Posts Tagged ‘california pinot noir’

Pinot Dazed & Amazed

June 21, 2012

I’m a fan of American Pinot Noir, whether it strives for a New World vibrancy or tries to emulate the leaner Burgundian model.

I recently got a chance to taste some of the best Pinot Noirs made in this country at the 8th annual Pinot Days event in San Francisco. Click here for an event preview.

Fast and Furious

There were 134 wineries listed in the Pinot Days 2012 tasting guide and festival officials promised at least 500 different wines would be poured.

From that massive list, I tasted 84 wines last Saturday afternoon at Fort Mason. I think it was a pretty good sample.

Quality overall was good, with a high middle ground between my top picks and the least favorite from the tasting.

Most of the wine was from the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages and most of the wines were Californian. There were a few entries from Oregon plus a handful of French and German wines.

The majority of wines come from small-volume operations.

The Road to Good Pinot Noir

Roadhouse Winery, a small outfit based in Healdsburg, poured two of my favorite wines from the tasting — the 2009 Russian River ($44) and the 2010 Sonoma Mountain ($48).

The Russian River bottling boasted sweet red cherry fruit and a fuller, rounder profile than its sibling, which comes from the hotter Bennett Valley.

The Sonoma Mountain featured strawberry/rhubarb flavors and was made in a leaner style than the Sonoma Mountain.

Look for amiable winery owner Eric Hall if you visit the Roadhouse tasting room, which is open daily just off the Healdsburg Square.

I’ve enjoyed other bottles from Roadhouse, which started up in 2010. Here’s a link to a previous Pinot Days review.

Another Familiar Favorite

I’ve enjoyed Martinelli Pinot Noir since tasting their wines at another pinot event a few years ago. Here’s a link to my blog about a visit to Martinelli in 2010.

The 2010 Zio Tony Ranch “Grace Nicole” Pinot Noir was a great example of well-rounded Russian River wine featuring fine cherry fruit balanced by enough acids to keep the sweetness in check.

It was the fifth vintage in a row for the Zio Tony Ranch wine — one of nine different Martinelli Pinor Noirs currently in distribution — to win a 90+ rating from Wine Spectator.

Good Wines Galore

There were several really good wines that just missed the top three spots on my list and there was one great buy — a $20 wine that comes from the 2011 vintage.

Here are some great suggestions for near-term enjoyment:

Black Kite Cellars “Stony Terrace” 2009 ($52) is  another example of pure red fruit that lingered for quite a while on the tongue. It really worked well with a bite of Dubliner cheese.

No 7 JCB  by Jean Claude Boisset, is a 2010 Sonoma Coast bottling from a French winemaker who showed a deft hand with this very dark red wine. This fruit forward $50 wine tasted of sweet red cherries with a hit of cranberry and some nice spicy notes.

Meomi Winery’s $20 2011 blend — made from grapes grown in Santa Barbara, Sonoma and Monterey counties — is an instant favorite at a great price! Tasty from the first sip, with a touch of mulberry against the nice cherry core, I found it amazingly approachable for such a young wine.

The  2010 Belle Glos Taylor Lane Vineyard bottling — one of the last wines I tasted — proved to be a well-balanced mouthful of moderate red fruit from the Sonoma Coast with a hint of mint that lingered pleasantly in my mouth as I headed for the exit. Full retail is about $40+.


Where’s the Prime Pinot?

June 25, 2011

Only a tiny percentage of U.S. beef earns a prime rating and it was no different with the wines I liked at Pinot Days.

There were about 200 wineries pouring multiple wines apiece at the event last weekend.

From a personal tasting of 104 wines, I found three that were superlative. But, a lot of others left me wanting more.

Where’s the Rank?

Why can’t buying wine be more like shopping for a good steak? I know what I’m getting when I pick out a juicy rib eye steak, based on a USDA inspection and rating.

There are eight levels of beef quality based on marbling, color and maturity.

Only the top three grades — prime, choice and select — usually make it to retail butcher shops and supermarkets.

