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The Sonoma Coast: Pinot Noir's New Frontier
By Ed McCarthy
Mar 31, 2009
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In early March of this year, I toured California's Sonoma Coast, a region which I think is already turning out some world-class Pinot Noirs--and it will only get better.  I believe that the Sonoma Coast, even now, might be the best region in the U.S.--and perhaps the entire New World--for Pinot Noir wines, at least the type that I love. 

Some might plead the case for Oregon's Pinot Noirs.  Although I've always loved the balanced, finesse-ful style of The Eyrie Vineyard--and I'm happy to see Jason Lett following successfully in his father's (the late David Lett) footsteps--other than Eyrie, I see most of Oregon's Pinot Noir producers going down the same path as California's: making too many high-alcohol, ripe, heavily extracted wines.

Seven months ago, I wrote about "The State of California Pinot Noir" on Wine Review Online, in which I suggested that most of the current California Pinots (80 percent or more?), resembled heavy, very ripe fruit bombs; their grapes are invariably picked late, and the wines are very dark in color.  They're often described as being 'luscious and rich.'  Two newer California Pinot Noir regions, Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Rita Hills, seem to be particularly keen on making this style of Pinot Noir.

But the Sonoma Coast is giving me new hope.  Of course, it's not as clear-cut as that.  Nothing ever is.  There are some winemakers in Santa Barbara, Carneros, Russian River Valley and its sub-region, Green Valley, and Mendocino who are making balanced, lighter-styled, lively Pinot Noirs with red fruit flavors and floral aromas; and there are a few Sonoma Coast winemakers who are managing to produce dark, high alcohol, ripe Pinots with over-ripe black fruit aromas and flavors as well.  But on the whole, the Sonoma Coast, thanks to its fantastic terroir, seems to be highly suitable for Pinot Noir especially, as well as Chardonnay and possibly even Syrah.

The Sonoma Coast is California's most extreme wine region, climate-wise.   Growing season temperatures are almost as low as possible for grapes to ripen: daytime highs are usually in the low 70s, and night temperatures are in the 40s.  Cool Pacific fog and winds coming through the Petaluma Gap (an opening in the mountains at Bodega Bay) are responsible for the cool temperatures.  As I was driving towards the Sonoma Coast in March, I noticed two things: a seven or eight-degree drop in temperature in a 15-minute period, and a real pickup in the winds!

The growing season on the Sonoma Coast is extremely long; most of the grapes are harvested from mid-October to November (quite a contrast to Napa Valley, where harvest typically begins in August).  The vineyards--which are generally planted high in the Sonoma Mountains to catch the sun--have thin, shallow, very rocky soil.  The thin soil plus the sunshine are key assets.  But the Sonoma Coast is always a challenge to growers, with cold spring seasons (common), very small crops (also common), and fall rains (always likely).

Thirty years ago, there were no wineries, practically no vineyards, and very few people on the Sonoma Coast; it was grazing land.  Bryce Jones, owner of Sonoma-Cutrer at that time, was the force behind establishing a Sonoma Coast AVA in 1987; Jones had vineyards scattered throughout the Coast, primarily for Chardonnay, with no specific AVA other than the all-encompassing 'Sonoma County,' which Jones found unacceptable. 

The Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area is the largest AVA in Sonoma County.  Its boundary runs along the Pacific Coast from the Mendocino County line in the north all the way down to San Pablo Bay and Marin County in the south--more than 500,000 acres, with only about 7,000 acres presently under vine.  It's an umbrella AVA in that parts of it encompass a number of other Sonoma AVAs.

In the early 1990s, grape growers and a few wineries started moving out to the Sonoma Coast.  Today, over 50 growers have vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA, and 255 wineries either have production facilities or--in most cases--own vineyards on the Sonoma Coast.  Some big-names, such as Marcassin and Flowers, have wineries here.  But most of the well-known wineries specializing in Pinot Noir and/or Chardonnay in Sonoma (primarily Russian River Valley) and Mendocino either buy grapes from Sonoma Coast vineyards--such as Hirsch or Peay Vineyard--lease vineyards on the Coast, or have bought their own Sonoma Coast vineyards, but make their wines at their own wineries.

Besides Martinelli and Flowers, other well-known wineries making Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir include Kistler, Peter Michael, Williams Selyem, Littorai, Chasseur, Failla, Siduri, Aubert, Dutton-Goldfield, Merry Edwards, Radio-Coteau, Martinelli, Gallo (MacMurray Ranch), Schug, and Sebastiani.  Kendall-Jackson has established vineyards here for its wineries, including its outstanding Hartford Court and La Crema.  But most of the wineries actually on the Sonoma Coast are small; top growers such as Hirsch and Peay have their own small wineries, as does Annapolis Winery, Kastania Vineyards, and Wild Hog Vineyard.

