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Small Sips of California Pinot Noir: Just Drink It

In recent weeks I tasted through a large number of primarily new releases from California producers. The tasting confirmed my general impression that there were more superb wines produced in the 2005 vintage than in the 2006 vintage. That said, I found many, many 2006 Pinot Noirs that warrant your attention. The buzz among the wineries and confirmed by my barrel tastings to date, indicate that the Pinot Noirs from 2007 in California will be among the best ever made. The 2008 growing season has been very difficult, complicated by frosts, heat waves, inopportune periods of rain, uneven weather patterns, and even smoke. Yields will be noticeably reduced in 2008 but like any uneven vintage, the top producers will be up to the challenges.

Seeking out the best vintners regardless of vintage is my goal. When you, the reader find some of my recommendations to your liking, ignore the vintage hype. I say forget the year, pull the cork and enjoy. If the wine in front of you gives you pleasure, then it is a good wine.

Trinity County

2005 Dubakella Trinity County Pinot Noir

13.9% alc., $30. Sometimes good Pinot Noir turns up in the most unexpected places. Andy Carini produces Dubakella Pinot Noir from a vineyard in Hayfork, California, about half way between the cities of Redding and Eureka, in Trinity County. Directly east of Humboldt County, Hayfork sits about midway between the best northern coastal Pinot Noir regions of California and the better Pinot Noir regions of Oregon. The wine is named for Mt.Dubakella, the tallest mountain you can see from Andy’s winery in Hayfork. It is a Wintu (local Native American tribe) word for “black rock.” Andy began working with this vineyard just before harvest in 2004. The location is uncharted grape growing territory, but seems to be a natural fit for Pinot Noir. The vineyard sits at 2,700 ft on a south facing slope overlooking the Hayfork Valley (the valley floor is at 2,200 ft). The soils are rocky loam with veins of limestone throughout. The climate is very Burgundian with a short, but intense, growing season with only two months of the year sure to be frost free (July and August). Summer day to night temperature swings of 50 degrees are the norm! Hot days and almost cold nights. The vineyard was planted to clones 115 and Pommard on 7 acres (there is 2 acres of Pinot Gris) in 1998 and is certified organic. Andy says, “On paper everything works and sounds nearly perfect. I am just about to the point where I feel I can state with certainty that in practice it is even better than on paper. As my years working with this vineyard pass, and we fine tune our farming to the site, the wines are proving that this is a place for great Pinot Noir, perhaps one of the very best places in the state for it.” Andy’s winemaking style emphasizes as little manipulation as possible. The only additions to the wine are yeast and minimal sulfur dioxide. There is no watering down, acidification, spinning cone, copper, color boosters, fining, or filtration. The wine is a true representation of its place of origin and the vintage. 90% of the grapes are de-stemmed followed by a cold maceration. After inoculation, the fermentations last between 10-14 days in small 200 gallon open top fermenters. Multiple daily punchdowns are followed by pressing directly to 100% French oak. Typically, aging is for 18 months and the wine is bottled directly off its gross lees. Order winery direct at www.cariniwinecellars.com. · A cherry bombast on the nose and an appealing loamy earthiness to the ornate black cherry and black raspberry flavors. Lithe and clean with a refined mouthfeel and a refreshing finish. An impressive wine well crafted and flashing great charm. The price is ridiculously low considering the effort taken in farming this isolated vineyard and crafting this unique wine.

2006 Alpen Cellars Trinity County Pinot Noir

13.0% alc., $16. Alpen Cellars is located in a small valley beneath the Trinity Alps of northern California. The climate features warm summer days with cool mountain nights. Keith Groves is the winemaker. · A medium-bodied Pinot Noir with interesting scents of confected cherries, cedar, wildflowers and herbs. Primarily red fruits on the palate, especially strawberry, with subtle woodsy and earthy accents. A bit tart with a short, dry finish. This wine will appeal to those looking for an off-road and different Pinot Noir drinking experience.



Anderson Valley - Mendocino County

2006 B. Kosuge Wines Manchester Ridge Mendocino Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 300 cases, $40. From a vineyard located in the boonies (many miles toward the coast from Boonville) at 2,000 feet. The location and climate are more akin to the Sonoma Coast than Anderson Valley. Byron Kosuge is a Pinot Noir and Syrah specialist who formerly was the head winemaker at Saintsbury. · A potpourri of scents including brambly cherries, candied apples, exotic woods, vanillin and winter spices. Mouth filling dusty red cherries that are nicely spiced with echoes of oak. Velvety texture with integrated tannins and a good acid cut. A complete wine with excellent balance and length.

