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The Pinot Noirs of Anderson Valley
By Ed McCarthy
May 26, 2009
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Exciting Pinot Noirs are emerging from several different wine regions in California today, as well as from Oregon.  But a region we hear little about might be one of the best:  Anderson Valley.  There are at least two possible reasons for its anonymity.  First, Anderson Valley is rather small, being only about 15 miles long, with just about 25 to 30 wineries within the Valley making Pinot Noir, and another 20 or so non-Valley wineries making Pinot Noirs from grapes grown in Anderson Valley.  The other reason is that its location is somewhat remote. 

Anderson Valley is in Mendocino County, about 115 miles north of San Francisco.  The Valley is in the western part of the county, just 10 to 15 miles from the Pacific, and southeast of the coastal town of Mendocino.  Steep mountains surround the Valley, and the Navarro River runs through it. 

The first settlers didn't arrive in the Anderson Valley until 1851, and even that was an accident.  Walter Anderson and his three sons were tracking an elk from the Cloverdale region in northwestern Sonoma, and the elk led them into this previously undiscovered valley.  In the 1890s, Italian immigrants planted some wine grapes, but nothing much really happened, wine-wise, in the Anderson Valley until Edmeades and Husch Vineyards established wineries in the 1960s.  In the 1970s, three other small wineries--Navarro Vineyards, Lazy Creek Vineyards, and Greenwood Ridge Vineyards--opened up.  What really brought attention to Anderson Valley as a wine region was the establishment of Roederer Estate, arguably California's premium sparkling wine house, in 1982.  The following year, Anderson Valley became an official AVA wine region. 

In addition to becoming known for its sparkling wines, Anderson Valley acquired a quiet reputation for its Germanic varieties, Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  The Valley's cool climate suited these varieties perfectly.  In fact, Anderson Valley still remains one of the few wine regions in the world that can successfully produce dry-style Gewurztraminers, in my opinion. 

The region was slower to discover its potential for Pinot Noir.  But the sudden, new-found popularity of Pinots in California during the past 10 to 15 years has had a big impact on Anderson Valley as well; Pinot Noir planting has quadrupled here in the past 15 years -- aided by good wine reviews in the press.  Many esteemed wine producers -- particularly from Sonoma County but also from Napa Valley -- discovered the ideal growing conditions of Anderson Valley.  Today, Williams Selyem, Littorai, Duckhorn (with Goldeneye), Cakebread, La Crema, Adrian Fog, Siduri, and Copain are some of the famed producers from outside the Valley who are making Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs. 

Why has Anderson Valley become a hot spot for Pinot Noir?  In one word, climate!  Anderson Valley has the coolest year-round climate of any winegrowing region in California.  Amazingly, temperatures can fall 40 to 50 degrees at night.  This temperature range enables Pinot Noir grapes to retain their acidity throughout the long, warm summer and autumn.  Grapes ripen slowly and develop intense flavors.  The westernmost part of Anderson Valley, closest to the Mendocino Coast, has the coolest climate, and that's where many Pinot Noir vineyards are situated -- close to the majestic, coastal Redwoods.

Classic Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs are characterized by crispness and natural acidity; as a group, they tend to be somewhat leaner in style and exhibit more earthiness than the plusher, fruitier Russian River Valley Pinots from Sonoma.

I have just returned from a visit to Anderson Valley, where I attended its fairly new, annual Pinot Noir Festival.  I tasted 35 Pinot Noirs at a press tasting, and it proved to be very illuminating.  I discovered a few real gems, some of which I tasted for the first time.

A few general impressions:

• Just as in other California wine regions, the 2007 vintage is turning out to be superb in Anderson Valley!  Local producers are very excited about  their '07 Pinot Noirs.

• The 2006 vintage appears to have done better for Pinot Noir in Anderson Valley than in other California regions to the south, where it was often a bit too warm.  In many cases, I found the 2006 Anderson Valley Pinots almost on a par with the superb 2007s.  Conversely, the very cool 2005 vintage, a fantastic year for Pinot Noirs throughout most California regions, is merely very good in Anderson Valley, but not nearly the standout that 2007 has become.

• Just as in Russian River Valley, Carneros, and Santa Barbara, the Pinot Noirs of Anderson Valley are a very mixed bag when it comes to style.  You will find powerful, jammy, highly extracted, dark-colored Pinot Noirs here in Anderson Valley, just as in other regions throughout California, but mercifully, this is not the dominant style here.  I was happy to find many restrained, subtle, less fruity Pinot Noirs, the style I prefer -- especially with dinner -- which I recommend below.

•  There are no truly inexpensive Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs; on the other hand, there are few very expensive (say, retailing for over $60) Pinots, either.  A vast majority of very fine Pinot Noirs fall into the $23 to $50 retail price range. 

