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Marin County Pinot Noir Celebration

The Marin County appellation has a long and colorful history of grape farming. Frenchman Jean Escalle established the red brick Escalle Winery in Larkspur and planted his land to grapes in the 1890s. Escalle’s Marin County wine production exceeded 9,000 cases per year from his 23-acre hillside vineyard. Long-time Marin resident Helen Wilson recalled, “Escalle was a wonderful place. The French and Italians came here in droves on weekends to enjoy themselves. They brought their children and ate lunch. You could hear them singing all over town!” Today, the historic Escalle Winery serves as the venue for the annual Marin County Pinot Noir Celebration, this year held on Friday and Saturday, June 8 and 9, 2007. The event was organized by the Marin County Winegrowers Association and all proceeds benefited the Marin Agricultural Trust (MALT) which is an agricultural land preservation effort protecting 38,000 acres of Marin County land on 57 family farms and ranches.

Marin County borders Sonoma to the north and the climate is similar to the Sonoma Coast. It is no surprise, then, that the area has sparked interest for Pinot Noir fanciers. The climate is influenced by two bodies of water - the Pacific Ocean along Marin’s western coast and the San Pablo Bay along the eastern border. According to winegrower Jonathan Pey (Pey-Marin Vineyards & Mt. Tamalpais Vineyards), Marin’s winters are warmer than neighboring Napa and Sonoma because of extremely high winter precipitation. Subsequently, bud break is accelerated, but Marin’s persistently cool weather in the spring and summer and complete lack of heat waves push flowering, “set,” and harvest many weeks beyond the so-called “cool-climate” district of Carneros. The result is one of the longest natural “hang times” in the state. Because of the long growing season, wines from western Marin (Pinot Noir, Merlot and Riesling) have superb natural acidity and generally lower alcohol levels. The more inland areas of Marin County are warmer and more conducive to Bordeaux varieties. When nature cooperates, western Marin County can produce very small Pinot Noir berries that yield wild and concentrated flavors.

There are about 125 acres of vineyards in Marin County, with 80 acres planted to Pinot Noir. That amount is miniscule compared to Sonoma County, which has over 6,500 acres of vineyards. The major Pinot Noir vineyards in Marin County include Devil’s Gulch Ranch (18 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Nicasio, fruit sold to Dutton-Goldfield and Sean Thackrey) which is pictured below in full bird netting mode, McNeil Vineyard (leased by Chalone and farmed by Mark Pasternak of Devil’s Gulch for Orogeny label), Stubbs Vineyard (planted in 1998, farmed by Mark Pasternak and owner Tom Stubbs),

Corda Vineyard (11 acres of Pinot Noir planted in 1990-1991 as part of the Chileno Valley Ranch, grapes sold to Pey- Marin, Vision Cellars, Thomas Fogerty and Precedent), Skywalker Ranch (a joint project of Niebaum-Coppola and George Lucas farmed by Mark Pasternak), Point Reyes Vineyard (a winery and B&B owned by the Doughty family with the only tasting room in Marin County), and Kendrick Johnson Vineyard (winegrower Stewart Johnson). The Marin Musketeers are seen in the photo (L to R: Mark, Jonathan, Stewart).

Mark Pasternak has his hand in the farming of most every vineyard in Marin County. He has been producing grapes in Nicasio since 1980, and was the first person to plant a vineyard in West Marin since the Prohibition era of the 1920s. Early on, he sold his grapes for sparkling wines (Schramsberg and Kalin Cellars) and although he realized the quality of his Pinot Noir grapes were such that fine still wine could be made, he couldn’t even give them away! Dan Goldfield, the winemaker at La Crema at the time, had an interest in unique terroirs including cold-climate vineyards in the Sonoma Coast, and was happy to take the grapes. In 1991, he made Pinot Noir from the Devil’s Gulch Vineyard at La Crema, later at Hartford Court, and most recently since 2001 at Dutton-Goldfield. The success of Devil’s Gulch Pinot Noir established the quality of Pinot Noir grapes from Marin County and today, producers can sell every berry they produce. The Marin County appellation has meaning now for Pinot Noir lovers.