The government doesn’t get involved with wine like that.

Who, What Where

Wine labels must adhere to industry standards regarding the type of grapes inside the bottle, the place of origin and the name of the seller and/or producer.

There can be lots of other details. Like, vineyard name, geographic location, AVA (American Viticultural Area), sub-appellation plus any organic or bio-dynamic explanations.

As far as wine taste and quality go, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There is no higher standard.

The name on the label is important, but it’s only one indicator. Bigger impacts come from weather and the myriad man-made decisions affecting the growth, harvest and production cycles.

All of those impacts shone favorably on the wines below, which I ranked highest in the Pinot Days tasting last Saturday (June 17) at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

Joseph Swan Vineyards

Joseph Swan Vineyards started production in Forestville in 1968. The name has long been associated with ground-breaking pinot noir and one of their pinots was my top pick at Pinot Days.

I liked the Swan 2008 Trenton Estate Vineyard ($52) from Russian River Valley for its complexity and brilliance, like a star you notice in a sky full of stars.

Everything seemed to rise up another notch with this wine, including the deeper color and lovely finish. I tasted sophisticated dark cherry with baking spices and smelled a pleasant forest scent. The red fruit lingered for a beat longer than I expected. It was wonderful.

Clos Pepe

Wes Hagen, winemaker and vineyard manager, showed an artist’s touch with an alluring 2008 from the Clos Pepe estate vineyard in Santa Barbara.

This is  lighter, and a bit more feminine style than the Swan.

“A delicate little creature, for sure,” Hagen told me after pouring me a taste of his $54 wine. The color is like reflected light through a garnet gemstone.

The taste is light cherry with some spicy aromatics and a trace of minerality.


It’s a completely different ballgame with the 2009 Roadhouse pinot noir.

This is a bolder mouthful with decadence dripping off of every drop of Russian River Valley juice.

The color is deeper, the flavors are bolder. There’s a swagger to this wine that’s engaging. Even the black-and-white label makes an impact.

Only 120 cases made. Wine club only, but maybe you can pick up a bottle ($54) at the winery/tasting room/pool hall in Healdsburg.

Tracking Down “Value” Pinot Noir

September 24, 2010

Like the California condor, a good, inexpensive pinot noir with true varietal character is an endangered species in the Golden State despite a virtual sea of low-cost wines to choose from. But there are exceptions, as noted below.

I put together an impromptu line-up of five wines ($20 or less) for a blind tasting this week. Three bottles were tasting samples from California wineries. The other two were recommended by local retailers — the Wine Mine in Oakland and Farmstead Cheeses and Wine in Alameda.

There wasn’t a stinker in the bunch, although I liked two bottles more than the others.

Five Value-Priced Pinot Noir Wines

Blind Tasting Lineup of Pinot Noir

Here’s the breakdown:

Wine 1 was a delightful garnet red. It showed a subdued “soft” cherry nose with a bit of barnyard aroma. I picked up a light “clean” cherry taste. This wine developed some complexity after a bite of sourdough bread and butter. I was surprised by some minerality — graphite mostly — that showed up at the dinner table after a mouthful of grilled onglet (a French cut of steak) cooked medium rare with roasted tomatoes, steamed broccoli and mashed potatoes.

I liked this enough to buy it and try it again. It was the Cupcake Vineyards 2008 Central Coast and it retails for just $8, making it the least expensive entry in the field.

Wine 2 picked up a hint of sassafras and cola in the nose with a deeper garnet color than No. 1. Nice honest fruit (cherry) up front that mellowed nicely on the tongue and even managed to linger a bit after swallowing.

It was a nice match for the mellow meat dish and it was my second favorite wine of the day.

Aritst Christo's "Running Fence," Sonoma County, California 1972-1976

Christo's "Running Fence"

The wine is Windy Hill 2004 Sonoma Coast, $12.50 at Farmstead Cheeses and Wine. The vineyards sit on a hillside made famous by the artist Christo who created an 24.5-mile fence of white canvas that ran through the property to the Pacific Ocean. The previous vintage was just as good, if not a tad better. This is a winery to watch! (Update: Farmstead’s Jeff Diamond has dropped the price of this wine to $10!)