2005 Goldeneye Confluence Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., $75. This vineyard is adjacent to the headwaters of the Navarro River with varying exposures and soils. · Sweet, richly oaked dark cherries, redwood, and old wine cellar scents. Restrained dark Pinot fruits with a faint chemical taste I can’t put my finger on. Fairly elegant with fine-grained tannins. A decent wine that may need some time to become more expressive, but there isn’t much going on right now.

2005 Navarro Vineyards Méthode à l’Ancienne Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

13.7% alc., $33. The top of the line Navarro Pinot Noir. The name refers to gentle punch downs of the fermenting must. The grapes come from the very cool northern “deep end” part of the Anderson Valley and are mostly estate grown. There is a variety of clones including Dijon 113, 114,115, 667, 777, Pommard 4 and Martini 13, and two field blends of Chalone and David Bruce, all planted on various rootstocks using different trellises at elevations of 300 to 1,300 feet. · A fragrant wine that picks up intensity and interest with time in the glass. Deep, rich black cherry, herb and hay scents. Full-flavored but elegant and beautifully composed with crisp acidity. Cherry-driven flavor profile with savory herbs. A ballerina in full-flight.

2006 Papapietro Perry Charles Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., $44. · Plenty of alcohol on the nose. A middleweight with dark earthy stone fruits that seem flat. The finish leaves a little bitterness in its wake.



Sonoma

2006 Adobe Road Winery Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

15.3% alc., 1350 cases, $39. Owned by Kevin and Debra Buckler, this winery is located in the cool Sonoma Coast town of Petaluma at 1995 S. McDowell Blvd. Founded in 1999, production is 5,000 cases of Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The interesting tasting room features a display of racing cars (Kevin is a well-known sports car racer). The winemaker is Frank Dusak. The 2005 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir was one of the top wines at the 2008 Pinot Noir Shootout and sold out quickly. · The wine pulls you in with attractive aromas of wild berries, earth, pepper, oak and a nice touch of barnyard. Dark-fruited with a strong tug of oak that competes with the fruit. Softly textured with a clean finish that leaves a little heat in its wake.

2006 Adobe Road Winery O’Neel Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

15.3% alc., 250 cases, $48 · Gregarious nose bursting with rich black cherries, well-toasted oak and oak spice. The earth-dusted and oak-imbibed dark stone fruits are discreetly concentrated with tannins that are soft and supple. The balance is admirable with alcohol that is well integrated.

2006 Verve Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.6% alc., 145 cases, $28. Clones 115, 777, Pommard and Beringer. Vines average 12 years of age. Harvest Brix 26 average. 100% de-stemmed, fermented in open-top fermenters, manual punch down of cap, 3 days cold soak and 21 days total cuvaison average. Aged an average of 17 months in 30% new French oak and bottled aged 4 months. · Charming aromas and flavors of red current, cherry, cola and root beer. Caressing in the mouth, fine tannins, appealing lightness and very easy to drink.

2006 Derbès Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.7% alc., 428 cases, $40. Cécile Lemerle-Derbès is a master winemaker who has made fine wines throughout the world. This wine was sourced from Sweeney and Moore vineyards. Clones 115 and 777. Hand harvested and sorted, de-stemmed, cold soaked for 2 days, inoculated with Burgundy yeasts, total cuvaison 22 days. Barrel aged for 15 months in 50% new French oak. · This is a wine for those that prize subtlety and restraint. Attractive scents of cherry cola, loamy earthy and barnyard. Very tasty demure cherry cola, spice and smoke flavors. Clean, pure and sleek with great delicacy and perfect balance.

2005 Flowers Andreen Gayle Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.9% alc., $50. · A rich core of black raspberry, black current and black cherry fruit with an appealing earthy and gamy aspect. Restrained, sleek and seductive with defining acidity that makes this wine a perfect dining companion. Match this with cassoulet and you will be on your knees.

2006 Iron Horse Vineyards Estate Green Valley of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., cases, $40. From vineyards in the cool, foggy Green Valley planted in Goldridge soil. · The aromatic profile features cherries, herbs, oak, stalk and a little good Pinot stink. Redder fruits lead the attack. Silky and fairly lightweighted. A decent wine that carries too much fruit that is on the green side (?unripe).

2006 Landmark Grand Detour Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., $33. Landmark is known for its excellent Chardonnays, but has been making a fine Grand Detour Pinot Noir for several years now sourced from several Sonoma Coast vineyards including Kanzler, Keller Estate, Gap’s Crown, Flocchini and Armagh. This winery has a consistent track record with Pinot Noir and the wines are year in and year out always excellent as well as sensibly priced. · Alive with the scent of Bing cherry, cola and oak spice and flavors of dark berry fruits complimented by a sumptuous edge of vanillin oak. Well-proportioned and beautifully crafted, I liked this a lot.