Marin County will never become a large grape growing region. Water is scarce, coastal fog and the climate can prevent fruit ripening (ie vintage 2005), and available property for vineyards is scarce. Only large parcels are for sale and much too expensive for grape growers to exploit. Some winegrowers are turning to leasing plots of land on the large ranches.

The 4th Marin County Pinot Noir Celebration was an intimate affair with 13 producers participating who are either located within Marin County or source grapes from the region. Artisan organic Marin-grown cheeses and breads were served along with some down-home barbecue featuring Mark Pasternak’s famous rabbit sausage (besides farming grapes, Mark also raises rabbits for many high-end California restaurants). Tasting impressions at the event follow.

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2004 Kendric Vineyards Marin County Pinot Noir

13.64% alc., sold out, Stewart Johnson farms the Kendric Johnson Vineyard leased on land owned by the Corda family, and makes the wine from this 8.5 acre vineyard planted in 2002. Some grapes are sold to Miller Wine Works (below). Clones are 37, 115, 667, 777, 828, Pommard and Martini. Yields are ridiculously low (0.5 tons per acre in 2004). The wines are de-stemmed, cold soaked, inoculated with Assmanshausen yeast, and barreled into 33% new French oak for 18 months. · The 2004 is a nice offering featuring cherry driven aromas and flavors enhanced with tea, floral and woodsy notes. Lively acidity.

2005 Kendric Vineyards Marin County Pinot Noir

Stewart also makes a fine Syrah from the Shenandoah Valley region of California. · The 2005 vintage was just bottled but oh my! Lovely aromatics of sandalwood and crushed cherries and terrific fruit which grows in your mouth.

2004 Miller Wine Works Kendric Vineyard Marin County Pinot Noir

14.7% alc., 133 cases, (sold out at winery). This was the first vintage of this wine vinified by Gary Miller. He was a professional chef for 12 years before becoming a winemaker in Napa Valley. He has worked for La Jota, Martinelli and Robert Biale wineries. Try fine wine retailers including www.hitimewine.net, or www.wine-searcher.com. 707-254-9727. The address is PO Box 3198, Napa, CA 94558. · Hi-tone cherry nose. Supple red fruits front and center with a side-car note of spice. The tannins are fine and the finish is as smooth as silk. Brilliantly crafted and one well worth seeking out.

2004 Orogeny Marin County Pinot Noir

14.1% alc.. This wine comes from the picturesque McNeil Vineyard situated high on a hillside above the town of Nicasio. The name Orogeny is derived from the Greek words oro (mountain) and geny (birth). The label is owned by Chalone and the winemaker is Dan Goldfield. There is also an Orogeny Pinot Noir from Green Valley ($36). Mark Pasternak feels the McNeil Vineyard in Nicasio has the potential to be a top source for Pinot Noir in Marin County. Yields have been miniscule to date disappointing Chalone who had hoped this would be a showcase vineyard with annual production of 3,000 cases. The winery is not open to the public. 1-877-254-4250. Look for the Orogeny wines in fine wine retail stores. · A decent Pinot Noir featuring sweet spicy fruit from start to finish. Moderate tannins on the finish need some time to integrate.

2005 Pey-Marin Trois Filles Marin County Pinot Noir

13.8% alc., 350 cases, $39. Jonathan and Susan Pey are the proprietors and winegrowers for both the Mount Tamalpais label (Merlot, Pinot Gris and Riesling) and Pey-Marin Pinot Noir. Their motto is clever: “Beaune in Marin.” Both of the Peys have an experienced background in the wine business and Jonathan seems to be particularly adept at bringing out the best expression of Pinot Noir that Marin County can offer. He produces classic Pinot Noir in all sense of the word, with finesse, balance and lively acidity. This wine is sourced from the Corda, Stubbs, and Kendric Vineyards. Most of the wine is sold to a faithful following on the mailing list (including myself). Www.marinwines.com, 415-455-9463. · Still young and just-released, this is a Pinot Noir of great promise. Exotic berry and spice notes compose a compelling aromatic profile and the assemblage of red and blue Pinot fruits is complimented by a bracing acid backbone. Like the name after which the wine is named (Trois Filles refers to the Pey’s three daughters), this is a classy feminine -styled Pinot Noir that is a perfect companion both before and during a fine meal.

