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2008 Pinot Noir Shootout Prelims

Over the past several years I have enjoyed participating in the annual Pinot Noir Shootout organized by Barbara Drady of Affairs of the Vine. The 7th Annual Pinot Noir Shootout preliminary tastings began last month and will continue until the final tasting to be held in San Francisco on January 19, 2009. Over 250 Pinot Noirs primarily from California will be paired down by a distinguished tasting panel to approximately 40 finalists and then presented to the public, trade and press at The Pinot Noir Summit in San Francisco in February, 2009 (date TBA). At the Summit, the public has the opportunity to vote for their favorite wines in a walk-around format with the wines offered blind, and the results then compared to the scores given by the professional wine judges. Attendees will also be able to meet the winemakers and/or winery owners who produced each of the winning wines that qualified for the Summit after they are judged and unveiled. The results from last year’s Pinot Noir Shootout can be viewed at the Affairs of the Vine website ( Affairs of the Vine is a wine education company, specializing in corporate events, interactive wine workshops, and Wine Boot Camp held at various locations in California's wine country regions.

The competition is quite unique among judged wine events for several reasons. During the preliminaries, thirty-two wines are tasted blind in four flights of eight wines over four to five hours, allowing attentive and critical evaluation of each wine by the judging panel. This format tends to eliminate palate fatigue as a factor in judging. At many major wine competitions, judges must sample at least 100 wines a day, and often more. Judging at the Pinot Noir Shootout is independent of producer, appellation, vintage and price. Each wine is judged on its own merit. A 100-point scoring system is used, but the emphasis is on the copious notes that the judges create for each wine. The judging panel is composed of a diverse group of Pinot Noir loving professionals including representatives from the wine press, sommeliers, wine buyers, winemakers, restaurateurs, wine educators, and wine writers. The results of the competition are gender-based in that male and female judges’ scores and comments are tabulated separately.

I recently participated in two preliminary tastings, sampling 64 Pinot Noirs. There were many wines that lacked the balance, elegance, texture, and sensuality that I look for in a good Pinot Noir. I am always honing in on acidity in particular. Acidity is crucial for refreshment, compatibility with food, and aging. Some of the Pinot Noirs had enormous richness and concentration, but lacked acidity. I like to call these wines “P-no-no-R.” There were a few excellent Pinot Noirs that I personally can recommend.

Heaven Sent

2005 Ampelos Cellars Rho Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.5%, 376 cases, $48. This wine is composed of the best 16 barrels from the 2005 vintage. Primarily Pommard clone with 2 barrels of Dijon clone 115. Aged in 56% new French oak barrels. Released one year after bottling. · Very fruity aromas of rich black cherries, raspberry jam and a lovely oak accent. A notable entry of plush dark berry fruits coat the tongue, offering some cherry and pie crust flavors, and ending in a stylish and refreshing finish of admirable persistence. The ripe tannins are nicely held in check and the whole package is thoroughly satisfying. This wine was also tasted at home with the same impression.

Ampelos Cellars is a family operation owned by Peter and Rebecca Work who biodynamically farm their 25 acres of estate vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills. In 2000, the Ampelos Cellars label was born and the first estate wines were released from the 2002 vintage. Ampelos is a Greek word meaning “vine.” The Greek connection derives from the Work’s love for Greece and their guest house on Folegandros in Greece’s Cycladic Island group where they spend time each year. The Work’s son, Don Schroeder, was the consulting enologist at Ampelos until 2008 when he left to become the winemaker at Sea Smoke. Bruno D’Alfonso (Sanford, Badge, Alma Rosa) has since signed on as the consulting enologist. The Works also supply grapes to Brewer-Clifton, Jaffurs and Samsara for their vineyard-designate Ampelos Vineyard bottlings. Total production is 3,500 cases including a Lambda Ampelos Vineyard Pinot Noir (listed under “Knock on Heaven’s Door” below), a Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir, and a Syrah, Grenache and Viognier). The wines are available on the website at Tasting is by appointment at the winery located in Lompoc at 1633 W. Central Ave., Suite B.

2007 Bohemian Vineyard Freestone Estate Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.0% alc., 250 cases, 45. This wine is from the chilly Freestone microclimate. Vineyard clones include Dijon 115, 667 and 777 on 101-14 rootstock. De-stemmed, 3-5 day cold soak, whole berry fermentation in one-ton bins for 8 days with multiple punchdowns. Aged in French oak barrels for up to one year. · Winemakers are Mike Zitzlaff and Chris Nelson. Unfined, unfiltered. There is plenty of charm in the nose with scents of cherries, rhubarb, herbs, oak and roses coming and going. Carefully oaked and moderately rich black cherry fruit on the attack with supple tannins and a clean, refreshing finish.

