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Olympics of Cult Pinot Collectibles

To commemorate my new web site launch and in the spirit of the Olympics, a few friends joined me recently and we blind tasted a baker’s dozen of cult California and Oregon Pinot Noirs from recent vintages. These wines have been subject to many disparaging titles such as “monuments to elitism,” and “toys for millionaires,” but they remain of great interest to Pinot Noir lovers. Impossible to find, absurdly priced on the secondary market, and more often sold on the auction market than consumed, they still remain the standard against which other Pinot Noirs are measured. Many will scoff at tasting these wines in a comparative and competitive setting, but it is the Olympic way.

The Starting Lineup

2005 Aubert Reuling Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2004 J. Rochioli West Block Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

2004 Kistler Cuvee Catherine Occidental Station Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2005 Kosta Browne Kanzler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

2003 Marcassin Blue Slide Ridge Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2005 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

2005 Ponzi Abetina Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

2004 Privé Vineyard Joie de Vivre Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

2006 Rivers-Marie Occidental Ridge Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2005 ROCO Private Stash Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

2002 Sea Smoke Ten Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

2004 Sine Qua Non Covert Fingers Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

2002 Sine Qua Non Hollern’ M Shea Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

All the wines are well-crafted. Shy and delicate they are not. Several are quite high in alcohol. Generally, they strut highly concentrated fruit with dark fruit aromas and flavors predominating. They are well-muscled, strikingly sculpted, and truly Olympian in stature. It is easy to understand how these wines would score well in tasting panels for their flashiness can easily seduce. The Gold Medal was awarded to the 2005 Ponzi Abetina Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir which only barely edged out the 2004 J. Rochioli West Block Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, the 2005 ROCO Private Stash Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, and the 2002 Sine Qua Non Hollern’M Shea Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Prices are release prices from the winery except where otherwise noted.


Mark Aubert has a distinguished winemaking career including ten years at Peter Michael. He grew up in the Napa Valley where he was more likely to drink wine and Champagne than beer. His father was a pharmacist who made Petite Sirah and Cabernet on the side. Mark graduated from Fresno State with a degree in enology and minors in chemistry and viticulture. He began his life as a winemaker at Monticello where he made that winery’s first lees-stirred Chardonnay. He struck up a friendship with Helen Turley who was consulting for Peter Michael. When the assistant winemaker at Peter Michael departed, Helen hired Mark. In 2000, Mark left Peter Michael to become the winemaker for Colgin, again replacing Helen Turley. At the same time, he started his own label, Aubert Wines. He bought a 7-acre Chardonnay vineyard in the Vine Hill area near Forestville (renamed Lauren Vineyard) and nearby planted another 6 acres of Chardonnay and 1.5 acres of Pinot Noir (Reuling Vineyard). The budwood for the Reuling Vineyard is from a famous source in Vosne-Romanee. He currently has four vineyard-designated Chardonnays (Ritchie Vineyard, Quarry Vineyard, Reuling Vineyard, Lauren Vineyard) and two Pinot Noirs (Reuling Vineyard and UV Vineyard), all in the Sonoma Coast appellation. Mark is a true gargariste and his tasting room is an unpretentious metal shed. He has a love for Burgundy and is a fan of Dujac, Jayer, Leroy and Meo-Camuzet (who isn’t?). His initial Pinot Noir releases were the 2004 Reuling Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (100 cases - 4 barrels) and the 2004 UV Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (also made in very small quantities). These wines are sold by invitation through a mailing list (, 707-963-4569). Mark’s wife, Teresa, handles the business side of the label.

2005 Aubert Reuling Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

15.6% alc., $80. · The nose offers strong aromas of black fruits, oak and chocolate with a little alcohol peeking out in the glass over time. A massive wine composed of concentrated and mouth-coating flavors of plum reduction sauce, blackberry jam, cola and sassafras. Syrupy and smooth in texture with a long, opulent finish. Generous and fruity rather than classy or complex. May be too over-the-top for some.

