Pinots from the Edge
Pinot Noir is a fussy grape that thrives in areas heavily influenced by the ocean.
Although Pinot Noir grows in at least twenty-three counties in California, the
majority of the planted Pinot Noir is “living on the edge,” that is, growing in the
dramatically cool western part of Sonoma County known as the Sonoma Coast.
The cold environment of the western reaches of Sonoma County is a relatively new
frontier for viticulture. The obstacles are many. Vines take more time to develop,
even up to six years to produce fruit contrasted with a typical three years in most
other regions. Wet weather is ever present. A wet spring can interfere with
bloom and create the perfect environment for botryitis. In the fall, encroaching
rains threaten harvest. Due to close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, nighttime temperatures
are often in the 40s and daytime highs rarely exceed the low 70s. Cold
spring temperatures can result in poor vine nutrition at bloom and lead to poor
fruit set. Yields are ridiculously low, typically 1 to 2 tons per acre and in some
vintages, so little fruit is produced, viticulture costs cannot be reclaimed. Animals
such as deer, gophers, wild hogs, and birds are ever present. Gophers can destroy
as much as 20 percent of new vines. It almost seems like madness to attempt
to farm Pinot Noir in these environs and many have called the winegrowers here
the “mad men of West County.” When the weather cooperates and everything
goes well, the resultant tiny Pinot Noir clusters with a high juice-to-skin ratio are
worth the trouble and the wines can have remarkably mature tannins and flavors at
lower Brix with a high-acid profile. Noted wine writer, Matt Kramer, has said,
“Sonoma County West is an extraordinary location for Pinot Noir. It has the capacity, although not yet the achievement, of someday creating America’s grand cru
The Sonoma Coast AVA (American Vineyard Appellation), is the largest AVA in
Sonoma County, incorporating 750 square miles. This cumbersome AVA was
formed in 1987 primarily for the purpose of allowing certain wineries to include all
of their major vineyards within one boundary so they could use the “estate bottled”
designation on their wine labels. The AVA is also a distinctive climatic region
based on coolness with no more than 2,800 degree days of heat during the
growing season (low Region II) . This AVA extends nearly throughout the Sonoma
Coast from the Sonoma County borders with Napa in Carneros to the east, Marin
County to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Russian River Valley
AVA boundary in the north. (map page 2). The Sonoma Coast AVA actually over-laps five other appellations - the Sonoma part of Carneros, a sliver of Sonoma Valley, the western part
of Chalk Hill, all of Green Valley, and most of the Russian River Valley. As a result, the words “Sonoma
Coast” on a wine label can indicate a wine from a vastly diverse geographic area from Annapolis in the
north to Petaluma in the south. The Sonoma Coast has been unofficially subdivided into the “true” Sonoma
Coast (what Kramer referred to as Sonoma County West) and the “real” Sonoma Coast. The true
Sonoma Coast is roughly from Jenner on the coast in the south where the Russian River empties into the
Pacific Ocean to Annapolis in the north and from the beaches of the Pacific Ocean to 5 to 6 miles inland
including the first two ridges of the coastal range of mountains and the western slope of the third ridge.
Besides Annapolis and Jenner, Occidental and Freestone are usually included, although both are south
of Jenner. Some have even further subdivided the true Sonoma Coast, separating out the “extreme”
Sonoma Coast, located southwest of the Russian River Valley and stretching around the town of Freestone,
a mere 4.5 miles from the Pacific Ocean. There are numerous microclimates and soil types in the
true Sonoma Coast, but three things are a constant everywhere: fog, ocean breezes and coolness.
Although the Sonoma Coast AVA is 517,000 acres and almost half the size of Sonoma County, only
7,000 acres are planted to vineyards. About fifty growers and six wineries are located within the true
Sonoma Coast AVA’s borders. The vineyards are situated above the fog line or in lower reaches
where the wind blows off the fog early in the morning (see photo page 3 of Ft Ross Vineyard). Most of
the vineyards are quite isolated, and only in recent years have vineyard management companies allotted
workers to the area full-time. The price of prime land is at least $20,000 an acre now. This price is
misleading and actually much more expensive than you realize because the landscape does not lend
itself to farming and you might have to purchase 50 acres to get 10 acres that are suitable for grape
growing. Much of the area is essentially a wilderness and too steep for grapevines.
