Santa Ynez Valley

Twelve examples of pinot noir today, as I catch up on wines that I tasted throughout the last six months. This post is just the beginning. There will be at least one more in this particular series, a post devoted to pinot noir from Willamette Valley, and a series about individual wineries and producers. We range from Sta. Rita Hills in the south, in Santa Barbara County, to Anderson Valley in the north, in Mendocino. Ten of these wines rate Excellent, one Very Good+ and one Exceptional. The arrangement is alphabetical, not hierarchical. Enjoy! In moderation, of course.

These wines were samples for review.
The Dierberg “Dierberg Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2014, Santa Maria Valley, is a really pretty pinot noir that exhibits a serious depth of sinew and underbrush. The wine aged 14 months in French oak, 20 percent new barrels. The color is a limpid, transparent medium ruby with an invisible rim, basically what I consider the perfect pinot noir hue; what’s in the nose? pomegranate, cranberry and loam, black and red cherries, cloves and sassafras, with a touch of cherry tart. This is supper satiny, sleek and supple on the palate, with lovely lush berry flavors bolstered by pert acidity and a real edge of dusty tannins, iodine, briers and brambles. Alcohol level is a comfortable and sane 13.7 percent. Now through 2021 to ’24. Winemaker was Tyler Thomas. Excellent. About $44.
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The Dierberg Drum Canyon Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Sta. Rita Hills, is a muscular version of the grape, as well as being an exemplar of varietal purity and intensity. It underwent the same oak regimen as its stablemate mentioned in the previous review. The color is a beguiling medium ruby that fades to utter transparency at the rim; the bouquet is a warm and seductive melange of black and red cherries, cloves and sandalwood with notes of rhubarb and pomegranate compote; a touch of slightly bitter cherry skin and pit and a hint of loam keep it from being deliriously pleasurable. The wine is quite dry on the palate, carrying a considerable presence of cherry and plum flavors through a burgeoning element of underbrush and graphite. 13.2 percent alcohol. The Sta. Rita Hills AVA is part of the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA, in Santa Barbara County. Now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $52.

The color of the Dutton-Goldfield Dutton Ranch-Emerald Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, is dark ruby shading to a glowing magenta rim; pungent notes of black and red cherries and currants open to hints of violets and lilac and an array of elements that lean toward dried, sifted and refined baking spices and underbrush qualities; assertive acidity cuts a swath through a lithe, sinewy talc-like texture that flexes some tannic muscles through a finish packed with flint and forest floor. The wine aged 16 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels. The Green Valley of Russian River Valley, located at the southwestern corner of RRV, is one of the smallest and coolest AVAs in Sonoma County. Winemaker was Dan Goldfield. Now through 2023 to ’25. Excellent. About $62.

The Dutton-Goldfield Redwood Ridge Pinot Noir 2015, Sonoma Coast, aged 10 months in French oak, 55 percent new barrels. Every aspect of this pinot noir is lovely until you realize how powerful it is, how dynamic. The color is medium ruby, fading to a transparent rim; all the floral qualities, the spice, the red berry fruit you could ask for characterize the nose, a seamless melange of rose petals and violets, sassafras and sandalwood, loam and graphite, cherries and cranberries; these elements segue onto the palate, where the wine is lithe and supple, propelled by energetic acidity yet so mouth-filling that it seems almost monumental. Every quality combines in pinpoint balance and integration. Production was 292 cases. Now through 2023 to ’25. Excellent. About $62.
The color of the FEL Wines Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, Anderson Valley, is deep royal purple with a transparent magenta rim; a transcendent compote of black cherries, currents and plums seethes with notes of cloves, sassafras and sandalwood, bringing in touches of smoke and loam, briers and brambles; a dense and satiny pinot noir, it delivers tremendous presence on the palate as well as adding hints of black raspberry and lavender to its panoply of fruit flavors; the wine is quite dry yet succulent and enveloping, with a finish of just enough tannins and graphite mineral qualities to keep it serious. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 402 cases. Now through 2021 to ’23. Winemaker was Ryan Hodgins. Excellent. About $70.
The Russian River Selection wines from Gary Farrell, at least the pinot noirs, tend to display forthright and robust qualities, and the Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2015, Russian River Valley, does not disappoint. The wine aged 10 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. A radiant ruby-magenta hue offers a transparent rim; a well-spiced compote of red and black cherries and plums is permeated by notes of loam and leather, pomegranate, cranberry and beetroot, with a hint of sandalwood; it’s quite a substantial pinot noir, dense and chewy and satiny, vibrant with acidity and graphite elements and a background of briers and brambles. 13.9 percent alcohol. Eminently drinkable. Winemaker was Theresa Heredia. Now through 2021 to ’23. Excellent. About $45.

