Sips of Recently Tasted Wines
Joel Aiken, who has over 30 years of winemaking experience in Napa Valley, including 27
years spent at the iconic Beaulieu Vineyard, started this personal project in 2009 to offer site-specific Cabernet
Sauvignon and Pinot Noir from special vineyards of character. Joel had a remarkable career at Beaulieu
Vineyard, rising to winemaker at the age of 28, and implementing many innovative winemaking techniques as
well as conducting extensive Pinot Noir clonal research in the winery’s Carneros vineyards. For years, Joel
worked side-by-side with the legendary André Tchelistcheff. Today, Joel produces wines for a number of clients
including Amici Cellars, Rare Cat Wines and Chase Cellars, and along with his winemaker spouse, Amy, is
proprietor of Palisades Wine Co. in Calistoga, where the couple make their wines. Visit www.aikenwines.com.
2012 Aiken Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir
14.4% alc., 280 cases, $55.
Sourced from Silver Pines Vineyard situated at 1000 feet elevation on
Sonoma Mountain. A blend of clones 23 and Pommard. 100% destemmed,
4-day cold soak, aged in 33% new French oak barrels.
Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. Very enticing aromas of Bing
cherry and spice cabinet holding up over time in the glass. Deep flavors
of black cherry, black raspberry and blackberry dance on the palate,
accented with floral intricacy and complimentary oak, finishing with
purpose. The healthy mountain tannins are nicely concealed and the
overall impression is one of great harmony.
2013 Aiken Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir
14.8% alc., 173 cases, $55. Sourced from Silver Pines Vineyard
situated at 1000 feet elevation on Sonoma Mountain. A blend of clones 23 and Pommard. 100% de-stemmed,
4-day cold soak, aged in 33% new French oak barrels.
Moderate reddish purple color in the glass.
Conservative aromas of black cherry, blackberry jam and toasty oak lead to plenty of ebullient black cherry and
blackberry fruit flavors backed by matched fine-grain tannins and a waft of oak. More ripeness, sappiness, oak
imprint and generosity on the finish compared to the 2012 vintage of this wine.
2013 Aiken Fiddlestix Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir
14.7% alc., 146 cases, $55. A blend of clones
777 and Pommard 5. 100% de-stemmed, 4-day cold soak, aged in 33% new French oak barrels.
reddish purple color in the glass. An array of dark red and black berry aromas infused with graphite and
woodland scents greet the nose. The middleweight flavors of dark red and purple berries are framed by wellhoned
tannins and judicious oak. Noticeably vigorous on the attack with a welcome intensity on the finish that
offers gratifying length. Very similar to the Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noirs in style, but this wine has its own
cachet. Still redeeming the following day when tasted from a previously opened and re-corked bottle.
Cambria Estate Vineyard & Winery
Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir has been renamed Benchbreak
Pinot Noir to recognize the vineyard source of the wine that is situated at a dramatic spot where the bench
drops toward the Santa Maria Valley floor. New labels have been designed to capture the old vines and
fossilized seashells that are the true essence of the estate. Some of the vines here have endured since the
1970s, thriving in the cool, maritime influences that funnel in from the Pacific Ocean, and allowing for the
longest growing season in California. Since 2009, all grapes from the Estate Vineyard have been certified
sustainable by the CCSW program. The vineyard has also been SIP certified since 2011. I have found in the
past that the Julia’s Vineyard bottling is consistently one of California’s best value-priced Pinot Noirs. Visit
2013 Cambria Benchbreak Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir
13.5% alc., pH 3.54, TA 0.54, $25.
From a vineyard situated at 400-800 feet elevation on a bench overlooking the Santa Maria Valley.
Produced by sisters and proprietors Julie and Katie Jackson. Clones are Pommard 4, Wädenswil
2A, 23, 667, 115, 777 and “828.” Aged 8 months in French oak barrels, 27% new.
cherry red color in the glass. Earthy dark cherry aroma with an overlay of seasoned oak. Polished
and juicy in the mouth, with mid weight flavors of black cherry, black raspberry, black tea and anise
with conspicuous, slightly drying oak in the background. A like able wine with a backbone of fine
gritty tannins and a finish infused with modest but appealing cherry goodness. A solid, quite affordable,
everyday Pinot Noir for the dinner table.