2002 Point Reyes Marin County Pinot Noir

13.6% alc., $30. The Doughty family farms 6 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Point Reyes Station and produces an estate Pinot Noir in good years (2004). The 2002 Pinot Noir is from grapes grown at Stubbs Vineyard and was also poured last year. · A very light-bodied wine bordering on a rosé with nice floral notes in the nose.

2004 Sean Thackrey Andromeda Devil’s Gulch Vineyard Marin County Pinot Noir

$60. I believe the first vintage for Andromeda was 2002 and most people are surprised to find out that Thackrey crafts a Pinot Noir. His Devil’s Gulch Vineyard Pinot Noir is like no other Marin County wine with more heft and alcohol than any other. Thackrey’s wines are sold through a few top wine retailers (use Thackrey’s wine finder feature on his website to locate) and to a mailing list. 40% of his wine is exported. The label at the right is for another of Thackrey’s wines, Orion, but the Andromeda label is very similar. · Hovering well over 15% alcohol, his Pinot Noir is heavy with thickly-layered dark fruit and a mouth coating finish. There are aromas and flavors here that defy description. Maybe some wooly mammoth or even pterodactyl. Loaded with teeth staining Pinot extract, it lends itself to sipping, much like a fine Port.

2005 Stubbs Vineyard Marin County Pinot Noir

13.9% alc.. · A lighter styled Pinot Noir with a lot of charm. Appealing spice and ginger enhance the ripe cherry flavors.

2006 Thomas Fogarty Winery Corda Vineyard Marin County Pinot Noir Barrel Sample

This winery was featured in detail in the PinotFile issue this year devoted to Pinot Paradise in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Volume 6, Issue 21).

2006 Precedent Corda Vineyard Marin County Pinot Noir Barrel Sample

The vineyard is a proven source of fine Pinot Noir, so this is a label to watch for. Precedent is the private label of Thomas Fogerty assistant winemaker Nathan Kandler. · These wines are still young and have not come together quite yet but there is good pinotosity in both.

2006 Vergari Wines Corda Vineyard Marin County Pinot Noir Barrel Sample

Wine industry veteran David Vergari crafts Pinot Noirs from purchased grapes in Sonoma and Marin counties. He brings years of winemaking experience in both Europe and Australia as well as California to his label begun in 2003. His full story is told in the PinotFile Volume 6, Issue 7. Vergari wines may be purchased by contacting David at 626-818- 8398. Look for his wines in fine retail stores and restaurants. · This barrel sample is delicate with nicely spiced red Pinot fruits. The texture is quite silky and the finish, although a touch hot, is clean and satisfying.

2005 Vision Cellars Chileno Valley Marin County Pinot Noir

14.6% alc.. Previous vintages of this wine have been popular. Owner and winemaker Mac McDonald is one of the few African American winemakers in California. He sources grapes from multiple appellations including the Santa Lucia Highlands. The phone 707-887-1619. There is good retail distribution. · Very light in body, this wine is young and still disjointed with noticeable acid and heat on the backend.

Dale Bartley is an accomplished home winemaker and wine geek living in San Rafael. He is well known for his homemade medal winning Pinot Noirs dating back to 1998 and his “Zin from Dale” which is quite good. His labels say, “It is this family’s deep devotion to drinking that has brought you this wine.” Dale is pictured right (black T) at the Marin County Pinot Noir Celebration helping to pour a little Pinot and handing out plenty of wine b.s..

For information on next years event, check the Marin Agricultural Land Trust website: www.malt.org.

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