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Kistler Vineyards Pinot Noir Tasting

There is no other iconic winery like it in California. Despite the popularity of social networking as a marketing tool for wineries, you won’t find this winery on Facebook or Twitter. The winery is not open to the public, there is no tasting room, the wines are not poured for tasting at any public wine event or winemaker dinner sponsored by the winery. The wines are only submitted to two wine critics for review, Robert Parker and Stephen Tanzer (Parker’s scores are usually higher!), who both visit the winery annually. The winery was one of the few not included in John Winthrop Haeger’s compendium, North American Pinot Noir, because the winery opted out. The winery does not belong to its appellation winegrowers association. A winery website did not appear until 2005 although the winery was founded over 30 years ago. The wines are sold primarily to consumers through a mailing list based on years of customer loyalty and volume of customer purchases. Minimum purchase is a case of wine with each offering (there is a spring and fall offering), which with tax and shipping can easily top $1,000. If you don’t buy, your allocation will quickly dwindle until you are unceremoniously dropped from the mailing list. Is this anyway to operate a winery in today’s competitive wine business?

Winemakers Steve Kistler and Mark Bixler decided early on to direct their energies completely to vineyard management and winemaking, avoid the public eye, and let the quality of their wines speak for themselves. You can’t argue with their business plan, for today they produce 25,000 to 30,000 cases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay annually (exact figures are not available) that is highly sought after by avid devotees of the Kistler style. Their wines command prices that are among the highest in California ($55 to $120) and Kistler Vineyards is considered the benchmark for California Chardonnay. Robert Parker has stated in The Wine Advocate, “If the Kistler Winery could be magically transported to the middle of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, it would quickly gain a reputation as glorious as any producer of Burgundy grand crus.”

Steve and John Kistler founded Kistler Vineyards in 1978 and released their first 3,500 cases of wine the following year. Mark Bixler joined the winery as a partner and John eventually left. Kistler Vineyards was one of the first California wineries to popularize Chardonnay crafted with traditional French techniques including whole cluster pressing, fermentation with indigenous yeasts, 100% malolactic fermentation in barrel, élevage in 50% new and 50% 1-year-old French oak barrels (aged to the winery’s specifications) in contact with the fermentation lees, minimal handling and processing including no racking, and bottling unfined and unfiltered after 11 to 18 months of barrel age. The Chardonnays were rich and oaky in the early 1990s, but through the years have become more refined with greater complexity and restraint. Currently, there are ten Chardonnay bottlings grown primarily from heritage clones of Chardonnay (including Old Wente), all of which the winery has been raising for thirty years. Very few producers in California work with such a wide range of Chardonnay vineyards, which include sites from western Sonoma County, the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Mountain and Carneros.

Back in the early 1990s, I was a regular purchaser of Kistler Vineyards Chardonnay when the winery’s popularity exploded. Along with a lawyer friend, we were buying a few cases every year and our spouses loved the stuff. We had a trip planned to the Russian River Valley and my friend phoned the winery to ask for a tour and tasting. He was able to speak with Mark Bixler. My friend is notoriously persuasive and persistent, keeping Bixler on the phone for fifteen minutes, but he got nowhere. Bixler said, “We don’t have any tasting glasses at the winery.” We often laugh about this story, grumbling about the rejection, even though we were spending thousands of dollars a year for Kistler wines. I have never met anyone who has visited the secluded winery, much less talked in person with the reclusive proprietors.

There are a few other enigmatic features of Kistler Vineyards. The wines are not sold on the website. No library wines are available for sale. Magnums have never been produced, or at least, released publicly. A Kistler newsletter from 1994 states that they planned to offer a small portion of their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in magnums but I am not sure if any were bottled and sold. Mailing list members are given a narrow two week window after the spring and fall offering to buy their allocated wines. Buyers must purchase quite a bit of Chardonnay to receive more than a paltry allocation of Pinot Noir. All the Pinot Noirs I tasted for this feature, regardless of vintage, had a labeled alcohol percentage of 14.1%, a curious detail.

