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Oregon’s Big Table Farm and California’s Big Basin Committed to Whole Cluster

Whole cluster fermentation of Pinot Noir can be a risky proposition but Big Table Farm and Big Basin Vineyards are committed to it “big time,” and their results are stunning. The potential advantages of whole cluster fermentation include exotic aromatics, silky smooth tannins, and more lengthy and cooler fermentations that impart a different and enchanting flavor profile. I had the opportunity to taste current releases from these two wineries a few days apart, and although the wines from the two wineries are quite different in several ways, they do share a commonality only found in whole cluster fermented Pinot Noir.

Big Basin Vineyards, Boulder Creek, CA

Proprietor and winemaker Bradley Brown established Big Basin Vineyards in 1998 adjacent to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Wine grapes were grown here by French immigrants in the early 1900s and continued until 1954 when the property was sold by Justin Lacau to a local timber company. By the 1990s, all that remained of the vineyards were redwood stakes and scattered vines hidden by brush.

Bradley has restored this historic property and the entire vineyard and olive tree orchards are now Certified Organic by CCOF. 90% of the estate is preserved in its natural state. A winery was built on the same site as the original 1890s house structure that burned down in the 1970s, and completed in 2003. The winery building is of timber frame construction built using redwood harvested from the estate.

100% whole clusters of Pinot Noir are commonly employed. The whole berries and whole clusters are cold soaked for up to a week before being heated up to start the spontaneous indigenous yeast fermentations. The juice is pumped over and hand punched down, and the wine is gently pressed off the skins after 15 to 30 days of skin contact. The wines are only racked once to oxygen-free bottling tanks for bottling unfined and unfiltered. The whole process is truly non-interventional resulting in truly artisanal wines.

The winery’s portfolio includes over sixteen wines, and typically five different single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from special sites in the Santa Cruz and Gabilan Mountains. The Pinot Noir wines tasted here are truly impressive as a group and unlike any other wines currently produced in the Santa Cruz Mountains. They are notable for their freshness, engaging aromatics, invigorating fruit, complexity and a judicious use of new oak. Bradley notes that the wines are “still in their tight phase of youth,” so I sampled them initially over a 2-hour period, then again 6 hours later, and again the following day.

Tasting is available at the winery’s Saratoga Tasting Room and the Estate Vineyard and Winery Tasting Room in Boulder Creek. Visit the website at for more information.

2017 Big Basin Dune and Mountain Monterey County Pinot Noir

12.8% alc., 440 cases, $36. Release January 2019. Grapes were sourced from Olson Vineyard located just off Monterey Bay planted in ancient sand dunes, and Coastview Vineyard situated at 2200 feet elevation in the Gabilan Mountains overlooking Monterey Bay and planted in decomposed granite. Vine age is 18 years. Clones are Dijon 114, 115, 667, 777, and Pisoni and Swan selections. 95% whole cluster, native yeast, aged 11 months in French oak barrels and bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderate garnet color in the glass. Conspicuous aromas of Maraschino cherry, burnt tobacco, and BBQ spice rub. Very sleek in the mouth in a mid weight style, with flavors of black cherry and tobacco and an earthy vibe. A bit of astringent tannin is apparent upon opening, but nearly resolves when tasted the following day from a previously opened bottle. The fruit is quite ebullient and propels a lengthy finish. This wine will be better upon release in January as the tannins enmesh. Score: 92

2016 Big Basin Old Corral Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.2% alc., 205 cases, $65. Release March 2019. Inaugural vintage from Estate vines in three blocks budded over from Syrah to Pinot Noir in 2015. Harvest Brix about 22.6º (Mt Eden clone) and 23.0º (Swan selection). 100% whole cluster, native yeast, aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 25% new. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderately light ruby red color in the glass. Persistent aromatic joy featuring scents of cherry, ripe cranberry, spice, fertile earth and old wood. Light to mid weight in style, offering flavors of red fruits , baking spices and tobacco. A woodiness pervades the flavor and aromatic profile. Forward and pleasing and somewhat delicate, with riveting acidity and a finish resonant with crystalline cherry. Score: 91

2016 Big Basin Alfaro Family Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.3% alc., 155 cases, $60. Released September 2018. Clones 667, 777 and 115. 17-year-old vines. Harvest Brix 23.3º-23.6º. Fermented 100% whole cluster, native yeast, and aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 33% new. No additions beyond S02 after malolactic was completed in barrel. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderate garnet color in the glass. Engaging nose offering aromas of darker berry and cherry, exotic spices, oak sawdust and a hint of fresh leafy greens. Up-front opulent black raspberry and blackberry fruit flavors underpinned by muscular tannins. Sheer beauty of fruit with welcome uplifting acidity and a notably long finish. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the imposing tannins had mollified. This wine will benefit from more time in the cellar. Score: 92

2016 Big Basin Lester Family Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.3% alc., 414 cases, $55. Release November 2018. 18-year-old vines. Clones include Mt Eden (50%), 667 and a Swan selection. Harvest Brix 22.7º-23.0º and one lot 24.5º. Fermented 100% whole cluster, native yeast, and aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 25% new. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderate garnet color in the glass. The nose is replete with whole cluster goodness including aromas of dark cherry, exotic spices, burnt pipe tobacco and compost. Heady fruits including black cherry, boysenberry and blackberry are accented with redeeming notes of spice and tobacco, and framed by silky and supple tannins. The mouthfeel is comforting, oak is judiciously integrated, and the juicy, long finish leaves quite a gratifying impression. Even more striking when tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. This wine has personality. Score: 94

