Pinot Days 2014 Report

City View Room, Metreon, San Francisco

June 21, 2014

Pinot Days in San Francisco brings together close to 100 wineries from California and a few from Oregon. Having 100 wineries all working with the same grape varietal is fascinating and challenging as you decide: Which wineries to try; How to compare them; What story to look for. Since wine has truth, it should tell its own story.

The first wine I tried was from a reputable and well known producer Benovia. The winery is located west of Santa Rosa, with vineyards in the Russian River and Sonoma Coast appellations. The first glass was from north Russian River valley. It was a clear light cherry color, with a lithe body. The second glass was fruit from the Sonoma Coast, and, because of the cooler climate, had a darker color, more body, and a cranberry flavor. The third wine was from Russian River, and reflected balance, nuance and elegance. The aftertaste was like cassis, the currant liqueur.

The next winery was Gary Farrell, a Russian River winery with a good reputation for making pinots that reflect elegance and balance. They have a new winemaker, Teresa Heredia, who made wine on the Sonoma coast and received a lot of attention for her efforts. Teresa’s style added texture and flavor.

The first wine presented was a blend of three vineyards. (I noted that each table began with their blends, since it’s easier to approach balance of combined flavors.) The first single vineyard wine was from the Hallberg vineyard, which is 10 miles from the winery and in a moderate climate. The cooler weather brings out darker flavors, and less tannins develop in response to the sunshine. The flavor that stood out was soft cranberries. The second wine was from the same vineyard–same year, but it only included grapes from the Dijon clones. (Clones that were highlighted among the wineries included 667, 777, Dijon, and Pommard). The Dijon clone wine left a concentrated candy texture similar to the aftertaste of a Jolly Rancher candy.

Gary Farrell also uses grapes from the Ben Nacido vineyard in Santa Maria Valley. A different flavor profile came through with a green vegetal nose, dark cherry flavor, and noticeable tannins which come from the whole cluster fermentation. All the wines presented reflected the elegance, balance, and flavors reflecting the sites where the grapes were grown.

The vendors were lined up alphabetically and the next on my list to try was Goldeneye. Goldeneye was also pouring Decoy, and displayed other associated winery labels such as Duckhorn. It is a larger operation with a well-known name and may have prejudiced me as I tasted to see what its story was. The person pouring stated that the grapes were estate grown plus some purchased fruit. The wine was not what I was expecting. It had a funky nose which can add charm if the rest of the wine has merit, but the body had simple dark bitter fruit. I walked to the cheese table and tried a sip after some cheese but it was not coming together.

The crowd at the Siduri table had dispersed. Siduri only makes Pinot Noir and works with vineyards in Russian River, Santa Maria Valley, and Santa Rita Hills. Their philosophy is to use quality fruit and let the wine reflect the vineyard’s character. The John Sebastiano vineyard from Santa Rita Hills is in a valley open to the Pacific Ocean, and the winds blow into the valley causing the grapes to evaporate and develop tougher skins. Being a smaller grape alters the skin-to-juice ratio and it can make a wine with bigger tannins. The wine was earthy, dark, and balanced. Their Santa Lucia wine had more fruit, and the Russian River wine started with the funky nose followed by the cherry flavors. All of Siduri’s wines were balanced and had solid character. Siduri also does custom crush work for other winemakers and referred me to the Bucher Vineyard table where Siduri buys some of their grapes.

Diane Bucher is the public face for the family. Bucher produces Russian River grapes for William-Seylum, C. Donatiello, Thralls Family, and Papapietro wineries (in addition to Siduri). The flavors were notably similar to the Siduri wine made with Bucher fruit. It is interesting to see a pattern emerge from different winemakers using the same sources. The wine was elegant, balanced, with a little funky nose that added charm. Diane suggested that I stop by Thralls winery and try his Bucher fruit-made wine.

Ed Thralls left a career in finance to make wines in the style that he liked to drink. The Bucher fruit followed a similar pattern as Siduri and Bucher, yet had a lighter and more graceful style. The Sonoma Coast fruit displayed darker fruit with more tannins. Ed described the vineyard as a field blend because of the different clones he uses, though they were all Pinot Noir. The 667 clone added a floral element, and the elevation of 500 feet put it just above the fog line. This site allowed the sunshine to work during the day and the fog to cool it down so the fruit does not over-ripen.

Ed’s third wine was dark and savory, bringing an umami or “fifth taste” sensation. It was a food wine that could go with duck, mushrooms, and soy sauce. He only uses wild yeast and natural malo-lactic fermentation, which softens the finish.

I then stopped by Wrath. The name refers to the harsh conditions that the vineyard faces and the struggle to produce a wine that reflects the site. The wine “Ex Anima,” which refers to the soul of the wine, is produced in a stainless steel tank before resting in neutral oak. The nose had a distinct mint fragrance which he I was told came from the eucalyptus trees near the vineyard and a light body with cherry fruit. It was a very pleasant and interesting wine, quite different than the other wine makers. The alcohol level was in the 13% range, where most of the other wineries were producing in the mid-14s.

Pinot noir is very good, but I admitted–out loud–that I really enjoy syrah. Hearing my preference, the gentleman reached under the table and pulled out a bottle of the Wrath syrah. The nose was like opening a jar of Nicoise olives, followed by dark berries and a savory full body. I walked away just enjoying the fragrance.

Philo Ridge is in Anderson Valley, an area producing distinctly different styles depending on the producer. Heather McKelvey is the winemaker, and was pouring the wines. Heather offered insight into the different types of soil and clones and their effect on the finished product. The Marguerite vineyard is at 1500 feet elevation, resulting in more concentrated fruit; the soil is a mix of red clay, which contributes the red cherry flavor, and sandstone, which adds minerality. The Clone 667 adds a floral element to the wine. Heather likes to use new oak barrels, observing that many grape varieties can become over-oaked quickly, but that pinot just drinks it up. I asked about some of the wines I had tried that had a bitter finish and if she thought that was characteristic of pinot. Heather said No, that pinot goes through malolactic fermentation, which changes the acid into a creamy finish. Heather’s recipe to avoid off flavors was to “top off the barrels and keep them happy.”

Kendric Vineyards is a Marin-based winery. The grapes are grown in the Petaluma gap, near the border of Marin and Sonoma counties. The wine is made in a facility on Treasure Island. The wines were graceful, easy, and elegant. They were all from the same vineyard, but the different vintages showed through: 2009 was light red cherries’ 2010 was red berries (more acid); and the barrel sample from 2013 was dark and mineral driven.

Fred Nunes is a grape-grower who supplies produce to wineries such as Papapietro, Matrix, and Meiomi, as well as producing his own label, St. Rose. Fred is an anomaly–a winemaker that does not drink. He makes a small amount of wine so he can understand the process of how what he does in the vineyard affects what results in the glass. He does taste his wine, but readily admits that since he is not a drinker his nose picks out flaws rather than food pairings. Fred showed me a picture of a still that he uses to produce brandy that he sells to winemakers who also produce port. His next project will be to create a brandy for consumption.

At this point the number of wines that I sampled were adequate, and I observed that, after 2:00pm, the early trade admission ended and the public were lining up three deep to try some very good wines. The crowd was notably younger and were interested in mingling. I awkwardly reached around someone to empty my glass in the spill bucket and stepped on someone’s foot behind me. My grace and balance were dissipating, so I finished up at Papapietro winery, placed my empty glass on the exit table, and left.

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