Wine 3 showed a nice red color with a broader aroma that featured cola and light cherry accents. It had nice red fruit upfront, but it doesn’t develop much complexity. A bit hot on the finish, but it was redeemed by a faint flash of raspberry. This was the Robert Mondavi “Private Selection” California 2009, which retails for about $10.

Wine 4 is the darkest red of the lot with a reluctant nose that didn’t reveal much after 10 minutes in the glass. Plummy, but not overpowering. A nice little hit of tannin and the taste shows a little spice on the finish. I was surprised to learn it was the Saintsbury Garnet vintage 2009 ($19.99 from the winery and often marked down a few dollars less at retail locations). This wine, the winery’s entry-level offering of pinot noir, comes from grapes grown in the Carneros District.

I have enjoyed  Garnet many times, through multiple vintages. Steady quality quaffer, in my opinion.

Wine 5 was second darkest in color, just behind No. 4. It also showed a rather reluctant nose with a slight whiff of sour cherries. The cherry theme, albeit subdued, followed onto the tongue. This wine was thin, but it opened up with food to reveal more texture, some cranberry and a bit of star anise. This wine turned out to be the ringer of the bunch, suggested by my friend David Sharp at the Wine Mine. It’s the 2008 Vin de Pays des Côteaux du Verdon, made by Maison Louis Latour. Retail price is $11.

You can taste the Valmoissine, and 4-5 other pinot noir and syrah wines, at the weekly $1 tasting at the Wine Mine (5427 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) this Saturday (Sept. 25) from 2-5 p.m.

Santa Lucia Provides Pinot Pleasures

February 11, 2010

In Monterey County, along the southeastern edge of the Santa Lucia Mountains, they grow some of the finest pinot noir in California.

The high quality was evident in a tasting sponsored by the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans, a group of dozens of growers and winemakers who were at Fort Mason on Monday to conduct a trade and media tasting.

Garys’ is Great

My favorite red wines came from Garys’ Vineyard, where premium pinot noir is grown by Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni, two of the regions finest winemakers who planted their own vineyards together in 1997.

There are 18 wineries that buy fruit from the 34 acre patch of pinot vines. Garys’ Vineyard sits at 200-400 feet above sea level, smack dab in the middle of the appellation, where about 6,000 acres are under cultivation.

Tim Siduri, Siduri Wines

Tim Siduri, Siduri Wines

The Siduri 2008 Garys’ Vineyard ($54) was the biggest wine of the group, with bold tastes that need a bit of time to come together.When they do, look out. This is a blockbuster wine that’s likely to roll up some big scores.

Roar Wines is where Gary Franscioni makes his wine and his 2008 pinot from Garys’ ($50) will give Siduri a run for the money. This young wine is a classic  California pinot noir — rich with dark red fruit flavor and a lovely nose that fills the glass.

For a slightly racier profile, try the 2008 Garys’ Vineyard ($50) from Pisoni, who brings out the high spice notes in this fruit forward wine that matched up well with a bite of baguette spread with Epoisses, a silky but strong-smelling French cheese from Burgundy.

Testarossa’s 2008 Garys’ Vineyard pinot noir ($59) was equally approachable, with a similar lovely nose that hinted of violets and a perfectly balanced structure that made each sip a little masterpiece.

Impressive Organic

I was also impressed by one organic wine from the area. The garnet-colored Morgan 2007 pinot noir from the Double L Vineyard ($48) tasted of dark cherries with a bit of cola on the nose. A cherry coke never tasted this delightful!

Charismatic Chardonnay

On the white wine side of the tasting, the two 2007 chardonnays from Mer Soleil were both winners. I liked the Silver “unoaked” version just fine for its smooth, crisp citrusy vibe, but the toasty oak and luxurious fruit in the 2007 San Lucia Highlands version ($36) made it a real head turner.