Durell Vineyard owner Ellie Phipps Price launched Dunstan Wines in 2008 with fruit
sourced exclusively from the 8.5-acre Ranch House Block located at the heart of the Durell Vineyard
surrounding the original ranch house on the property. Durell Vineyard is located in the southwestern hills of
Sonoma Valley, straddling the Carneros, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations. Visit
2013 Dunsten Durrell Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.1% alc., pH 3.65, 425 cases, $55. From the
8.5-acre Ranch House Block of Durrell Vineyard planted in 2005. Calera, Swan, Dijon 667, 115 and “828.”
Harvest Brix 23.5º. 100% de-stemmed, 7-day cold soak, extended 3 week fermentation. Aged 14 months on
the lees in French oak barrels, 50% new. Winemaker Kenneth Juhasz.
Medium reddish purple color in the
glass. The aromas emerge with swirling, revealing notes of dark red and black berries, earthy flora, and herbs
including Italian sage and vanilla. The wine bursts with engaging strawberry flavor accented with a bit of cherry
and seasoned with the slightest oak. Highly enjoyable, with modest tannins, balanced acidity, and a very
charming burst of ripe strawberry and spice on the glorious finish.
2013 Dunstan Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
13.7% alc., pH 3.65, 447 cases, $45. From the 8.5-acre Ranch
House Block of Durell Vineyard planted in 2005 applying 25
years of farming experience at Durell Vineyard. Durell clone
(Wente). Harvest Brix 22.8º. Whole cluster pressed to barrel
and fermented with native yeasts. Aged 14 months in French
oak barrels, 20% new. Winemaker Kenneth Juhasz.
light golden yellow color and clear in the glass. Subtle, but
pleasing aromas of citrus blossom, apple and blonde caramel. A
sophisticated and polished wine with an exquisite marriage of vivid citrus,
apple and banana fruit flavors with oak accents, enlivened by crisp
acidity. The wine’s beauty lies in the blend of bright acidity, a creamy
texture and understated but engaging flavors.
Owner and winemaker Mike Faulk launched his brand in 2013 with these inaugural
releases. The wines are a culmination of years of making wine in backyards, basements and garages. He left
Florida in 2005 to further his winemaking goals, and now crafts his wines at a winery in Kenwood, CA. His
inspiration is his grandmother, Engracia Perez Hernandez, a Cuban refugee who arrived in Florida in 1960.
Grapes are sourced from longtime friend and grower Manuel Silva who owns Silva Vineyard. The winery’s
website is www.engraciawines.com.
2013 Engracia Silva Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
12.1% alc., pH 3.46, TA 0.35, $35. Released May
1, 2015. After triple hand sorting, the grapes were whole berry fermented using proprietary yeast. Aged 18
months in a combination of 2-year-old and neutral French oak barrels.
Light cherry red color in the glass.
Aromas of red berries, spiced dark chocolate, mulch, loam and clay lead to a light to mid weight wine featuring
flavors of cherry, cranberry and a touch of oak. Forward, simple and elegant, with a silky texture and a modest
finish. Tasted twice.
2013 Engracia Silva Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
13.1% alc., pH 3.49, TA 0.71, 128 cases, $30.
Released May 1, 2015. Vineyard is located on the western side of Cotati. Grapes were picked in mid-October,
about 3 to 4 weeks after most Chardonnay grapes in North Coast were picked. Whole cluster pressed,
inoculated yeast ferment, 100% barrel fermented in neutral French oak. Malolactic fermentation was inhibited
and less were stirred twice a week for 4 months.
