau Monde Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 79 cases, $75. Pommard clone. The Soliste team below (co-owners Claude Koeberle left and Don Plumley right, and winemaker Ryan Zepaltas center)

Very Good

2010 32 Winds Wine Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Winemaker Ehren Jordan.

2012 Benovia Tilton Hill Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Barrel sample, Calera and 943 clones.

2011 Benziger Family Winery de Coelo Terra Neuva Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2011 Failla Occidental Ridge Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2011 Failla Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2011 Gros Ventre Cellars Campbell Ranch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2010 LaRue Wines Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2011 LIOCO Wine Co. Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Markydian Vineyard Estate Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Barrel sample.

2010 Sonoma Coast Vineyards Bodega Ridge Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2011 Zepaltas Devoto Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Magnum

Other winery participants at WOW worth your consideration: Baker Lane Vineyards, Banshee Wines, Ceritas Wine, Cobb Wines, Emeritus Vineyard, Freeman Vineyard & Winery, Halleck Vineyard, Hartford Family Winery, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Lattanzio Wines, Marimar Estate Vineyards & Winery, Patz & Hall Wine Co., Paul Hobbs Winery, Peay Vineyards, Ramey Wine Cellars, Red Car Wine Company, Small Vines Wines, Siduri, and Sojourn Cellars.

Can I say anything definitive about a commonality of style and character of the wines of West Sonoma Coast or more specifically, the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA? In a word, no, although some general comments can be made beyond the fact that the wines from thus region are consistently superb from all producers when vintage conditions cooperate. Moderator Jon Booné spoke about “brooding minerality” as a trait the wines share, but I have no idea what that means.

The cool climate in the West Sonoma Coast leads to small berry size with higher juice-to-skin ratios which produces concentrated fruit flavors. Because of the low temperatures, grapes ripen slowly and develop mature phenolics often before acquiring sugar ripeness so the grapes may be picked at relatively low Brix. As a result, acidity is usually high and alcohol levels on the low to moderate side. The comments in the past of Ted Lemon, “Muscle and sinew, grit, structure, more backbone and tannin than Russian River Valley Pinot Noir; spicy and peppery in leaner years with sage and savory as the prominent spices, and dark fruits in riper vintages,” and Andy Peay, “Higher acidity, sturdier tannins, less ‘gobs’ of fruitiness, and more tertiary flavors like earth, minerals, tea and forest floor” provide the best descriptors, albeit broad and simplified, of Pinot Noir from the West Sonoma Coast.

One parting comment from WOW: The 2011 vintage was highly successful for West Sonoma Coast vintners. Serious pinotphiles should seek out these wines NOW as production is limited. In particular, based on my tasting at the WOW Grand Tasting, buy every wine you can get your hands on sourced from Hirsch Vineyards. (photo below)

One additional comment about the site of WOW, The Barlow complex in downtown Sebastopol. The former Barlow Apple Factory (the Barlow family started the first commercial applesauce business in the United States before going out of business in 2004) has been reinvented to showcase both production and retail for artisan producers and is the first of its kind in the country. It allows an environment where a concentrated group of artists, craftspeople, food and wine artisans can connect, socialize and market. The 220,000-square-foot Barlow complex has parks, gardens, an event center, bocce ball courts, children’s play areas, and the Sebastopol farmer’s market. The new project is tastefully designed with buildings constructed of corrugated metal to duplicate in a modern fashion the look of the historic apple processing plant.

The Barlow complex includes two wineries, Kosta Browne Winery (not open to the public) and Wind Gap Wines. There are several winery tasting rooms including LaFollette Wines, MacPhail Family Wines, and Marimar Estate Vineyards & Winery. The Woodfour Brewing Company, Warped Brewing Company and the Spirit Works Distillery are tenants. Russian River Valley’s iconic restaurant, Zazu Kitchen + Farm has moved into the Barlow complex from their previous roadside location in Santa Rosa. Owners Duskie Estes and John Stewart have the title of “King and Queen of Porc.” Noted chefs Claude Koeberle and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry have something in the works as well. Businesses will continue to open through the fall of 2013. Preliminary approval has been obtained for a 60-room boutique hotel on the property that could be open by the summer of 2014. This hotel and The Barlow will draw tourists to Sebastopol, which has many famous wineries within the city limits or nearby, but has only two small hotels, and has never had the allure of Healdsburg which is a 30 minute drive to the North. Sebastopol, however, is much more synonymous with Pinot Noir than Healdsburg. The photos to follow give you a feeling for the ambiance of the complex.