Getting down to seeds and stems at 2018 World of Pinot Noir

Adelaida's original HMR Pinot noir block planted in 1964 (now part of Adelaida District-Paso Robles)

It was not surprising to find, at the 2018 World of Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara this past March 2-3, that American Pinot noirs are more impressive than ever. 15, 20 years ago, I would attend a 2-day event like this (such as the IPNC in McMinnville, OR), taste about 100 wines (about as much as I can before my tongue goes numb), and find maybe a dozen Pinot noirs that would knock my sox off. This year I found over 40 of them.

“Knock your sox off,” of course, is open to interpretation. Personally, I look for expression of place; which is why I was just as wowed by a lacy, mildly herby 2015 Presqu’ile estate bottling and a twiggy and reticent 2015 Adelaida HMR as I was by a lavishly aromatic 2015 Brewer-Clifton Machado and a deep, dark, brazenly “powerhouse” style 2015 Merry Edwards Meredith Estate.

We are all seduced by intensity (myself included). For many of our better Pinot noirs, intensity certainly does not preclude balance and terroir related integrity. But the glass-half-full side of me likes to think that sheer intensity is no longer the overriding means of measuring our “best” wines. When you think of it, Pinot noirs are supposed to be fine and delicate – not “bigger” than thou. Yet the concept that the more aromatic and flavorful Pinot noir is not necessarily the better one still runs counter-intuitive in most critics’ minds (and that’s the sour, tulip-half-filled side of me).
Pinot noir in Russian River Valley's Middle Reach neighborhood

The difficulty is that a preference for Pinots that prioritize fidelity to regions, sub-regions, vineyards or individual blocks of vineyards over intensity requires a democratic attitude towards regions and vineyards. Put it this way: Is La Tâche always better than Musigny, or a Clos de Bèze or Bonnes Mares? Of course not. La Tâche is La Tâche, and the same for Musigny, Clos de Bèze and Bonnes Mares; which also goes for Bien Nacido in Santa Maria Valley, Fiddlestix in Sta. Rita Hills, Pisoni in Santa Lucia Highlands, Valenti in Mendocino Ridge, or Shea in Yamhill-Carlton. If we can make that jump in logic for Burgundy, we can damn well make it for California and Oregon.

Looking back to when I started my wine career (in 1978), I can say that there has never been a lack of intensity in fruit, not to mention oak, in post-Mondavi era American Pinot noirs – particularly those grown in California. I remember sitting down to a blind tasting around 1980 and being bowled over by ‘76s and ‘77s by producers like Chalone, Sanford & Benedict and Hoffman Mountain Ranch (a.k.a. HMR); finding them every bit as intense as ‘76s by DRC’s La Tâche and Joseph Drouhin’s Charmes-Chambertin, also in that tasting. The issue, of course, was that we were evaluating a La Tâche and Charmes-Chambertin in the context of a blind tasting, which led to the tendency to evaluate them in terms of “varietal” rather than terroir expression. It was a great learning experience, but also a stupid way to evaluate wines at that level.

Although it’s never fair to compare wines that now exist in memory (it would be like asking how a prime-time Oscar Robertson would stack up against a Michael Jordan or Steph Curry in a game), I would still venture to say that, by today’s standards, those mid-‘70s Chalones, Sanford & Benedicts and HMRs – however phenomenal they may have been at the time – would probably come across as relatively coarse and overly oaked if compared to the plethora of our finer Pinot noirs today (although I distinctly remember most Burgundian grand and premier crus as also being over-oaked during the ‘70s – clearly a fashion of the times).

From the author's late '70s label collection

These days, we are long past the late, great Andre Tchelistcheff’s conjecture, during the early ‘70s, that “Pinot noir is scrawny and broods about the slightest offense... all the challenge is getting the surly child to smile." I was just rereading, for the nth time, the chapter in Robert Benson’s 1977 book, Great Winemakers of California, where Tchelistcheff is quoted to say that California possesses the climate but probably not the requisite soil to grow “great” Pinot noir.

Tchelistcheff, in fact, seemed to think that most of the “acceptable” American Pinot noirs up until that time occurred almost as a byproduct of vintage related “accident.” Nonetheless, he was finding a glimmer of hope in a few patches in Paso Robles (the HMR site, as it were), Santa Ynez Valley (at that time Tchelistcheff was consulting with Firestone, whose plantings were located in the warmer hills east of present-day Sta. Rita Hills), near Forestville (specifically Joseph Swan's orginal Pinot noir plantings, now called Trenton Estate), atop Chalone, and of all places, in Dry Creek Valley.

The author in 1982 with mentor Andre Tchelistcheff

Frankly, 40 to 50 years ago even the most prescient American vignerons could not conceive of Pinot noir grown in more extreme terroirs; such as the Sebastopol Hills, Fort Ross-Seaview or the Petaluma Gap, let alone McMinnville, the Deep End of Anderson Valley, Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Maria Valley’s Solomon Hills, or in clearings carved out of forests in Mendocino Ridge or Santa Cruz Mountains – although there was definitely pioneering work going on in these areas between the mid-‘70s and mid-‘80s.

What has dramatically transformed American Pinot noir is precisely that: There are now established growing regions even colder than what Tchelistcheff anticipated (evolution of viticultural technique having a lot to do with making that possible); suitable to the grape in a good variety of soils and topographies, rendering the importance of Burgundian type soil obsolete (having had the privilege of conversing with Tchelistcheff on several occasions, I can almost feel his hand slapping me across the face for suggesting that).

Pinot Noir during veraison in Garys' Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands

Stems and Stylistic Juncture

Two things that stuck out for me in terms of overall impressions of the wines at the 2018 World of Pinot Noir:

·        A modest movement towards more phenolic structuring; somewhat more apparent as Pinot specialists as a whole continue their recent movement away from obvious oak, less sweet fruit ripeness, fresher acidity, and avoidance of excess alcohol (no mean feat, considering the recent spate of warm, drought influenced vintages).

·        More individual vineyard expression, notwithstanding the usual commercial pressure to produce wines meeting broader regional or varietal expectations.

How much of this is related to vintage factors (mostly 2015s shown at the 2018 WOPN, although some wineries were showing 2016s or vintages as far back as 2013) and how much to winemaker or grower choices, I don’t know. For perspective, I asked a few vintners – beginning with Merry Edwards, for the obvious reason that her Pinots tend to be markedly deeper in color (although few winemakers achieve as much round tannin qualities as Edwards) than the vast majority of wines shown at recent WOPNs. 

Merry Edwards (photo courtesy of Merry Edwards Winery)

According to Edwards:

Once I planted Meredith Estate (her estate grown vineyard in Russian River Valley’s Sebastopol Hills), I realized that there was no way I could make the kind of Pinots I wanted to create without growing my own fruit... the best wines in the world are grown, not made...The number of passes we make in order to achieve this is about 10 each year – an expensive process... Water deficit irrigation is another necessary component of this.