Moderate golden yellow color and clear in the glass. Aromas
of lemon and lime are complimented by a slightly chalky note. Flavors of citrus, poached pear, caramel and
creme brûlée are supported by cleansing acidity. Nicely balanced, with a refreshing finish and some uncommon
length (for a Chardonnay) on the pleasing finish.
Maggy Hawk needs little introduction as I have written extensively about this deep end
Anderson Valley vineyard and the extraordinary wines produced by winegrower Dennis Winchester and
winemaker Elizabeth Grant-Douglas. The Maggy Hawk label was launched with the 2007 vintage and five
block wines featuring primarily a single clone are offered. Each wine is named after champion racehorses born
to Maggy Hawk that proprietor Barbara Banke (Jackson Family Estates) celebrates in these wines. The wines
are sold through at mailing list at www.MaggyHawk.com. I believe these are among the greatest Pinot Noirs
currently being offered in California. In this vintage compared to 2012, the wines have less color, less extraction
and tannin and better acidity. They are more “classic” and well-balanced styled Pinot Noir. These wines will
turn out to be more age worthy than the more showy 2012 vintage wines. Hard to pick a favorite among the
2013 Maggy Hawk Afleet Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., pH 3.64, TA 0.58, 192 cases, $66.
Primary clone is Pommard. 5-day cold soak, proprietary yeast primary fermentation, punch downs daily, aged
15 months in French oak barrels, 41% new.
Moderately light reddish purple color in the glass. A gorgeous
perfume of black cherry, rose petal and vanilla arrives with more aromatic depth over time in the glass. The
incredibly intense attack of black cherry, blueberry and pomegranate flavors bring the palate to attention. The
engaging fruit envelopes the mid palate with purpose and is framed by filigree tannins. A special wine that
although delicate in color, delivers sublime and boisterous flavors that are remarkably persistent on the
energetic finish. The flavor profile is quite different from Pommard grown in the Russian River Valley.
2013 Maggy Hawk Hawkster Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., pH 3.73, TA 0.53, 268 cases,
$66. Primary clone is Wädenswil 2A. 5-day cold soak, proprietary yeast primary fermentation,
fermented in three separate lots unlike the other Maggy Hawk wines. Aged 15 months in French oak
barrels, 49% new.
Moderately light reddish purple color in the glass. A panoply of dark red berries,
earthy flora and wood spice greet the nose. In the mouth, the delicious flavors of dark red cherry,
raspberry and spice are accented with a judicious touch of oak. The satiny texture is sensual and
comforting and the wine’s balance is impeccable. Like all great wines, the intensely flavorful finish
refuses to dissipate. Still exceptional the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle.
2013 Maggy Hawk Jolie Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
alc., pH 3.68, TA 0.52, 352 cases, $66. Primary clone is 115.
Harvested multiple times over a 10-day period from October 8
to October 18 allowing the wine to display the full range of
characteristics of clone 115. 5-day cold soak, proprietary yeast
fermentation, punch downs daily, and aged 15 months in
French oak barrels, 33% new.
Moderate reddish purple color in
the glass. The markedly nuanced nose is a chameleon over
time, taking on new aromas as it becomes more giving. Scents of dark
berries, earthy flora, black cherry and spice are echoed on the palate.
The fruit literally explodes on the mid palate, and holds on through a
lengthy finish. Modest in weight, but highly flavorful, with tailored tannins,
juicy acidity and a deft touch of oak. This wine tends to build in appeal
over time in the glass. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the wine
was still terrific, indicating certain longevity. Jolie, will you marry me?
2013 Maggy Hawk Stormin’ Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., pH 3.76, TA 0.51, 236 cases, $66.
Primary clone is 667. 5-day cold soak, proprietary yeast fermentation, punch downs daily, and aged 15 months
in French oak barrels, 34% new.
Moderate reddish purple hue in the glass. The classy nose offers aromas of
black cherry, spice, seasoned barrique and mushroom. A blast of cherry greats the palate in the primarily redfruited,
mid weight wine. Not quite the fruit intensity of the other 2013 Maggy Hawk wines, but still impresses
with great harmony, cashmere tannins, and a lip-smacking finish. The wine was still pumping out engaging
aromas the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle.
