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Red Car Wine Company: Grab The Red Car to the Sonoma Coast

Red Car harkens back to memories of the now defunct Los Angeles Red Car Trolley Line. Two Los Angelinos, Mark Estrin and Carrol Kemp released their first wine in 2000. The distinctive Red Car labels and the continuing novella on the Amour Fou bottlings which told of a tragic love affair taking place in 1940s Los Angeles, caught the public’s eye, and wine critics were fond of the wines from the beginning. Unfortunately, Mark Estrin passed away in May, 2005. Carroll Kemp has carried the flag since and has pushed the label to greater heights of notoriety. The partners were not “terroir-istes” at the beginning, believing in making the best wines they could from more than one vineyard source. Their initial 2000 vintage was sourced entirely from Central Coast fruit. In 2004, Red Car Wine Company raised enough capital to buy 120 acres along the Sonoma Coast close to neighbors Marcassin, Hirsch and Blue Slide Ridge vineyards. Over the past five years, preparation and planting of the Red Car Vineyard has progressed and the vineyard will soon bear both Pinot Noir and Syrah for the first time.

The partner’s early experience with making Pinot Noir led them to prefer vineyard sites located on the cool climatic edge and focus on vineyard-designate wines. By 2006, Carroll had a definite palate preference for Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and by 2008, all of the fruit in Red Car wines will be from Sonoma County. Carroll is so committed to the true Sonoma Coast that he is moving the Red Car winery from its current Central Coast Wine Services location in Santa Maria to Graton in Sonoma County which is close to the Red Car Vineyard.

Paul Sequeira, a Sonoma County native, joined Red Car in 2009 as Director of Sales and Viticulture, and will be intimately involved in all facets of the winery. Photo below shows Carroll (left) and Paul at this year’s World of Pinot Noir.

The Red Car style has evolved to date. The initial vintage of Pinot Noir in 2002 was made like their Syrah and was quite popular with Parker who prefers bigger, fruitier Pinot Noirs. The focus now is just the reverse with the Syrahs being made more like Pinot Noirs and the Pinot Noirs taking on less extraction and emphasizing tension. The goal now is to fuse the contrasting forces of tension in wine encompassing alcohol, acid, tannin and fruit so they coexist in harmony. As Carroll notes, “Wines devoid of tension lack a center - that point at which contrasting elements meet. This is often perceived as a lack of complexity. Though many elements may be present, their sum tastes “flat,” like a painting without a focal point.......A wine without tension is neither interesting nor balanced, which may indeed by true of life itself.” Red Car is committed to quality and is shifting over to all 4-year air-dried French oak in their barrel program. The wines are neither fined nor filtered.

On my way to the 2009 World of Pinot Noir, I stopped at Central Coast Wine Services to taste the 2007 Red Car Pinot Noirs and the 2008 Pinot Noir components from barrel with Carroll and Paul. I also tasted the 2007 Heaven and Earth and 2007 Aphorist several weeks later at home. The wines are still concentrated by Pinot Noir standards, but they are now more interesting, more focused, less extracted and better balanced compared to previous vintages. The 2007 Pinot Noirs were picked at an average 24º brix, the 2008 grapes even lower at 23.5º to 23.8º brix. There is no watering back of alcohol levels. Since I tasted in March, 2009, the Red Car Aphorist and Heaven and Earth Pinot Noirs have receiving very high scores from the wine press and have been lauded in multiple publications. As good as the 2007 wines are, the 2008 vintage wines may be even better, in part due to increasing familiarity with the vineyard sources and ongoing changes in the winemaking regimen.

2007 Red Car Trolley Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 733 cases, $45. Sourced from three Sonoma Coast vineyards: Zio Tony (60%), La Boheme (25%) in Occidental and Bartolomei (15%) in Forestville. Aged in 57% new French oak barrels. · A darkly fruited wine with aromas of black grapes and berries with a touch of smoke, and deep flavors of black raspberries with an underpinning of oak. Silky mouth feel, complimentary lift of acidity, and a pleasing finish.