Ten months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels, lend the Gundlach Bundschu Pinot Noir 2015, Sonoma Coast, a touch of sheen, shape and exoticism. The color is transparent medium ruby; bright cherry-berry fruit is infused with notes of sassafras and sandalwood, lavender and loam, with cranberry and mulberry manifest in the background. A soft, supple texture and clean, precise acidity testify to the wine’s elegance and deft character. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 or ’22. Excellent. About $40.

Boy, the Raeburn Pinot Noir 2016, Russian River Valley, is a bright and boldly-framed wine that aged 11 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels. The color may be transparent medium ruby, shading to an ephemeral magenta rim, but the wine is vividly ripe and spicy. Black cherries and currants and blueberries are permeated by notes of cloves and sassafras, sandalwood and pomegranate, with an under-layer of loam and forest floor; silky and supple in texture, this pinot noir offers weight on the palate that would be sumptuous except that it’s balanced by surging acidity and graphite elements. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2021 or ’23. Winemaker was Joe Tapparo. Excellent. About $25, representing Good Value.
The color of the Sanford Pinot Noir 2014, Sta. Rita Hills, is a beautifully transparent medium ruby, like a glass of red wine in a Dutch still-life painting; intense and concentrated aromas of macerated black cherries and plums are permeated by notes of cloves, pomegranate and loam; a few minutes in the glass bring out hints of slightly resinous smoke and tobacco leaf. A dense, satiny texture feels lustrous on the palate, layering lovely purity and intensity that feels both weightless and sensual; the wine gradually builds a foundation of briers, brambles and underbrush tempered by bright berry flavors and lip-smacking acidity; the finish feels burnished by lightly sanded tannins and a dusty, woodsy character. 14.5 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Steve Fennell. Sanford, which traces its beginning to the planting of the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in 1971, specializes in single-vineyard and separate-block pinot noirs, but this one, the basic offering, feels as impeccable as anyone could ask for. Now through 2022 to ’24. Exceptional. About $35, and marked Worth a Search.

This cadet offering, the Sarah’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, Santa Clara Valley, delivers fine quality for the price. Aged 11 months in French oak, only 10 percent new barrels, the wine displays a medium ruby hue with a transparent edge, and bright notes of red cherries, cranberries and pomegranate, infused with foresty notes, a touch of lilac and rose petal and a hint of rhubarb and sassafras. This array segues seamlessly onto the palate, where the wine exhibits medium weight, a sleek, satiny texture and pert acidity for animation; the finish is nicely balanced and integrated. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2020. Production was 557 cases. Very Good+. About $25.

The 12-acre Muns Vineyard lies at 2,600 feet above Monterey Bay in the Santa Cruz Mountains, about half-an-hour south of Los Gatos. Sarah’s Vineyard produced 420 cases of the Sarah’s “Muns Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2016, Santa Cruz Mountains. The color is a lovely totally transparent medium cerise hue; a soft melding of cloves, sassafras and sandalwood, red currants and cherries displays a slight edge of beetroot and sweet loam, with graphite in the background. This is dry, spare and fine-boned on the palate, propelled by bright, fresh acidity that drives through to a finish that generates considerable dusty tannins as time passes, during which the wine picks up elements of pencil shavings and cigarette paper, cranberry and apple skin. 14.2 percent alcohol. A very pretty pinot noir that sports a serious side. Production was 420 cases. Now through 2023 to ’26. Excellent. About $45.
The color of the Scheid Vineyards Doctor’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, Santa Lucia Highlands, is a transparent medium ruby shading to a mulberry rim; scents of marinated black and red cherries and currants are permeated by notes of cloves, sassafras and beetroot, rose petals and spiced black tea; a few moments in the glass bring in a touch of loam and graphite. Boy, this is sleek, subtle and suave on the palate, yet animated by the tension of bright acidity and a sense of spare, sinewy elegance; flavors of dark, spicy cherries and plums carry their weight through to a slightly dusty, mildly tannic finish. Beautifully-wrought. Excellent. About $75.

