Sonoma Coast


Perhaps we toss around too lightly the adjective “legendary” but surely a winemaker and producer deserving that epithet is David Ramey, a man who brought acclaim to such wineries as Chalk Hill, Matanzas Creek, Dominus Estate and Rudd Estate. Though he continues to consult for various properties in California, he concentrates on his David Ramey Wine Cellars (owned with wife Carla), where he produces a range of chardonnays and cabernet sauvignon-based wines and a couple of syrahs. Today, we look at six chardonnays from 2010. These occur in groups, the Appellation Series that originates in regional areas — Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley — and the Vineyard Designate Series of wines bottled from single vineyard sites or blocks selected from within a single vineyard. All the sites are cool-climate, with low soil vigor so the vines have to work for nutrition. The Appellation chardonnays receive less new oak exposure and less time in barrel than the Vineyard series chardonnays, but in none of these did I detect any taint of over-oaking or woodiness; in fact, all these wines are notable for balance and harmony. In a subsequent post, I’ll look at six of David Ramey’s red wines. These were samples for review.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. The grapes for this Appellation Series chardonnay derive from four vineyards: 61 percent Martinelli Charles Ranch; 19 percent Rodgers creek; 15 percent Platt and 5 percent Ritchie. The gold is pale straw-gold; wow, what lovely purity and intensity; aromas of almond brittle, lemon curd and softly ripe peaches open to layers of cloves and limestone and touches of lychee, pineapple and lightly caramelized grapefruit. Nothing aggressive or untoward mars the sleek surface of this chardonnay, its raison d’etre being balance, integration and harmony. It’s quite dry, though burgeoning with spiced citrus and pineapple flavors, and bolstered by bright acidity and a limestone element that grows more prominent through the scintillating finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $38.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. The vineyard provenance of this chardonnay is very complicated, so I won’t go into that, but whatever the issuance this is a radiant, ripe, intense, pure wine of tremendous tone and presence. Notes of slightly candied pineapple and grapefruit are touched with elements of cloves, ginger and quince and a hint of mango; it’s almost savory, slightly saline, dry, spare, tense, resonant, filled with citrus and stone-fruit flavors animated by brisk acidity and a pertinent limestone-flint quality that arrows through to the suave, elegant finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $38.
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Ramey Platt Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. The color is pale gold. The whole impression is of remarkable intensity and concentration, more typical of a pinot noir, say, than chardonnay; the wine is dense and chewy, permeated by notes of toasted hazelnuts, cloves and allspice, even a touch of sandalwood (with a wild note of lilac), and its rich, ripe fruit scents and flavors — baked pineapple, yellow plum, peach skin, apple skin, grapefruit pith — are round and fully developed. This is not a fruit bomb, however; there’s nothing overtly creamy or tropical. Instead, this chardonnay is bolstered by finely tuned acidity and a limestone-flint element that gains power from mid-palate back through the spice-packed finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to 2020 (well-stored). Excellent. About $60.
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Ramey Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. A boldly proportioned and beautiful balanced chardonnay with an exquisite side. The color is a shimmery pale straw-gold; aromas of roasted lemon and lemon curd, with a hint of pear and lemon balm, are permeated by notes of cloves and crystallized ginger and slightly caramelized pineapple. This is a sleek, suave and supple chardonnay whose lithe acidity and deep bastions of limestone make no concession to prettiness, yet the overall package delivers a sense of elegance and ultimate spareness; it’s slightly creamy and moderately lush, with touches of lemon drop and toasted hazelnuts. As is the case with all great wines, the Ramey Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 represents the resolution in harmonious accord of paradoxical elements. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to 2020 (well-stored). Exceptional. About $60.
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Ramey Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley Carneros. Here’s a many-splendored chardonnay that, like its Platt Vineyard cousin, offers the heft and substance of a red wine while retaining the fleetness and vitality that a white wine should display. Because of the site, it delivers more tropical fruit — mango, passion fruit — than the other chardonnays under review here (and is also a bit more bosomy), but it doesn’t push over the edge of opulence, staying firmly in balance with keen acidity and a bright, clean limestone quality. The bouquet is broadly floral and spicy and partakes of notes of lemon zest and tangerine, apricot and pear; on the palate it’s savory, a touch saline — think sea-breeze and salt-marsh — and deeply imbued with elements of damp limestone and shale. Brilliant winemaking. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2014 or ’15 through 2019 to ’22 (well-stored). Exceptional. About $60.
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Ramey Hudson Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley Carneros. From a vineyard 2.75 miles west of the Hyde Vineyard and set on more rolling terrain, this chardonnay exhibits chiseled chalk and limestone minerality and deftly etched acidity to bolster and furrow its bold rich flavors and cushiony texture. Tangerine and peach, green apple and a hint of honeysuckle characterize a bouquet that draws you in as it unfurls notes of cloves and quince jam and a hint of bees’ wax. Tremendous presence on the palate is not fatiguing, as is the case with some powerfully rich and substantial chardonnays; rather, the wine is clean, lithe, dynamic, filled with personality. Still, this could use a year or two to integrate completely, say from 2015 or ’16 for drinking, as it beautifully matures, through 2020 to ’24. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $60.
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One of the best-known vineyards in Sonoma County, if not California, is the Durell Vineyard, perched at the cusp of three appellations, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley and Carneros, just a toe-hold in the latter, but entitled to a Sonoma Coast designation. Dedicated primarily to chardonnay and pinot noir, this vineyard supplies grapes to such labels as (perhaps most famously) Kistler, Chateau St. Jean, Patz & Hall and Robert Craig, as well as Saxon Brown, Loring, Three Sticks, Armida, Auteur and others. Ed Durell, a food broker in San Francisco, acquired the land in 1977, intending to raise cattle but planted vines instead, and, as it turns out, this area, just at the foot of the Sonoma Mountains, was prime soil and climate for those grapes. In 1998, Durell sold the 200-acre vineyard, by now a prestigious site, to Bill and Ellie Price. Bill Price, a cofounder of TPG Capital, which bought Beringer Wine Estates and sold it to Fosters and if that’s not a great introduction to the wine business I don’t know what is, and Ellie Price divorced in 2001 but each retains ownership of Durell Vineyard.

