Expensive & Allocated Crimson Liquid: Are Cult Pinot Noirs Worth It?
Produced in very small quantities, impossible to find unless you are on the mailing list, expensive, absurdly
priced on the secondary market, and often sold on the secondary or auction market rather than consumed,
there are certain domestic Pinot Noir collectibles that strive to set the standard against which other domestic
Pinot Noirs are measured. These wines can also carry disparaging titles such as “monuments to elitism” and
“toys for millionaires,” but are more often affectionately referred to as “cult-classic collectable” wines. The
mailing lists for these wines have frequently been filled for years, and often there is a waiting list to get on the
mailing list. Williams Selyem was probably the first Pinot Noir producer to achieve cult stardom, a cult winery
before cult was cool, and is credited with originating the mailing list.
I decided to taste a sampling of domestic Pinot Noirs that are very highly rated by the wine press, so much so
that they are difficult to source and can quickly thin your wallet. Are they worth the exalted prices? I concluded
that the wines were all exceptional examples of California Pinot Noir that are certainly worth it if you can afford
it. Remember, there is no such thing as exceptional cheap Pinot Noir. PINO stands for “price is no object.”
Of the myriad of Pinot Noir produced domestically, much of it is what I would call a beverage, while only a small percentage is "wine." The Pinot Noirs reviewed here are truly "wines," that represent a special commitment to quality and therefore understandably demand a high price.
A subject for another day is the escalation of wine premiumization, something the Wine Curmudgeon wrote
about recently: “The wine premiumization stranglehold gets tighter,” http://www.winecurmudgeon.com/winepremiumization-
Except for the Soliste wines that were obtained directly from the winery through a mailing list, and the Sea
Smoke and Patz & Hall Pinot Noirs that were sent to me for review, all wines were purchased from the retail
marketplace and the prices reflect that sourcing.
2012 Mail Road Wines Mt. Carmel Vineyard Blocks 2, 3, 5 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir
14.2% alc., $90. A
project of Ronald Piazza and Michael Palmer who own Mt. Carmel Vineyard. Winemaker is Matt Dees with
Ruben Solorzano managing the vineyard that was originally developed by Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton. Mail
Road Wines produces wines exclusively from Mt. Carmel Vineyard. 100% de-stemmed, aged 11 months in
42% new French oak barrels.
Dark reddish purple color in the glass. This is a boldly extracted and hedonistic
wine, almost akin to a fortified wine, featuring aromas of blackberry, cassis, raisin, dark chocolate and cocoa
nibs, and richly extracted flavors of boysenberry, black raspberry and blackberry fruits. The tannins keep the
sheer power in check and the silky texture invites indulgence. A peek of alcoholic warmth shows up on the
finish. The wine is not my favorite stylistically, but has merit.
2014 Occidental “Bodega Headlands Cuvée Elizabeth” Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.1% alc., $160. Steve Kistler, co-founder and
winemaker of Kistler Vineyards for 37 years, established a new
Pinot Noir label called “Occidental” owned and operated by the
Kistler family. The project is dedicated to producing Pinot Noir
from the Freestone-Occidental area. A modern winery has been
built on a ridge top adjacent Bodega Headlands Vineyard capable of
producing 7,500 cases of Pinot Noir annually. This wine is one of four
released in the spring 2016.
Moderate reddish purple color in the glass.
Engaging nose that picks up interest over time in the glass, offering
scents of black cherry, sous bois, baking spices and sweet oak. Modest
in weight, with a core of dark red cherry and raspberry fruit flavors, with a
slight earthy underpinning, and a proper infusion of oak highlights. The tannins are nicely integrated, and the
cleansing finish has spectacular length with endless waves of cherry goodness. Still outstanding the following
day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle.
2014 Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir
alc., 1,056 cases, $75. Sourced from three small blocks within
the larger Hyde Vineyard combining new and older plantings of
the Hyde-Calera selection and include coveted grapes from the
“old field.” Patz & Hall has sourced grapes from Hyde Vineyard
since 1995 and several sections of the vineyard are planted
exclusively for Patz & Hall. 10% whole clusters, wild and cultured
yeast fermentation, aged in French oak barrels, 60% new, and bottled
unfined and unfiltered.