2016 Big Basin Coastview Vineyard Monterey County Pinot Noir

13.0% alc., 335 cases, $55. Release January 2019. Vineyard located between the Chalone AVA and the Mt. Harlan AVA in the Gabilan Mountains. Dijon clones 667, 777, 114 and 115, and Swan and Pisoni selections. One lot fermented 60% whole cluster and the rest 100% whole cluster. Aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 42% new. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderate garnet color in the glass. The aromas of black cherry, purple grape, spice cabinet and mulch soar in this gifted wine. Black cherry and boysenberry fruit flavors flood the mouth with goodness. There is plenty of spice and smart oak to enhance the pleasure. The balance is spot-on with exquisitely integrated tannins, acidity and oak, the mouthfeel is sleek and polished, and the finish is uplifting and juicy. Flat-out amazing when tasted from a previously opened and re-corked bottle the following day. Both swagger and finesse in one package. Score: 96

Big Table Farm, Gaston, OR

Brian Marcy and Clare Carver departed Napa in 2006 and moved to Oregon. Brian was an experienced winemaker and Clare had artistic talent and a way with animals. They bought a 70-acre property in the northern Willamette Valley, where they now produce Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, raise farm animals and produce seasonal vegetables.

Their business model is one to envy although the couple is not trained or by nature business people. They host consumers for tasting in their more than 100-year-old farmhouse, enjoy entertaining visitors outdoors for meals at a “big table,” (Brian is also an accomplished chef), vinify outstanding wines in a barn-like winery on their property, and offer hand-drawn labels by Clare with artwork that is unique to each vintage. After a label is applied by hand, each bottle is carefully wrapped in tissue to preserve the letterpress paper’s texture and beauty (a product code on the bottom of each bottle allows identification of the wines without unwrapping them). The winery’s website is one of adept design and concise content. Even the name, Big Table Farm, is attention-grabbing.

The biggest news of late is that a vineyard is being planted on the estate property behind the winery. This was part of their vision from the beginning.

I have visited the winery on several occasions and tasted most every bottling since the first wines from the 2006 vintage. I have never been disappointed in the quality of the wines and have touted them repeatedly in the PinotFile. Brian doesn’t even own a de-stemmer and does not tout that his Pinot Noirs are 100% whole cluster, but he is committed to this style of Pinot Noir winemaking.

Big Table Farm wines are sold through a mailing list or directly with the winery. Call or email Clare or Laura to purchase at or call 503-662-3129. Free case shipping. Tasting is by appointment.

The wines reviewed here are from the fall 2018 release. Brian says, “These wines all have their own quirks and characteristics that make them unique and delicious in their own way,” and I agree completely.

2016 Big Table Farm Yamhill-Carlton District Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., 315 cases, $62. Grapes sourced from Kalita and the Coats and Whitney vineyards. The Bernard’s barn is on the label. · Moderate garnet color in the glass. Leading off are hi-tone aromas of black cherry, spice and pipe smoke. The dark red and black fruits are discreetly concentrated and forward, emboldened by a thread of oak in the background. Silky in the mouth, with cashmere tannins and a generous finish. Not as earthy as many wines from Yamhill-Carlton with more bright fruit as the focus. A brotherly wine that wraps its arms comfortably around the palate. Score: 92

2016 Big Table Farm Cattrall Brothers Vineyard Eola-Amity Hills Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

12.9% alc., 184 cases, $62. Old vine organically farmed Wädenswil clone. 1947 Cattrall Brothers Vineyard truck on the label. · Moderately light garnet color in the glass. The complex nose offers a range of aromas including dark cherry, spice, underbrush, and savory herbs with the cherry aroma building intensity over time in the glass. Middleweight flavors of black cherry, pomegranate, tobacco, smoke and BBQ sauce have good length in the mouth and on the silken finish. Easygoing, fine-grain tannins make for approachability and satisfying harmony drives the pleasure. Score: 92

2016 Big Table Farm Wirtz Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., 203 cases, $62. Last vintage from this vineyard since the economic realities of leasing and farming an old vineyard no longer made sense. 45-year-old vines. Coury “clone.” Wild cherries on the label. · Moderate garnet color in the glass. Classy aromas of Bing cherry, cardamom spice, burnt tobacco and espresso. Generously layered tiers of ripe ollaliberry, purple grape and blackberry flavors showing significant extraction. There are underlying flavors of grilled pork and spice as well. The suave texture and silky tannins make for seductive drinking. Very charming and harmonious. Score: 93

2016 Big Table Farm Sunnyside Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

326 cases, $62. Release August 2018. Old Wädenswil vines. Owners have farmed this vineyard for over 30 years. Hen and chick at Big Table Farm on the label. · Moderately light garnet color in the glass. This is a striking wine of uncommon excellence from the get-go. Perfumed with scents of black cherry, plump purple grape, fertile earth and spice. Glamorous and sexy in a light to mid weight style offering flavors of cherry and raspberry that make love to the palate. Sleek and lacy, with suave tannins, a deft touch of oak and a finish with both good tension and length. Still superb when tasted the following day from a previously opened bottle. The pick of the litter. Score: 95

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