I first tasted the Pelerin white wine called “Les Tournesols” ($28) about a month ago. Upon re-tasting this 2008 blend of roussanne and viognier (the name in French means sunflowers), I remembered how much I enjoyed the taste and smell of this asian pear/vanilla elixir.

The bargain of the tasting was the Santa Lucia Highlands chardonnay ($19) from Kali-Hart, a wine from Robert Talbott named after the founder’s daughter. I liked the streak of raciness in this golden glass of chardonnay that is centered by just the right touch of oak.

Highlands Fling Public Tasting

To get a taste of the new crop of wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands wineries, check out the Highlands Fling Gala Tasting May 15 at Hahn Estates in Soledad. There will be 30 wineries pouring their best wines alongside plates of local cuisine from some of the region’s best restaurants. Tickets are $85 in advance.

Good Wine, Good Deeds

January 22, 2010

The wine business can be a snake pit of competition, but it’s also a fountain of compassion when it comes to helping the less fortunate. Good deeds and good works just go hand in hand with good wine.

The premier fund-raising event in Wine Country is Auction Napa Valley, which runs June 3-6 with a wide variety of wine and food themed events culminating in the bigger-than-life live auction. This is the 30th anniversary of the Napa Valley Vintners-sponsored event, which raised $5.2 million for local charities last year and boosted total donations over the years to $90 million. Click here to see KTVU’s video coverage of the 2009 auction.

Every Little Bit Helps

On a different scale, the folks at Alameda Point Vintners, a collection of boutique wineries within Rock Wall Wines in Alameda, wanted to do something to help the victims of the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

They decided to donate 10% of sales through Sunday to the Red Cross effort in Haiti. The tasting room is open all weekend — a good reason to try, and maybe buy, some good wines. Here’s my recent blog about Rock Wall Wines and its friends.

In Napa, Ceja Vineyards is donating 15 percent of its online wine purchases through Jan. 31 to the American Red Cross for Haiti earthquake recovery efforts.

For a list of charity organizations taking donations earmarked for Haiti relief, read the Better Business Bureau guidelines.

Feel Good, Do Good

There is the “feel good” component of making charitable donations that is often amplified by the “do good” component.

A good example is the “Blending for a Cause” program that donates profits from wine sales to melanoma cancer research. Dutcher Crossing owner Debra Mathy began the charity effort following her father’s death just two months before she purchased the Healdsburg winery in 2007.

Debra and winemaker Kerry Damskey will lead the blending event on Feb. 8 from 1-3 p.m. The blend will be cabernet-based, with fruit from Mt. Veeder’s Mountain Terrace Vineyard. Check out the Dutcher Crossing web site for more details.

There are many other charitable efforts throughout the wine industry. Please comment below about your favorite wine-related event and I’ll share the info in a future blog.

I Told You So

A quick glance through the winners of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition showed great showings by tiny Oakstone Cellars in Fair Play, which I wrote about in last week’s blog. Oakstone won 13 awards, including the top wines in two categories!

Oakstone won Best of Class Judge’s Choice in the Bordeaux Blends category (up to $19.99) with its 2007 Meritage  ($19.99) from the Estate De Cascabel Vineyard and also took Best of Class honors in the Zinfandel category (up to $19.99) with its 2007 Fair Play zin ($16).

You can taste the Chronicle competition winners yourself at a public tasting Feb. 20 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Click here for more info.

Wine Pick of the Week

I’m a sucker for a decent bottle of pinot for less than a sawbuck, but I’m often disappointed by thin, tart tastes in many mass-produced bargain pinots from California.

I picked up a bottle of DeLoach Vineyards 2007 Russian River pinot noir on sale for $8.99 last week and  got much more than a bargain. I discovered a rush of lovely strawberry fruit with a hint of tasty rhubarb on the finish. Delightful stuff that carries a full retail price of $20. It matches up well with a sirloin steak braised in butter and then grilled and served with brown mushrooms in pinot reduction sauce.