Ellie Price replanted 8.5 acres around the old farmhouse in 2005, renaming the area Ranch House Block; those grapes are now devoted to the Dunstan label, named for St. Dunstan (909-998), Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury, canonized in 1029 and patron saint of goldsmiths and silversmiths; because he had worked as a blacksmith and, according to legend, shod the devil, the horseshoe is often his symbol. Dunstan is operated by Ellie Price and her partner Chris Towt (image at right); winemaker is Kenneth Juhasz.

I found these wines (samples for review), a chardonnay and pinot noir from 2010, to be extraordinary examples of the purity and intensity of which each of these grapes is capable. Juhasz doesn’t play around with oak; the regimen is rigorous but not soul-destroying, and after at first being skeptical of the program I was won by the remarkable detail and dimension of each wine, by their confidence and aplomb as well as their ultimately beautiful expressions of a grape variety and a significant place.
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The Dunstan Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast, is Old Wente clone selection, meaning that it was made from vines that derive from cuttings brought from the University of Montpellier in 1912 by Carl Wente, who founded the family estate in Livermore in 1883. This well-known clone spread throughout California and helped fuel the state’s burgeoning production of chardonnay wines in the 1940s and ’50s at such pioneering properties as Stony Hill, Louis M. Martini and Hanzell. The wine is a bright green-gold color with a mild brassy tint; the bouquet is a bountiful and extremely flattering amalgam of papaya and mango, slightly roasted pineapple and grapefruit, with cloves and nutmeg and hints of lightly buttered brioche, delicately spicy oak — 14 months French oak, 50 percent new barrels — and, at the edges, a discreet tide of limestone. When you take a sip, you realize what a powerhouse this chardonnay is, though one that marries finesse and elegance to dimension and dynamism. Flavors of pears, peaches and pineapples are fully supported by a dense and chewy texture that manages to be supple and expressive, while bright acidity and a plangent limestone element lend a lively character that borders on scintillating. 14.2 percent alcohol. 391 cases. Obviously delectable (and a little formidable) now but built to last, say 2016 to ’18. I’ll go Exceptional. About $40.
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The color of the Dunstan Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, is radiant medium ruby with a slightly lighter rim. Aromas of sassafras, pomegranate, cloves and cranberry nestle in a broader range of spiced and macerated black and red cherries and currants, deepened by intriguing notes of charred violets and ashes of roses. If you can tear yourself away from that rhapsodic panoply, you find a pinot noir that’s quite satiny and graceful yet very dry; like its stablemate, it aged 14 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, and for the first hour or so, I thought that regimen produced a shade too much wood influence in the wine. In the wonderful way that can happen, however, when you give a wine enough time and air, the oak receded by several degrees (remaining firmly in the background structure) and allowed the spareness, elegance and ineffability that I consider essential to great pinot noir to insinuate themselves (and brought in hints of cinnamon and fruitcake). Still, this is surprisingly tannic for a pinot, and a serious wine in its foundational elements of earth, briers, flint and graphite; there’s a lot of subtle power and energy here, but, as I said, that power does not detract from the wine’s ultimate suavity and style. 14.1 percent alcohol. 291 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Again, I have to go with an Exceptional rating. About $50.
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This second edition of Weekend Wine Sips for 2013 offers seven red wines from California. There’s cabernet sauvignon, of course and a couple of pinot noirs from the Sonoma Coast appellation and also a great merlot and a seductive grenache. Prices range from $22 to $65, and I have few quibbles about any of the wines. I offer little in the way of technical, historical or geographical information in this series of brief reviews, other than alcohol content and the make-up or blend of grapes in each wine; if a wine is limited in production, I mention the number of cases that were made. These wines were samples for review.