J. Rochioli Vineyards & Winery

The colorful Rochioli story as told to me by Joe Rochioli is detailed in depth in Volume 4, Issue 42 of the PinotFile. The first viable Pinot Noir crop from the Rochioli ranch was in 1971. In 1976 Joe made 1,000 cases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at Davis Bynum under the Fenton Acres label. In 1979 he sold some West Block Pinot Noir to Williams Selyem who made it famous (since 1998, Williams Selyem has received Pinot Noir from River Block only). Gary Farrell, the winemaker at Davis Bynum, made 50 cases of Rochioli Pinot Noir from West Block and Allen Vineyard which launched his Gary Farrell label. Also, in 1982 he made 150 cases of Pinot Noir for Rochioli to start the Rochioli brand. Shortly after this, Joe’s son, Tom, returned from the business world, disenchanted with his job and joined the farm. He used his business acumen to build a 10,000 case winery which was constructed on the estate in 1985. The name was changed to J. Rochioli Winery. A winemaker was hired, but after the first year, Tom took over and has made the wines ever since. Tom is a selftaught winemaker who never took any formal schooling in winemaking. Joe lives on the property in a house on the hill above the estate which he built by himself over a two year period.

The plantings are divided into blocks and block-designated Pinot Noirs are produced along with an appellation wine.The appellation Pinot Noir is labeled Rochioli and the block-designates are labeled J. Rochioli. The blocks include West and East, Riverblock, Three Corner, Little Hill, and the newest plantings, Sweetwater. The Ranch now consists of 162 acres, of which 128 are planted to vines, 64 acres to Pinot Noir. The East and West Blocks began showing markedly diminished quantity and quality by 2006 due to various viruses and other diseases. These two blocks are gradually being replanted with West Block selection using modern trellising, rootstock and spacing.

The single-vineyard and block-designated wines are sold through a mailing list ("The List"). The Rochioli Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, some of the Chardonnays, and the Sauvignon Blanc are also sold through the tasting room with some retail and restaurant distribution. The tasting room at 6192 Westside Road is a popular spot for tourists and is open Thursday through Monday. Total production is 13,000 cases of the three varietals. 707-433-2358. The website is

2004 J. Rochioli West Block Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., 400 cases, $75. · Sweet-scented smell of spiced black cherries and strawberries that draws you deeply into the glass. Ripe, juicy, and vivid earth-tinged black cherry fruit with great richness and persistence. A wine that is delicious and seductive. The impeccable balance and refreshing acidity will keep this wine on course for many years.


Is there another winery in California that is been so successful without any marketing whatsoever, no public relations to speak of, no pubic tastings, no tasting room, absolutely nothing to suggest the owners have any interest in their consumer base? Robert Parker, Jr., is one of the privileged few to be able to taste Kistler's wines and anoints them as royalty. That is not to say the wines are not worthy. The Chardonnays go through 100% MLF and come out the other side very buttery and appealing although their greatest attribute is as a sipping wine and not primarily a food-friendly wine. The Pinot Noirs early on were highly extracted and heavily oaked, appealing to Parker's palate, but off-putting to many others especially considering the high prices that were demanded. The winemaking style for the Pinot Noirs has mellowed in recent years to the benefit of the wines. Not much is revealed publicly about the winery but production is around 25,000 cases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay annually. Almost all the wine is sold through a mailing list in which wine is allocated on the basis of years of customer loyalty and volume of customer purchases. The list is almost ruthless in that those who do not buy significant quantities regularly soon suffer the consequences with scrawny allowances (a so-called “hostage winery”). These are wines for only the well-to-do as prices start at $70 a bottle and go up significantly from there.

The winery was founded in 1978 and the first several years were rocky with some serious winemaking problems. Since then, success has come quickly and today all the wine is quickly snapped up. The proprietors are Steve Kistler and Mark Bixler. Steve Kistler received a B.A. from Stanford University, studied at University California Davis and Fresno State University for two years, and was an assistant at Ridge Vineyards for two years before founding Kistler Vineyards. He serves as winemaker and oversees vineyard operations. Mark Bixler received degrees from M.I.T. and University California Berkeley, taught Chemistry at Fresno State University for seven years, and worked at Fetzer Vineyards for two years. Mark shares winemaking responsibilities, and is the chemist and business manager for Kistler Vineyards.