Nelson Hill Winery
Greg and Barbara Hill farm a small, picturesque vineyard, the Deep End Vineyard,
planted to Dijon clones 114, 115, 777, and Pommard. The vineyard is located just west of Highway 128 in Philo
in the Anderson Valley. Deny Dudzik is the vineyard manager and winemaker who consults with winemaker
Phil Baxter, Jr. Visit www.nelsonhillwinery.com.
2013 Nelson Hill Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., 290 cases, $42. Released February 15, 2016.A
majority of grapes are from the Deep End Vineyard at Nelson Hill with 13% Pommard from Ferrington
Moderately light reddish purple color in the glass. Shy, but pleasant aromas of black cherry and
savory dried herbs. On the palate, the wine is pleasingly savory and fruity, with mid weight flavors of dark
cherry, black raspberry, spice, herbs and a touch of toasty oak. Good harmony, with an array of dark fruits
including blueberry, black cherry and pomegranate fanning out on the finish which leaves the slightest bit of
warmth in its wake. Tasted twice.
2012 Nelson Hill Deep End Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
14.1% alc., 260 cases, $40. Released
May 15, 2015. This rocky, south-facing vineyard is located on a slope only a few miles from the Mendocino
Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. A mid weight plus styled wine with a very ripe fruit profile.
Aromas of crushed cherries, spice cake, sassafras and complimentary oak lead to satisfying and sappy flavors
of black cherry, black raspberry, cola, spice and toasty oak. The tannins are submerged, the mouthfeel is plush
and velvety, and the finish shows impressive length and welcome juiciness.
Sonnet Wine Cellars
Sonnet is a small Santa Cruz Mountains producer of Pinot Noir founded by
winemaker Tony Craig during his twelve-year tenure as winemaker for David Bruce Winery. A former
Shakespearean actor originally from England, he was unable to find work as an actor after moving to
California, and serendipity led him to answer a newspaper ad for a cellar worker at David Bruce Winery. He
took to winemaking naturally, within 14 months was part of the winemaking team, and eventually became head
of the vineyard-designate Pinot Noir program. He started the Sonnet Wine Cellars label in 2003, and now
produces vineyard-designated Pinot Noir from Muns Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Tondre’s
Grapefield in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The 2013 Sonnet Wine Cellars Tondre’s Grapefield Pinot Noir won
Red Sweepstakes and Best of Class awards at the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Tony also
is the winemaker for Silver Mountain Vineyards, Muns Vineyard and Savannah-Chanelle in the Santa Cruz
Tony might be the only California Pinot Noir maker using 100% Hungarian oak barrels on all his Pinot Noir
wines. He told me the following. “The Hungarian oak he uses is the same species as French oak. He prefers
medium plus toast level achieved through a very low heat firing for almost an hour - otherwise too much
caramel and sometimes licorice shows in the wine. He is able to get truly tight grain barrels from Hungary,
whereas in France, the veneer industry tends to monopolize those oak trees. I find that Hungarian oak marries
well with Pinot Noir and adds welcome baking spice.”
Sonnet wines are sold through the former winery’s website with a link to www.silvermtn.com and through
distribution to markets and retailers in the San Francisco Bay area. The Sonnet Wine Cellars website is
minimalist and the wines are not sold directly at www.sonnetwinecellars.com, but don’t let that dissuade you
from the excellence of the wines.
2013 Sonnet Tondre’s Grapefield Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., $45. Harvest Brix 26.0º.
98% Pommard, 2% 948. Proprietary Assmanshausen yeast ferment. Aged 16 months in tight grain Hungarian
oak barrels, 35% new, with lees stirring during malolactic fermentation. Unfined and unfiltered.
reddish purple color in the glass. Clean aromas of purple grapes, dark cherries, and brown baking spices.
Nicely composed, with a ripe fruited tone, featuring flavors of black cherry, blackberry and toasty oak in a
middleweight style with good length. The gorgeous velvety mouthfeel says, “Drink me!”