What is distinctive about Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs? The very small berries have a high juice-to-skin
and juice-to-seed ratio resulting in very concentrated flavors and amplified tannins. The wines can be
bold, dense, earthy and powerful. Ted Lemon (Littorai) has characterized Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir as
follows: “Muscle and sinew, grit, structure, more backbone and tannins than the Russian River Valley
Pinot Noirs, peppery in leaner years with sage and savory as the prominent spices. Dan Goldfield
(Dutton-Goldfield) feels that what sets Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir apart is “the mineral element and very
focused tannins compared with the Russian River Valley sweet fruit and floral elements.”
Over the past several weeks, I have had the opportunity to sample Pinot Noirs from all parts of the
Sonoma Coast AVA and a report on nearly fifty wines follows. Ripeness can be challenging in many
areas and green flavors can result. A number of the wines are quite muscular and need cellaring to
soften tannins and/or decanting to open up. Good acidity seems to be a constant. Styles are all over
the board and it is impossible to make significant generalizations from such a diverse region.
Three Fog Horns
2006 Alcina Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.6% alc., $45.
Beautiful aromas of
black cherry, herbs and barnyard. Flavors of spiced cherry, brown sugar,
cookie dough. Soft in texture, light on its feet, with finely-tuned tannins, and
clean finish. A very nice elegant package.
2006 De La Montanya Flying Rooster Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.3% alc., 100 cases, $36.
Dazzling aromas of red cherry, concord
grape and cocoa. On the palate, there is a lovely potpourri of cherries,
strawberries, black raspberries and a subtle sidecar of oak. The finish is
clean and dry. Medium-bodied and fruit-forward, I like this wine for its
finesse and pinotypicity.
2006 Kasuari Peters Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.1% alc., $30.
Wilted red roses and red cherries in the nose and a dazzling dose of strawberry
and cherry fruit which lingers on the finish for over ten seconds. No
tannin in sight. Ready now for prime time. What Pinot Noir should be, but so
2004 Sonoma Coast Vineyards Balistreri Family Vineyard Freestone View Block Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.37% alc., 454 six-bottle cases,
$100. The original 4-acre Freestone View Block of the Balistreri Family
Vineyard was planted to a range of Pinot Noir Dijon clones in 1999. The 1-
acre Alessio Block was added in 2005, two additional blocks were planted
to Pinot Noir: Salmon Creek (3.4 acres) and the Bodega Ridge (4.2 acres).
The southern-facing property is quite special, situated one mile west of
Freestone and a mere four and half miles from the Pacific Ocean. Owned by Jack and Kathy Balistreri,
this vineyard is one of the coldest vineyards on the extreme Sonoma Coast. High density planting of
five Dijon clones (114, 115, 667, 777, 828). Yields are less than one ton per acre. 25% whole cluster.
10-day cold soak after clones blended together. Aged 20 months in 50% new French oak (36-month air
dried barrels. Sonoma Coast Vineyards plans to build a winery on the Balistreri property in the near future.
Deep reddish-purple robe. Aromatic profile is complex with intense dark plum fruit, forest
floor, steak char, roses and a little good funk. Attractive wild berry core with herbal overtones. Velvety
texture and plenty of snappy acidity at end. Still relatively young and shy, cellaring for one to two
years will reward the patient.
2004 WesMar Balletto Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
Starting with the first whiff of this one, fresh raspberry jam immediately
comes to mind. I kept saying WOW! out loud. The raspberry theme carries
over from the attack to the finish. There is some croissant notes for good
measure. A flawless wine with admirable acidity and fine tannins, I could
drink this one all night long.