Bohemian Vineyard is one of a small cadre of producers who have taken up the challenge of farming Pinot Noir in the Freestone Redwood Highway corridor of West Sonoma County. Tom Cleary’s grandparents bought 40 acres of land in Freestone in 1945. Over the next few decades, the Cleary family operated the V-C Ranch. In 1983, a third generation of the family collectively bought 36 adjacent acres, 11 of which were acquired by Tom Cleary. In 1996, noted Sonoma viticulturalist Warren Dutton approached the Clearys about planting vineyards on their land. Tom and Sue Cleary decided to engage Dutton and the first vineyards were planted by the Dutton Ranch Management Team beginning in 1998. There are now seven acres of Pinot Noir planted at the Bohemian Vineyard. The quality of the grapes have proven to be excellent and have been sold to producers such as Capiaux Cellars, Crushpad, David Bruce, Patz & Hall, Roessler and Marcassin. Arturo Robledo has been the vineyard manager. By 2004, the Clearys, like many vineyard owners, decided to keep a portion of their annual harvest and enter the winemaking business. The Bohemian Vineyard Pinot Noir has been placed in several Bay Area restaurants and wine bars and wine retailers (a list is on the website at The wine is also available on-line. The 2006 Bohemian Vineyard Pinot Noir won a Gold Medal at the San Francisco Wine Competition.

2006 Erath Winery Prince Hill Vineyard Dundee Hills Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., 2,079, $45. Sourced from 25 year-old vines planted in Jory soils. · Very appealing aromas of dark Bing cherries and baking spices. Nicely weighted cherry fruit glides over the palate with notes of brown sugar and chocolate. Softly textured with a clean finish. I could spend some time with this one.

Erath Winery is one of the Willamette Valley’s first Pinot Noir specialists. Dick Erath came to Oregon from California in the late 1960s, driven by the belief that the future of Pinot Noir was in the Willamette Valley. Early on he partnered with Cal Knudsen to form Knudsen-Erath. They built a winery together in the Dundee Hills and released many acclaimed wines. In 1988 Erath bought out Knudsen and later brought on Rob Stuart as winemaker. The current winemaker, Gary Horner, joined the winery in 2002. Erath was sold to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in 2006 with both Dick Erath and Gary Horner active at the winery. The winery sources grapes primarily from vineyards in the Dundee Hills. Erath releases both an Oregon blend (over 80,000 cases) and single-vineyard Pinot Noirs (Prince Hill, Leland, Fuqua, and Juliard in most vintages). There is also an Estate Selection and the top of the line La Nuit Magique. The wines are sold on the website at and widely distributed through retail channels. The winery’s tasting room is open from 11:00 to 5:00 daily. Private tours and tastings are also available by appointment. 503-538-3318.

2005 Halleck Vineyard The Farm Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.8% alc., 250 cases, $55. From a 2-acre vineyard on the edge of Sebastopol meticulously maintained by vineyard manager Jim Pratt and the vineyard’s owners. Planted in 1999 and cordon pruned using clone 777. · Attractive and penetrating nose of cherry jam, brown spice and sandalwood. Well oaked red fruits with appealing spice (particularly cinnamon) and a hint of raisin. A wellendowed fruity wine that is yet elegant and silky with a long aromatic finish.

Halleck Vineyard is a small family winery operated by Ross and Jennifer Halleck. The Hallecks planted their family estate Pinot Noir vineyard in 1993 with the intention of setting aside profits from the vineyard for their three sons’ college educations. The 1-acre estate vineyard overlooks the Russian River Valley in the Sonoma Coast appellation. The first harvest was 1999. The Hallecks also source fruit from stellar vineyards in the Sebastopol area, producing three vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs (Estate, The Farm, Hallberg) and a Pinot Noir blend from three vineyards called Three Sons Cuvée. Rick Davis (Londer, Calstar, La Czar Vineyards) is the winemaker. Production is 1,500 cases annually and is sold through a mailing list with limited retail distribution. The Hallecks publish a frequent online newsletter of great interest and invite their customers to participate in harvest and travel events. Visit the website at

2006 Heart O’ The Mountain Estate Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

14.8% alc., 500 cases, $48. Individual clones (667, 777 and Pommard) are hand picked separately and kept apart throughout the winemaking and aging process. The grapes are de-stemmed into small bins, cold soaked for 6 days, fermented in small open top bins where the cap is gently punched down by hand several times a day. Aged 18 months in French oak barrels. The separate clones are blended before bottling and the wine is aged an additional 6 months in bottle before release. All winemaking is by gravity flow. Unfined and unfiltered. · Expressive aromas of ripe black cherries, plum and oak. Dark cherry and berry fruits are mouth-coating with some pie crust flavor adding interest. The tannins and alcohol are held in check, the texture is silky, and the finish is lively and persistent. Impressive and recommended.