A few facts are well known. Steve Kistler received a B.A. from Stanford University, studied at University of California at Davis and Fresno State University and was an assistant at Ridge Vineyards for two years before founding Kistler Vineyards. He is the winemaker and oversees vineyard operations. Mark Bixler received degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of California at Berkeley, taught chemistry at Fresno State University for seven years, and worked at Fetzer Vineyards for two years. He shares winemaking responsibilities and is the chemist and business manager for Kistler Vineyards. The first commercial account for Kistler wines was John Ash & Co. restaurant in Santa Rosa.

Kistler Vineyards spent its first fourteen years at a winery located on Nelligan Road in Glen Ellen. A new winery was constructed on Vine Hill Road in Sebastopol just west of Santa Rosa’s lowland Laguna in time for the harvest in 1992. The facility is modern and perfectly suited for the vinification of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. A central feature of the winery is seven large subterranean gravel floor barrel rooms used for aging. The rooms are individually temperature controlled and heavily insulated. The large barrel aging space gives Kistler the ability to leave the wines undisturbed until they are perfectly ready for bottling, a practice common among the top producers of white Burgundy. The large number of refrigerated stainless steel tanks allows Kistler to bottle their wines unfiltered.

Jason Kesner, who managed Hudson Vineyard from 2000 to 2008, has served as the assistant winemaker since 2008 and assists in vineyard operations. Ed Hogan is the Director of National Sales. In 2008, a minority stake in the winery was sold to Bill Price, owner of Sonoma Valley’s Durell Vineyard. Kistler has worked with price since 1998 when he acquired the 200-acre Durell Vineyard. With Price’s stake in Kistler, production of Kistler Durell Vineyard Chardonnay has reportedly increased to around 3,000 cases annually.

The last several years Kistler has quietly established new vineyards for their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay program. In 2007, Wines & Vines reported that Kistler had begun to plant three new vineyard sites: a five-acre block of Pinot Noir on Taylor Lane across from Summa Vineyard (777 and Calera), 20 acres of Pinot Noir and 10 acres of Chardonnay on Trenton-Healdsburg Road across from Mark West Winery (777, Calera, and some clones of “mysterious origins,” and a 25-acre planting jointly with another winery on a high ridge north of Jenner near Camp Meeting Ridge (various clones including the “mysterious” French clones).

Two trends are evident in Kistler’s newer Pinot Noir plantings: vineyard sources have moved to the very cool true Sonoma Coast, and the emphasis is on a diverse mix of clonal plantings with particularly heritage clones such as Calera, and unspecified clones of French origin rather than Dijon clones. Kistler abandoned the Dijon clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in 2003, finding them too productive even on the shallow soils of their sites, and any blocks carrying these clones were re-grafted to California heritage selections or cuttings from vineyards in France planted to “mass selection.” The Calera clone makes up all the Occidental Station Vineyard bottling and a good portion of the Kistler Vineyard Pinot Noir.

Kistler Pinot Noir has not gained as much notoriety as Kistler Chardonnay, yet Parker remains quite a fan. He gushed in 2002 in The Wine Advocate, “Steve Kistler and Mark Bixler are justifiably proud of what they have achieved with Chardonnay, but what really turns them on is their accomplishments with Pinot Noir, which may be the greatest Pinot Noirs made in the New World.” The first Kistler Pinot Noir was released from estate grown Russian River Valley grapes in the 1991 vintage. A Sonoma Coast appellation blend has been produced since 1994. A Russian River Valley appellation Pinot Noir was added in 2008. Along with Williams Selyem and Littorai, Kistler was one of the first to bottle Pinot Noir from Hirsch Vineyard, but this was discontinued as a vineyard designate after 2001. Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard, owned by Flowers, was a favorite of Steve Kistler’s and produced some stunning vineyard designate wines (1994 to 1998). Cuvée Catherine, named after Steve and Cathleen Kistler’s daughter, appeared on Russian River Valley Pinot Noir bottlings primarily or exclusively sourced from Kistler’s Estate Vineyard from 1991 to 2003. The Cuvée Catherine designation was assigned to the single vineyard Occidental Station Vineyard Pinot Noir starting in 2004. Vineyard-designated Cuvée Elizabeth Pinot Noir was produced from Occidental Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast from 1998 to 2003, but this vineyard was acquired by Evening Land Vineyards and is no longer a source for Kistler. The Cuvée Elizabeth designation was transferred to the single vineyard estate Bodega Headlands Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir bottling beginning in 2004. A third vineyard designate from the Sonoma Coast, Silver Belt Vineyard (Cuvée Natalie), debuted in 2006. Cuvée vineyard designated production is variable in amount depending on vintage tonnage, but was about 4,000 cases in the 2008 vintage. A full listing of Kistler Pinot Noir releases from the first in 1991 to the present is included below.