The goal in all of this careful farming is to increase the amount of phenolic material (tannins and color) at harvest. Not only is Pinot Noir genetically deficient in phenolic material compared to other red grape varietals, but it tends to shed tannin during the winemaking process. Holding onto the phenolic material in the harvested fruit is what gives us the color and tannin to create textural depth. We have developed our own in-house phenolic lab so that we can track and maximize this material in the field and throughout winemaking and aging.

For a wine like Olivet Lane – at 45 years, one of the oldest blocks in Russian River Valley – I also use whole stems in the fermentor to augment the tannin, along with 80% new French oak... I have been making wines from this vineyard since the mid-1980s, and so I have had lots of time to figure out how bring out the best qualities of this site.

Garys' Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands

Yet Edwards seems to be among a shrinking minority in her willingness to push the envelope with high percentages of whole cluster fermentation and new French oak. I asked Jeff Pisoni, for instance, about his 2015 Lucia Garys’ Vineyard – which seemed so deep, concentrated, and compact in its black cherry profile, it could have almost passed for a more feminine style of Merlot (an analogy, not an insult) – and he responded:

I love the use of stems in whole cluster, or at least controlled amounts of it, but we didn’t use any in 2016 – it was a drought year, which brought out a lot more tannin in the fruit... In the 2015 Garys’, there was only around 5% whole cluster... Of all our wines, Garys’ usually receives the least amount of whole cluster, since the vineyard itself is higher in clay and less rocky, and the wines are usually richer, more fruit-dominated and juicier, as it is.

In recent years it has been almost par for Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards to produce some of the most aromatically sumptuous yet savory, lip smacking Pinot noirs in the state; and over the 2018 WOPN weekend, this Santa Cruz Mountains producer’s 2016 Windy Hill and 2016 Rapley Trail bottlings were true to form. According to winemaker Nathan Kandler:

We used 50% whole cluster in the 2016 Windy Hill, and 40% in the Rapley Trail. Why? Because stems enhance character and site expression, which is our objective. We want our wines to taste as much like the vineyard as possible. And besides, the soil in Windy Hill is so rocky, the tannin can sometimes be deficient, and so you want a little more stem inclusion. Rapley, on the other hand, has the most tannic structure, and so we’ll hold off a little bit on the stem inclusion.

Thomas Fogarty Winery's Nathan Kandler

Ancien Wines winemaker/owner Ken Bernards has been known to produce some of the state’s more deeply extracted Pinot noirs; although his 2014 Red Dog Vineyard, beautifully articulate of Sonoma Mountain, was definitely on the leaner, lighter, acid driven style. According to Bernards:

Whole cluster in the 10% range is all that’s necessary to achieve a subtle layer of structure/spice, since the fruit supplies the aromatics so well... I really am not looking for aromatic lift or layering from the stem addition.

Rusack Vineyards winemaker Steven Gerbac – who is among those who eschew stem inclusion these days (without being a missionary about it) – speculates, on good rationale:

I’m not exactly sure what is driving the trend towards whole cluster fermentation, but my guess is that it may also related to the trend of picking earlier. I know some winemakers have been picking really early, and I can see how some whole cluster would help to add some complexity to the wines.    

Pinot noir clusters in Tondre Grapefield, Santa Lucia Highlands

To Gerbac’s point, relating the trend towards stem inclusion to earlier picking in order to achieve more transparency and fewer winery adjustments: According to Big Basin Vineyards owner/winemaker Bradley Brown – producing some of the more structurally lower key Pinots in the state – this is definitely a favorable movement. As Brown sees it:

I am always amazed at the dominance of the “riper” style of California Pinot noir at WOPN. Beyond a handful of producers (and not necessarily from Oregon either, these days), and those from Burgundy, it was always hard for me to find wines in the old world ethos of Pinot making. I feel strongly that terroir is more emphatically expressed in Pinot when the fruit is picked at the peak of aromatic complexity, and made without substantial manipulation in the winery.
As you know, picking late necessitates manipulation in that water is usually added and acid almost always added to bring the wine back into balance. I had an interesting conversation with Nico Cueva (winemaker at Kosta Browne Winery) about his evolution in winemaking, and his feeling is that the older style of winemaking produced wines that are hard to differentiate, while the shift to earlier picking and hands-off winemaking are producing wines with far more character and nuance.
As for whole cluster (used in proportions of 50% to 100% by Brown)... the bottom line on stems is that they add dense, fine tannin, which adds body and structure to the wine, especially at it ages. Over time, it becomes fully integrated into the wine, and identifiable stem phenolics disappear.

Big Basin Vineyards' Bradley Brown

For the same reason that Bradley gives, Fiddlehead Cellars’ Kathy Joseph – certainly one of our contemporary icons – has gone the opposite direction; telling us:

At the 2018 WOPN you could see the trend towards very lean wines where the use more stems was pretty obvious and pretty powerful. I always like to ask, why do you do whole cluster and why do you add stems? Stems can help retain color, and can add body. If your color is shy, perhaps the anthocyanins are not yet ripe (picking too early?). I think, in moderation, stems are smart if they add a supplemental nuance and more importantly balance to a wine.  

Yet terroir is most obvious when there is the least amount of intervention; and everything we do should result in a delicious, well-balanced wine. The joy of Fiddlestix Vineyard is the intensity of character in the wine by doing very little to the wine. So I ask myself, why add stems when I need no color stability and when the textural balance ages so gracefully?  I am a big believer in testing an idea to determine if it’s a good one... (but) with the advent of tank presses and more gentle destemmers, we have had an opportunity to challenge the need for stems... Over the past 20 years, I have systematically seen stem aromatics over-shadow appellation aromatics, and mask terroir, so I have opted out of their usage, although this is not a universal statement about stems.

While 30% to 40% whole cluster fermentation has been just about par for recent releases of Côtière Pinot Noirs – consistently among the most understated in the industry – Côtière’s Kevin Law tells us:

I have personally backed off of it in all my wines (Pinot noir as well as Grenache and Syrah) the past two vintages (2017 and 2017)... I guess that, recently, I have been trying to rediscover the vineyards I work with... It is nice enjoying the pure interpretation of a vineyard through 100% destemmed fruit.”

View of Salinas Valley and the Pinnacles, looking eastward from Santa Lucia Highlands
Still, among the most impressive wines of the weekend were the 2015s of Wrath Wines – particularly the single-vineyard bottlings from the Boekenoogen, McIntyre and Tondré Grapefield vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands, and from their San Saba estate in Monterey – each bottling, in its own way, extravagantly scented, with a high toned tension of tannin and acid without sacrificing one iota of classic Pinot delicacy. According to Wrath winemaker Sabrine Rodems:
I tasted some high tannin wines at WOPN, but I am not sure if the ones that were extreme anomalies to me were due to whole cluster. I’m more inclined to think they were site driven... Most of the winemakers I know using whole cluster are doing it because their fruit does not tend to be tannic at all. We are pumping over all our reds, and we still cannot get any great perceptible levels of tannin in our Pinots, which is why we started adding whole cluster. Our baseline for all our reds is 20%, and then we also do some experimental lots at higher whole cluster as well; as in Wrath Ex Vite, which is 100% whole cluster, yet doesn’t show tannin as a singular component, but as more of an integrated structural component.