2005 Williams Selyem Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
Deep ruby color. A big and sappy fruit attack featuring black berries complimented
by exotic woods leading to a delicate finish with lingering dark cherry notes.
Nicely crafted, smooth in the mouth, with lively and refreshing acidity.
Two Fog Horns
2006 Benovia Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.2% alc., $45. It has been a couple
of years of anticipation and Benovia has finally released this wine, its first
Pinot Noir. Benovia has recently purchased two properties which will eventually
increase the estate vineyards to 75 acres. The first is a 40-acre parcel
adjacent to the winery property on the north side. New plantings of Chardonnay
and Pinot Noir here will come into production in 2013. An old house on
the property will be renovated to offer a reception center for wine tastings
and dinners. The second property is a cool site for Pinot Noir located on Falstaff
Road near Freestone, 3.5 miles north of the Petaluma wind gap. 12 acres of Pinot Noir will be
planted and will come into production in 2013 as well. These new properties will allow Benovia to
eventually reach 5.000 case production. In the Fall, a Cohn Vineyard Pinot Noir and Savoy Vineyard
Pinot Noir will be released. I have tasted both of these a couple times out of barrel and the Savoy recently
after bottling and can tell you these wines are gorgeous, sexy Pinot Noirs. The Benovia Chardonnay,
Zinfandel and Rosé are outstanding wines in their own right. This is a cult producer in the
making and I would advise you join the mailing list asap.
Plenty of berry, earth, game and shroom on the
nose. Rich and ripe plum and blueberry flavors with hints of raisin, accented by toasty oak. The fruit driven
finish is lengthy and tangy.
2006 B Vineyards & Habitat Green Valley/Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Noir
13.9% alc., 336
cases, $55. The organically-grown fruit for this wine was hand-picked
over six mornings within a 2½ week span. After de-stemming, a 3-5 day
cold soak ensued. Sulfur additions were kept to the bare minimum even
after MLF. The bottled wines contain less than 100 ppm total sulfur -
below the maximum allowed for organically certified wines. A proprietor’s
select Pinot Noir, “Sera,” less than 150 cases, is also produced (I will
report on this in a future issue).
Charming demure aromas of red berries with a touch of barnyard. Solid
core of black raspberry and cherry fruit with a woodsy bent. Soft and smooth with elegance to spare. Still
weighted-down by noticeable, but gentle tannins, and still a bit closed. Outstanding potential, but not
ready for prime time for another 6-12 months.
2006 De La Montanya De La Cain “Chanconne” Sonoma County Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., 50 cases,
$55 (approx). (Sampled from unlabelled bottle, originally labeled Sonoma Coast but RRV fruit included
as well). A top-of-the-line reserve type bottling.
The aromatics are brooding and shy with dark
fruits and spice lurking. Very plush blackberry and black raspberry fruit which needs time in the glass to
blossom. Nicely spiced oak flavors as well. Velveteen texture, beautifully balanced. Plenty of potential,
but needs time to come out of its shell.
2006 Felta Creek Vineyards Flying Rooster Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.2% alc., 95 cases,
$24. Vinified at Laetitia Winery in Arroyo Grande for De La Montanya.
Very enticing aromas of crushed
black cherries, herbs, and oak char. On the palate, the attack of dark berry and dark stone fruits is lipsmacking
and the soft texture is alluring. The tannins are noticeable but reigned-in.
2005 Freeman Akiko’s Cuvée Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
Light ruby in color. Very charming scents of red fruits including wild strawberries,
with floral notes (violets) as well. A graceful wine driven by flavors of red
Pinot fruits with herbal accents. The finish is marred by a touch of woodiness
which disappears when the wine is accompanied by food.
2004 Kistler Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.1% alc., 1,328 cases, $60.
Deep purple color. Lovely perfume
of black cherries, lavender and damp oak. The flavors are driven by firm, dark fruits accentuated
with Asian spice, and dark chocolate. Nicely weighted and oaked, complex and interesting. Appealing
soft texture in the mouth, and lively acidity on the ending which is moderately long.
