Sonoma Coast


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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