Etude Wines was founded in 1982 in Napa Valley by Tony Soter to focus on cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir made from purchased grapes grown in highly regarded vineyards. After a series of purchases, acquisitions and transformations, Etude is owned by Treasury Wine Estates, along with a rather astonishing roster of properties in California, Australia and other regions. The winery still concentrates on pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, usually produced from named vineyards in small quantities. Under review today are six of Etude’s single-vineyard pinot noir wines from 2014, touching AVAs in Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills in California; Yamhill-Carlton in Willamette Valley; and Central Otago in New Zealand. Winemaker is Jon Priest. These are, let me just say, splendid examples of the pinot noir grape and the resonance rung upon it by specific locations. Priest sensibly employs a minimal amount of oak, as well as keeping alcohol levels to reasonable levels. These are all worth searching for.

Samples for review.
The Etude Ellenbach Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Sonoma Coast, aged 13 months in French oak, percent new barrels. The steeply sloping vineyard sits at around 800 feet elevation, just above the morning fog line, four miles east of the Pacific Ocean. The color is dark ruby-mulberry with a slightly paler rim. A burst of cloves, allspice and sandalwood precedes notes of a compote of black and red cherries and plums, wreathed with loam and graphite, mint and iodine, presided over by high-tones of pomegranate and cranberry; pretty heady stuff, all right. On the palate, this pinot noir brings in more red fruit — cherries and currants — its deeply spicy character buoyed by slightly flinty minerality, dusty tannins and lively acidity that cuts a swath on the tongue. The finish delivers a polished melange of spice, graphite tinged minerals and an element of heathery meadow flowers. 14.8 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $60.
The Etude Grace Benoist Ranch Estate Grown Pinot Noir 2014, Carneros, aged 12 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels. Located at the northwest corner of the Carneros AVA, the vineyard features various types of well-drained, rocky volcanic soils and is influenced by breezes from the Pacific. The color is medium mulberry-magenta shading to a transparent circumference. Scents of red and black cherries are permeated by notes of sassafras, pomegranate and cranberry, talc, lilac and rose petals; the perfume grows deeper and more redolent as the moments pass. This pinot noir embodies beautiful shape and substance, flowing on the tongue like perfection in a lithe, supple stream of satiny texture; there’s a touch of baked plum in the red and black fruit flavors and a strain of dusty graphite minerality to the subtle yet skillfully chiseled tannins. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $45.
The superlative transparent violet-magenta hue of the Etude North Canyon Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Santa Maria Valley, belies the seriousness of its frame and foundation and its earthy, loamy character. The vineyard, planted in calcareous clay sandstone, lies in a secluded canyon that’s a bit more exposed to sunlight and a bit warmer than the rest of the valley. The wine aged 10 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels, the least oak influence of these six wines. A complex array of spicy effects — cloves, sassafras and cumin — heightens elements of ripe red and black cherries that open to notes of wild berries and oolong tea, pomegranate and cranberries. A profoundly earthy, loamy character penetrates the entire enterprise, lending deep roots for its graphite-tinged tannins and minerality. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2021 to ’25. Excellent. About $45.
Location is everything, n’est-ce pas? For example, the Fiddlestix Vineyard lies in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA that is part of the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA, all encompassed by Santa Barbara County. The hills and ranges run east and west here, unusual for California where the typical etu_12fiddlestix_pinot_nv_400x126 mountainous orientation is north-south, and a configuration that allows a direct inlet for fog and cooling ocean breezes. The vineyard receives its share of those daily climatic events but stands low enough against the hills to be sheltered from strong afternoon winds. The combination of exposure and protection with well-drained clay-loam and calcareous marine shale soils results in pinot noir wines of great depth and finesse.