2004 Marimar Estate Dona Margarita Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.3% alc., $36. This wine comes from a 20-acre high-density planting (2,340
vines/acre) in western Sonoma County at 600 feet. Located in the Freestone
Valley between Freestone and Occidental, it is only six miles east of the Pacific
Ocean. Soils are Goldridge type. Clones are Pommard and 115.
wine has a “Burgundy” bent. Nutty, earthy nose, and dense black raspberry,
smoky, earthy and woodsy flavors. Some drying tannins still persist on the finish.
Quite enjoyable for its distinctive sauvage character.
2006 Patz & Hall Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.2% alc., $34.
This wine is all
about black cherry and black raspberry fruit with a healthy dose of oak. It is an
in-your-face gulp of fruit that will appeal to lovers of this style. There are still
some unresolved tannins (the wine is quite young and one of the first wines released
each vintage - rushed to the market because of the huge demand). This
is a wine you can count on for consistency year in and year out.
2004 Ridgeway Family Vineyards Two Pisces Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
13.8% alc., 295
cases, $26. Crafted by winemaker Dan Goldfield.
Still nice with another year of bottle aging. Charming
aromas of black cherry, nutmeg and smoke. Plenty of red and black fruits to delight with a slight tobacco
edge. Balanced beautifully, nice acid backbone, fine tannins and a lingering finish.
2005 Ridgeway Family Vineyards Two Pisces Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
13.9% alc., 425
cases, $30. The Two Pisces Vineyard is located in southwest Petaluma. The winemaker is Dan Goldfield
Very complex aromas of berries, vanilla, mushroom and flowers with a hint of
ethyl acetate. Terrific berry and cherry flavors nicely spiced with a touch of oak. Well-crafted and easy to
drink because of suede-like tannins. There is something special about this vineyard.
2004 Sonoma Coast Vineyards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.23% alc., 1,043 cases, $60. From seven
vineyards in the extreme Sonoma Coast. Clones are Dijon 113, 114, 115, 667, 777, 828, and Pommard
3. Aged 20 months in 50% new French oak.
Deep ruby robe. Intense and rich but reticent nose of dark
berries and allspice. Big plush fruit offers a fullness on the palate with notes of lavender, dark chocolate
and herbs. Always changing in the glass. This wine reminds me more of Burgundy than most California
Pinot Noirs. Obvious sophisticated breeding and winemaking. Needs more time to fully appreciate.
2005 Sonoma Coast Vineyards Peterson Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
13.9% alc., 760 six bottle
cases, Unreleased. Clones 115, 667 from the Peterson Vineyard. Aged 50% in new French oak
for 10 months. This wine is offered for earlier drinking than the Sonoma Coast Vineyards and Balistreri
Family Vineyard Pinot Noirs.
Lighter violet in color than the Balistreri. Ripe strawberries, black cherry
and tar compose the aromas. Elegant presentation of pure and well-defined red berry and cranberry fruit
with a touch of mint. Brisk acidity and a pillowy softness in the mouth. Ready for enjoyment now.
2006 W.H. Smith Marimar Estate Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
$48. Note: with first pass, the W.H. Smith
Pinot Noirs from the 2006 vintage were disappointing to me. I re-corked the bottles
and re-tasted the next day. What a difference! This was a lesson in wine tasting and
a realization that wine is almost a living, breathing organism. All of the wines were different and much
better the next day, showing a softer and smoother side with fruit more front and center. I think the
lesson to be learned here is that if you don't particularly like a wine at first, try it later or even the next
day and sometimes you will be surprised. That said, the W.H. Smith Pinot Noirs are endowed with
plenty of fruit and tannin, and are structured in a California Neuvo style that may not appeal to everyone.
Ex-Cab drinkers will probably find the wines quite attractive. (Smith formerly produced Cabernet-based wines at La Jota).
The nose is closed down but with coaxing there is a hint of black cherries, spices
and forest floor . The flavors shine with very nice raspberry, black cherry and plum fruit
with deft oak highlights. Well-balanced with reserved tannins and lively acidity. The
best of the 2006 W.H. Smith Pinot Noir lineup.
