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Pinot Noir Newcomers Focus Tasting

These select newer Pinot Noir producers are worthy of your attention. These newcomers have only a few vintages under their belt and most produce less than 1,000 cases annually. The wines presented by these 15 producers were very impressive. Here are their profiles.

Baxter Winery, Mendocino Ridge, CA

Phil Baxter studied winemaking at University California Fresno and started his career at Charles Krug Winery. Later he oversaw development of the Souverain Napa operation and was the head winemaker at Rutherford Hill Winery. He then moved to Domaine Michel. In 1989, Baxter started his own Phillipe-Lorraine label honoring his maternal grandparents. With his youngest son, Phil Baxter,Jr., he now focuses his energy on Phillipe-Lorraine and their new single vineyard label, Baxter Winery, which debuted in 2003. Phil, Jr., is a graduate of University California Davis. He developed his winemaking skills in Burgundy at Domaine de la Vougeraie and Domaine Raymond Launay. The Baxters have consolidated their winemaking at their family farm in Elk, CA, in the Mendocino Ridge AVA. Single-vineyard Pinot Noirs are produced from Toulouse Vineyard and Red Dog Vineyard, both in the Anderson Valley, and Oppenlander Vineyard in Comptche, just north of the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County. Other red varietals include Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignane. The wines are largely sold through a mailing list at Tasting is by appointment (707-963-0121). Featured wine: 2006 Baxter Winery Oppenlander Vineyard Comptche Mendocino County Pinot Noir (One of my favorite wines of this seminar tasting. Nicely balanced, bright acidity).

Black Kite Cellars, Anderson Valley, CA

This is a family owned producer of Pinot Noir whose principals include Donald Green, Rebecca Green and Rebecca Green Birdsall. The name derives from the endangered Black Shouldered Kite, a hawk that is native to the Anderson Valley. The 12-acre Black Kite Vineyard was planted in 1999 in the cool “deep-end” of the Anderson Valley. The Pinot Noir lineup includes about 900 cases of a vineyard-designate (Kite’s Rest) and three block-designate wines (Redwood’s Edge, Stony Terrace and River Turn). The winemaker since 2005 is accomplished veteran Jeff Gaffner and the viticulturist is Paul Ardzrooni who is experienced in management of Anderson Valley Vineyards. The wines are sold through a mailing list at with limited retail distribution. Featured wine: 2007 Black Kite Cellars Kite’s Rest Anderson Valley Pinot Noir (Darkly fruited wine of great mid-palate density with persistence on finish. Previously reviewed in the PinotFile).

Bjornstad Cellars, Sebastopol, CA

Winemaker Greg Bjornstad produces small quantities of handcrafted, vineyard-designated Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Bennett Valley and Sonoma Mountain appellations. After graduate studies at University California Davis, Bjornstad joined Joseph Phelps Vineyards as their viticulturist and later held the same position at Newton. In 1996, he joined Flowers Vineyard & Winery as vineyard manager and assistant winemaker. Flowers was awarded the title, “Artisan Winery of the Year,” two years in a row by Wine & Spirits magazine while Bjornstad worked there. In 1999, he launched an international vineyard consulting business and has assisted winegrowers in Russia, South Africa and Australia and well-known clients such as DuMol, Hirsch, Kistler, Kosta Browne, Paul Hobbs, Pisoni and Scott Paul in the United States. He founded his own label, Bjornstad Cellars. Current Pinot Noir releases are from the Hellenthal Vineyard in the true Sonoma Coast and a Sonoma County blend. Bjornstad has worked with the Hellenthal Vineyard since 1997. Bjornstad is also the winemaker for newcomer Pfendler Vineyards located in Petaluma. Bjorstad Cellars wines are sold through a mailing list at with limited retail distribution. Featured wine: 2006 Bjornstad Cellars Hellenthal Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (Plenty of oak influence start to finish, earthy, dense, tannic)

C. Donatiello Winery, Healdsburg, CA

Christopher Donatiello, a former New York based wine and spirits distributor, teamed with investment banker Bill Hambrecht to transform the site of the former Belvedere Winery on Westside Road. The spectacular 14.5-acre estate has an organically farmed vineyard (Maddie’s Vineyard), a contemporary wood and glass hospitality center and tasting room, and an organic garden that introduces visitors to flora that offer the aromas found in the Burgundian varieties. The winery was launched in 2008. The focus of the winery is on small lot Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the organic estate vineyard and carefully chosen vineyards in the Russian River Valley. Webster Marquez (formerly at Williams Selyem and currently one of the trio of winemakers at Anthill Farms) is the winemaker. For 2007, three vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs are offered: Maddie’s Vineyard, Floodgate Vineyard and Hervey Vineyard. The wines are sold through a mailing list, at the tasting room and online at Very high quality, classy wines here. Featured wine: 2007 C. Donatiello Winery Maddie’s Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (Previously reviewed in the PinotFile).

