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MacMurray Ranch: Pinot Noir with a History

The MacMurray Ranch property dates back to the early 1850s when the land was first settled by Colonel Hugh Porter. He had returned from the Mexican War and chose a site for his home adjacent a bend of Porter Creek, a small river that empties into the larger Russian River. Porter’s family lived on the land for generations and successfully farmed crops on the rich soils. In 1941, Fred MacMurray, a legendary actor of Hollywood’s Golden Era, and his wife, June Harver, bought the ranch as a getaway from his home in Los Angeles.

He became a gentleman rancher and frequently brought his wife and family to this picturesque setting in the Russian River Valley. MacMurray raised prize-winning cattle on the property and his children rode horseback through the hills. The family was an integral part of the local agricultural community. He nurtured the land for 50 years, acquiring open land when neighbors moved away. In 1996, the MacMurray family sold the ranch to the Gallo family. The original buildings were restored, trees were planted along Porter Creek, and vines were established behind the farmhouse with the first vintage of wine coinciding with the new millennium. The current vineyard layout is depicted in the map below.

Kate MacMurray, who was one week old when her parents bought the ranch in 1941, still lives on the property, hosting Sonoma County community and wine events such as the Russian River Valley Winegrower’s “Grape to Glass.” She represents the heritage of the MacMurray Ranch and is the perfect spokesperson for the Ranch’s wines.

The ranch encompasses more than 1,500 acres on both sides of the Russian River. Only about 450 acres are planted to wine grapes to preserve the land’s natural habitat. Plantings are predominantly Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris with small blocks of Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Syrah. Multiple clones of Pinot Noir, including Pommard, Dijon and Wädenswil are planted to match specific parts of the ranch land.

Talented winemaker Susan Doyle is a native of Tasmania with a degree in Environmental Geography from University of Tasmania and a postgraduate diploma in Viticulture and Enology from Canterbury University in New Zealand. Susan’s task is unique for a winemaker in California, for she crafts Pinot Noir from multiple appellations, including the Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills, Sonoma Coast and of course, the Russian River Valley. Oregon is in her future as well. She says, “In the Russian River Valley it’s all about black fruit and silky tannins and mouth feel. In the Sonoma Coast, it’s tighter, more structural with red fruits. In the Santa Rita Hills, it’s more layered and herbal and earthy. We’ve found another spot in the Central Coast where the Pinot has red cherry flavors along with the traditional earthy tea notes. It’s different in the character detail, but it’s all Pinot Noir at its core. And that’s exactly the point, isn’t it?

2006 MacMurray Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.0% alc., $35. Hand harvested, de-stemmed, cold soaked for 5 days, fermented with a mixture of natural and Burgundian yeasts. · This is a dense fruit-driven wine which lacks the trademark spice and cola features of many Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs. There is plenty of dark fruit and tannin but this wine could be from anywhere.

2007 MacMurray Ranch Central Coast Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., $24. Primarily sourced from Olson Ranch in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Harvested in the early morning, de-stemmed, cold soaked, fermented with a mixture of natural and proprietary Burgundian yeasts. · Pretty red tinged violet color. Shy, but appealing aromas of dark berries, wooded forest and oak spice. Rich melange of berry fruit and a hint of oak with gossamer tannins and bright acidity. A nice drink for the money.

2006 MacMurray Ranch Winemaker’s Block Selection Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 400 cases, $60. Clones 828 and 37 (Mt. Eden). Hand sorted and de-stemmed into open top 1 to 3.5 ton fermenters with a target of 95% whole berries. Cold soaked for 5 to 7 days and inoculation with a mixture of natural and Burgundian yeasts. Pressed gently using a basket press. Aged in a combination of new and 1-year-old French oak barrels with an additional 6+ months in bottle before release. · Now we’re talking. Really attractive aromas of black cherry and cherry cola. Plush core of cherry and berry fruit with some spice, leather and graham. Long, stylish and silky with tannins reigned in and oak playing a subtle supportive role. Clearly more sophisticated, refined and elegant than the other MacMurray bottlings. This wine will match up with the any of the very best Pinot Noirs currently made in California. This Pinot was kissed by an angel.

Other E. & J. Gallo Pinot Noirs:

2006 Gallo Family Vineyards Sonoma Reserve Sonoma County Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., $18. De-stemmed, cold soaked with other details not disclosed. Gina Gallo is the winemaker and Matt Gallo is the winegrower. · Deep reddish-purple color. Highly nuanced nose displaying aromas of black fruits, forest floor, mushrooms, cola and toasty oak. Rich attack of black raspberry and blackberry fruit which is mouth filling and pleasing and builds in intensity in the glass. The tannins are soft and supple, the oak is deftly managed and a pleasing lift of citrus complements the finish. A good crossover wine for Merlot and Cabernet drinkers.

Andrew Frei bought land in the Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley in the 1890s. His sons and grandsons took over and named the business Frei Brothers. Today, Frei Brothers Reserve wines still use grapes from Andrew’s original properties. Jim Collins is the chief viticulturist now for Frei Brothers Reserve. Farming is sustainable and incorporates ideas from organics and biodynamics. A falconer is employed to prevent starlings from eating grapes at some of the vineyards.

2006 Frei Brothers Reserve Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., $30. Picked in the cool morning,de-stemmed, not crushed to retain whole berries, cold soaked for a few days, several yeast strains employed, aged in oak barrels for 24 months. 97% Pinot Noir. · Slightly confected nose of raspberries and black cherries with a modicum of oak. Copious, dark, well-oaked fruit that is a bit overwhelmed by flamboyant tannins most evident on the dry finish. This wine will perform best at the dinner table with some hearty short ribs.

MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noirs are widely distributed and sold online at The Barrel Room (www.thebarrelroom.com) as are all the E. & J. Gallo wines. The MacMurray Ranch website is www.macmurrayranch.com. The MacMurray Ranch Winemaker’s Block Selection is an extraordinary wine and shows that the Ranch has the grape sources and talent to craft ultra-premium Pinot Noir. For me, the other MacMurray Ranch appellation Pinot Noirs are good, but not special, and are not Pinot Noirs connoisseurs will fawn over. They are directed more at the mainstream daily drinker market and fill that role admirably. The uppermost tier of quality in Pinot Noir is always a matter of economy of scale and these appellation wines are produced in large quantities.
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