Moderate reddish purple color in the glass.
Intoxicating perfume of black cherry, pomegranate, black grape juice and
sweet oak. Full-bodied, with earthy flavors of black raspberry, blackberry
and black cherry framed by slightly grainy tannins and complimentary
oak. A very honorable wine with a succulent mid palate, a silky mouthfeel
and a palate-staining finish. Even better when re-tasted later in the day from a previously opened bottle. A
dreamy ode to Larry Hyde’s legacy.
2014 Paul Hobbs Ulises Valdez Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
14.4% alc., $72. Calera and Beba clones
planted in 2002 in Goldridge soil. Yield 2.7 tons per acre.
Harvest Brix 25.2º. 7% whole cluster inclusion. 5-day cold soak,
16 day total maceration. Indigenous yeast fermentation. Aged 15
months in French oak barrels, 65% new, spontaneous malolactic
fermentation in barrels. Bottled unfined and unfiltered.
reddish purple color in the glass. Aromas of blackberry jam and spice
draw the nose into the glass. A full-bodied charge of blackberry and
black currant flavors meet the palate in a big and bold style that
balances power with harmonious tannins and acidity. Velvety in the
mouth, with a luscious finish that shows a slight waft of alcohol. Still
exceptional the following day when tasted from a previously opened and
2014 Peter Michael “Le Caprice” Fort Ross-Seaview Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.2% alc., $116.
Moderately dark reddish purple color in the
glass. This wine left me grasping for superlatives. Lovely aromas of
black cherry, dark berry and spice. A melange of purple and black fruits
elevate the mid palate and finish in this superbly balanced wine offering
added notes of clove spice, anise, vanilla, and sweet oak. At once both
succulent and refined, with a peacock finish that goes on forever. Still
superb the following day from a previously opened and re-corked wine
indicating a long life ahead. Extraordinary in every respect.
2014 RAEN Freestone Occidental Bodega Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
13.1% alc., 150 cases, $80
(sold in 6-packs, sold out). The winegrowers are Carlo and Dante Mondavi, fourth generation vintners born and
raised in Napa Valley. RAEN stands for Research in Agriculture and Enology. 80% whole cluster inclusion, 16-
day maceration, wild yeast fermentation, aged 10 months in neutral French oak barrels. Bottled without fining
Moderately dark reddish purple color in the glass. Fruit never shows up on this very savory nose
featuring aromas of underbrush, earthy flora and pine. Intensely fruity in a mid weight plus style plush with
purple berry and plum flavors infused with a savory and slightly herbaceous thread in the background. The
sandpaper tannins add textural interest and the finish has glorious intensity and length. The high percentage of
whole cluster inclusion dominates the profile of the wine but without undue tannin. Unchanged the following
day when tasted from a previously opened and re-corked bottle.
2014 RAEN Home Field Fort Ross-Seaview Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
13.0% alc., 200 cases, $80 (sold in 6-packs, sold
out). Fermented with 65% whole cluster, 16-day extended
maceration, indigenous yeast fermentation, and aged 10 months
in French oak barrels, 0% new. Bottled unfined and unfiltered.
Moderately dark reddish purple color in the glass. Aromas of
dark red cherry and berry along with underbrush and sous bois
evolve slowly in the glass. Very similar in all respects to the Freestone
Occidental bottling, but with more fruit expression and less savory
overlay. Styled as a middleweight plus offering, featuring flavors of dark
red and purple fruits, this wine’s fruit really clings to the palate. The
tannins are polished, and the deep red cherry finish is spectacular. When
tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle,
the nose was more expressive and the palate was filled with joyful waves of fruit with sous bois integration. (Note: I had a second bottle of this wine at a restaurant several months later and the wine was not nearly as good so you have been warned)
2014 Sea Smoke “Ten” Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir
pH 3.46, TA 0.62, $82. Released October 2015. The name is
derived from ten low vigor French clones planted in the Sea
Smoke Estate Vineyard. While “Ten” incorporates all ten clones,
it is also a barrel selection of the richest and most extracted
wines of the vintage. It is the deepest and most robust Sea
Smoke Pinot Noir. The amount of new oak has gradually been
reduced as has the amount of toasting as part of the ongoing
winemaking evolution. 100% de-stemmed, 1 to 4-day cold soak,
inoculated with cultured yeasts, total maceration time of 16 to 28 days.