Coterie Cellars, South San Francisco Bay, CA

Coterie Cellars is a boutique producer of small lots of handcrafted wines located near Willow Glen, just south of the city of San Jose. The winery is a member of the currently popular Urban Winery Movement. The formative years of the winery occurred as part of a coterie of winery workers for Eno Wines in the East San Francisco Bay area and Harrington Wines located in urban San Francisco. The founders are Shala and Kyle Loudon. Kyle’s winemaking training includes non-matriculated studies in viticulture and enology at University California Davis and Shala brings a client focus from years of work at Williams Selyem. Grapes are sourced from prominent vineyards in the Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands and Fiddletown. For 2007, vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs include wines from Saralee’s Vineyard in the Russian River Valley and Fairview Road Ranch in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The wines are sold through an allocated mailing list and online at Featured wine: 2007 Coterie Cellars Saralee’s Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (A rich wine with a huge nose that was very appealing)

Couloir Wines, Napa Valley, CA

Jon Grant founded Grant Family Wines in 2008 while working as an assistant winemaker at Turley Winery. He has been mentored at Plumpjack Winery, Corison Winery and Robert Mondavi Winery. There are two labels under the Grant Family Wines umbrella: Couloir Wines are single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Straight Line Wines are non-Pinot Noir varietals. The name, Couloir, refers to a steep mountainside gorge and reflects Grant’s love for ski mountaineering. Two vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs are offered from the Anderson Valley: Roma’s Vineyard and Monument Tree Vineyard. The wines are sold through a mailing list at Featured wine: 2007 Couloir Wines Roma’s Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir (Previously reviewed and recommended in the PinotFile).

Expression Wine, Napa Valley, CA

This winery produces multiple Pinot Noirs from different latitudes representing different “Expressions” of Pinot Noir. Winegrowing regions represented include Santa Rita Hills, Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and the Eola-Amity Hills of Oregon. The goal of winemaker Richard Sowalsky is to feature the vineyards and the terroir of each region. Sowalsky is a graduate of University California Davis with experience at Handley Cellars, Havens Wine Cellars, Robert Mondavi Winery, William Hill Winery and Big Horn Cellars. The wines are crafted at the Silverado Trail Wine Studio. Expression wines are sold through a mailing list, on the website at, and through limited retail distribution. Featured wine: 2007 Expression 39 Annahala Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. (Previously reviewed in the PinotFile)

Kendric Vineyards, San Anselmo, CA

Owner, winegrower and winemaker Stewart Johnson farms the 8.5-acre Kendric Johnson Vineyard planted in 2002 on leased land in Marin County. The current parcel is a fraction of Kendric’s lease of 80 total acres on a 1,500-acre cattle ranch. Planted Pinot Noir clones are 37, 115, 667, 777, 828, Pommard and Martini. Johnson started his label in 2001 and crafts about 600 cases of Pinot Noir from the Kendric Johnson Vineyard and Syrah from Shenandoah Valley. Johnson grew up in Amador County near the Zinfandel-making Sobon family, got a doctorate in political science from Yale, and graduated with a law degree from Hastings. While interning at the Environmental Protection Agency, he was drawn to the outdoors instead of an office practicing law. With his wife, who is a Marin County native, he discovered the pastoral beauty of Marin County and decided to grow grapes there. The wines are sold through a mailing list and on the website at Retail distribution is limited. Featured wine: 2006 Kendric Vineyards Marin County Pinot Noir (One of the best wines featured and the wine with the most lively acidity and refreshing finish. Previously reviewed and recommended in the PinotFile).

Kokomo Winery, Healdsburg, CA

Located at Timber Crest Farms in Healdsburg, the Kokomo Winery was started in 2004 with the production of a single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. A new winery was opened in January 2008. Owner and winemaker, Erik Miller, is a native of Kokomo, Indiana. He studied at University California Davis and worked at Belvedere Winery and Amphora Winery. Erik’s assistant is his best friend and college roommate, Josh Bartels. The focus is on Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley fruit. Two vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs are produced from Peters Vineyard (Sonoma Coast) and Windsor Oaks Vineyard (Russian River Valley). The wines are sold online at Featured wine: 2006 Kokomo Wines Peters Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (One of the better Pinot Noirs in this seminar).