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Tower 15 “The Swell” 2010, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. The Tower 15 label is a venture of The Pali Wine Co., noted for pinot noir. 14.8% alc. 31% cabernet sauvignon, 28% malbec, 27% merlot, 14% petit verdot. Dark ruby color; clean, fresh, spicy, wildly berryish and very appealing; black currants and plums with hints of blueberry and mulberry; dusty graphite, a bit earthy and loamy; pliant and lithe, close to sexy; the finish rather more serious with influx of walnut-shell and forest-like austerity. 707 cases. Very Good+. About $22.
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La Crema Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma Coast. 13.9% alc. 100% pinot noir. Jeeze, what a sweetheart of a pinot noir! Medium ruby-mulberry color; black cherry, sour cherry candy, rhubarb and cola with notes of rose petal and watermelon; flows across the palate with beguiling heft and drape and deft delicacy; still, though, plenty of earth and loam, hints of underlying briers and brambles; then overtones of pomegranate and sandalwood. Just lovely. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $25.
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Ferrari-Carano Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. Primarily cabernet sauvignon with dollops of syrah and petit verdot. A lovely cabernet; dark ruby-purple color; ripe, fleshy black and blue fruit scents and flavors; classic notes of cedar, black olive, truffles and oolong tea with hints of loam and violets; supple, dense and chewy, slightly dusty tannins and graphite-like mineral elements; spicy oak lends support; long, complex, fully-formed finish. Now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $30.
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Gundlach-Bunschu Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast. 14.4% alc. 100% pinot noir. Dark ruby-magenta color; deep, rich, succulent; black cherries and plums, notes of rhubarb, cola and cloves and a hint of sassafras; lovely satiny texture; quite spicy, lipsmacking acidity and a slight drying effect through the finish from oak and gentle tannins. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $35.
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Chamisal Vineyards Grenache 2009, Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County. 14.8% alc. With 10% syrah. Medium ruby-magenta color; attractive, soft fruity spicy bouquet; plums, red currants and cranberries, cloves and Red Hots, spiced apple; earthy and minerally, moderate tannins and oak beautifully balanced and integrated; opens to briery and slightly mossy elements on the finish. An evocative rendition of the grape. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $38.
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Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2008, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. Certified biodynamic. 100% merlot. Dark ruby color, hint of magenta at the rim; black currants and blueberries with a touch of mulberry, notes of cedar and tobacco; earthy and flinty, tremendous presence and resonance, clean, intense and pure; a faceted and chiseled merlot, with tannins that feel as if they’ve been turned on a lathe; dense, sleek, polished and elegant but with an untamed edge. An impressive and expressive merlot. Excellent. About $42.
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Hawk & Horse Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Red Hills, Lake County. 14.8% alc. Certified biodynamic. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Deep, pure, vivid and vibrant, totally attractive; ripe, smoky and fleshy red and black currants and mulberries, hint of black cherries; very spicy and lively, practically glitters with granite and graphite and resonates with bright acidity; dense and chewy and thoroughly grounded but exhilarating in its balletic wildness and elevation. Quite a performance. 1,350 cases. Now through 2019 to 2022. Excellent. About $65.
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So, My Readers, today I present the annual “50 Great Wines” in the edition for 2012. Why 50? It’s a nice comfortable round number, but it also makes me work hard to determine those 50 great selections.