Now let's get down to actual wines that I tasted.  Recently, I chose an inexpensive Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, MacMurray Ranch 2006 (retails for $16 to $18), and tasted it 'blind' next to the same producer's Russian River Valley and Central Coast 2006 Pinots, to see if I could note the differences.  I was quite astounded; I so much preferred MacMurray's Sonoma Coast Pinot; it was lively, balanced, and delicious, a great value.  The MacMurray RRV Pinot Noir was a bit heavy, not a bad wine, but much less distinguished; ditto MacMurray's Central Coast Pinot.  I rated the MacMurray Pinot Noir a full three points higher than the other two.

During my March visit to Sonoma, I visited many wineries, but I was most impressed with the Pinot Noirs of Littorai, Hartford Court, Williams Selyem, and Freestone Vineyards.  I tasted through the entire line of Littorai's, Hartford Court's, and Freestone Vineyards Pinot Noirs, including 2007 barrel samples, and tasted a great many 2006 William Selyem Pinot Noirs; Williams Selyem winemaker Bob Cabral will debut his single-vineyard 2007s in the fall.  At home I also tasted Pinot Noirs from a small new winery I'm impressed with, Willowbrook Cellars, which is making Pinot Noirs from the Sonoma Coast and from a vineyard in Marin County, just south of the Sonoma Coast  (I couldn't visit Willowbrook Cellars as it does not have its  own winery yet). 

Some general impressions regarding the last three vintages of Pinot Noir:  Pinot Noir winemakers in Sonoma are generally ecstatic about the quality of their 2005s, 2006s, and 2007s.  2005 was one of the coolest-climate vintages in California in a long time, perfect for Pinot Noir; the '05s that I tasted were gorgeous, lively, with great fruit, and will be long-lived.  The '06s, although generally good, were a bit riper and fuller than the '05s; I generally liked them a bit less.  The 2007s are scary good; all of the winemakers I visited are very excited about their 2007s.  Bob Cabral told me that it's the best vintage he's ever seen for Pinot Noir.  Even better than the 2005?   Perhaps; time will tell.  According to the winemakers, 2007 has all the great characteristics of the 2005s, but even more exquisite balance.

Here are my specific impressions of these wines:

Hartford Court 2007 Pinot Noirs (barrel samples):

I met with co-owner Don Hartford (son-in-law of Jess Jackson) and winemaker Jeff Mangahas, and tasted all 10 of their 2007 Pinot Noirs, three from Green Valley, two from Russian River Valley, one from Anderson Valley, one from Carneros, and three from the Sonoma Coast.  The one absolutely smashing '07 for me was Far Coast Vineyard, Sonoma Coast AVA. Made entirely from Hartford Court's own Annapolis Vineyard on the 'true Sonoma Coast' near Annapolis, this will be a great wine, deserving at least 95 points.  Hartford Court's Land's Edge Vineyards bottling (also Sonoma Coast AVA) is nearly as good, just a bit lighter.  It is comprised of fruit from Hartford Court's Annapolis and Seascape Vineyards, with the main portion sourced from Annapolis.  And the good news is that there will be 2500 cases of Land's Edge, more than five times as much as the other Pinot Noirs, and thus will be the most readily available.  My other two favorite '07 Hartford Court Pinot Noirs were Jennifer's Vineyard (named after Don's wife and co-owner), from the very cool Sebastopol Hills area of Russian River Valley, and Arrendell Vineyard, very concentrated, from the coldest area in Green Valley.  In general, a very impressive array of Pinot Noirs!

Littorai 2008 (2) and 2007 (8) Pinot Noirs (barrel samples):

I met with owner-winemaker Ted Lemon, one of the true geniuses among California winemakers, and a former winemaker in Burgundy.  We started with two barrel samples of Littorai's '08 blended Pinot Noirs, 'Les Larmes,' a blend of Littorai's three Anderson Valley vineyards, and 'Sonoma Coast,' made from de-classified Hirsch Vineyard fruit (the 2008 vintage on the Sonoma Coast was affected by wildfires).  Both '08s were lovely, if a bit light; I enjoyed the '08 Sonoma Coast so much that I ordered six bottles (at $34 each, a very good price for a Littorai Pinot Noir). Ted Lemon did advise to drink them soon, as the '08s are not made to last.  Of the eight '07 Pinot Noirs, four were from the Sonoma Coast, three were from Anderson Valley, and one from Russian River Valley.  As with Hartford Court, my favorite Littorai '07s were from the Sonoma Coast.  The '07 Hirsch Vineyard was outstanding; it really sang.  For me, it was the best '07 I tasted--along with the Hartford Court Far Coast Vineyard.  The two other Littorai Sonoma Coast Pinots I enjoyed were 'The Haven' and Summa Vineyard--although Ted Lemon didn't think Summa was at its best that day.  I tasted a few older Littorai Pinot Noirs as well, all of which were still young and lively.  Littorai's Pinot Noirs are really state-of-the art.