But without sounding pedestrian or like an ass, it really is 
all about balance.

Playful sign in Pisoni Vineyard

Notes from 2018 World of Pinot Noir

That said, my favorite wines (in alphabetical order) from the 2018 World of Pinot Noir, along with whatever comments I have been able to gather from the respective producers:

Adelaida Vineyards & Winery, HMR Estate, Adelaida District-Paso Robles – This wine’s sensory interest lies in its pretty, flowery, white pepper/cooking spiced, long, feminine, fine and silken qualities. The intellectual wow is the fact that 22 of the HMR Estate’s 34 acres of Pinot noir (most likely a Martini selection) were planted in 1964 – making it one of the oldest continuously farmed plantings in the U.S. (for the record: Hanzell still cultivates a small block of Pinot noir planted in 1953; Van Der Kamp Vineyard’s oldest vines on Sonoma Mountain are vaguely given as “early ‘60s”; The Eyrie Vineyards still produces an “Original Vines” Pinot noir from vines planted in 1965; whereas the original blocks at Chalone and Martin Ray’s Mount Eden Vineyard have been replanted over the past 21 years). Although Pinot noir has never been Paso Robles’ calling card (before Rhône and Bordeaux varieties came into play, Zinfandel was the regional specialty), calcareous slopes – in the HMR, at 1,600-1,750-ft. elevations – have made production of consistently floral, lithe, intrinsically balanced Pinot noir very possible. Adelaida winemaker Jeremy Weintraub cites “high free lime concentration” (i.e. limestone) as the site’s dominant factor... This prohibits the plant from taking up potassium, which keeps the wine pH low, while the high calcium and clay combination (the base material is volcanic) keeps the plant well hydrated without having wet feet... Aromatically it’s always hard to describe, but it always offers spices, earth, leaves and a suggestion rather than punctuation of fruit, while in the mouth it’s mid-weight and structured.” Lest you think that Paso Robles’ fabled diurnal expanse (average summer highs hitting the upper 90°s, and lows falling precipitously into the 40°s) explodes sugar readings, Weintraub points out: “HMR’s berries max out at 23°, 24° Brix, in some sections 22°... So I never have to pick ‘early’ to retain acid or keep alcohol potential reasonable.” Hence, year after year, this wine’s inordinate (even by Oregon standards) grace and moderation. If this isn’t sense of place, I don’t know what is.

Alma Rosa's Rancho el Jabali in Sta. Rita Hills

2015 Alma Rosa, El Jabali – Mt. Eden Clone, Sta. Rita Hills – I cannot even remember the specialty wine shop in California where I found my first bottles of Alma Rosa founder Richard Sanford’s earliest vintages of Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noirs (a ’76 and ’77), but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t totally appreciative of my dumb luck. Three years ago I tasted a ’77 at a party in Napa, and was amazed by its freshness. Yet sentiment has nothing to do with the plain fact that Sanford can still bring it – his single clone 2015 bottling caressing the nose and palate with beautifully pure, sweet red berry perfume, fine, zesty and lacy on the palate. Sanford told me, “Remember, this is the clone (Mt. Eden) Theckla (Sanford) and I planted at the El Jabali Ranch in 1983 from my original plantings at Sanford & Benedict” – first planted, as another reminder, in 1971, a good chunk of time before the appellations of Santa Ynez Valley (1983) and Sta. Rita Hills (2001) were established. The “Rosa” in the winery’s names refers to the gravelly clay based loam of the south side of the AVA. Adds Sanford, “In its youth, the vineyard provided a ‘cherry-like’ brightness and flavor, and with age it has become more savory and brambly... In the early years the vineyard was the source of our Vin Gris, but has since developed has bigger ‘shoulders’... The long persistence of the wine shows an elegant velvety structure rather than the angular structure of the younger wine.”

2014 Alta Maria Vineyards, Rancho Viñedo Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – In the past, wines from this ranch – a Martini selection originally planted on their own roots in 1973, close to Bien Nacido Vineyard – typified the “canned tomato” herbiness and animal-like/mulchy funk once associated with Santa Maria Valley Pinot noir. Guess what – it’s all still there, albeit in more subtle doses, amplified by mouth-watering acidity, plush texturing and the gripping tannin of the uncompromising 100% whole cluster/native yeast/unfiltered/un-nothinged style advocated by partner/grower James Ontiveros. It’s “old school,” but strikes a mesmerizing chord, like the opening riff of a classic, favorite rock song.

2014 Ancien, Red Dog Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain – This lean, almost meagerly scented, acid zinging wine goes against the grain in comparison to the sultry, full-throated style of most of today’s Pinot noirs; although it doesn’t lack for red berry concentration, and a compelling dose of deep, spicy, smoked/meaty aromas. Winemaker/owner Ken Bernards confirmed my notes; telling me, “I agree with you that Red Dog has a strong personality, different from all my other sites... this vineyard was custom planted for me in 2000, and is 100% Swan selection... It falls on the northwest side of Sonoma Mountain, with shale/marine sedimentary soil that are some of the most ancient in Sonoma County... very leached of nutrients and poor in fertility.... It faces the Petaluma Gap, with an elevation just under 1000 ft, often above the fog line but fully exposed to cool westerlies coming off the Pacific... Ultimately, these features manifest themselves in the wine with heightened aromatics, very exotic in nature, racy acidity and slowly developing tannins that have nudged me to give this wine more barrel time (17 months average) and more bottle age prior to release.”

2014 Angela Estate, Angela Vineyard, Yamhill-Carlton – Since all wine evaluation is contextual, Oregon Pinot noirs are invariably most impressive when tasted in Oregon, and California Pinot noirs when tasted in California; yet the ringing, penetratingly flowery and fragrant qualities of this wine seemed to assert itself in as dominant a fashion as any of the California wines tasted over the weekend. Not that it tasted “Californian” (who’d want that?) – the wine’s fine, zesty, sleek, demure yet persistent structuring is decidedly Oregonian, as are the whiffs of evergreen laced with a dried leafiness suggesting rose hip tea (at least to me). There is also pedigree to this wine – the winemaker of note is Ken Wright, and the estate plantings are farmed by Wright’s vineyard manager Mark Gould. I asked Angela’s GM Jessica Endsworth what contributes to the wine’s saturation of flowery fruit, and she responded, “Shallow, 30 to 36-inch marine sedimentary soil (Wellsdale series), and lots of Wadenswil (clone), which seems to add most of the floral aromas, whereas the Dijon 777 and 115 lend blacker fruit and pepper spice.”