2007 Red Car Heaven & Earth La Boheme Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 350 cases, $54. Second single vineyard designated Pinot Noir and first from the La Boheme Vineyard which lies just outside Occidental. It is a Red Car monopole that is farmed with Ulises Valdez. The Calera clone dominates the blend. · Weighty scents of blackberries, plums, anise, barnyard and a whiff of alcohol. Slightly confected black raspberry fruit flavor with a wisp of earth, black tea and oak. Luxurious and comforting in the mouth, wrapping the tongue in fruit, and ending in a bright and lingering finish that leaves a touch of heat in its wake. A bear of a wine that is a hedonist’s delight.

2007 Red Car Heaven & Earth La Boheme Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 350 cases, $54. Second single vineyard designated Pinot Noir and first from the La Boheme Vineyard which lies just outside Occidental. It is a Red Car monopole that is farmed with Ulises Valdez. The Calera clone dominates the blend. · Weighty scents of blackberries, plums, anise, barnyard and a whiff of alcohol. Slightly confected black raspberry fruit flavor with a wisp of earth, black tea and oak. Luxurious and comforting in the mouth, wrapping the tongue in fruit, and ending in a bright and lingering finish that leaves a touch of heat in its wake. A bear of a wine that is a hedonist’s delight.

2008 Red Car Bartolomei Vineyard Blocks 1 & 2 Pinot Noir (barrel sample). Clones are 113 and Jackson 16. Very tasty red and black berries and plum with a cola accent. Smoothly textured with a solid acid spine.

2008 Red Car Bartolomei Vineyard Blocks 2 & 3 Pinot Noir (barrel sample). Clones are 777 and Jackson 16. Darkly fruited with more roundness and softness than blocks 1 & 2. Very smooth, aromatic with a refreshing finish. Love this.

2008 Red Car La Boheme Vineyard Calera Clone Pinot Noir (no stems, barrel sample). Aromas of fresh plums, dark chocolate, smoke and a hint of leaves. Bright and fresh dark stone fruits in the mouth.

2008 Red Car La Boheme Vineyard Calera Clone Pinot Noir (20% stems, barrel sample). Slightly darker in color. More purity of fruit in the nose and in the mouth with more spice. Rounder with slightly more tannin and a longer finish. Definitely prefer this over the stem-free sample. Very educational comparison.

Platt Vineyard is a new source of Pinot Noir for Red Car and no Red Car wine has been released from this vineyard. The vineyard consists of 20 acres that will be sourced by Red Car, Scherrer and Littorai. All the planted Chardonnay goes to Ramey. A very cold site between Freestone and Bodega, west of the new Kistler vineyards at the extreme climatic edge of viticulture. Unfortunately, the owner who farmed this vineyard, Lew Platt, passed away before any wine was released from this vineyard.

2008 Red Car Platt Vineyard Calera Clone (no stems, barrel sample). 13.48% alc.. Really attractive flavors of juicy dark Pinot fruits with an appealing earthiness, restrained tannins and a very silky texture.

2008 Red Car Platt Vineyard 828 Clone (30% new oak, barrel sample). 14.03% alc.. Somewhat awkward now. Very fruity - “grapey.” Minimal tannins. Difficult to evaluate presently.

Campbell Ranch Vineyard is located in Annapolis on the true Sonoma Coast. Kemp showed me the results of an experiment with 2008 fruit from this vineyard. The grapes were fermented together using free run juice, then the wine was put into two different barrel regimens: 3-year air-dried French oak and 4-year air-dried French oak (100% new). The wine raised in 3-year air-dried barrels had more char in the aromas and flavors. The wine raised in 4-year air-dried French oak had some char but the dark fruit showed through much better with a sweeter mid-palate. Carroll finds that the smoke and char influences from the 4-year air-dried barrels tend to evolve to an attractive spice quality over time. The findings have led Carroll to shift the barrel aging program to 4-year air-dried barrels.

The point to be gleamed from tasting the 2008 barrel samples is that winemakers like Kemp are continually trying to perfect their craft and improve their wines. The ongoing experimentation in wineries is necessary to refine the style of Pinot Noir that embodies the winemaker’s goals. In this regard, Kemp has acknowledged the continuing evolution of the Red Car style and the resulting wines have improved through trial and error with each succeeding vintage.

To get on the Red Car, join the mailing list at www.redcarwine.com. The wines are highly allocated. Box Car Pinot Noir ($28), Rosé, Syrah and Roussanne complete the portfolio. 213-229-2800.

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