I list the Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs I tasted in alphabetical order, and include a brief description and the wine's approximate retail price.  All of the wines I tasted merited a rating from the high 80s to the mid-90s.  I indicate the rating of those wines to which I awarded 90 points or more:

Baxter, Run Dog Vineyard, 2007, $45:  Baxter, which makes only small-lot single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, was one of my most rewarding discoveries.  A brooding, classic Anderson Valley Pinot made from low yields.  I loved this wine; it was lean, with excellent acidity and outstanding, dark fruit flavors.  Simply delicious!  It will be released in September 2009.  94

Black Kite Cellars, River Turn Vineyard 2007, $52:  River Turn, one of Black Kite Cellars' three single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, is a lighter-styled, very pleasant  wine with distinct raspberry flavors.  A very typical Anderson Valley-styled Pinot Noir.  90

Breggo Cellars, Ferrington Vineyard, 2007, $55:  Breggo's '07 Ferrington Vineyard is an interesting mix of the classic Anderson Valley  restrained style combined with intense fruitiness.  Another winner from the 2007 vintage.  91

Brutocao Vineyards 2006, $26:  More renowned for its Zinfandels and Cal-Italian varietals, Brutocao also makes a reasonably-priced, fruitier-styled estate Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley.

Cakebread Cellars 2006, $50:  Cakebread's '06 estate Pinot Noir is a big, rich, fruity, concentrated wine with spicy, black fruit flavors.

Claudia Springs Winery, Klindt Vineyard 2006, $35:  Claudia Springs' '06 Klindt Vineyard is a classic, lean Anderson Valley Pinot, not overly fruity, with good acidity and decent concentration.  90

Couloir Wines, Roma's Vineyard, 2007, $44:  An impressive wine, made in the classic Valley style.  A blend of black and red fruit flavors; well-balanced and well-made.  One of the best.  92

Demuth Winery 2005, $40:  A very fine, elegant Pinot Noir which exhibits both black and red fruit flavors.  Only suffers a bit in comparison to the excellent 2007s.

Drew Family Cellars, Monument Tree Vineyard, 2007, $42:  The newer-styled Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, dark cherry red in color, with intense, fruity, concentrated flavors.

Elke Vineyards, Donnelly Creek, 2006, $38:  One of my favorite wines from the tasting; classic Anderson Valley, with zinging acidity, lovely fruit, made in an elegant, restrained style, with a definite resemblance to Burgundy.  Great Pinot  Noir (and the 2007 Elke Donnelly Creek I tasted later was even better, 94/95!).  93

Esterlina Vineyards 2007, $45:  Esterlina's estate Pinot Noir is made in the classic Anderson Valley style, lean, not overly fruity, and elegant, very correct.  Enjoyable now.  90

Foursight Wines, Charles Vineyard, 'All-In' 2007, $46:  A fairly new winery with a nice portfolio of wines.  The 'all-in' name refers to the fact that Foursight has blended in all four Pinot Noir clones grown on its estate.  Its '07 is a pleasant, medium-weight wine that is enjoyable to drink now.

Goldeneye Winery, Gowan Creek Vineyard, 2006, $55:  Goldeneye, owned by Duckhorn, makes three Anderson Valley single-vineyard Pinots, and Gowan Creek is clearly its best.  It's a modern-styled, fruit-driven wine made with 77% new oak.  A fine wine, but I'd prefer less oak.  90

Greenwood Ridge Vineyards, 2007, $30:  One of the wineries that carries the Mendocino Ridge AVA (a higher elevation).  Made in the lean, classic, elegant style.

Handley Cellars, Holmes Ranch, 2006, $40:  Handley Cellars, one of the early wineries (1982), has been consistently reliable throughout the years.  Milla Handley makes several Pinot Noirs, but her Holmes Ranch is my clear favorite.  It's made in the classic style, lean and elegant, with delicious fruitiness, but definitely not over the top.  92

Harmonique, 'Elegancé,' 2005, $53:  Made from two of Harmonique's vineyards, Elegancé made its debut in the 2005 vintage.  It is quite delicious, with its lush, dark fruit well-balanced with good acid levels.  A touch less new oak would be nice.  90

Harrington Wines, Wiley Vineyard, 2007, $40:  Wiley Vineyard is one of the westernmost vineyards in the Anderson Valley, in the very cool area known as the 'Deep End.'  I liked this wine very much; it's classically constructed, lean and elegant, with fine acidity, and dense black fruit flavors.  A real discovery for me.  92

Husch Vineyards, 2007, $23:  The first winery to plant Pinot Noir in Anderson Valley, over 37 years ago.  Classy, medium-bodied Pinot Noir; well-balanced, with red and black fruit flavors and substantial acidity.  Nationally distributed; easy to find.  Also, a great value!  90

Jim Ball Vineyards, 'Signature,' 2007 (Price not available):  Quite fruit-forward and soft, could benefit some with more acidity. 