2004 Littorai Thieriot Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., 240 cases, $65. · They say that perfect Pinot Noir hasn’t been made yet, but this one comes darn close. Lovely cherry aromas complimented by subtle oak spice and loamy earthiness all carrying over to the palate. Demure yet potent with a persistent aromatic finish. Perfectly balanced and complete in every way. Thieriot Vineyard is a superstar among California vineyards and is clearly my favorite Pinot Noir year in and year out from Ted Lemon at Littorai.

2005 Littorai Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., 84 cases, $65. · Darkly fruited perfume with notes of hay and grass. Similar flavor profile with the fruit showing considerable restraint. Silky with powdery tannins and assertive acidity producing a short, tart finish. Needs patience.

2001 Martinelli Bondi Home Ranch Water Trough Vineyard Green Valley Pinot Noir

14.7% alc.. · Secondary aromas of rotting leaves and barnyard. Austere plumy fruit, mushrooms and leather. The tannins are completely resolved and the wine is pleasingly soft. Drink up.

2006 Moshin Vineyards Lot 4 Selection Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 425 cases, $40. · Crimson robe. Typical Russian River Valley perfume of Bing cherries and spice. Cherry pie flavors which are straightforward but appealing. Round in the mouth and soft with felty tannins and a dry, slightly sour finish.

2003 Radio-Coteau Marsh Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., 74 cases, $40. This wine is from a 1.3-acre vineyard planted to Swan selection located west of Occidental and farmed by owners Peter and Barbara Marsh. · Black cherry dominated scents with a hint of alcohol and cocoa dust. Lush red cherry fruit subtlety spiced,showing good persistence on the long, chewy and brisk finish. Still drinking nicely.

2006 W.H. Smith Maritime Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $54. · This is a well oaked wine featuring redder fruits including Maraschino cherry. Dried herbs are prominent as is a slight green note. Very soft and drinkable, with bright acidity on the back end.

2006 W.H. Smith Marimar Estate Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.6% alc., $48.

Note: both this wine and the 2006 Maritime Vineyard Pinot Noir were a noticeable departure from the 2005 vintage Pinot Noirs from W.H. Smith. The 2005 wines were dense, tannic and big, requiring decanting to enjoy. The 2006 wines are much more approachable. · An elegant, even feminine wine featuring nicely oaked dark red cherry fruit with a sidecar of baking spices. Powdery tannins create a smooth texture and the clean finish shows balanced acidity.

2006 Williams Selyem Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., $34. · Strawberries, red cherries, allspice and a hint of pine resin on the nose. Light-weighted tart red cherry and blueberry flavors. Soft, cozy and feminine with brisk acidity. Simple but enjoyable.

2006 Williams Selyem Sonoma County Pinot Noir

13.9% alc., $42. · Light crimson in color with a slight haze. Beautiful candied cherries, new oak and a little barnyard stink on the nose. Lightly spiced cherry flavors with an earthy edge. Simple and short, losing interest with time in the glass.



Marin County

2006 Willowbrook 2006 Marin County Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., 245 cases, $38. This is the first Marin County Pinot Noir from Willowbrook Cellars. From a low-yielding vineyard (less than 2 tons per acre) in an area known for late, lingering fog and intense, cool winds from Point Reyes. The vineyard is leased from Corda Vineyards and farmed by Mark Pasternak. Owner John Tracy and winemaker Joe Otos have been making superb single-vineyard Pinot Noirs for six vintages from their winery in Sebastopol. The fruit was gently de-stemmed, 70% whole cluster fermentation, four day cold soak, aged 11 months in French oak barrels. · Very ripe black cherry and plum aromas with a hint of oak, char and roasted nuts. Rather exotic dark wild berry flavors which are haunting. All velvet in texture with a pleasing citrus note to the tangy finish. Perfect with grilled meats.



Napa Valley

2006 Acacia DeSoto Vineyard Napa Valley Carneros Pinot Noir

14.6% alc., 348 cases, $55. · This wine needs some air time or decanting to fully blossom. Dark stone fruits with a smoky edge which are soft and clean in the mouth. Discrete acidity predicts this wine will benefit from some more bottle aging.

2005 El Molino Rutherford Napa Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., $30 ( · Lightly colored. Vivid, fresh black raspberry fruit with an appealing underlying minerality. A hint of raisin and tea adds interest. Nicely weighted with fuzzy tannins and a dry finish. Perfectly fine.