The grape sources include some of the finest vineyards in Napa and Sonoma Counties. After years of planning, a new winery was built at the Kistler's Vine Hill Vineyard in the Russian River Valley in 1992. The facility is thoroughly modern, optimized for the production of limited quantities of the very highest quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The wines are only sold through a mailing list and the secondary market (which is extensive indicating many buyers buy, but do not drink the wines, opting instead to sell them for a handsome profit). Minimum purchase for each twice-yearly offering is a case.

The Pinot Noirs come from Kistler Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, and Occidental Station and Bodega Headlands on the Sonoma Coast. The website is

2004 Kistler Cuvee Catherine Occidental Station Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 1,000 cases, $90. · This seemed to be an off bottle and clearly the least appealing wine in the lineup. The fruit was muted on the nose and in the mouth. No TCA was detectable by the group. Aromas of green beans and faint berries led to simple dark red fruit flavors, primarily black raspberry, with lively acidity on the finish. Decent tasting but not of “cult” caliber.

Kosta Browne

Michael Browne and Dan Kosta are alumni of a noted Sonoma County restaurant, John Ash and Co.. Michael followed a circuitous route to get there. He was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, but grew up in Washington State. Upon returning to Santa Rosa in 1987, he enrolled in prerequisite courses in architecture at Santa Rosa Junior College. During schooling, he worked in wine retail and at a number of restaurants. It was at John Ash and Co. that Michael developed a deep love for wine and food and the agricultural pursuit of winegrowing. His ultimate goal became to make a living as a winemaker.

Dan Kosta was a native of Sonoma who grew up around wine. Dan’s father owned a wine store in Santa Rosa and wine was a frequent topic of discussion at the household dinner table. After joining the staff at John Ash & Co., Dan worked his way up to Head Sommelier. He too, had a desire to be involved in a winery, and in 1997, he teamed with Michael to make the first Kosta Browne wine. They put all of their tip money into a “co-op” cookie jar placed in the restaurant’s kitchen. After raising $2,600, they bought a half ton of Pinot Noir grapes, a single barrel, and a used, hand-cranked de-stemmer and crusher to produce their first vintage.

The same year, Michael left John Ash & Co. and became assistant winemaker at Deerfield Ranch Winery in the Sonoma Valley. Dan and Michael attracted an initial investment group and in 1999 made 2,600 cases of Lake County Sauvignon Blanc. This venture proved financially unrewarding and the principals parted ways. In 2001, they teamed with Chris Costello and family who provided a fiscally conservative and thoughtful business plan. Success followed shortly thereafter. Michael likes to say he learned his winemaking at “ Hard Knocks University.” It didn’t take him long to achieve a measure of recognition. The 2003 vintage was highly regarded by wine writer James Laube of the Wine Spectator. He awarded all the 2003 Kosta Browne Pinot Noirs scores ranging from 90 to 96. The mailing list quickly filled up and Kosta Browne was on every pinotphile’s radar. Kosta Browne quickly became a member of the band of prestigious Russian River Valley wine producers, many of whom had been crafting notable Pinot Noir since the 1980s.

Kosta Browne bounced around, sharing space in several wineries for a while. Today, they have found a home in the old Vacu-Dry apple processing plant in Sebastopol. Here they will be able to further refine their craft and follow their commitment to producing better and better wines. Current production is about 10,500 cases which is comfortable for them.

Look for Michael and/or Dan at any of the major Pinot Noir festivals, but get to their booth early as their wines are quickly sucked up by the crowd that bellies up to their offerings. Kosta Browne wines are sold exclusively through a mailing list (there is currently a waiting list for the mailing list). The winery is not open to the public.