I reviewed 642 wines on this blog in 2012, so 50 choices represent only 7.78 percent of the wines I reviewed. Wines that I rated as “Exceptional” automatically make the cut. In 2012, I ranked 16 wines “Exceptional,” or only 2.5 percent of all the wines I reviewed. How did I ascertain the other 34 wines? That’s where the task got difficult. I read all the reviews of wines that I rated “Excellent” and wrote down the names of 68 that seemed promising, but of course that was already way too many wines; I had to eliminate half of that list. I went back through the reviews and looked for significant words or phrases like “an exciting wine” or “a beautiful expression of its grapes” or “epitomizes my favorite style” or “I flat-out loved this wine,” terms that would set a wine apart from others in similar genres or price ranges, even though they too were rated “Excellent.” By exercising such intricate weighing and measuring, by parsing and adjusting, by, frankly, making some sacrifices, I came to the list of wines included here, but I’ll admit that as I went over this post again and again, checking spelling and diacritical markings and illustrations, there were omissions that I regretted. You get to a point, however, where you can’t keep second-guessing yourself.

Notice that I don’t title this post “50 Greatest Wines” or “50 Best Wines.” That would be folly, just as I think it’s folly when the slick wine publications select one wine — out of 15,000 — as the best of the year. The wines honored in this post are, simply, 50 great wines, determined by my taste and palate, that I encountered and reviewed in 2012. Some of them are expensive; some are hard to find. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, though, at how many of them are under $40 or even in the $20 range; the price of a wine can be immaterial to its quality, and I mean that in both the positive and the negative aspects. Where I know the case limitation, I make note. With wines that are, for example, chardonnay or pinot noir, you can count on them being 100 percent varietal; in other cases, I mention the blend or make-up of the wine if I think it’s necessary.