The Pinot Noir winemaking (as best as I can summarize from available information) is as follows. An initial extended cold maceration is followed by fermentation in open top fermenters. The free run juice is barrel fermented in 60% to 100% new 3-year air dried French oak barrels. The wines are barrel aged 14-18 months and bottled unfined and unfiltered.

The Kistler style of Pinot Noir emphasizes deep color, big extraction, thick, meaty flavors, substantial tannins, and generous oak. The wines are the epitome of what has been termed “Parkeresque,” in that they are big boned, unctuous, and hedonistic. Kistler has been striving for less extraction and more elegance and finesse, and I see a trend in this regard in more recent vintages (the 2006 Pinot Noir in this vertical tasting was the best wine). In a Los Angeles Times article in 2008, Allen Meadows commented on the 2004 Kistler Bodega Headlands Cuvée Elizabeth which Parker gave 96-98 points out of 100 and said the wine was ‘bordering on perfection.’ Meadows remarked, “While the size and weight and concentration are impressive, the texture is anything but elegant.” Meadows gave it 86 points. I am in Meadows’ camp on these wines. Although the Kistler Pinot Noirs find many fans, largely based on Parker’s rapturous reviews, they are not my cup of tea. The wines all taste very similar to me, with nuances lost in the prodigious fruit. Although older vintages I tasted recently back to 1998 held up well, I can’t say they improved with age. For me, Pinot Noir is about aromatics and mouth feel, and the wines don’t consistently deliver on either count. My recent sampling of multiple vintages of Kistler Pinot Noir are included below. I was a member of the Kistler mailing list from 1992 until 2007, and the wines reviewed below came from my personal cellar.

The Kistler Vineyards website is www.kistlervineyards.com. Wines may be obtained by signing up for the mailing list which is open. If you wish to try a bottle or two only, I suggest you seek them out through wine auction sites and retailers. On the secondary market the Sonoma Coast and Kistler Vineyard Pinot Noirs are sold for $50 to $120. The limited special bottlings are significantly higher in price, with the Cuvée Natalie averaging $140 (2006) to $144 (2008), the Cuvée Elizabeth averaging $161 (2007) to $300 (1995), and the Cuvée Catherine averaging $184 (2007) to $314 (2000). Kistler wines are also available in some restaurants, primarily the “Les Noisetiers” Chardonnay, which is a blend of fruit from several vineyards and although primarily made available to restaurants, has been intermittently offered to mailing list members. Mark Bixler recommends the proper serving temperature for the Kistler wines as 58-60º for Chardonnay and 60-62º for Pinot Noir. Bixler has also remarked, “It is hard to argue with the proposition that as young wines they (Kistler Pinot Noirs) are simply too delicious not to drink and enjoy at an early age. The primary fruit flavors are such a central part of their character that they just should not be missed.” In other words, drink when young, preferably after decanting. Cabernet Sauvignon was last produced at Kistler in 1992.

What to make of Kistler Vineyards? The Chardonnays are unquestionably among the finest made in California and well worth the tariff if you can afford it. The Pinot Noirs are another story. Although Kistler has obviously made a tremendous investment in vineyards to produce Pinot Noirs that can rival their Chardonnays, they have never achieved that goal in my opinion. The Kistler Pinot Noirs are among the most expensive wines in California and have achieved cult wine status. There are many proponents of Kistler Pinot Noir and they remain one of the most collectible wines in the marketplace. That said, exclusivity and expense doesn’t necessarily translate to quality, and based on this vertical tasting, I do not find the Kistler Vineyards Pinot Noirs among the top echelon of California Pinot Noirs. My only caveat is that I have not tasted the 2007 and 2008 vintages of Kistler Pinot Noir.