The Pinot Noirs are highly flavorful and intensely fruity wines. The lineup includes a Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley appellation bottling and single vineyard wines from Keefer Ranch, Amber Ridge, Koplen Vineyard, Garys' Vineyard, Rosella's Vineyard and Miron Vineyard.

2005 Kosta Browne Kanzler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

15.3% alc., 500 cases, $62. Clones 115, 667 and Pommard. · A beautiful wine with plenty of sweet ripe blue and black fruit wrapped in oak. Sturdy on the palate with firm tannins, yet showing some finesse, and exhibiting a huge, clean finish that leaves a little heat in its wake.


Helen Turley is one of the most influential winemakers in California, receiving critical acclaim for almost every wine she touches. Turley has been the consulting winemaker for some of the best wineries in the country – Peter Michael, Colgin, Bryant Family, Martinelli – just to name a few. Marcassin is Turley’s own label owned in partnership with her husband, John Wetlaufer.

Marcassin (French for 'young wild boar') does not have its own winery. The wines are crafted at the Martinelli winery in the Russian River Valley. Marcassin’s 10-acre estate vineyard, Marcassin Vineyard, is located on the Sonoma Coast and is planted half-and-half to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Fruit for the other vineyarddesignated wines is sourced from other neighboring true Sonoma Coast vineyards (Blue Slide Ridge and Three Sisters for the Pinot Noirs). The winery is very private and not much information is forthcoming. Turley is said to plant her vineyard very densely, severely limit yields, and pick very ripe. In her winemaking, she uses natural yeasts, new oak, and leaves the wines on the lees after fermentation. Stylistically, the wines are big and extracted with noticeable sweetness reflecting generous alcohol.

Marcassin produces about 100 barrels of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, enough for 2,500 cases. The wines are sold to a mailing list which has been full for years (the waiting list is rumored to contain over 5,000 names). Your only chance to obtain Marcassin wines is on the secondary market where they demand among the highest prices for any domestic Pinot Noir (in the range of $300-$350 or more per bottle). 707-942-5633.

2003 Marcassin Blue Slide Ridge Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.9% alc., $ (current retail price from $150 to $595). · Very ripe and prodigious black fruits touched by oak, stems, mushroom, earth, citrus and some noticeable alcohol. The tannins are reigned in and the mouth feel is very dreamy. Good but not exceptional because of the boozy impression that lingers.

Pisoni Vineyards & Winery

Winegrower Gary Pisoni comes from generations of farmers who tended row crops long before he was born. Pisonii enjoyed drinking and collecting fine French wines while in college. When he graduated, he was eager to find a way into the wine business. When he told his father he wanted to plant grapevines on the family cattle ranch in the Santa Lucia Highlands, he was met with several objections, not the least of which was the cost. Gary countered to his father, “Have you ever been to a $250 lettuce tasting?” His father relented and a legendary vineyard was born in 1982. Gary’s positive energy has made him a household name among Pinot circles.

Gary planted his own-rooted vines in virgin soil. It took ten years of witchers and well drillers to tap into a water source on the sixth try. Water turned the wilderness into a garden and made Gary’s dream come true. The original vines are rumored to be from suitcase cuttings from a famous domaine in Vosne-Romanee, now called the Pisoni clone or selection.

Winemaker son Jeff and grape grower son Mark created the Pisoni label, releasing the first estate Pinot Noir in 1998. A second label, Lucia, debuted in 2000. Pisoni fruit quickly became highly prized in California and Pisoni Vineyard put Santa Lucia Highlands on the map, becoming one of California’s true ‘cult’ vineyards. Many top producers craft a Pisoni vineyard-designate Pinot Noir (Arcadian, Capiaux, Morgan, Patz & Hall, Peter Michael, Siduri, Tantara, Testarossa). Gary Pisoni also manages nearby Garys’ Vineyard with Gary Franscioni.