Coming in a few days: “25 Great Bargains of 2012.”
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Amapola Creek Cuvée Alis 2009, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County. 55 percent syrah, 45 percent grenache. 95 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Archery Summit Looney Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $85.
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Black Dog Cellars Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. Excellent. About $25.
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Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Vineyard X Block Syrah 2007, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County. 573 cases. Excellent. About $42.
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Champagne Françoise Bedel Entre Ciel et Terre Brut. Excellent. About $75.
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Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino 2005, Tuscany, Italy. 100 percent sangiovese. Exceptional. About $149.
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Chalone Estate Chenin Blanc 2011, Chalone, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $25.
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Chamisal Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County. Excellent. About $40.
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M. Chapoutier Chante-Alouette 2007, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne grapes. 350 six-packs imported. Exceptional. About $92.
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M. Chapoutier De L’Orée 2008, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne. 40 six-packs imported. Exceptional, About $190.
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Cima Collina Tondre Grapefield Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $48.
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Etude Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros. Excellent. About $42.
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Ferrari-Carano Prevail West Face 2007, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 61 percent cabernet sauvignon, 39 percent syrah. Excellent. About $55.
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Foley Rancho Santa Rosa Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County. Excellent. About $40.
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Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $46.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $42.
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Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2009, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $23.
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Hidden Ranch 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $45.
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Kelly Fleming Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Oakville District, Napa Valley. 540 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Domaine Michel Lafarge Meursault 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $44-$48.
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La Follette Van Der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Mountain. 429 cases. Excellent. About $40.
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Lasseter Enjoué 2011, Sonoma Valley. 73 percent syrah, 24 mourvèdre, 3 grenache. A superior rosé. 570 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Champagne David Léclapart L’Amateur Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, non-vintage. Exceptional. About $83.
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Lenné Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Yamhill-Carlton District, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 491 cases. Excellent. About $55.
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Chateau La Louvière 2009, Pessac-Lèognan, Bordeaux, France. 85 percent sauvignon blanc, 15 percent semillon. Excellent. About $42.
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Manzoni Vineyards Home Vineyard Syrah 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 494 cases. Excellent. About $26.
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Max Ferd. Richter Veldenzer Elisenberg Riesling Kabinett 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $19.
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Mayacamas Chardonnay 2009, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.
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McCay Cellars Jupiter Zinfandel 2009, Lodi. 449 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Domaine Pierre Morey Pommard Grands Epenots Premier Cru 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $85.
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Newton “The Puzzle” 2008, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 42 percent merlot, 36 cabernet sauvignon, 14 cabernet franc, 6 petit verdot, 2 malbec. Excellent. About $80.
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Nicolas Joly Clos de La Bergerie 2009, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. 100 percent chenin blanc. 580 cases. Exceptional. About $45-$60.
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Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $42.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County. 250 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. 372 cases. Exceptional. About $75.
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Piocho 2009, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. From Margerum Wine Co. 58 percent merlot, 22 cabernet sauvignon, 18 cabernet franc, 2 petit verdot. 570 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Quivira Fig Tree Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. 862 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Sea-Fog Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley. 380 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Shafer Hillside Select 2007, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $225.
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Shafer Merlot 2009, Napa Valley. With 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent malbec. Exceptional. About $48.
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Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. With 12 percent cabernet franc. 381 cases. Excellent. About $75. Date on label is one year behind.
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Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir 2011, Los Carneros. Another superior rosé to drink all year. Excellent. About $28.
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Spotted Owl Chardonnay 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Inaugural release of this winery’s chardonnay. 120 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $125.
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St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. With 10 percent merlot, 2 petit verdot and 1 cabernet franc. Excellent. About $55.
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Domaine André et Mireille Tissot La Graviers Chardonnay 2010, Arbois, France. 552 cases. Excellent. About $26-$30. Label is two years out of date.
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Tudal Family Winery Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. 295 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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Tenuta di Valgiano 2008, Colline Luccesi, Tuscany. 60 percent sangiovese, 20 merlot, 20 syrah. Excellent. About $55-$60.
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Vieux Télégraphe “La Crau” 2009, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France. 65 percent grenache, 15 mourvèdre, 15 syrah 5 cinsault, clairette “and others.” Excellent. About $85.
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Villa Huesgen Schiefen Riesling Trocken 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $35.
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The hallowed reputation of an ancient wine region like Burgundy is predicated on the supposition that some vineyards are better than others and that minute variations in microclimate, exposure, slope, drainage and soil, even over a distance of a few yards– we’re not talking miles — will be not just detectable but identifiable and desirable in the wine. This is the concept of terroir. In the hierarchy of Burgundy’s intricate system, for example, vineyards like Le Musigny and Les Borniques, in Chambolle-Musigny (primarily pinot noir but a little chardonnay), may be divided by no more than a stone wall, but Le Musigny is a Grand Cru vineyard, while Bornique is classified Premier Cru, producing great wines perhaps but not, theoretically at least, as great. Likewise, in chardonnay-dominated Meursault, the vineyards Les Gouttes d’Or and Les Terres Blanches are separated only by a country lane and a creek, yet Gouttes d’Or is designated Premier Cru, while Terres Blanches produces a mere “village” wine. The number of people who possess the knowledge and experience to distinguish the differences (in a blind tasting) among the wines produced from Burgundy’s hundreds of small vineyards and lieux-dits is probably quite small, yet the enduring romance of the region lies in the supposed integrity and individuality of those vineyards and the vignerons that make the wines and honor the distinctions.

Can that philosophy translate to the New World?

The Italian and German immigrants that launched California’s wine industry in the mid 19th century regarded blending and branding as far more important than some airy notion of single-vineyard designated wines. The tremendous growth of that industry after World War II, and especially in the 1960s and ’70s, inspired investigations into French ideas and methods of winemaking, and one of those ideas was the concept that an individual vineyard could become the expression, through the wine made from it, of a particular plot of land and geographical trope, as in the iconic Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon. So theoretically — there’s that word again — a wine produced from a single vineyard or a particular lot or block of vines in a vineyard will represent higher quality (and of course command a high price) than a wine with a broader background; anyway, that’s the argument. The scenario doesn’t always work out that way, and the proliferation of single-vineyard wines in California and in Oregon’s Willamette Valley doesn’t always translate to better wine or wines that express a vineyard’s, um, theoretical character, yet producers continue to make wines based on that philosophy. Not always; but sometimes they do, thinking for example of the pinot noirs that Morgan Winery makes from Rosella’s, Gary’s, Double L and Tondre Grapefield vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands.