2015 Balletto Vineyards, 18 Barrel, Sonoma Coast – Intense yet taut, medium weight (13.5% alcohol) wine lively with acidity, notwithstanding slightly grippy tannin, pushing up strawberry fruit tinged with high toned foresty/dried herb spice. According to winemaker Anthony Beckman, these spice and acid driven sensations reflect this cuvée’s three estate owned vineyard sources (Sexton Hill, Burnside Road and Cedar Ridge), located entirely in Sebastopol Hills, the southernmost pocket of Russian River Valley. Says Beckman, these are “steep hillsides or totally exposed, high-elevation hilltops about 10 miles from the Pacific,” where it is “several degrees colder (than elsewhere in Russian River Valley), and the wind and fog blow in cold from the ocean... soils are the light and dusty-fine Goldridge series with a sandstone hardpan as little as 16 inches down... as a result, vine leaf area and canopies are diminished, and the clusters are generally smaller with a slower ripening time.” 
2015 Balletto Vineyards, BCD, Russian River Valley – In contrast, Beckman tells us, “BCD is dramatically different,” coming off the flatter, predominantly clay (Huicha series), east side of Russian River Valley commonly referred to as Santa Rosa Plains. The nose is brightly scented, plummy and black cherry-ish, and the fruit’s plump, luscious qualities have the velvet texture often associated with Russian River Valley Pinot, albeit with ample balancing acidity. “Walking these vineyards,” adds Beckman, “it becomes obvious why BCD is so different from 18 Barrel, with its rolling hills, rich soils, healthy canopy and growing climate that is dependent on cold nights to offset warmer daytime temperatures... this gives a classic, top-tier Russian River Valley profile.”

Balletto's Anthony Beckman in Sexton Hill Vineyard, Russian River Valley's Sebastopol Hills

2015 Big Basin Vineyards, Coastview Vineyard, Monterey – Big Basin’s Bradley Brown deserves full credit for convincing Coastview owner John Allen in 2008 to bud over existing Syrah to just over an acre of Pinot noir in his 2,200-ft. elevation property, located in the Gabilan Mountains on the east side of Salinas Valley. The fruit is extravagantly expressive of this fully exposed ridgetop, growing in thin limestone/decomposed granite soils: like fields of strawberry, wild leafy herbs, a faint feel of leather and sense of mineral and restraint (13.7% alcohol) in its perky, vibrant, tightly woven length.

2015 Big Basin Vineyards, Lester Family Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains – An even prettier Pinot – super-cherry and pepper-laced “soup of fruits” aroma laced with dried herby, garrigue-like earthiness – juxtaposing supple and crisp, fresh sensations in a moderately weighted (13.5%) body. Says Brown, “Lester and Coastview make a case in point for transparency and terroir... Each year these wines are clearly identifiable as coming from these vineyards... The higher elevation, intense sun, granitic and limestone soils of Coastview produce a more structured and tannic wine, while a fruit character as well as earthiness is more pronounced in Lester.” Incidentally, adds Brown, “This has nothing to do with stem inclusion... The Coastview had about 50% stem inclusion and the Lester 70%, yet the Coastview is certainly more tannic.”

2013 Blair Estate, Delfina’s Vineyard - The Reserve, Arroyo Seco – Owner/grower Jeff was showing an equally seductive, straight 2013 “Delfina’s Vineyard” over the weekend; but if I had to make a Sophie’s Choice, I’d go with The Reserve's ultra-lush, curvy, sexy yet tensely tart and edgy expression of red cherry and leafy rose petal. Says Mr. Blair, “’The Reserve’ is a winemaker’s selection, and ‘Delfina’s’ more of an expression of the entire vineyard.” The unique aspect of the entire vineyard (named after his grandmother, who apparently civilized Blair when he was an unruly boy, growing up on this same Hwy. 101 property), is that it sits at the very center of the narrowest section between the coastal mountains forming Salinas Valley. Consequently, there is no windier spot in the entire county. If you’ve ever been in the area (between Soledad and Greenfield) and felt its 35+ MPH winds on a July or August afternoon, or sometimes raging for 48 hours straight, you have felt the direct impact on the vines: the roar (and face slapping grit) is deafening. Grape vine stomata, of course, shut down in excessively windy conditions, and there is severe water stress (although the valley sits on a gigantic, generous aquifier). But it all adds up to a unique matrix of acid build-up and unusually long hang time (there are similar circumstances in Santa Lucia Highlands just to the west, although the wind is even more brutal on the valley floor); resulting in more of a flowery (as opposed to fruit and spice) focus, perhaps a little less depth and layering than what you might find in Sta. Rita Hills or Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot, but with a tautly silken texturing all its own. The important thing, of course, is that it tastes like “Arroyo Seco,” and Blair’s Delfina’s bottlings are as Arroyo Seco-ish as they come.
Blair's Delfina's Vineyard, at the center of Salinas Valley in the Arroyo Seco AVA

2015 Brewer-Clifton, Sta. Rita Hills – I love the consistency in which this winery has been able to harness the ultra-fragrant perfume, blasting off from the glass, found in the best of Sta. Rita Hills grown Pinots. The strawberry/cherry fruit is pure, zesty, and electric with acidity, feeling light and lacy despite generous alcohol (14%) and savory tannin.

2015 Brewer-Clifton, Machado, Sta. Rita Hills – There is slightly more tannin grip in this equally high toned, bright, flowery scented yet finesseful single-vineyard, estate grown bottling. When asked to define the Sta. Rita Hills distinctions so apparent in the glass, winemaker/partner Greg Brewer shared: “I agree that Sta. Rita Hills exhibits a uniform element that differentiates the area from many others... On a collective level, I find something very carnal, authentic, pure and raw to the fruit profile... this is where I really see the spiced fruit characteristic that you reference.” The root, adds Brewer, is in “cool environment.” Then again, there are a number of equally cool climate regions on the West Coast. Brewer contends, “We rely on fruit generous clones such as 37, 459 and 667, which harmonize our objective with whole cluster fermentation,” achieving “a lush curvature of flavor which is corseted by the role played by stem inclusion... For us, this gives a brambly component reminiscent of running through wild berry bushes... Frequently when I work in Japan, clients mention components like umeboshi and other salted raspberry and plum preparations.”

2015 Cordant Winery, Kessler-Haak Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills – This niggardly yielding (1.5 to 2 tons) vineyard – planted in 2005 near the appellation’s cooler, foggier northwest edge, just east of Lompoc – has been forging a rep for quintessentially multi-spiced Sta. Rita Hills style Pinot; in this bottling, lusciously bright, perfumey fruit tinged with suggestions of lavender/sagebrushy chapparel and smoked peppercorn/tobacco; tightly wound, zesty, pinpoint. Cordant winemaker/co-owner Tyler Russell attributes the wine’s dramatic profile to the site’s  “hang time” and “cool coastal influence.... which increases physiological ripeness, making bigger, darker, more concentrated, mouth-feel driven wines... a special place to grow Pinot, and Syrah for that matter.”