2005 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., $65. The grapes for the estate Pinot Noir come from the own-rooted Elias Block portion of the vineyard where yields are very small. Annual production is around 600 cases. · The darkest wine in the lineup. Terrific aromatics emerge over time with the wine showing off perfectly ripe black cherries, cranberries, and smoke. Peppery and earth-kissed dark red fruits cascade over the palate with refined but noticeable tannins leading to a dry finish. Delivers a bolt of fruit flavor.

Ponzi Vineyards

Dick and Nancy Ponzi established Ponzi Vineyards in 1970 in Beaverton, Oregon, 15 miles southwest of Portland. Dick has been active in promoting Oregon’s wine industry for years. He was a founding member and first president of the Oregon Winegrowers Association, and served as a founding Director of the Oregon Wine Advisory Board (now the Oregon Wine Board). Nancy helped create the first Discover Oregon Wines guide, co founded the International Pinot Noir Celebration, the Salud Oregon Pinot Noir Barrel Auction and, most recently, Oregon Pinot Camp. In 1997, together they created a regional tasting room and a full service restaurant featuring local wines and food called The Dundee Bistro. Ponzi Vineyards is one of Oregon’s top 20 Oregon wineries by brand in 2007 with an estimated case production of 29,600.

Ponzi Pinot Noirs have won critical acclaim through the years. The wines have always been intense, savory and concentrated. Consistency has always been a hallmark, even during the uneven vintages of the 1990s. My Oregon wine epiphany was a 1992 Ponzi Reserve Pinot Noir made from a single vineyard that was 18 years old at the time and I have continued to enjoy many Reserve bottlings since.

The three Ponzi children, Michel (Operations Manager), Anna Maria (National Sales and Marketing Director) and Luisa (Winemaker), grew up helping out in the vineyard and in the family’s winery and operate the family business now. They are continuing the family tradition of community and wine industry service. Even their eight grandchildren are now being introduced to viticulture and the operation of the winery at an early age. Luisa is a highly respected winemaker who was trained in Burgundy and now is married to another notable Oregon Pinot Noir winemaker, Eric Hamacher.

A new Ponzi winemaking facility is due for completion for the 2008 harvest. It is located closer to the estate vineyards on the east and north faces of the Chehalem Mountains. The property, yet unnamed, is 42 acres and is being designed by Dick Ponzi. The original tasting room will remain at its current location.

Ponzi Vineyards has two tasting rooms. The original tasting room is located at the site of the first estate vineyards and winery at 14665 SW Winery Lane in Beaverton and is open from 11-5 daily. Tours are available by appointment (503-628-1227). The Ponzi Wine Bar is located at 100 SW 7th St in Dundee and is open from 11-5 daily (503-554-1500). The wines are distributed by Wilson Daniels and sold on the website at

2005 Ponzi Abetina Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., 100 cases, $100, etched . The Abetina Vineyard is a 2-acre vineyard established in 1975 and planted to 20 different Pinot Noir clones. Grapes from this vineyard are often put into the Ponzi Reserve Pinot Noir and a separate vineyard-designate is only made in exceptional vintages. · Redolent with both red and black spiced cherries along with dried herbs and sprinkled with cinnamon, this wine is plush, supple and delicious. There are some unresolved tannins, but they are fine and sweet. This wine charms with its discreet concentrated fruit. A striking wine that is in a class by itself.

Privé Vineyard

Mark and Tina Hammond hand craft their Pinot Noirs from two acres of vines planted in 1980 on their estate on Chehalem Mountain. He meticulously manages the vineyard and she crafts the wines in a tiny garage-sized winery on their estate. The first vintage was 2001 and the wines instantly became Oregon favorites. The Hammonds bottle three wines, Le Sud from the South 1 acre, Le Nord from the North 1 acre, and Joie de Vivre, a reserve wine from the best barrels in the winery. Quantities are miniscule and demand is high. The wines are sold only through a mailing list at One of my favorite Oregon producers.

2004 Privé Vineyard Joie de Vivre Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

13.0% alc., 98 bottles, $85, etched bottle. · This wine is the lightest in color and lightest in weight in the lineup. Upon pouring, the nose offers grass and herbs along with black cherry fruit. With time, roasted coffee aromas develop which carry over into the flavors which also include ripe red stone fruits, savory herbs and a hint of mocha. Medium-weighted, this Pinot has commendable balance and a clean finish.