One Fog Horn
2005 Alesia Falstaff Road Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.7% alc., $62. Ron and Judy
Loughred farm this vineyard on the extreme Sonoma Coast. This is the second label of Rhys vineyards
and features several bottlings from purchased fruit.
Dark violet-red in color. Aromas start off with barnyard
and diaper and evolve to cherry, root beer, hay and oak. Woody, earthy, and meaty at heart. With
air, the flavors evolve with more black cherry charm. Tannins are well-integrated and the texture is reasonably
soft. The finish is a touch sour.
2004 Alesia Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.1% alc., $39. Two bottles sampled
- the two were completely different.
One bottle showed nice black raspberry,
tobacco smoke and oak char scents with a healthy fruit core of blackberries,
raspberries and a hint of herbs and wood. Silky in texture and clean
on the finish. The second bottle showed a similar aromatic profile but oak
char dominated the flavors and the finish was sour and unpleasant. Oh, the
trials and tribulations of tasting wine.
2006 Auteur Sonoma Stage Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
146 cases, $50. The Auteur wines have been highly touted in the wine
press and are sold by meager allocations through a mailing list.
An earthy aromatic profile featuring forest floor and a little oak
char with fruit lingering in the background. Earthy on the palate as well, with
dark fruits featured. The fruit is pent-up and flat at present. Soft in the mouth
with fine-grained tannins and tangy acidity and prominent oak. This is a wine
waiting to get out.
2006 Brogan Cellars Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.2% alc., $45.
Light reddish-purple in color. Some
grassy and barnyard accents to the red fruit. Tasty red cherry flavors with the grassy theme carrying
through to the finish. Light and more feminine than many Brogan Pinot Noirs, it is well-balanced and easy
to drink. Not winemaker Margi’s best wine, but still quite decent.
2004 Clouds Rest Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
$100. This unique one and
three-quarter-acre vineyard is actually on Sonoma Mountain but carries the
Sonoma Coast appellation. Frequent fog drifts in from the ocean forming a
billowy blanket about 50 feet below the vineyard fence. The Clouds Rest
Vineyard is situated at 1250 feet and is the most intensely planted vineyard in
the Sonoma Coast AVA and may be the most difficult and expensive to farm.
The vines are planted 3 ft x 3 ft (an arm’s length apart) in volcanic soils and
farmed completely by hand. The planted clones are Pommard 3 and 115, 667, and 777. The wines are
aged for 18 months in 50% new French oak and bottle aged an additional 18 months to 3 years. The
noted winemaker is Anthony Austin. I also sampled the 2003 vintage (dark in color, woodsy, earthy,
pruney in flavor) and the 2005 vintage (excellent aromatics of black raspberry and spice, pepper accents,
soft texture, toned-down from previous vintages and showing a refinement lacking in other
The aromatics benefit considerably from decanting. A blackberry
bombast. Fruit-driven style with gobs of plush ripe fruit and a mountain-inspired earthy influence. Big,
bold and definitely Caliesque in style
2005 De La Montanya Sonoma Coast Pinot Meunier
13.4% alc., $34. One of the few wineries in
California that bottles this varietal as a stand-alone wine. I tasted this in barrel last year and like it and it is really showing beautifully now. A great wine to stump your wine geek friends with. fruits delicately
spice. Straight forward, soft, clean and easy to drink.
Very nice aromatics
of wild berries, oak spice, buttered toast and new-mown hay. Very juicy darker fruits delicately
spice. Straight forward, soft, clean and easy to drink.
2004 Hamel Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
$31. The 2006 vintage has been released.
A reliable source of restrained, nicely-crafted Pinot Noir.
The nose is composed of toast, black cherry, roasted nuts and a hint of alcohol. Very gentle and soft red
cherry flavors with a clean finish. An easy drinker.
2005 Hartford Court Land’s Edge Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., $30.
Primarily sourced from Annapolis Vineyard with several other coastal vineyards.