Kistler Vineyards Pinot Noir Releases 1994 - March 2010

2010

2008 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($55)
2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($55)
2008 Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($80)
2007 Occidental Station Cuvée Catherine Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($90)
2007 Bodega Headlands Cuvée Elizabeth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($90)
2008 Silver Belt Vineyard Cuvée Natalie Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($90)

2009

2007 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($55)
2007 Silver Belt Cuvée Natalie Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($90)
2007 Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($80)
2006 Silver Belt Cuvée Natalie Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (1000 cases, $90)
2006 Occidental Station Cuvée Catherine Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (500 cases, $90)
2006 Bodega Headlands Cuvée Elizabeth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (1500 cases, $90)

2008

2006 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($60)
2006 Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($80)
2005 Occidental Station Cuvée Catherine Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (1,032 cases, $90)
2005 Bodega Headlands Cuvée Elizabeth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (274 cases, $120)

2007

2005 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($60)
2005 Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($75)
2004 Occidental Station Cuvée Catherine Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (1,032 cases, $90)
2004 Bodega Headlands Cuvée Elizabeth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (1,024 cases, $90)

2006

2004 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($60)
2003 Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (1,790 cases, $75)
2003 Cuvée Catherine Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($90)
2003 Occidental Vineyard Cuvée Elizabeth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($90)
2004 Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($75)

2005

2003 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($60)
2002 Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($60)
2002 Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($75)
2002 Cuvée Catherine Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($90)
2002 Occidental Vineyard Cuvée Elizabeth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($90)

2004

2002 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($60)
2001 Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($60)
2001 Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($70)
2001 Kistler Vineyard Cuvée Catherine Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (258 cases, $80)
2001 Occidental Vineyard Cuvée Elizabeth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($80)

2003

2001 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($55)
2000 Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($65)
2000 Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($70)
2000 Cuvée Catherine Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($80)
2000 Occidental Vineyard Cuvée Elizabeth Pinot Noir ($90)

2002

2000 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($55)
1999 Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($65)
1999 Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (942 cases, $70)
1999 Cuvée Catherine Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($85)
1999 Occidental Vineyard Cuvée Elizabeth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (168 cases, $85)

2001

1999 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($55)
1998 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($50)
1998 Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (100 cases, $65)
1998 Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (150 cases, $60)
1998 Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (285 cases, $65)
1998 Kistler Vineyard Cuvée Catherine Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (250 cases, $80)
1998 Occidental Vineyard Cuvée Elizabeth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (50 cases, $80)

2000

1997 Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($55)
1997 Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($55)
1997 Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($60)
1997 Kistler Vineyard Cuvée Catherine Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($70)

1999

1997 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($45)
1996 Camp Meeting Ridge Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($50)
1996 Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($50)
1996 Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (500 cases, $55)
1996 Cuvée Catherine Pinot Noir (250 cases, $60)

1998

1996 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($42)
1995 Camp Meeting Ridge Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (250 cases, $49.50)
1995 Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (250 cases, $49.50)
1995 Cuvée Catherine Pinot Noir ($49.50)

1997

1995 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($40, pre-release price $35.60)
1994 Camp Meeting Ridge Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (300 cases, $35)
1994 Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($37)
1994 Cuvée Catherine Pinot Noir ($45)

1996

1994 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($36.50) Hirsch, Camp Meeting Ridge and Kistler vineyards
1993 Cuvée Catherine Pinot Noir ($40)

1995

1992 Cuvée Catherine Pinot Noir ($40)

1994

1991 Kistler Estate Vineyard Cuvée Catherine Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (200 cases, $35). The first release of estate grown Pinot Noir



Kistler Vineyards Pinot Noir, 1998-2006

1998 Kistler Kistler Vineyard Cuvée Catherine Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 285 cases, $65. · Dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Aromas of spiced dark berries, roasted nuts and a hint of prune. Intense purple fruits on the palate with undertones of cassis and marzipan. Relatively thick and concentrated with significant dry tannins and bright acidity. Good.

1999 Kistler Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 942 cases, $70. · Very dark reddish-purple color in the glass. A fruity nose featuring aromas of blackberries and black cherries with notes of anise, tar and oak. Intense and rich flavors of black plum and cassis with hints of tea, tar and smoke. Drinks like a Syrah. A linear, fruit-driven wine with significant oak tannins. Decent.