Thomas Rivers Brown and his wife Genevieve Marie Walsh have quietly developed one of California’s most cherished Pinot Noir labels. Thomas hails from South Carolina and was educated at the University of Virginia. In college he majored in English literature and game theory, two subjects about as distant from enology as possible. He arrived in California in 1996, loving wine and wanting to play the game, but with no leads or connections whatsoever. He started knocking on doors and finally Ehren Jordan hired him at Turley. This was to become a very fortuitous hire as Ehren subsequently introduced Thomas to Scott and Joan Zeller, the owners of the 6 acre Summa Vineyard in the Occidental region of the true Sonoma Coast. Early on (2002 was the first Rivers-Marie Pinot Noir release), Summa Vineyard was the only source of Pinot Noir for Thomas, but led to other grape acquisitions in the area.

Today, Rivers-Marie produces very small amounts of Pinot Noir from three vineyard sources in the true Sonoma Coast, specifically the Occidental-Freestone area. Besides Summa Vineyard, grapes are sourced from the Occidental Ridge Vineyard (owned by Richard and Darla Radcliffe) which debuted in 2005, and the Willow Creek Vineyard (2 acres owned by Raleigh and Patricia Wilson-Juckett) which debuted in 2006. Total production for Rivers-Marie in 2007 is 650 cases. Its no wonder that there are 4,000 people on the waiting list hopelessly bidding their time for a spot on the mailing list. Managing allocations is a lot more difficult than crafting the wines.

Thomas also has a hand in crafting wine for fifteen different wineries in Napa, processing 300 tons of grapes annually, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon. He plans to move his own production to the Black- Sears Winery on Howell Mountain in Napa that Ted Lemon of Littorai is leaving behind (Ted’s new winery opens later this year). Thomas has a second Pinot Noir project with partners, Aston Estate, sourcing Pinot Noir from the Annapolis region of the true Sonoma Coast.

Rivers-Marie wines are sold exclusively through a mailing list which has been full for some time now. You can add your name to the waiting list at, but you might be better served to seek out a few bottles on the secondary market. A Chardonnay from Thieriot Vineyard located in the true Sonoma Coast will be available in 2007. There is also a Rivers-Marie Cabernet Sauvignon from Howell Mountain.

2006 Rivers-Marie Occidental Ridge Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.2% alc.,140 cases, $40. Clones 115, 667, 777. Aged in 67% new oak. · Pie-spiced black cherries and cola carry the show from start-to-finish. A complimentary citrus note adds zip and zing to the finish. All silk and satin with an appealing elegance unique among this lineup of wines. This wine will match much better with food than several of the heavyweight cult wines tasted because of its lively acidity.


In 1987, Rollin Soles hatched the Argyle Winery and the same year he purchased a hillside property in the Chehalem Mountains. It was many years later, in 2001, that Rollin and his wife Corby planted a 7-acre Pinot Noir vineyard on the property and named it Wit’s End Vineyard. The vineyard is uniquely situated to take advantage of the protection afforded by the Chehalem Mountains which shield the vineyard from winter Arctic winds and the Dundee Hills to the south which temper the wind from the Pacific Ocean. The vines are planted at a high density and three Dijon clones make up the mix.

The Wit’s End Vineyard has been a family project of great pride and Rollin and Corby farm the property with utmost care and attention. Beginning in 2003, they produced four barrels of Pinot Noir meant for family and friends under the ROCO (rock-oh) label and called Private Stash. Beginning in 2004, Soles has crafted two Pinot Noirs, a ROCO Willamette Valley bottling and the ROCO Private Stash. A small amount of the wines is released to the public each vintage.

The thunderbird image on the ROCO label is a reproduction of an ancient petroglyph removed from the Columbia River George in the 1950s. The bird image is said to represent the “wild essence and intriguing history of the Pacific southwest and ROCO wines.”