Both free-run and press wines were racked to oak barrels. Aged 16
months in French oak barrels, 70% new.
Moderately dark reddish purple
color in the glass. Upon opening, oak-infused aromas and flavors
combine with a fruit-charged core of dark cherry, blackberry, pomegranate and spice. The wine showed much
less oak overlay when tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle when the fruit
became front and center. Boldly styled, with delicious fruit expression, supportive tannins, and integrated
acidity. A masculine interpretation of Pinot Noir, yet not highly muscled, offering a soft, approachable tone, and
a refreshingly juicy finish. Decant this beauty when you pull the cork.
2014 Sequitur Ribbon Ridge Oregon Pinot Noir
$100. A new
project from winemaker Mike Etzel (Beaux Frères) and his
spouse Carey Critchlow. A blend of 15 clones (including Coury
“clone,” and California heritage clones including Calera, Mt.
Eden and Martin Ray) grown biodynamically on never-farmed
soil in Ribbon Ridge. The 12-acre vineyard is planted adjacent
Beaux Frères’ Upper Terrace Vineyard. Cool fermentations are
carried out using indigenous yeast in several different vessels. There
was moderate use of lightly toasted new oak barrels from a variety of
tonnelieries. Bottled unfined and unfiltered.
Moderate reddish purple
color in the glass. An impressive debut wine, offering alluring aromas of
cherry, rose petal, spice and pine needle, and mid weight flavors of
baked cherry pie, ripe strawberry and spice. Impeccably balanced, with a
sleek mouthfeel, and a finish replete with black cherry goodness. At once elegant and highly flavorful, this
beauty is pure and refined. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the
wine still had me singing its praises.
2013 Soliste Extravagant Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
13.2% alc., 23 cases, $100. Very best grapes
selected through multiple passes at harvest. 50% whole cluster fermentation. Aged 16 months in a
French oak barrel from Tonnellerie Rousseau. MonoClone®: single vineyard, single clone, single barrel
Moderately light reddish purple color in the glass. Intoxicating aromas of cherry, wild strawberry
and exotic spices. Suave and sexy, with mid weighted flavors of black cherry and whole cluster driven
hints of pine sap, root beer, spice and edible rose. Eloquent in style with impeccable balance, the wine
offered gossamer tannins, and a spice-fueled finish that was revelatory. I relished the whole cluster
integration in this wine as well as its acidity that can enable many food matches. When tasted the following day,
I was still “ga-ga” over this wine. This wine shows what Pinot Noir can offer when a dedicated vintner commits
to meticulous viticulture and vinification techniques based on a fanatical devotion to Pinot Noir.
2013 Soliste L’Ermite Rouge Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
23 cases, $100. 50% whole cluster fermentation. Aged 22 months in a
French oak barrel from Tonnellerie Rousseau.
Moderate reddish purple
color in the glass. Deeply perfumed with both fruity and savory aromas
of cherry, spice, wine cave and stalky stem. A little more riper fruited than
most Soliste Pinot Noir bottlings, yet highly engaging with mid weight
racy flavors of cherry, marionberry and spice. Fine-grain tannins,
impeccable balance, and a long finish suggest a Chambertain character.
2012 Wayfarer Mother Rock Wayfarer Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.3% alc., $115. Named for Wayfarer
Vineyard’s sandstone substrate, this wine is a blend of clones 37
and Dijon 777.
Moderate reddish purple color in the glass.
Soaring aromas of blackberry jam, cassis and ripest strawberry.
A boisterous wine on the palate, with exhilarating flavors of
blackberry and black raspberry that attack with purpose, fill the
mid palate with expansive resolve, and dance mightily on a finish that
goes on and on. Even better the next day from a previously opened and
re-corked bottle when spice nuances appeared to embellish the fruit.
Easy to run out of superlatives for this one.