Williams Selyem 2006 and 2007 Pinot Noirs:

Since its inception in 1981 with its first winemaker, Burt Williams, Williams Selyem has established a reputation as arguably California's premier Pinot Noir winery.  When Burt Williams and Ed Selyem sold their winery in 1998 to John Dyson, Williams Selyem fans were concerned.  But their fears were unfounded, as winemaker Bob Cabral, a veteran Pinot Noir winemaker, has done an admirable job sustaining the quality of Williams Selyem wines.  This Russian River Valley-based winery is currently making 17 Pinot Noirs, five blended Pinots and 12 single-vineyard wines.  I tasted three of its five '07 blends: the Central Coast, Russian River Valley, and Westside Road Neighbors; I thought the Russian River Valley was the best of the three, but one I didn't taste, the Sonoma Coast (a blend of four vineyards) is usually my favorite Williams Selyem blended Pinot Noir. Of Williams Selyem's 12 single-vineyard Pinots, five are from Russian River Valley, four from the Sonoma Coast, two from Mendocino, and one from San Benito County (Central Coast).  I tasted three 2006 Williams Selyem single-vineyard Pinots, Peay Vineyard and Hirsch Vineyard from the Sonoma Coast, and Rochioli Riverblock Vineyard from Russian River Valley.  All three were excellent, but again I preferred the livelier style of the Sonoma Coast Pinots, with Peay my favorite, followed by Hirsch Vineyard.  I'm really looking forward to William Selyem's 2007 single-vineyard Pinot Noirs this fall, including its two other Sonoma Coast  Pinots, Precious Mountain and Coastlands.

Freestone Vineyards 2005 and 2006 Pinot Noirs; 2007 (barrel samples):

Freestone Vineyards is a new winery on the Sonoma Coast, just south of Green Valley and the town of Occidental; it is owned by Joseph Phelps Vineyards of Napa Valley.  Freestone's first Pinot Noir vintage was 2005; the current vintage is 2006. I also tasted two 2007 barrel samples, along with winemaker Theresa Heredia.  Both the '05 and '06 were excellent, the '06 being a bit more elegant, and the '05 a touch leaner with better acidity.  I rated them both 93, but I slightly preferred the 2005.  The 2007 barrel samples were single-vineyard Pinot Noirs.  The '07 Freestone Pastorale Vineyard is a knockout, intense and concentrated (95 points); the '07 Freestone Quarter Moon Vineyard  is richer and a bit softer (92 points).  An extremely impressive showing for a young winery!

Willowbrook Cellars 2005 and 2006 Pinot Noirs:

I first discovered Willowbrook Cellars when a sample of its 2006 Pinot Noir, Marin County, was sent to me.  Since I had not known about Pinot Noirs from Marin, I was curious, tried it promptly, and loved it.  Basically, the climate of the northernmost part of Marin County is similar to the Sonoma Coast AVA (lingering fog; intense, cool winds) directly north of it.  Only 200 acres of vines are planted in all of Marin County at this point.   The aromas, flavors, and structure of the Willowbrook '06 Pinot Noir, Marin County, was very similar to that of a fine Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, but at a very good retail price, $38.  Winemaker Joe Otos informed me that he makes three other Pinot Noirs, one from Russian River Valley and two from Sonoma Coast.  I tried all three; the '06 Willowbrook Estate, Russian River Valley, was a good, correct RRV Pinot, but the least exciting in Willowbrook's lineup.  Willowbrook's '05 Kastania Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, was fine, but lacked the intensity of the Marin County Pinot.  Finally, I tried the '06 DuNah Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, and hit paydirt!  It was all that the Willowbrook Marin Pinot was, with greater depth and concentration (94 points).  I had found another great Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.  My clear Willowbrook Cellars favorites were the '06 DuNah Vineyard and the '06 Marin County; interestingly, in this case, I preferred two 06s to the one'05 Willowbrook that I tasted.

I concluded, after my journey to the Sonoma Coast , that this is the region making the most exciting Pinot Noirs in the U.S.--at least for my palate.