2006 Judd’s Hill Napa Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., $25. This winery is owned and operated by generations of the Finkelstein family - Art, Bunnie, Judd and Holly. The family has been making wine since the 1970s. · Deep, darker fruited, jammy aromas with hints of mocha and tropical fruit. Rustic ripe fruits on the attack with an unusual malt and marzipan bent. Smooth, light and nicely composed except for a trailing bit of heat on the finish. A bit off the beaten track but will have some fans.



Santa Cruz Mountains

2005 McHenry Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.6% alc., <200 cases, $20. From a 2-acre vineyard Bonny Doon at 1,800 feet elevation, five miles from the Pacific Ocean. Aged two years in French oak. · Dark ruby violet in color. The fruit in this wine is veering toward raisin and seems riper than the 2004 vintage. The red stone fruit is discreetly oaked and interesting accents of spice, pepper and forest floor make for a delicious drink. Soft, clean, and seamless. Easily approachable and a delight to drink.

2006 Mount Eden Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.8% alc., 870 cases, $43. A historic estate founded in 1945. This wine is from older Pinot Noir selections grown at 2,000 feet above the Santa Clara Valley floor. Jeffrey Patterson has been the winemaker since 1981. . · Muted and delicate aromas of herbed berry fruit with a hint of sage and pumpkin spice. The nose opens and gains intensity with time in the glass. A light, elegantly styled wine featuring herbed berry fruit that is slightly tart and a little austere secondary to the brisk acidity. This Pinot Noir screams for food and I found it a perfect accompaniment to chicken curry. This is not a wine for those who prefer a hunky, extracted, bold style.



Monterey County

2001 Arcadian Pisoni Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

$82 (current retail). Joe Davis crafts this wine differently than many working with Pisoni fruit. He picks less ripe and strives for balance and elegance. · A sturdy wine that is still supple. Ripe, smoky dark fruits, oak spice and barnyard on the nose. Cassis, plum and earth flavors leading to a dry and citric finish with zippy acidity. Drinking beautifully now.

2005 Cima Collina Chula Viña Monterey County Pinot Noir

13.85% alc., $28. This vineyard lies in the foothills of the Gavilan Mountains and is exposed to warm afternoons, cooling breezes and fog. · Very ripe fruit aromas tending toward mixed fruit jam and raisin. Similar ripe fruit flavors on the palate including raisin and root beer. Soft in the mouth with fine-grained tannins, admirable elegance and balance.

2006 Cima Collina Monterey County Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., 1,249 cases, $26. This wine is a blend of various growing regions in Monterey County. · Very ripe dark red fruits that are cooked and jammy trending toward raisin and prune flavors. Silky texture, fine tannins, lively acidity and a dry finish. Well-crafted and easy to drink, but the fruit is a bit shallow and too overripe for my taste.

2006 Cima Collina Tondre Grapefield Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 158 cases, $48. This vineyard sits in the southern reaches of the Santa Lucia Highlands above the fog line. Clones 115, 667 and Pommard. Minimalist winemaking by Annette Hoff. Aged 11 months in 40% new oak barrels. · Complex and demure scents of oak, herbs and spearmint coat the lovely dark red cherries, red current and raspberry fruit. The palate is rich yet smooth and soft as an angel’s hair with great persistence. Thoroughly satisfying.

2006 Pey-Lucia “Frisquet” Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., 375 cases, $37. From a 34-year-old site with breezy afternoon sunshine and chilly (“frisquet” is French for very cool), foggy mornings. Down the road from Garys’ Vineyard and bordering Rosella’s Vineyard. Owner and winemaker Jonathan Pey also crafts beautiful Pinot Noirs from Marin County (Pey-Marin). · Deep reddish-purple color. Rich, sumptuous nose of black cherries and rose petals. Hi-toned black raspberry fruit which fills the mouth and coats the tongue. Almost viscous in texture, yet light in weight, with very fine tannins and balanced acidity on the back end. Earth and grilled meat notes add interest.



Santa Rita Hills

2006 Sanford Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., $40. · Restrained scents of black cherries, smoke, minerals and a hint of alcohol. Plentiful, dirt-crusted cherry and black raspberry fruits embrace the palate. A peculiar chemical taste and a bit of bitterness on the finish ruin the experience. Disappointing considering the pedigree of this vineyard.

2006 Sanford La Rinconada Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., $40. · Flat out great nose featuring a showy mixture of cherry, raspberry, oak, baking spice and earthy aromas. Lush spiced red cherry fruit showing perfect ripeness and excellent length. Silky textured with an endless echo of the scents and fruit on the finish marred only by a little heat.

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