The Etude Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Sta. Rita Hills, aged 12 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels. The color is a transparent medium ruby-magenta hue of transfixing radiance; aromas of rhubarb, sassafras and sandalwood, pomegranate and cranberry, smoky black cherries and plums achieve a Platonic level of loveliness, while on the palate the wine is lithe, supple and satiny. juicy black and red cherry flavors reach down to elements of some rooty black tea, talc and chalk and a kind of gravelly condensation of graphite minerality. A few minutes in the glass bring out notes of rose petals and lavender. Redolent, even pungent; deeply spicy and flavorful; elegant and fine-boned yet with a dynamic of bright acidity, lightly dusted tannins and the shaping force of subtle oak — this is one of the most complete and wholly beautiful pinot noirs I have tasted this year. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 to ’24. Exceptional. About $45.
This wine takes us to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Approved in 2004, the Yamhill-Carlton District AVA is a horse-shoe shaped region that includes only acreage that lies between 200 and 1,000 feet elevation, where marine sediments compose some of the oldest soil in Willamette Valley. The vineyard from which this wine is derived stands at 600 feet. The Etude Yamhill Vista Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Yamhill-Carlton District, aged 13 months in French oak, 33 percent new barrels. The color is transparent medium ruby shading to a mulberry rim; to notes of black cherries and plums, pomegranate and cranberry, the wine adds touches of tobacco and black tea, mint and iodine, as well as the deep loamy character typical of Willamette Valley pinot noir. The texture is superbly satiny, though powered by swingeing acidity and energetic tannins; the wine is quite dry, revealing an immediacy of granitic minerality that leads to a brooding, chiseled finish. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2021 to ’24. Excellent. About $60.
Talk about far afield, this wine takes us to New Zealand and Central Otago, the world’s southernmost wine region. The Etude Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2014, Central Otago, spent 12 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. I found this to be an extremely fine-grained, richly detailed and slightly exotic pinot noir. The color is transparent magenta-mulberry with a delicate rim; aromas of macerated and lightly stewed red and black cherries are permeated by notes of cloves and allspice, red licorice and violets, loam and damp wood ash; after 15 or 20 minutes, the bouquet unfurls hints of cedar, iodine and rosemary. Nothing opulent or flamboyant here, the wine is spare and honed, riven by arrows of acidity and borne by gravel-like minerality and layers of loam and foresty elements. 13.8 percent alcohol. I loved it. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $60.

The Zaca Mesa Viognier 2014, Santa Ynez Valley, contains 2.5 percent grenache blanc; it aged six Viognier 14 Front - 05-36337 COR viognier 14US 750Z_TTB_f months in neutral oak barrels, all eight years and more old. Winemaker is Kristin Bryden; director of winemaking and vineyard operations is Eric Mohseni. (Founded in 1973, Zaca Mesa is the third-oldest winery in Santa Barbara County.) The color is pale straw-gold; aromas of camellias and lilac are twined with notes of bee’s-wax and lanolin, peach and golden plum, all rounded by a slightly smoky and honeyed aura. These elements are delicate and refined; there’s nothing flamboyant here, no feather boas or rhinestone sneakers. A silky-smooth texture is riven by bright acidity, buoying subtle stone-fruit flavors that grow spicier through a talc-like finish that reveals a panoply of spare, honed mineral effects. 14.1 percent alcohol. A winsome aperitif, but the real motivation is as accompaniment to mild fish and seafood dishes. Excellent. About $18.

A sample for review.

Bill Mosby is probably weary, weary of people describing his winery as “a little bit of Italy in Santa Ynez Valley,” but that’s the price you pay for adhering to a strict regimen of Italian grape varieties along California’s Central Coast. Today I write about four of his wines, from a roster of 17, as well as grappa, plum brandy and other distillates, all of which he produces in minute quantities. Mosby and his wife Jeri purchased property on the old Rancho de la Vega land grant in 1976, on the Santa Rosa Road south of Buellton — population 4,828 and home of OstrichLand USA — now somewhat a center of the winemaking industry in the valley. The winery features an adobe house built in 1853, the home of the Mosby family, and a carriage house from the 1880s, the winery’s tasting room.