2015 Côtière, Hilliard Bruce Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills –“2015,” says Côtière owner/winemaker Kevin Law, “was a bizarre year... I picked all my Pinot Noir before September 1st” – although Law definitely falls among the growing vanguard of Pinot specialists who pick earlier (closer to 22° Brix) to achieve more vineyard transparency, without fear of herbiness or under-fruiting (made-up term, so bite me). No matter, there is plenty of beckoning cherry cola and complexing chapparel/sagebrushiness in this wine; the pretty fruit embedded in a lithe, airy medium body underpinned by very positive zippy acid/tannin.

2015 Côtière, Presqu’ile Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Here is an interesting contrast of Santa Barbara terroirs: While like Hilliard Bruce (on the north end of the east-west running Sta. Rita Hills AVA), Presqu’ile is planted in sandy soil, there is both a more flowery red fruit profile (strawberry/cherry/raspberry) and faintly leafy green herbiness in the Presqu’ile, but less of a dried scrub earthiness. Otherwise, says Law (with my observations), “what both wines have in common is a similar weight (very airy and light), mouth-feel (silken fine), and tannin profile (on the rounded side).”

Jason Drew in his Mendocino Ridge home estate

2015 Drew Wines, Fog Eater, Anderson Valley – Beautiful fragrance of high toned cherry/cranberry fruit filtered through a veil of dewy wildwood-ish scents (owner/winemaker Jason Drew talks about “petrichor” – the first forest rain after a dry spell); razor-sharp, medium weight body channeling penetrating, perky fruit and foresty sensations. To achieve this tight harmony of elements, Mr. Drew blends fruit from five vineyards (Valenti, Balo, Fashauer, Perli and Joshua’s) from the higher elevation Mendocino Ridge, and from benchland and hillside sites in the middle and Deep End of Anderson Valley – all producing wines “that are complex at lower sugars as well as transparent with mineral driven, savory, persistent flavors... (suggesting) classic red fruits, forest mushroom, red floral tones and wild herbs.” Restrained oak, native fermentations, and organic or sustainable farming, in Drew’s opinion, also help to “not blur the lines of this fruit expression... which I believe helps orchestrate a sense of native terroir.”

2013 Fiddlehead Cellars, Seven Twenty Eight – Fiddlestix Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills – In recent years Fiddlehead releases have evolved towards more disciplined, tightly wound profiles; a deliberate move away from the voluminous, perfumed styles of today, and even from what Fiddleheads were known for just 10, 15 years ago. In this cuvée, the feel is still broad and full-ish, yet compact, fluid, zippy, layered; ripe toned red berry/cherry cola fruit superimposed in faintly mineral tones, quiet as opposed to chirpy. The more she has come to know her renowned vineyard (85% of which is sold to other vintners), the less owner/grower Kathy Joseph seems willing to resort to cellar manipulation that possibly “overshadows the taste of place... (and) living on the property, the insight into short window ripening trends is a huge benefit... We want our layered spices and black cherry cola to project... allowing the wine to self-extract... Basically no stems, minimal punch-downs, no filtering since this wine settles clean – and no fining, because we really try to pick ‘on point.’”

Stoller Family Estate's Melissa Burr

2013 Flying Goat Cellars, Rio Vista Vineyard – Dijon, Sta. Rita Hills – Perky, perfumed fragrance of acidulous red fruit (raspberry/pomegranate/cranberry), translating into fine, silken, pinpoint sensations finishing with the proverbial Pinot finesse and grace. According to owner/winemaker Norm Yost, “Rio Vista’s location at the far eastern end of Sta. Rita Hills is subject to a little more heat influence... It has tendency to ripen sooner but gives distinct herb spice and chaparral aromas along with expressions of dark cherry and raspberry... After harvesting fruit from this vineyard for more than 15 years, it has been fascinating to observe the changes in aromas, flavor and tannins in the wines as the vines mature.”

2015 Foxen Winery, Block 43 – Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Ultra-rich raspberry/cherry perfume inundated with almost sweet baking spices; the almost exhilarating, pure fruit qualities filling a zesty light-medium body with an ethereal feel. Foxen winemaker David Whitehair tells us, “The 2.5-acre Block 43 sits atop a steep (15%-30% slopes) northeast/southwest site that perfectly captures long sun exposure each day... Clones 667 and 777 contribute the bright bing cherry, raspberry and cola, and that combination with the site and planting density (3’ by 8’) are what sets this Pinot noir apart.”

Kathy Joseph's Fiddlestix Vineyard, on the south end of Sta. Rita Hills

2015 Freeman Vineyard & Winery, Gloria Estate, Green Valley of Russian River Valley – Lavish varietal rendering of red cherry, almost sweet in it intensity; tucked into a fine yet firm, zippy palate-feel. Gloria is Ken and Akiko Freeman’s 8-acre vineyard at their winery site, just outside Sebastopol at the westernmost edge of the appellation, just 10 miles from the Pacific. Say Mr. Freeman, “Clearly the sandy loam soil (Goldridge series), and the fog which results in 50-degree temperature swings on a daily basis, combine to give Gloria’s acidity and complexity, and our five clones – especially the Swan and Calera selections –help emphasize a very floral quality.

2015 Gran Moraine Winery, Dropstone, Yamhill-Carlton – I loved the purity and focused, finesseful feel of this wine; the bright, upbeat red and blue fruited Pinot qualities humming along with great clarity through a silken middle and prolonged, lip smacking finish. Gran Moraine winemaker Shane Moore tells us, “The Dropstone was blended from our two different estate vineyards to combine elegance and power, which I think is what Yamhill-Carlton is all about.... The 777 on our winery block usually drips with intense red fruit and driving acidity, and the Pommard Clone 4 at our Gran Moraine Vineyard faces due south, bringing barely ripe yet ethereal blue fruit, more elegance and spice... I try to coax the spice and intense fruit out of these wines without pulling out too much extraction (long cold soaks, cool ferments, relatively little cap manipulation, only once-filled oak, picking on the earlier side, and no extended maceration or whole cluster).”

One of the steeper blocks in Joseph Phelps' Freestone property

2015 Joseph Phelps, Freestone Vineyards, Sonoma Coast – Barely 6 miles from the Pacific coast, these steep hillside vineyards now produce spectacularly aromatic, terroir driven Pinot noirs on a dependable basis. The nose is saturated in cherry/strawberry wrapped around with almost sweetly earthen, foresty notes, more than intense enough to absorb toasted oak accents; while long, sticking, medium-full fruit sensations ride upon the animating acidity natural to this extreme, cold climate sub-region. Freestone winemaker Justin Ennis tells us the 2015 is a blend of the winery’s sites, Pastorale (58%) and Quarter Moon (42%). “Pastorale is a little more exposed, and is known for being more forward in red and black fruit, with nice acidity and minerality... The Quarter Moon – a little more protected by surrounding forests, yet windier due to closer proximity to the Petaluma Gap – consistently brings earthy, forest floor, rustic spice flavors to the wine.”

