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Rivers-Marie: Still the One

As I compose this issue of the PinotFile the day before Father’s Day, I am dreaming of my planned lunch with my wife Patti and son Garrick (my younger son who does all the PinotFile website management lives in Austin, Texas) at my favorite restaurant, Marché Moderne. The wine I have chosen to bring from my cellar for the occasion is the 2007 Rivers-Maria Summa Old Vines Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. If someone were to say, “I will grant you eternal life or a couple bottles of Rivers-Marie Summa Old Vines Pinot Noir, I’d take the Rivers-Marie every time.

Winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown and his wife Genevieve Marie Walsh have quietly developed one of California’s most revered cult Pinot Noir labels. Brown’s background doesn’t hint of his eventual success in the wine business. Hailing from South Carolina, Brown majored in English literature and game theory at University of Virginia, two subjects that are about as disconnected from enology as one can imagine. He arrived in California in 1996 after his schooling with a newly hatched love of wine, attempting to break into the wine business. He had no leads or connections whatsoever and simply began knocking on doors. Aaron Jordan, the winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars, finally hired him. This was to become a very fortuitous hire as Aaron subsequently introduced Brown to Scott and Joan Zeller, the owners of the 60-acre Summa Vineyard, located in the Occidental region of the true Sonoma Coast. As Brown launched his own Rivers-Marie label in 2002, Summa Vineyard was his only source for Pinot Noir, but it was eventually to lead to several other important sources of grapes nearby.

Today, Rivers-Marie produces tiny amounts of Pinot Noir from three vineyard sources in the true Sonoma Coast, more specifically the Occidental-Freestone area. Besides Summa Vineyard, Pinot Noir is harvested from Occidental Ridge Vineyard, owned by Richard and Darla Radcliffe, which debuted in 2005, and the Willow Creek Vineyard, two acres owned by Raleigh and Patricia Wilson-Juckett, which debuted in 2006. Total production for Rivers Marie in 2007 was 650 cases. It is no wonder there are over 4,000 people on the waiting list hopelessly biding their time to obtain a spot on the mailing list. Managing allocations is more challenging for Brown than crafting the wines!

Brown is better known in Napa Valley than in Sonoma where he has a hand in crafting wine for fifteen different wineries, processing 300 tons of grapes annually, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon. He works out of the Black- Sears Winery on Howell Mountain that Ted Lemon of Littorai left behind after moving to Sebastopol. He also has a second Pinot Noir project with Schrader Winery partners, Aston Estate, producing clonal specific Pinot Noirs from the Annapolis region in the true Sonoma Coast (www.astonestate.com).

The 2007 Rivers-Marie Pinot Noirs were show stoppers (www.princeofpinot.com/article/719/) needing a rating category above the Pinot Geek, and the 2008 vintage wines are a spectacular group of wines as well. The grapes are 100% de-stemmed of each wine. The oak regimen in 2008 varies from 25% new for the Sonoma Coast, 40% new for the Occidental Ridge, 60% new for the Summa, to 100% new for the Summa Old Vines Pinot Noir. Coopers are a mix of Remond, Taransaud and Francois Freres. All the wines have an appealing deep, dark reddish-purple robe. Brown’s comments about the 2008 vintage: “The 2008s begin with their backbone and will take some time to round out. It is definitely a red/orange fruit focused year and acidities are a bit higher than in 2006 and 2007.” A new vineyard, Silver Eagle, which is farmed by Ulises Valdez, was sourced in 2009 which looks like a generous production year.

Although you can add your name to the Rivers-Marie waiting list at www.riversmarie.com, you might be better served to seek out bottles on the secondary market. A Chardonnay from the famed Thieriot Vineyard located in the Sonoma Coast also become part of the lineup with the 2007 vintage. A Rivers-Marie Cabernet Sauvignon from Howell Mountain is available as well. Prices are very sensible considering the quality.


2008 Rivers-Marie Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 225 cases, $25. An earlier drinking wine composed of younger blocks of Summa Vineyard and other barrels from Occidental Ridge and Willow Creek (production was tiny and all of it went into this bottling). · Exciting scents of boysenberries, brioche, seasoned oak and a swirl of spices. The most showy nose in the lineup. Discreetly rich in the mouth, with a wave of black cherries, dark berries, cola, smoke and savory herbs wrapped in peach-skin tannins that combine in a very pleasurable drinking experience. Very good.

2008 Rivers-Marie Occidental Ridge Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., pH 3.50, 225 cases, $45. · This one will make the hair on your neck stand erect. Lovely aromas of freshly picked red and black berries and cherries nicely spiced with hints of soak and sage. In the mouth I was at a loss for descriptors. My notes say, “Amazing fruit, want more, really attacks, great juice, class in the glass.” This wine has that California fruit viscosity that makes you proud to be an American, and an addictive and refreshing ending in which the fragrance returns to haunt the finish. It was scary that this wine was better later in the day from a bottle opened earlier in the morning. Imagine what this wine will be like in a couple of years!

2008 Rivers-Marie Summa Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 200 cases, $45. · Enticing perfume of fresh red stone fruits and berries with exotic spices and baked apple. Delicious melange of dark red cherries and berries with nuances of dark chocolate, Moroccan spices, anise, smoke, and savory herbs. The fruit is robust, virile and mouth coating and persists through a generous finish. A whisper of tannin makes for approachability now. A top-shelf Pinot Noir that has the goods and balance to improve in the cellar over the next several years.

2008 Rivers-Marie Summa Old Vines Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 175 cases, $60. · Intoxicating aromas of wild berries and black cherries and other pheromone scents that make you giddy. Structured and stuffed with an entirely seductive and ever-expanding arsenal of dark red cherries, berries and currants underlain with a subtle smokiness, haunting earthiness and a hint of mushrooms on the grill. Enough tannins for the long haul and balancing acidity to hold the fruit in check. The finish goes on and on, leading to a veritable winegasm. Still tightly wound but considerable upside potential long term.

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