We have to approach the problem of what wines should be like when they’re associated with a geography and climate far away, as in thousands of miles and different longitudes and latitudes. Santa Barbara County doesn’t much resemble, for example, Italy’s chilly mountainous Alto Adige or the hilly Piedmont, but here we are, with the Mosby family, growing gewurztraminer and dolcetto. Do we judge these wines on how closely they align with a sort of ideal version of those grapes grown in their homeland or on how “good” they are, relatively speaking, considering their Central Coast origin? We have to account for these immense variations yet also consider varietal character and integrity. I blow warm and cool of these four examples from Mosby Wines, which in several cases are quite enjoyable but don’t much conjure their regions in Italy. Still, what do we expect? The one I would go back to is the Dolcetto 2012. By the way, I admire Mosby for employing large oak barrels and a minimum of new oak in making these wines. The attractive labels were designed by Robert Scherer.

These wines were samples for review.
Mosby Traminer 2014, Santa Barbara County, made completely in stainless steel. The color is pale straw-gold; the bouquet is intensely floral, with notes of jasmine, honeysuckle and camellia highlighting aromas of lemon and pear, quince and ginger. The wine is clean, bright and lively, with soft peach flavors and a snap of grapefruit bitterness on the finish. The wine is very dry
and quite earthy, more loamy, in fact, than is good for a great impression. Still, an enjoyable version of the gewurztraminer grape. 13.6 percent alcohol. Production was 158 cases. Drink up. Very Good+. About $18.
The sagrantino grape is indigenous to the region surrounding the incredibly quaint hill-town of Montefalco, in eastern Umbria, where it makes powerful, tannic wines with guts and grit. The Mosby Sagrantino 2011, Santa Barbara County, doesn’t measure up in that sense, though it’s pleasant enough in its way. The wine aged in large French oak barrels, 20 percent new. The color is dark ruby with a garnet rim; enticing aromas of ripe black cherries and raspberries are tinged with violets and lavender and a hint of graphite, while elements of briers, brambles and underbrush gradually emerge. What the wine lacks is sagrantino’s tannic pith and vigor. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 309 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Very Good. About $38.
The Mosby Dolcetto 2012, Santa Barbara County, is a lovely expression of the grape’s character. It aged in large French oak barrels, 20 percent new. It offers a dark ruby-purple hue with a magenta rim and a full-blown bouquet of ripe black currants, raspberries and plums permeated by notes of loam, forest floor, violets and oolong tea. These qualities segue seamlessly to the palate, where the wine is dense, intense and velvety and delivers very ripe, sweet black fruit flavors marked by sufficient tannin for structure and acidity for balance. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 302 cases. Drink through 2017 to ’19. Very Good+. About $28.
Lagrein is one of those grape that is fairly specific to a country or region, like poulsard in the Jura or zweigelt in Austria. Lagrein is native to Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige area, in the mountainous northeast. The Mosby La Seduzione Lagrein 2011, Central Coast, is not as seductive as its makers would like it to be, being deep, dark, inky, tarry, dense and concentrated, with intense scents and flavors of black currants, cherries and plums, dusty and velvety tannins, notes of smoke, tobacco and cedar, and not quite enough acidity to shore up all these elements. If this personality sounds enticing to you, go for it. Again, the regimen is large French oak barrels, 20 percent new. Production was 206 cases. Now through 2020 or ’21. Very Good. About $38.

What could a former snowboarder and a former investment banker do but get together and make wine. Not just wine but cabernet sauvignon in Santa Ynez Valley, in the Central Coast’s southern Santa Barbara County? Jeff Tanner is the former investment banker and Rob DaFoe is the former snowboarding pro, and their enterprise is Tanner DaFoe Wines, a producer of minuscule amounts of very fine cabernet sauvignon wines first released from the 2009 vintage. I have simplified the story a great deal here, but suffice to say that the pairing of these partners was serendipitous — if you’re in the market for full-throated yet spare and lithe cabernets that cost $110 a bottle. Yes, these are luxury items, stylish and sophisticated in every sense, yet displaying none of the flamboyance, opulence and over-ripe/over-oaked character that many of California’s “cult” cabernets exhibit. Not easy to find, they’re definitely Worth a Search if you have the yen and the dollars.