2015 Larry Hyde Estate, Carneros-Napa Valley – The distinctive quality of this wine is its unerring focus and concentration on pure black cherry in the nose – while more muted in terms of the spices or more filigreed perfumes of the varietal personality – which take on a fleshy, velvety, immaculately composed, strawberry compote-like exuberance on the palate. The wine, in other words, screams “Carneros” – or at least the purity of red fruit that once made this region a preeminent source for California Pinot (one neighbor’s mantra: “Beaune in the U.S.A.”), which is more than enough reason to celebrate.

Larry Hyde in his acclaimed Carneros estate

2016 Lingua Franca, Eola-Amity Hills – While a spare, lanky, nearly skeletal expression of the grape, there is a lot to be said for a wine that achieves exactly what it set out to achieve: a more spare, skeletal, decidedly lankier expression of Willamette Valley Pinot noir. For all its restraint, it still compels with a pretty, flowery/rose petal/cherry fragrance enhanced by a mildly herby, rose petal leafiness; and the lively acidity tugs and nudges the gentle fruit sensations along. I am reminded of the rosé-like scrawniness of The Eyrie Pinots from the ‘70s, although the Lingua Franca is more nuanced than what I remember The Eyries ever having. Says co-owner/grower Larry Stone MS, “Choosing this spot in Eola-Amity Hills was based on personal preference for the fruit from these eastern-oriented slopes near Hopewell... the wines have a savory, mineral quality with the brilliant red fruits and spices that I prefer over the fruitier and richer flavored sites of Willamette Valley.” The way I see it: Lingua Franca (2016 is its first estate bottling) has the bones, and probably the room, to grow – particularly given the promise already fulfilled by the neighboring Seven Springs Vineyard, couched in similar terroir. Undoubtedly, the guidance of partner Dominque Lafon, plus the talent of French-born winemaker Thomas Savre, will also give this estate a leg up in the future.

2015 Lucia, Garys’ Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – The 2015 is classic “Garys’” in terms of its rich, compact, deeply focused and concentrated black cherry nose; rounded, fluid, fleshy and flashy – or putting it another way, more of a sultry, velvety, curvaceous sexiness.

The author with the two Garys (Franscioni and Pison) on a more recent date

2015 Lucia, Soberones Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – While just across a dirt road from Garys’ Vineyard, the Soberones is shyer – a more youthful demeanor in its tighter, floral nose, as well as in its scrubby/chaparral-infused berry flavors; yet a deep, layered, velvet texturing and richness push through the savory, meaty tannin, and rattles and hums through the finish. Explained winemaker Jeff Pisoni, “Normally Soberanes is more high-toned, vibrant, elegant, and has firmer tannins because it is the rockier of the two sites... The Garys’, higher in clay and less rocky, is usually richer, juicier, and more fruit-dominated.” Despite differences in vine spacing, row direction and clonal selection, this has always a dramatic comparison of two vineyards, side by side, farmed by the same families, crafted by one winemaker.

2015 Luli, Highlands Ranch, Santa Lucia Highlands – Luli is a brand owned by the Pisoni family in partnership with Sara Floyd MS, and is also crafted by Jeff Pisoni; as such, an interesting example of a sommelier’s influence on a Pinot noir site predisposed towards some degree of intensity. There is more emphasis on a pure cherry, perfumed quality in the Luli, with nuances of mineral and loam filling in a backdrop; coming together in a light yet fresh, ringing, long and bright mouth-feel. The positive, according to Mr. Pisoni, is how the Highlands cuvée expresses “quintessential Santa Lucia Highlands... elegant and vibrant in the nose, while rich and full with acidity on the palate.” The fruit source is a single block on a lower slope, about a mile south from Garys’ Vineyard. The sensory qualities are also influenced by the choice of strictly 100% free-run (no press fractions included), which Pisoni says adds to “the purity of terroir,” and enhanced further by use of exclusively neutral barrels so that “expression of character is very much coming from the site.”
2015 Melville Winery, Terraces - Estate, Sta. Rita Hills – I can honestly say that I have never been predisposed to Sta. Rita Hills grown Pinot noir, but at the 2018 WOPN the wines of this AVA were simply taking the cake in terms of the terroir related integrity important to me. This bottling zaps the nose with super spices – baking seasonings mixed with sweet black pepper – inundating flowery fragrances (rose petal/pomegranate/sun dried cherry); the spiced fruit qualities rendered in a silken fine, feminine, fresh and nimble length of palate sensations. Melville grower Chad Melville attributes Terraces’ rare combination of fruit focused intensity, sense of purity and delicacy to its “really interesting set of circumstances... loamy clay soil (Botella series), with lots of calcareous chunks, and hard pan under about 18 inches under topsoil... The vines are terraced, facing due west, which gets pounded by the cold ocean wind.” The end result is “miniscule” clusters and berries; the transparency of which Melville underlines with “everything in neutral French wood (10 to 20-year old barrels).”

Russian River Valley's Sebastopol Hills

2015 Merry Edwards, Meredith Estate, Russian River Valley – While Merry Edwards’ top cuvées get seemingly more “powerful” each year, they also seem to grow in sheer depth and craftiness. That is, they clearly aren’t meant to just blow you away. For instance, the way a woodsy, faintly decomposed, mushroomy scent seems to waft through the concentrated dark berry/black cherry aroma of the 2015 Meredith, and the succulent, cushiony, velvet textured fruit sensations that finish with a lip smacking, savory edginess on the palate: This wild, almost unbridled feel to this wine is pretty much the same sense you feel as you drive up the winding, narrow roads of Sebastopol Hills – particularly during winter when vines and dwindling apple orchards, and surrounding thickets of woods are shrouded like a London fog – to this estate planting; and that edginess is a reflection of the acidity natural to this neighborhood, the coldest in Russian River Valley. If this has become a Merry Edwards “style,” there are tangible reasons why.

2015 Merry Edwards, Olivet Lane, Russian River Valley– The round, fleshy, proportionate feel of this wine is classic to this Santa Rosa Plains benchland growth; given the Merry Edwards touch and decades of experience with this vineyard, its characteristic opulence and velvet texturing is all the more maximized, along with the deep plummy/blueberry/baking cherry lushness. Edwards comments: “At 45 years, this is one of the oldest Pinot noir blocks in the appellation, and is planted to the Martini clone, one of our heritage selections... The berries are bigger than some of the new generation clones, so the wines tend to be more elegant... I use whole stems to augment the tannin, along with 80% new French oak.”        