La Crema, 2007, $50:  Well-made, competent Pinot Noir; a bit too fruit-forward for me.

Lazy Creek Vineyards 2007, $39:  (Lazy Creek was purchased by Ferrari-Carano  in July, 2008.  Ferrari-Carano has continued making wines under the Lazy Creek name in addition to establishing its own winery in Anderson Valley.  I report on Ferrari-Carano's  Pinot Noir at the end of this review.)  The 2007 Lazy Creek is a lovely, classic Pinot made up on Mendocino Ridge.  91

Londer Vineyards, 'Paraboll,' 2007, $54:  I've always liked Londer's Pinot Noirs, but the 2007 Paraboll, made from Ferrington and Valley Foothills Vineyards, is styled in a very rich, powerful mode--a bit too over-the-top for me. 

Navarro Vineyards, 'Deep End Blend,' 2007, $49:  A decent Pinot Noir, but not a standout in this group.  Sold at the winery or by mailing list.

Phillips Hill Estates, Corby Vineyard, 2007, $40:  A small winery making very good, classy Pinot Noir, lean, luscious, and very fine!  The 2007 Corby Vineyard is well-balanced, and has a long finish.  92

Philo Ridge, 2005, $32:  Another small winery, making its Pinot Noirs from the renowned Ferrington Vineyard.  Good wine, a bit soft.  Perhaps suffers in comparison to the 2007s.

Raye's Hill Vineyards, Henneberg Vineyard, 2005, $26:  A competent Pinot Noir from a small winery located in the deep end of the Valley.  Well-priced.

Roederer Estate, 2006, $24:  Let's face it, Roederer Estate is in the sparkling wine business, and its best grapes go there.  A decent, easy-drinking Pinot Noir, but not a standout in this group.

Roessler Cellars, Hein Family Vineyard, 2007, $45:  Made in a fruit-forward  style, not the style I prefer.  It lacks the tight structure of the best Pinots in this group.

Saintsbury, Cerise Vineyard, 2007, $45:  Although I'm a big fan of Saintsbury's Carneros Pinot Noir, its Cerise Vineyard from Anderson Valley, although well-made, is a bit too fruit-driven for me.

Scharffenberger Cellars, 2004, $23:  Why Scharffenberger (now owned by Roederer Estate) chose to show its 2004 is a mystery to me.  Of course, its main business is also sparkling wine.  At least it's well-priced.

Standish Wine Co., Bosc Block, Day Ranch, 2007, $70:  One of the  smallest wineries (only 48 cases) and the most expensive Pinot Noir in the group.  Made in the newer, fruit-driven style.

Toulouse Vineyards, 2007, $42:  A popular winery in the Valley, with many other wineries using its fruit.  A full-bodied, fruit-forward wine, a bit too ripe for me.  But I can understand why many like this wine.

Waits-Mast Family Cellars, Wentzel Vineyard, 2007, $42:  Only 25 cases produced.  A fruit-forward  wine, a bit soft, with a long finish.

Woodenhead Vintners, Wiley Vineyard, 2006, $60:  A crowd pleaser.  Quite delicious, fruit-driven Pinot.  A bit over-priced.

Zina Hyde Cunningham, 2005, $48:  This was one of the better 2005s, for me.  Made in the lean, classic style, with good fruit concentration.  90

To summarize, I rated the following Pinot Noirs in the tasting the best: Baxter 2007, Elke  2006 and 2007, Couloir 2007, Handley, Holmes Ranch 2006, Harrington 2007, and Phillips Hill, Corby Vineyard 2007.

In an earlier visit, I tasted Littorai's three Anderson Valley 2007 single-vineyard Pinot Noirs -- Savoy, Cerise, and Roman Vineyards -- and rated them all in the low 90s.  After the tasting, I also tried Copain's 2007 Pinot Noir (91) and Ferrari-Carano's 2007 Sky Ranch (92) from Mendocino Ridge.  I'm really impressed with Ferrari-Carano; it's only their second vintage, and they've gotten off to a running start, making Pinot Noirs in the classic style.  I also tasted MacPhail Family Wines 2007 Toulouse Vineyard, but found it a bit too fruit-driven for me.

That's it.  Anderson Valley presented a varied lot of Pinot Noirs to me, but in general, I was very impressed with the 2007s, and made some wonderful discoveries, such as Baxter, Harrington Wines, and Elke Vineyards.