These wines were samples for review.
Tanner DaFoe Rogue’s Blend 2011, Santa Ynez Valley, could be called the producer’s entry-level wine, at least in terms of price. The wine is a blend of 72 percent cabernet sauvignon and 28 percent cabernet franc; it spent 28 months in French oak barrels. The color is deep ruby shading to a mulberry-hued rim; the initial impression is striking aromas of mint and minerals, ripe and spicy black currants and raspberries, lavender and crushed violets, with back-notes of fruitcake, tapenade, cedar and rosemary and hints of ancho chili and loam; the wine projects, in other words, a clearly and cleanly delineated bouquet of great complexity and appealing fervor. This is a wine of tremendous tone and presence, dense, supple and lithe, packed with dusty tannins and graphite minerality, a large-framed wine that nonetheless profits from its poised energy and whiplash acidity and liveliness. A bit rock-ribbed presently, in its dusty, velvety oak and tannins and its lithic character, it opens as the moments elapse to offer hints of dill seed, caramelized fennel and bitter chocolate. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 96 cases. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2024 to ’26. Excellent. About $75.
Tanner DaFoe Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Santa Ynez Valley. The current release of the winery’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon aged 28 months in French oak barrels. The color is dark ruby with a slightly lighter magenta rim; the raison d’etre here is structure and texture, with intense and concentrated but ripe and spicy cassis, blueberry and mulberry scents and flavors (with a high wild note of black cherry) deeply freighted by iron and iodine, piercing graphite minerality, lead pencil and a touch of cedar. The wine is sleek and chiseled, hewn from obsidian, it seems, supple and muscular, but for all that it offers fleshy and meaty notes of slightly roasted black and blue fruit and the animation of bright acidity. Mouth-filling and deeply savory, this 2011 feels potent, complete and confident, though it would benefit from a few years in the cellar; try from 2016 or ’18 through 2025 to ’29. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 167 cases. Excellent. About $110.
Tanner DaFoe Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Santa Ynez valley. The color is dark ruby with a violet rim; the first impression is of ripe, sweet, spicy black fruit aromas and flavors layered atop an incredible depth and reach of power and elegance; cassis, violets and potpourri, a trace of mint and touch of cedar, with hints of tobacco, sage and leaf smoke and back-notes of graphite, leather and underbrush characterize the seductive aromas. A supple, sinewy structure of lovely equilibrium yet stalwart framing and foundation — again, 28 months in French oak — supports juicy but understated flavors of black raspberry and blueberry; that structure includes dense, dusty, velvety tannins and potent acidity and leads to a polished finish packed with granitic minerality, exotic spices and woodsy accents. Completely gratifying weight, substance and bearing. I drank a great deal of this bottle with lamb chops rubbed with garlic and rosemary, with a smoked pimento and mint garnish; they made one of those transporting eating and drinking moments. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 141 cases. Consume now through 2025 to 2030. Exceptional. About $110.
The Tanner DaFoe Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Santa Ynez Valley, was the winery’s first release, and at a bit more than five years after harvest, it’s drinking beautifully. Every element of the wine feels precisely weighted and measured, finely sifted and balanced, and it flows across the palate like a dark, powdery essence of hillside cabernet grapes, all super-velvety and elegant, yet a little spare, though that description omits its sense of feeling slightly untamed, of being an untapped source of dynamism and power, like a brilliant luxury-status automobile idling before acceleration. I have no technical information about this wine, sold-out at the winery, but as an initial release, it’s a triumph, the best first-release cabernet I have encountered since the Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. Drink through 2020 to 2025. Excellent. $NA.

William Allen moved into commercial production in 2010, after years as a “garagiste” and writer. This doesn’t mean that he makes a lot of wine. Two Shepherds as a one-man operation, truly a labor of love, so the wines are made in minute quantities; sorry about that. These are Rhone-style wines that see no new oak, are foot-stomped, use natural yeasts and generally exhibit remarkable purity and intensity. I love them; there, I said it.