1999 Kistler Occidental Vineyard Cuvée Elizabeth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 168 cases, $85 · Dark reddish-purple color in the glass. A savory nose plush with earthy loam and oak with a hint of floral perfume. Bigboned and fruity with moderate sinewy tannins. The blackberry and cassis fruit is linear and a bit flat. Soft and smooth in texture. Good.

2000 Kistler Occidental Vineyard Cuvée Eilzabeth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 278 cases, $90. · Very dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Initially, there are some nice dark fruit and exotic fruit aromas but these fade quickly leaving a perfume of herbal oak and green garden. On the palate, the fruit fades quickly, leaving a core of dry, slightly viscous uninteresting fruit with moderate supporting tannins. Decent.

2001 Kistler Kistler Vineyard Cuvée Catherine Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 258 cases, $80. · Aromas of exotic woods, spiced fruits and oak. Charming berry and stone fruits with hints of spice and toasted brioche. Flamboyant tannins but vivid and crisp with an appealing tartness due to lively acidity that highlights the fruit. Very good.

2003 Kistler Cuvée Catherine Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 516 cases, $90. · There are some very attractive red and black cherry aromas which are slightly roasted. Thick and concentrated flavors of cherry cola and black currants with an undertone of smoky oak. Moderate dry tannins persist long with a refreshing grip of acidity on the bright and citrusy finish. Good.

2003 Kistler Kistler Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 1,790 cases, $75. · Dark reddish-purple hue in the glass. Complex aromatic profile of Bing cherries, dark berry jam, herbal oak, cut flowers and Moroccan spice. A plethora of tasty, sweet dark Pinot fruits including sassafras with a hint of tar and cola. Thick, almost viscous with moderate tannins and a tangy finish bright with cherries and citrus. A big wine that will please hedonists. Good.

2004 Kistler Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 1,328 cases, $60. · Moderate ruby-purple color in the glass. Complex aromatic profile featuring black cherries, cola, prickly pear, baking spices. sandalwood and a subtle vegetal note. Tasty cherry cola and raspberry flavor with some persistence on the finish. Showing a little bit of an aged patina and not as weighty as the Kistler cuvée bottlings. The tannins have melded and the wine is drinking nicely. Good.

2004 Kistler Occidental Station Vineyard Cuvée Catherine Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 1,032 cases, $90. · The nose never delivers much fruit, offering primarily scents of biscuit, oak spice, damp earth and a green note. The fruit trends to the overripe side with raisiny flavors. The pure intensity of the fruit lingers on the finish which has a bright citrus tang. Decent.

2004 Kistler Bodega Headlands Vineyard Cuvée Elizabeth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 1,024 cases, $90. · Aromas of dark berry jam, oak spice and baked bread. Big and tannic with a profuse array of blackberry, plum sauce and black currant flavors. The fruit flavors are buried in the massive structure. This will always be a tannic wine. Rather uninteresting. Decent.

2005 Kistler Occidental Station Vineyard Cuvée Catherine Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 1,032 cases, $90. · A very alluring nose of black raspberries and spice box. Delicious dark red fruit core that is rich and full-bodied. The tannins and acidity are reigned in and this charming wine has impressive harmony. Very good (+).

2005 Kistler Bodega Headlands Vineyard Cuvée Elizabeth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 274 cases, $120. · The nose is brooding with little fruit, offering mainly aromas of oak char and smoke. A prodigious and muscled super-sized Pinot Noir that is Syrah-like. There is very little charm to be found here in the dense dark fruit and substantial tannins. A husky wine that needs a good fatty steak. Decent.

2006 Kistler Occidental Station Vineyard Cuvée Catherine Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 528 cases, $90. · Moderately deep reddish-purple color in the glass. Demure black fruits on the nose with a prominent earthy, forest floor scent. Alcohol peaks out over time in the glass. Delicious dark berry fruit core that is vivid and juicy and persists on the pleasing finish. A big wine but not as chiseled or muscular as previous vintages. Moderate tannins and a smooth mouth feel. Drank nicely the next day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. The best wine in this vertical tasting. Very good (+).

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