Heart O’ The Mountain has a rich history. Established in 1881 by Pierre Cornwall who produced wine under the Santa Sada label, this grape growing property was later owned by the noted director Alfred Hitchcock. Today Heart O’ The Mountain is owned by the Robert Brassfield family who produce small amounts of artisan Pinot Noir. Bob Brassfield and his brother were investors in Felton Empire, a Santa Cruz Mountain winery in the late 1970s. In 1978, Bob and Judy Brassfield bought the Heart O’ The Mountain estate. They have lovingly preserved this historic estate including the transformation of an old barn on the property into a winery. The first Pinot Noir was released from the 2005 vintage. The Brassfield’s son, Brandon, and his father have taken courses in enology and viticulture at University California Davis and vinify the Pinot Noir with a consulting winemaker. The wines are highly allocated and sold in packages of 3, 6 or 12 bottles through a mailing list. Currently the wine is available to non-allocation list members. Visit the website at

2005 Olsen Ogden Milla’s Blend Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., 67 cases, $39. · Spice is the theme of this lovely wine. Strawberry and cherry fruits have a gentle strike of oak, and are enticingly spiced. Admirable elegance and impeccable balance. I like this wine for its pinotosity.

Olson Ogden Wines is a partnership between John Ogden and winemaker Tim Olson. Together they founded this boutique winery in Sonoma County in 2002. About 1,000 cases a year of Rhone varietals and Pinot Noir are produced. Tim Olson began crafting wine in his home garage over 20 years ago. A film major in college, he developed such a passion for wine that to gain experience, he began working gratis at Caymus under Charlie Wagner. Before long, he was rewarded for his hard work with a paycheck and went on to pursue winemaking as a career. He crafted excellent wines for Tarius before starting Olson Ogden Wines. Olson Ogden wines are sold through a mailing list with limited retail distribution. The website is www.olsonogdenwines and the phone is 707-823-6127.

2007 Phillips Hill Estates Corby Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

14.0% alc., 350 cases, $40. · Demure spiced red fruit with complimentary oak and graham cracker flavors presented in an elegant fashion with a silky texture and spot-on balance. This wine displays the sensual side of Pinot Noir.

2007 Phillips Hill Estates Toulouse Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., 175 cases, $42. · The nose offers confected cherries, root beer and brown spice. Moderately rich flavors of brown-sugared fruit and mocha. The ripe tannins are fine-grained and the wine is quite rounded and harmonious.

Phillips Hill Estates impressed me last year with their Toulouse Vineyard and Oppenlander Vineyard Pinot Noirs and I bought some for my personal cellar. Owner and winemaker Toby Hill initially pursued a career in art and his colorful labels reflect this. Living in the Anderson Valley, he transformed his art studio in Philo into a winery when some unfinished Pinot Noir became available in 2002. He is assisted by consulting winemaker John Pepe. Tasting by appointment. The website is The 2007 Pinot Noirs (there is also a release from Oppenlander Vineyard in Comptche and Marguerite Vineyard in the Anderson Valley) have not been released.

2007 Vision Cellars Coster Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., 286 cases, $42. · This is a wine of impeccable balance and breeding and one of the top wines tasted at the Pinot Noir Shootout. Attractive Bing cherry and brown spice aromas with a thoroughly pleasurable core of cherry and berry fruit with fine-grain tannins and a smooth, lingering finish. This wine has the full monty.

Vision Cellars is one of the few California wineries in which the owner and winemaker is an African American. Mac McDonald’s experience with Burgundy wines led him to found his label with his wife Lil in 1995. The first wines were released in 1997. He now produces several Pinot Noirs including both appellation and vineyard-designate wines from Sonoma County, Marin County, Mendocino County and Santa Lucia Highlands. His wines have improved every year and have received considerable favorable wine press of late. The wines are sold primarily through the website ( and via a mailing list.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

2005 Ampelos Cellars Lambda Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 535 cases, $35. Also tasted at home before the Shootout tasting. · Lovely nose of fresh picked wild strawberries and raspberries. Well endowed varietal flavors of cherries and berries with a sidecar of gentle oak. Fresh and juicy, smooth in the mouth with caressing tannins and a pleasant acid lift on the tangy finish.

2007 Balletto Vineyards Estate Bottled Winery Block Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 13.9% alc., 295 cases, $34

2006 Brutocao Cellars Estate Bottled Reserve Slow Lope’n Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 13.9% alc., 775 cases, $40

2005 Halleck Vineyard Hallberg Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 13.9% alc., 250 cases, $55

2007 Hunterdon Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 14.0% alc., 3,045 cases, $16

2006 J Vineyards & Winery Nicole’s Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 14.3% alc., 1,409 cases, $65

2005 R. Buoncristiani Vineyard Orentano Estate Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 14.4% alc., 430 cases, $40

2007 Trinchero Family Estates Main St Napa Valley Pinot Noir 13.5% alc., 8,300 cases, $12

2006 Wente Vineyards Reliz Creek Arroyo Seco Monterey Pinot Noir 14.5% alc., 7,000 cases, $22

As you can see above, there were three relatively inexpensive Pinot Noirs that showed well up against the heavy hitters in the Shootout (Hunterdon, Trinchero, Wente Vineyards). These three would make ideal daily drinkers. That is not to say that you should ignore the other wines. They are ideal for weekend special dinners, nights out at restaurants and for that special tête-à-tete.

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