Unusual aromas of BBQ smoke, green olive along with strawberry and
cherry notes. The smoke continues through on the palate highlighting the darktoned
fruits. The tannins are gossamer creating a silky feel in the mouth. The flavors
trump the nose.
2006 Kutch McDougall Ranch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.3% alc., 90 cases, $48 The
McDougall plantings are 3.4 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean at 935 feet. 25% whole cluster. Aged
on the lees for 16 months with no new oak.
Moderately light in color. Red cherries and brown spices on
the nose. Lighter-styled, with red fruit profile, herbal notes and graham. Lively acidity. Still reserved from
2004 Littorai The Haven Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.4% alc., $75.
Darkly colored, this wine offers a very unique aromatic profile of sweet smoke, tar,
herbs, char and hay. The brooding fruit is darkly colored and there is a curious
whiskey taste. Full-bodied, plenty of woodsy notes, soft tannins, and a lingering
2004 MacPhail Pratt Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.3% alc., 250 cases, $54. Clones 2A, 23,
114 and 777.
Wine-soaked wet oak, dark cherry and musky notes on the nose. Really delicious black
raspberry and graham flavors which make you sit up straight. As it opens, the flavors veer toward raisin.
Nice tang, grip, length and finish.
2003 Peay Vineyards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.0% alc., 575 cases, $45.
orange tinge to the rim. Initially there are captivating aromas of cherries, anise and
dried roses. Over time, the nose takes on notes of prune and cigar box. Tart cherry
flavors veering toward raisin with staunch acidity, and a clean, dry finish.
2005 Sonoma Cutrer Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
Darkly fruited from start to finish with plenty of oak and
char throughout. Blackberries and boysenberries saturate the palate. Attractive farmyard and herbal accents.
Very clean finish. Still some tannins to shed.
2006 Stephen Vincent Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
13.6% alc., $18. Sourced from the Four Sisters Vineyard
on the Sonoma Coast.
Light in color, light in the mouth, and very silky. Flavors of red fruits, primarily
cherry, with a grassy edge. Kept wanting more, but can’t complain for the price.
2006 W.H. Smith Maritime Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.1% alc., $54. No website. 707-965-9726. See notes on Marimar Torres Pinot Noir.
A woody bent to the
nose and flavors. Shy red fruits a medicinal note in the aromatics followed by black cherry, earth and iodine
flavors. After drinking this, I said, “What’s the fuss about?” This was a reference to the generous
scores this wine received in past. Not so fast! The next day from a re-corked bottle, the wine was quite
good with deep dark showy fruit and exotic wood accents. The medicinal note had completely resolved.
The mouth feel was pure velvet and the wine was quite enjoyable.
2006 W.H. Smith Umino Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
13.6% alc., $48. See notes on Marimar Estate Pinot Noir.
Upon early sampling
the nose featured spiced dark fruits which carried over on the palate. Finishes with plenty of fruit energy.
The next day from the re-corked bottle the fruit was more integrated with a nice smoky accent and the
texture had softened. Much more appealing the following day.
Other wines tasted but lacking a foghorn
2005 Alesia Chileno Valley Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.1% alc., $58.
Aromas of strawberry, juniper
berry and sandalwood are appealing, but a woody and herbal greenness overwhelms the fruit. Like sucking
on a wood branch. The green flavors could resolve to some degree with bottle age.
2006 MacMurray Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
13.5% alc., $19.
Smoke, tar and confected cherry aromas lead to
oak-infused dark fruits with a herbaceous edge. Soft but notable tannins. Drink with grilled meats.
2003 Wild Hog Estate Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
16.1% alc., $25. I tasted the 2005 vintage of this
wine as well and it was very similar in style albeit with more refined tannins.
Dark ruby in color. Scents of earth,
tobacco, pencil shavings and grass lead off. There is a strong attack of potent ripe fruit tending toward
raisin. Aggressive tannins. For fans of big tannic zinfandel-like wines.