Périple Wines, Garden City, ID

There are now almost 40 wineries in Idaho and Idaho ranks 22nd in the country for wine production. Périple is a partnership between winemaker Angie Riff, a former apprentice of Helen Turley’s, and Lloyd Mahaffey, a former Apple Computer executive. The word Périple (“Pair ee play”) is the French word for a journey. Périple is “a wine that reflects the contemplative walk in a labyrinth where perspective gains inner knowledge in a quest for the highest truth.” The inaugural Pinot Noir release is a 2007 Inman Olivet Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. After harvest, the grapes traveled north to Handley Cellars they were processed and crushed. The juice was then transported to Eagle, Idaho where it was aged and finished. The winery plans to add more wines, sourcing grapes from the Northwest, including the Willamette Valley of Oregon, the Columbia Valley of Washington, and the new Snake River Valley of Idaho. The emphasis is on small (250 cases or less) lots of wine emphasizing quality. The wines are sold through a mailing list at Featured wine: 2007 Périple Wines OGV Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (More elegant and understated than Turley’s Marcassin Pinot Noirs . A very charming wine and recommended).

Richard Berridge Wines

Richard Berridge, a Napa Valley landscape architect by trade, was one of the original founders of Duckhorn Wine in 1978, and has been involved in the wine industry ever since. In 2000, Berridge started his own Pinot Noir label out of Central Otago, New Zealand, called Drystone. Serendipity brought him together with winemakers Ginny Lambrix and Greg La Follette and several memorable barrels of 2007 California Pinot Noir. The two inaugural Pinot Noir releases are from Manchester Ridge Vineyard in the Mendocino Ridge AVA and Van der Kamp Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain. Production is miniscule, about 45 cases of each. The Van der Kamp is unique in that contain 25% Pinot Meunier. The wines are to be released in the fall of 2009 and will be sold to a mailing list at Featured wine: 2007 Richard Berridge Manchester Ridge Pinot Noir (An excellent and luscious wine that hides its high alcohol well).

Sand Hill Wines at Durell Vineyard, Sonoma, CA

The renowned Durell Vineyard was planted by owner Ed Durell and vineyard manager Steve Hill in 1979. The Sand Hill Wines label was launched with the 2002 vintage. The current owner of the vineyard and winery is Eleanor Phipps Price who, along with her former spouse, Bill Price, bought the Sand Hill Ranch and Durell Vineyard from Ed Durell in 1998. The Sand Hill Wines label is a collaboration between Price, vineyard manager Steve Hill, and former Chateau St. Jean winemaker Don Van Staaveren. The Durell Vineyard extends from the southern end of the Sonoma Valley into the western end of the cool Carneros region. Kistler has sourced fruit from this vineyard for years. Sand Hill Wines produces a single estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The wines are sold through a release list on the website at Featured wine: 2006 Sand Hill Wines Durell Vineyard Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir (Previously reviewed in the PinotFile).

Spell Winery, Novato, CA

The winemaker for Spell, Shane Finley, is also an assistant winemaker at Kosta Browne Winery in Sebastopol, CA. Finley grew up in Minnesota and after college became disenchanted with an office job. He ventured to California where he landed a position as a cellar rat at Copain Wine Cellars in Santa Rosa. Later he would make wine in Australia and France. Shane’s first two Pinot Noir releases came from the 2007 vintage and were sourced from Barton Vineyard in the Russian River Valley and Weir Vineyard in the Yorkville Highlands. The wines are sold through a mailing list at Featured wine: 2007 Spell Winery Weir Vineyard Yorkville Highlands Pinot Noir. (Rich ripe with notable tannins and an underlying earthiness. Needs more time. Previously reviewed in the PinotFile).

Suacci Carciere Wines, Sebastopol, CA

This new boutique winery was founded by the Suacci and Carciere families who have been close friends for twenty-five years. The families live in Sebastopol and both had Italian grandfathers who made wine. The first wines from the 6.5-acre Suacci Vineyard in Blucher Valley of the Russian River Valley AVA were released from the 2006 vintage, the vineyard’s fifth harvest. The winemaker is Ryan Zepaltas. A Chardonnay is produced from Heintz Vineyard. The wines are sold through a mailing list at Featured wine: 2007 Suacci Carciere Wines Suacci Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (One of my favorites of this tasting seminar).

Thomas George Estates, Healdsburg, CA

The Baker Family from Toronto, Canada acquired the Davis Bynum Winery and estate vineyards. Jeremy Baker has directed the renovation of the aged winery, tasting room and vineyards. The winery has been expanded and modernized with the eventual goal of producing 16,000 cases of wine per year. The 20-acre estate Lindley’s Knoll Vineyard (renamed Baker Ridge Vineyard) is undergoing revitalization under the direction of noted viticulturist Ulises Valdez. The Bakers bought the 26-acre Starr Ridge Vineyard and the 14-acre Cresta Ridge Vineyard, both in the Russian River Valley. Contracts with growers such as Windsor Oaks Vineyard will supply further grapes. Both veteran winemakers Gary Farrell and Guy Davis have consulted on the project. The new winemaker is Chris Rossi, a University California Davis graduate who was previously the winemaker at Christopher Creek. The wines are sold through the tasting room and online at The winery officially opened in early 2009. The wines will improve over the next few years as the new vineyard sources join the mix. Featured wine: 2007 Thomas George Estates Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.

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