The history of Rochioli Vineyards goes back to the late 1930s, when Joe Rochioli Sr, began buying land in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. He began planting vines in 1959; now the family owns about 118 acres, concentrating on sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir. The winery is run by Joe Rochioli Jr., with his son Tom as winemaker. Production is about 10,000 cases annually. Besides the estate wines, Rochioli makes a number of highly coveted limited edition single-vineyard wines available through a mailing list that has a five-year wait.

Rochioli wines have a tremendous reputation, one that must be the envy of many wineries in the Russian River Valley, not to say the entire state. I have tasted the sauvignon blanc in the past, but not the chardonnay or pinot noir. While I found the pinot completely wonderful, in fact one of the supreme examples of the grape made in California, I was dismayed by the oak influence and lack of integration in the sauvignon blanc, particularly, and the chardonnay. I am distinctly in the minority in this evaluation; these wines receive ecstatic reviews. According to my palate, however, there’s an unaccountable issue of balance.

Let’s start with the “No.”

You wouldn’t think that the oak treatment for the Rochioli Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Russian River Valley, was heavy-handed. Indeed, only 20 percent of the wine was fermented in French oak and then spent 50 days, a hair over four months, in barrel; the rest was in stainless steel. Yet the oak kills the wine. Here are my notes, verbatim: “Such class & breeding — lots of structure — v. spicy — supple oak — definitely enclosed in oak — roasted lemon & lemon curd –just has more oak than the fruit can carry”. I stayed with this wine for an hour or so, and then wrote, in a different color ink, below my initial notes, “too much oak, robs the wine of charm & appeal”.

Indeed, my first impression was of suavity, elegance and smoothness, but that optimism was quickly tempered and then eradicated by the oak that masked what would have been the wine’s virtues. This is a shame; 40 percent of the grapes came from a 50-year-old vineyard and another 26 percent from a 24-year-old hillside vineyard. Obviously a great deal of thought went into the wine’s composition, but the “intense, complex and richly flavored wine” I should have encountered, according to the technical sheet, could not be felt through the barrier of wood. I expected more balance and integration. 1,300 cases. A disappointment. About $35.

Here’s the “Maybe.”

The Rochioli Estate Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley, begins with a radiant mild gold color. Scents of classic grapefruit and pineapple are woven with hints of clove and ginger, with a touch of candied grapefruit (tantalizing and bright) and limestone in the background; the subtlest whiff of oak provides interest. So far, so good, but in the back of your month you feel the oak, and it expands forward, filling the mouth, and after a few minutes this chardonnay smells like oak too, woody and spicy and blond. “Too much,” say my notes, but the wine calms down in 30 to 45 minutes, and perhaps all is not lost, as it begins to smooth out. There’s taut authority here, vibrant acidity and some Chablis-like gunflint and earthiness, and a welcome sense of generosity in the spicy stone-fruit flavors. Yet a Burgundian chardonnay, the obvious model, would display its oak more judiciously, which is to say that oak would not be on display at all. This is, then, a multifaceted wine, a few of whose facets seem muted because of wood. Some of you may say, “FK, this is a stylistic argument. There are those who like to smell and taste wood in their chardonnays.” I think those people are wrong. Very Good+. About $50.

Now, the “Yes.”

Having been Bad Cop so far in this post, I magically become Good Cop, because the Rochioli Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, may serve as a pertinent example of what the pinot noir grape may accomplish at the highest level of purity, authenticity and balance. The color is an entrancing cerise with a hint of magenta at the rim; the bouquet teems with a remarkably intense melange of slightly macerated black cherry, mulberry and cranberry enhanced by penetrating elements of spice and shale-like minerality. It takes a few moments in the glass for the spiciness to resolve into cloves and white pepper, and indeed, the wine unfolds in leisurely fashion, revealing, after 30 minutes or so, a subtle note of dried lavender and rose petals. There’s nothing deeply extracted or forced here; one feels, instead, a nuanced marriage of power and elegance, a tissue of delicacies woven into a fabric of chaste animation. Oak — 15 months in French barrels, 35 percent new –gently lends the wine shape and gravity, allowing resonant acidity to enliven a lovely, satiny texture. Satiny, yet spare; this is not one of those opulent California pinots that drugs the palate with epic allure; not a full-blown concerto but a nocturne, played with commanding restraint. Toward the finish, this pinot noir’s black cherry and plum flavors take on the slightly roughed edges of briers and brambles, and the wine concludes with a touch of mossy, mushroomy earthiness. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Production was 1,200 cases. Exceptional. About $60.
Since I received these samples for review from Rochioli, the Sauvignon Blanc 2009 and the Pinot Noir 2008 have been released.