I want to explore the possibility today, though, by looking at one general designate wine and three single-vineyard wines, all pinot noir, all Sonoma Coast, from Sojourn Cellars, a winery that specializes in small lots of pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. The winery was founded by Craig and Ellen Haserot and winemaker Erich Bradley; the first release was 100 cases of cabernet sauvignon from the 2001 vintage.

Sonoma Coast, comprising 500,000 acres, is one of those huge AVAs that the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (aka TTB) seems to dote upon. Certainly it’s not as vast as the “North Coast” AVA, which includes the counties of Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma and Solano, an area so geographically broad and geologically varied as to be meaningless as a vineyard and wine region, nor is it as large as the “Sonoma County” AVA, of which Sonoma Coast represents the most westerly enclave and the one most pertinently influenced by the presence of the Pacific Ocean. As you can see by the map above, Sonoma Coast extends from the Mendocino border all the way down to San Pablo Bay, with a big and improbable jut inland and up between Russian River Valley and Sonoma Valley. This cool climate region, however diverse it may be from north to south, is attracting an increasing number of producers for its demonstrable affinity for pinot noir and chardonnay. (Map from schiller-wine.blogspot.com.)

These Sojourn Cellars pinot noirs are not inoculated but undergo fermentation by native yeasts, that is, yeasts that occur naturally in the vineyard and in the winery. They are all aged in French oak barrels, 50 percent new, but material on the winery’s website does not reveal how many months the wines spend in oak, a crucial factor as far as I’m concerned; none of the wines, however. felt as if they suffered from too much exposure to wood. How do they stack up, in terms of their single-vineyard designations? Read on…
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Let’s start with the Sojourn Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, a blend of grapes from eight lots deriving from vineyards along the length of the appellation. It’s a graceful expression of the pinot noir grape, a lovely marriage of elegance and power, beautifully balanced and integrated. The wine is quite lively and spicy, with notes of macerated black and red currants and plums and a deep vein of slightly loamy earthiness and graphite-like minerality. For all that grounding, however, this is the sleekest and most svelte, the most elevated of this quartet. 14.4 percent alcohol. 925 cases were produced. Excellent. About $39.
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For the first of the single vineyard wines, let’s take the Sojourn Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast. The Sangiacomo family, whose immigrant ancestors started as pear farmers in Sonoma County in 1928, maintain 10 vineyards in the Carneros appellation and three in the Sonoma Coast AVA; the family grows primarily chardonnay and pinot noir. Altogether, they supply grapes to 84 wineries, 34 of which use the Sangiacomo name on their labels. The Sojourn Sangiacomo Pinot Noir 2010 is a sinewy, muscular model, dark, deeply fragrant with fresh and dried black and red fruit scents and flavors and notably clean, pure, intense and spicy. 14.5 percent alcohol. 925 cases. Excellent. About $48.
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The interesting comparison follows with the Sojourn Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, because Gap’s Crown lies just above the Sangiacomo Vineyard that provided the grapes for the previous wine. Whatever the geographic proximity of these vineyards, the Sojourn Gap’s Crown is the most individually styled of these four pinot noirs, the most exotic but also the most tannic, deeply and roundly spicy and fleshed out but also the driest, even tending toward austerity through the finish, but suffering no diminuendo of juicy black fruit flavors. 14.6 percent alcohol. 300 cases. Excellent. About $48.
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Finally, the Sojourn Rodgers Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, registers brilliantly for its spare Burgundian sense of lightness, delicacy and elegance, its radiant medium ruby color, the acidity that cuts a swath on the palate, its core of black cherry and mulberry fruit slightly shaded by notes of cloves and sandalwood, its background of earthy loam and truffles. The vineyard lies on a ridge high on the Petaluma Gap, where the Pacific breezes surge through to the east, bringing cool temperatures and fog. 14.2 percent alcohol. 375 cases. Excellent. About $48. Though it seems superfluous to nominate a favorite from these four well-made pinot noirs, this one was my favorite.
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