These wines were samples for review. The labels used for illustration below are one vintage behind.

The Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc 2012, Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley, is a blend of four white grapes typical of the southern Rhone Valley: 50 percent roussanne, 35 percent marsanne, 10 viognier and 5 grenache blanc; the wine ages an average of six months in neutral French oak barrels. The color is pale gold; aromas of quince and ginger, peach and spiced pear open to notes of bee’s-wax and camellia, sea-shell and limestone. The wine is rich, focused, enveloped in a structure of moderate and very attractive weight and body, clean, bright and crisp yet almost talc-like in texture. Quite dry, it offers a smoky, earthy and autumnal essence of peaches, nectarines and yellow plums, cloves and allspice and a backwash of limestone-and-flint minerality and salinity. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with grilled or roasted salmon or tuna, grilled mussels, trout with lemon-caper butter or shrimp salad. Production was 105 cases. Excellent. About $28.
This time not Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley but Saarloos Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley, for the Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc 2012; at first I thought that was a misprint. Santa Ynez, approved as an AVA in 1983, is in southeast Santa Barbara County and bears within it the sub-appellation of Santa Rita Hills. This grenache blanc offers an aura of greenness, by which I do not mean green as in grapes picked before they’re ripe, but green as in leafy green, as in sea-green, as in greengage, as in green apple. The color is pale straw-gold; notes of jasmine and honeysuckle are spare and ethereal, wreathed with tangerine and grapefruit and backed by shell-like minerals and a sort of sea-breeze salinity. A moderately soft and satiny texture is energized by brisk acidity and scintillating limestone minerality, while the finish brings in hints of green tea, orange rind and cloves. Eighty percent of the wine aged seven months in neutral oak, the other 20 percent six months in stainless steel. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with Thai salads, trout quenelles, watercress and cucumber sandwiches (crusts trimmed, of course). Production was 125 cases. Excellent. About $25.
William Allen made one barrel of the Two Shepherds Trousseau Gris 2012, Fanucchi Vineyard, Russian River Valley, amounting to 25 cases, so while it’s a brilliant wine, the chances of any of My Readers getting their hands on a bottle are about as remote as Beyonce singing La Boheme in Bethlehem. The grape is trousseau gris, not widely found even in its home of the Jura mountains where France nestles against Switzerland. Being “gris,” the grape’s faintly rosy onion skin or grayish color yields a radiant coral hue when the wine is fermented on the skins; in other words, it’s a “white” wine made as if it were a red wine. The seductive and unusual bouquet delivers hints of orange zest and strawberries, melon and lemon balm with intriguing notes of parsley and celery and a touch of flint. It’s quite dry but juicy with ripe peach, red currant and rhubarb flavors deepened by the slight astringency of peach skin and almond skin, smoke, briers and brambles, all wrapped in clean acidity and a note of graphite minerality. The whole package is characterized by remarkable presence, resonance, transparency and vividness. The wine aged eight months in neutral oak barrels, four months on the lees. 13.8 percent alcohol. We drank this versatile bottle over several nights with a variety of food. Now through 2016 or ’17. Exceptional. About $25.
So, here’s the red wine of this foursome. The Two Shepherds Syrah/Mourvèdre 2011 is a cross-county blend of 55 percent syrah from Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, and 45 percent mourvèdre from El Dorado. It aged 10 months in neutral French oak, the barrels four years old or older, four of those months on the lees. The color is a pronounced dark ruby with a magenta robe; fresh aromas of ripe red and black currants and plums are intensified by cloves, graphite, a hint of new leather and depths of briery, clean mossy earthiness. The wine is fine-grained and supple, riven by incisive acidity, decisively dry, dense and chewy, almost feral in its purity and individuality; despite projecting a vibrant and somewhat unbridled red and black fruit character and texture, the wine feels light on its feet, with nothing ponderous or opulent. 13.8 percent alcohol. Product was 40 cases. Drink now through 2018 or ’20 with grilled leg of lamb, a hot and crusty medium rare rib-eye steak just plunked from the coals, a gamy veal chop. Excellent. About $38.