2014 Native9, Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Hopefully there will always be a place in the Pinot world for Native9 owner/grower James Ontiveros’ 100% whole cluster/native yeast bottlings; his uncompromising approach always meant to extract a full (or rawest possible) sensory experience of his vineyard located in silty/sandy soils towards the west side of Santa Maria Valley, closest to the cool coastal air and wind. The 2014 follows most previous vintages with its concentration of darker toned fruit (with just snippets of the floral varietal character) embedded in loamy/mushroomy humus-like notes; slightly jagged, yet meaty and pithy, like burning sod, on the palate. The kind of Pinot that grow in the bottle, and perhaps in one’s heart (although not for everyone). 
2015 Patz & Hall, Pisoni Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – Focused intensity of black and red berry fruit; filling, meaty, typically muscular (for the site), yet seamlessly textured and balanced. 2015 is winemaker/partner James Hall’s nineteenth vintage of Pisoni, which, he says, is always “the potential to make one of the world’s great wines.” To Hall, the 2015 is “typical... flamboyant, complex, extracted and rich, while also layered and intricate.” When asked how this epic Santa Lucia Highlands growth differs from the North Coast sites that dominate the Patz & Hall portfolio, Hall told us: “The North Coast’s Goldridge sandy loam may be similar to the decomposed sandstone found at Pisoni, but we often thin fruit to achieve optimum balance, and to get the spice/cherry notes and plusher mouth-feel typical of the North Coast... (whereas) Pisoni typically yields closer to 2.5 to 3 tons, requiring very little fruit thinning, giving more brambly, darker fruits, and larger scaled Pinots that are broader in texture.”

Patz & Hall's James Hall

2015 Papapietro Perry, Pommard Clones, Russian River Valley – This wine, blended from three different Russian River Valley vineyards (Peters in a colder climate region south of Sebastopol, Leras Family in the more moderate Laguna Ridge area, and Bucher in the warmer Middle Reach neighborhood) is Papapietro Perry’s ode to Pommard Clone 4, which co-owner/winemaker Ben Papapietro describes as “the oldest clone grown in the Russian River Valley... truly the ‘work horse’ of the Russian River Valley.” Mr. Papapietro favors Pommard’s “great color... depth, complexity, spiciness to the mid-palate, and velvety character often described by the French as “iron fist in a velvet glove.” Accordingly, this is a lush yet poised, silky wine with a rich entry, snappy middle and long, gentle finish; accentuated by a nostril tingling, exotic fragrance enhanced by smoky/toasty spice.

2015 Presqu’ile Winery, Presqu’ile Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Sweet peppercorn spice and leafy green herbs punctuate flowery/rose petal/cherry/raspberry fruit fragrances; the herbiness taking on an almost sandalwood-ish, brown spice richness when combined with sweet oak (20% new French) on the palate; and the spiced red fruit coming across as fine, sleek and intricate in an edgy yet pliant, delicate palate feel. According to winemaker Dieter Cronje, the handling of their estate vineyard – located in the more coastal influenced, west end of the appellation (between Solomon Hills and Native9’s Rancho Ontiveros) – has been an evolution of “around 10 years of trying different things.” For instance, “We noticed that sandy soils and Dijon clones are not good choices for high percentages of whole cluster on Pinot noir, so we have adjusted by using less whole cluster and focusing more on the heritage clones (Mt. Eden, Swan etc)... Progressively warmer and drier years leading up to 2015 influenced our acidity levels, which have been on the lower side of what we typically see in the Santa Maria Valley... (although) generally I think our wines have been more approachable and fruit forward.”

2014 Rusack Vineyards, Solomon Hills, Santa Maria Valley – One of the brightest, freshest, most upbeat style Pinot noirs of the weekend; the varietal perfume veering towards high toned cherry/cranberry/strawberry, with a delicate, flower petal touch; lifted by zesty acidity on the palate. After working with a few top neighboring vineyards such as Bien Nacido, Sierra Madre and Garey for a few years, the winery has turned to Solomon Hills exclusively for its Santa Maria Valley fruit. According to winemaker Steven Gerbac, “We always embraced the typical Santa Maria spiciness (translation: intrinsic funk), but found it to be a bit overwhelming in certain vintages.” Gerbac cites Solomon Hills’ “dry, fresh earth vs. wet earth,” and the desire to get away from “tomato leaf aromas.” In Solomon Hills, says Gerbac, “grapes hold on to their acid really well in this spot, lending themselves to a more floral, delicate, red fruit styled wine... I think this is related to the less fertile sandy soil and lower temperatures, due to its close proximity to the ocean in relation to other Santa Maria Valley vineyards.” 

2015 Siduri Wines, John Sebastiano Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills – Pungent Pinot perfume with earthy underpinnings; sense of “opulence” and weight on the palate – densely textured, meaty with tannin, yet zesty in its high flying fruit qualities. According to Siduri’s Adam Lee, the wine’s aggressive yet scented personality is totally in keeping with the site, which he describes as “impossibly steep hills facing into the wind on the eastern (and climatically warmest) edge of Sta. Rita Hills... this leads to small clusters and tiny berries with thicker skins... (and) darker fruit flavors and more tannin than many of our Pinot noirs.”

2015 Siduri Wines, Pisoni Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – In Pisoni grown fashion, a luxuriously rich and spicy Pinot aroma with high, low, and middle notes filling the nose; full yet round and fleshy – high wire balance (even at 14.8% alcohol), and very “complete” in its feel. “Years ago,” says Lee, “I would have told you there are similarities between Pisoni and John Sebastiano, since both produce a bigger, richer style of Pinot... In recent years, as the vineyards at Pisoni have gotten older, the wines from there have proven to be more complex, with a wider range of flavors... part of that because Pisoni is actually a collection of vineyards, and we source from three of them... What is fascinating is that Pisoni tends to push later – the southern end of Santa Lucia Highlands gets colder in the winter – but ends up ripening sooner, so there is a bit less hang time... The positives are that the soils are poorer, and thus the vines really have to struggle, which gives you the vineyard’s concentrated character.”

James Ontiveros in his Native 9 Rancho Ontiveros, on the west end of Santa Maria Valley

2015 Stephen Ross Wine Cellars, Stone Corral Vineyard, Edna Valley – Sitting in essentially “a sand box,” as winemaker/owner/vineyard co-owner Steve Ross Dooley puts it, Stone Corral has always been distinct from other Edna Valley sites, which are more clay influenced. The vineyard’s signature, true to form in 2015, is rich, plush, lavish Pinot fruit: finely wrought, singing cherry/strawberry qualities; with gentle, pliant mouth-feels typical of Edna Valley, yet a little more delineated in the case of Stone Corral. It is the sand, adds Dooley, that grows “smaller vines, not particularly vigorous, and fairly open canopies allowing for good sunlight exposure on the clusters, resulting in high pigment development and polymerized tannins – finer tannins... Another consequence of our not-so-fertile sandy site is lower yields, translating to small berries and concentrated wines (the 2015 vintage, for instance, yielded 1.9 tons per acre).”