ROCO Pinot Noirs are available in limited quantities on the website, 503-538-7625. Recently, a vertical of all three of the Private Stash Pinot Noir vintages were offered for sale on the website.

2005 Private Stash Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., $75, screw cap. · Complex perfume of confected black cherries and berries, exotic flowers, and understated charred oak. With air, the nose broadens and intensifies. Rich arsenal of tasty dark Pinot fruits with great purity and vigor. Finishes clean with lively clarity. Brilliantly crafted with pinpoint balance.

Sea Smoke Cellars

Proprietor Bob Davids bought 350 acres of the Rancho Chabuchu in the western end of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation in 1998. The next year, 100 acres were planted primarily to Pinot Noir with a small block of Chardonnay. Located on south-facing hillsides above the Santa Ynez River, the vineyards receive plenty of midday sun exposure and evenings are blessed with maritime fog (so-called “sea smoke”). The estate vineyards overlook Fiddlestix Vineyard and further south, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. There are ten clones of Pinot Noir planted including Dijon 113, 115, 459, 667, and 777, and 2A, Pommard 5, Mt Eden, 09 and 16. The first winemaker beginning with the 2001 vintage was Kris Curren who left in 2008 to work at Foley Estates.

There are three bottlings of Pinot Noir: Botella, Southing, and Ten. Sea Smoke Pinot Noirs are sold almost exclusively through a mailing list at 805-737-1600.

2002 Sea Smoke Ten Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., $ (current secondary market retail prices from $225 to $300). The inaugural vintage of Sea Smoke Ten which is composed of all ten clones planted on the Sea Smoke estate. Aged 18 months in 100% new French oak. · Plenty of confected fruit with aggressive oak on the nose. Medium-weighted dark fruits with hints of raisin and oak. Smooth and soft with fine tannins on the dry finish. Decent but not exceptional.

Sine Qua Non

This is a tiny producer and one of California's true cult wineries. Established in 1994 in Ventura, California by ex-restauranteur Manfred Krankl and his wife Elaine, the wines have brought raves from the wine press and the mailing list filled up long ago with hundreds of names lingering on the waiting list. The wines are unique because each is assigned a different name for each vintage, the labels feature unusual label artwork done by Krankl himself, and wildly different bottle shapes are used. Each bottle is a work of art. Krankl made eight vintages of Pinot Noir from Shea Vineyard in Oregon, and two vintages of Pinot Noir in 2005 and 2006 from grapes sourced in the Sta. Rita Hills. He has discontinued his Pinot Noir program to concentrate on Rhone varietals and desert wines and plans to eventually source all wines from estate-grown grapes.

The winery is not open to the public. There is a very informative interview of Manfred Krankl posted on Grape Radio. Your best bet for obtaining the wines is the secondary market and be prepared to open your wallet. Are they worth it? Well, the few Sine Qua Non Pinot Noirs I have had were distinctive and outstanding. They are quintessential neuvo-California Pinot Noir with plenty of ripe fruit extraction, generous alcohol, and seductive textures. Not for the faint of heart and unlike anything from the Old World.

2004 Sine Qua Non Covert Fingers Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.9% alc., $ (current retail price from $245 to $450). · The powerful black raspberry and blackberry perfume practically knocks you over. Huge, jammy, powerful black fruits that are very flashy. Rather linear and lacking nuances, but oh what a ride. Well integrated tannins, smooth texturally, and sporting a long, chewy aftertaste with a hint of black coffee. A hedonist’s delight.

2002 Sine Qua Non Hollern’ M Shea Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

15.4% alc., $ (current price from $345 to $499). · I have had this wine on three other occasions over the past few years and it has never failed to impress me. A haunting nose of exotic dark berries with oak, musk, earth, charcoal, minerals and a little heat. Brassy dark velvety fruit that is rich, flamboyant and sumptuous. The tannins are suede-like and the wine caresses the tongue like a fur coat. My only complaint is that you can’t drink much of it at one sitting.

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