Napa Valley’s Cornerstone Cellars has come a long way since 1991 when two doctors from Memphis bought some surplus Howell Mountain cabernet sauvignon grapes from Randy Dunn and started their own label. Great reviews poured in for Cornerstone’s cabernets, and continue to do so, issued under Napa Valley and Howell Mountain designations. The producer has a second label, Stepping Stone, while a recent addition to the roster is an even less expensive line, the punningly labeled Rocks. Cornerstone has expanded in several directions under the leadership of managing partner Craig Camp, and one of the directions is a collaboration with Oregon star-winemaker Tony Rynders (10 years at Domaine Serene, consultant to a flock of small producers) to produce Willamette Valley pinot noirs for the Cornerstone and Stepping Stone labels; there’s also a Willamette chardonnay for Cornerstone that I’ll report on in a subsequent post.

I tasted these wines at Wine Bloggers’ Conference 2012 in August and in October as samples for review.
The Stepping Stone Pinot Noir 2010, Willamette Valley, Oregon, aged 13 months in French oak barrels, 35 percent new. If you don’t mind a moment of geekiness, I’ll list the regional sources of the grapes, to give My Readers an idea of how the wine was assembled to represent the Willamette Valley as a sort of ideal; 45 percent of the grapes derived from the Yamhill-Carlton appellation, 33 percent from Eola-Amity Hills, 15 percent from Chehalem Mountain, 5 percent from McMinnville and 1 percent each from Ribbon Ridge and Dundee Hills. What are the implications? Most of these sub-appellations of Willamette Valley consist of vineyards that range in elevation from 200 feet (this is above the valley frost-line) to 1,000 feet. Differences in soil and weather patterns are fairly subtle but very real and are largely influenced by the presence of the Coastal Range to the west and the Van Duzer Corridor that allows moderating breezes from the Pacific through to a couple of these small areas in the afternoon. Chehalem Mountains offers the greatest variation in temperature; Yamhill-Carlton tends to be the most moderate in temperature and the driest. These regions provide a thoughtful winemaker with a finely nuanced palette of characteristics to work with, using percentages of grapes from each to create a picture of a valley-encompassing pinot noir.

The color of Stepping Stone Pinot Noir 2010 is bright ruby with a magenta tinge; this is pure, bright and fresh, mounting an appealing bouquet of smoky and spicy black cherries and plums woven with rhubarb and pomegranate and that typical Willamette Valley element of briers and brambles over a base of clean earthy loam. The earthiness, the touch of loam and moss, remain consistent in the mouth, contributing a foundation for ripe and juicy black fruit flavors supported by slightly barky tannins and vibrant acidity; the finish takes on some of the austerity of those tannins and a hint of woody spice, but the wine is eminently attractive and drinkable. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 137 cases. Now through 2014 or ’15. Very Good+. About $30.
The first time I tried the Cornerstone Pinot Noir 2010, Willamette Valley, my first note was “beautiful”; the second time, my first note was “lovely.” Need I continue? Well, yes, of course. The oak regimen was 15 months in French barrels, 62 percent new; the appellation blend was 68 percent Yamhill-Carlton with diminishing percentages of — in this order — Chehalem Mountains, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Dundee Hills. The color is a ravishing medium ruby with a violet rim; aromas of black and red cherries and currants are highlighted by touches of cola and cloves, rhubarb and cranberry and, after a few moments in the glass, tar, black tea, loam and bittersweet chocolate. It’s difficult to tear yourself away from such a panoply of sensations, but you won’t be unhappy to do so when you feel the wine’s smooth, supple and satiny texture, the way it adds spiced plums and mulberries to the mix, and how the bright acidity and slightly knotty tannins open to a fairly deep earthy-graphite quality. You feel a subtle crescendo of tannins and oak through the finish, but the wine is essentially balanced and integrated and complete. 13.5 percent alcohol. 498 cases. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $50.

Label image, cropped and resized, from