2016 Stoller Family Estate, Dundee Hills – If I had to choose one single favorite of the weekend, this might be it. Tailor-made to my taste: glimmering red color; pure, unsullied cherry/berry Pinot nose; freshness, exuberance, silkiness, and light, lively sensations, balletic across the palate. Stoller winemaker Melissa Burr allows, “This wine is truly our flagship, all sourced from our estate vineyard which is now slightly over 200 acres of vines, the majority planted to Pinot noir.” Insofar as approach, it is “predominantly native yeast, focus on moderate extraction techniques to provide graceful tannin, and use of discreet amount of new oak to add spice but not overpower the fruit.” For Burr, 2016 was a warm, “generous” vintage, marked by “clusters on the smaller side with lots of hen-and-chicks,” adding to skin-to-juice ratios. But in the end, it is the volcanic slopes (almost entirely Jory series) that speaks loudest in the Stoller; informing the classic “red fruit, baking spice, cola and silky tannins” of Dundee Hills.

Piles of pine needles: very much a component of the terroir in Thomas Fogarty's Rapley Trail

2016 Thomas Fogary Winery & Vineyards, Rapley Trail, Santa Cruz Mountains – This winery continues its successful steak of terroir-driven style wines with this youthfully tight yet savory and delineated bottling; flashing flowery rose petal, pickled plum and raspberry tinged fragrances with whiffs of pine needled forest floor; lean yet zesty, long and savory on the palate. Explains winemaker Nathan Kandler, “This vineyard, located down the hill just behind the winery (on a ridge over 2,100-ft. high), is protected by towering stands of Douglas fir, madrone and California bay, with coyote brush and the usual mountainside chaparral in among giant piles of needles... You can't help but ending up with the pitch and maple/sage-like smells of the forest along with the strong tannin/acid structure we get from mountainside fruit.”

2016 Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards, Windy Hill, Santa Cruz Mountains – More of a laser beam Pinot nose – sumptuous dried cherry and plummy fragrance punctuated by “old forest” scents of bark and sweetly resined greenery – following through in rich, savory, racy/tart palate sensations. Comments Kandler, “Here the character of this mountaintop vineyard has more of that sauvage, a little on the wild side, because as the name implies, this is an exposed, windier site... The hills around it are not as densely wooded as Rapley Trail’s, but wind rips through trees, spreading its residue... As you know, we actually replanted the entire vineyard in 2012, going with different clones, vine direction and trellising, while increasing plant density from 720 to 2,500 vines per acre, but the wines still end up tasting almost exactly the same as before... definitely a site thing.”

Douglas fir surrounding Thomas Fogarty's Rapley Trail Vineyard

2014 Wayfarer, Wayfarer Vineyard, Fort Ross-Seaview – One of the more lavish, or ravishing, Pinot noirs of the weekend; enthralling the senses with a billowing, multifaceted nose (violet perfume/rose petal/kitchen spice/forest floor); these sensations coming together with a rich, silky, juicy, almost ethereal sense of lightness. That remarkable combination of intensity and balance is all about this remote site; as owner Cleo Pahlmeyer summarizes it: “Less than 5 miles from the ocean, still protected by two ridge lines... We get cool, wet fog descending in the evening and lasting through mid-morning, cool ocean breezes throughout the day, yet all the vines are situated above 1,100 feet... influenced by the hot California sun... It is a warm spot in an otherwise cool area.” 
2015 Wrath Wines, Boekenoogen Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – Translucent burgundy red and multifaceted nose of floral/rose petal/spice infusion/black cherry/scrubby chaparral and wild mint (or pennyroyal). Fresh, lively, silky and upbeat, with a modestly weighted fullness, landing light on its feet. Sense of “completeness.” Among the Wrath bottlings, their highest elevation site (close to 800 feet, on about a 10% slope); producing wines winemaker Sabrine Rodems describes as typically “big berry/cherry, tutti-fruity with high acid when picked... like sucking on a popsicle stick... but reconciling into a really sophisticated wine when finished.” Rodems notes that Boekenoogen’s location towards the north end of Santa Lucia Highlands makes it the first of her vineyards to be picked because of increased exposure to both morning sun and more moderate afternoon winds (compared to the appellation’s windier southerly slopes, which face a narrower Salinas Valley wind gap); and she also allows that use of 20% whole cluster adds structural tannin as well enhances the wine’s “light herbaceous notes.”

2015 Wrath Wines, San Saba Vineyards, Monterey – Like Wrath’s 2015 Boekenoogen, fresh and lively sensations, with a sense of airiness and unerring balance; only, the nose is more of exuberant, nostril tingling fruit (a little less of the flowery varietal quality), with the lightest touch of kitchen herb spice. While Wrath’s estate owned San Saba is located on the lower slopes, just below the bench defining Santa Lucia Highlands (hence the Monterey appellation), the vineyard shares a similar rocky/sandy soil with that of most of Santa Lucia Highlands, and the increased wind stress of the lower slopes tends to give “bigger” fruit flavors than the higher elevation sites. 
2015 Wrath Wines, Tondré Grapefield, Santa Lucia Highlands –A rubier red than the other 2015 Wraths; its lush nose having more of a sense of black cherry concentration, spiked by a trace of peppermint/pepper spice; layered, velvety, fleshy feel, while retaining a sense of purity and focus on the spiced cherry flavor through a lingering, even keeled finish. Like Wrath’s San Saba block, Tondré is on a lower slope, but a little further south (just across a gulch from Garys’, which to some extent accounts for the similar singularity of fruit focus, despite Tondrés broader mix of clonal material). Rodems notes “less rocky and more sandy loam” in the soil, giving higher pH wines that are also their “smoothest and least acidic... (with) more umami characteristics” – qualities enhanced by both clonal choice (for Wrath, Pommard 4 and 777) and 20% whole cluster.

Wrath's Sabrine Rodems



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Randy Caparoso:
"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk." Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist/photographer living in Lodi, California, and the author of "Lodi! The Definitive Guide and History of America's Largest Winegrowing Region" (2021). In another life, he was a multi-award winning restaurateur, starting as a sommelier in Honolulu (1978 through 1988), and then as Founding Partner/VP/Corporate Wine Director of the James Beard Award winning Roy’s family of restaurants (1988-2001), opening 28 locations from Hawaii to New York. Accolades include Santé’s first Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year (1998) and Restaurant Wine’s Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 and 1998). Between 2001 and 2006, he operated the Caparoso Wines label as a wine producer. For over 20 years, he also bylined a biweekly wine column for The Honolulu Advertiser (1981-2002). He currently puts bread (and wine) on the table as Editor-at-Large and the Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal, and spend most of his time as freelance blogger and social media director for Lodi Winegrape Commission (