2013 Sonnet Muns Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., $38. Harvest Brix 26.0º. Clones 667, 777, 114
and 115. Proprietary Assmanshausen yeast ferment. Aged 18
months in tight grain Hungarian oak barrels, 35% new, with
lees stirring during malolactic fermentation. Unfined and
Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. Engaging
perfume of crushed cherries, spice, mulch and sandalwood.
Delicious core of black Morello cherries soaked in Kirsch and
raspberry fruit with a pinch of spice and vanilla. Beautifully balanced with
suave tannins, a smooth mouthfeel, and a very long finish lingering for at
least 30 seconds. When re-tasted later in the day from a previously
opened and re-corked bottle, the wine was even more expressive,
bursting with cherry and raspberry goodness. Pure Pinot class in the
2014 Briceland Vineyards Humboldt County Pinot Noir
13.1% alc., 405 cases, $31. A blend of
grapes from primarily Elk Prarie Vineyard, with contributions from Phelps, Alderpoint, Ronda’s and
another vineyard near Benbow.
Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. Inviting aromas of
crushed cherries, potpourri, and spice including Mexican oregano. A middleweight style with the
flavor of boysenberry dominating on the palate and a mix of blueberry and pomegranate on the
finish. Silky in the mouth, with harmonious tannins and an intensely fruited ending.
2014 Lay of the Land Ben Morven Farm Marlborough New Zealand Pinot Noir
$N/A (out of stock at time of review), screwcap. Imported by NakedWines.com, Napa, CA. The
winemaker, Mike Paterson, was the head winemaker for ten years at a leading Marlborough Winery.
Sourced from a non-irrigated, dry-farmed single vineyard. 20% whole cluster. Extra long 25 days on
the skins. Aged in 100% French oak barrels, 10% new.
Moderately light reddish purple color in the
glass. Both fruity and savory on the nose, with scents of cherry, strawberry, spice, woodland and
earthy flora. Light to mid weight flavors of black cherry and raspberry are gently enhanced with oak. An easy
drinking, forward style that becomes more savory over time in the glass, offering an earthy and herbal thread in
the background. The wine finishes on a slightly tart and juicy cranberry note.
2012 O’Connor Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
14.2% alc., pH 3.38, TA 0.68, 371
cases, $33. From a family owned, 3.5-acre vineyard in Sebastopol. Custom crushed at Freeman
Winery. Eric Buffington winemaker and Ed Kurtzman consulting winemaker. Harvest Brix 24.2º.
Clones are Pommard, 115 and 777.
This is a commendable wine that is well crafted. Moderately
dark reddish purple color in the glass. Classically Russian River Valley in character, with aromas and
flavors of black cherry, cola, spice and a hint of dark chocolate and toasty oak. Nicely balanced, with
silky tannins and some finishing length.
2013 ROCO Wit’s End Vineyard Chehalem Mountains Oregon Pinot Noir
14.0% alc., 322 cases, $60,
screwcap. Rollin Soles’ estate vineyard and winemaker. Dijon clones.
Light cherry red color in the glass.
Aromas of cherry, cranberry and sous-bois lead to a deeply flavored light to mid weight wine with plenty of
cherry flourish accented by a savory herbal thread in the background. Sleek and balanced, with a forward
drinking attitude, but the wine should add weight and more appeal over time.
2012 The Eyrie Vineyards Rolling Green Dundee Hills Oregon Pinot Noir
13.0% alc., $60. One of five
estate vineyards. 6 acres at 540 to 720 feet elevation planted in Nekia clay loams overlying basalt cobble.
Ungrafted Wädenswil and Pommard clones planted in 1989.
Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. Quite
savory, with an earthy flora aroma dominating the nose. The mid weight core of spiced red and black cherry
fruits offers an intense attack and notable presence on the mid palate. The honed, matched tannins make for
easy drinking, and the juicy finish is uplifting. A bit more earthy, herbal and oak-infused than fruity at present.