Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sonoma Now Knows What Makes It Different From Napa: It Grows More Pinot Than Cab

"Oh, the times they are a changing."

How fickle the flavors of wine country. For decades, Sonoma's (and Napa's) biggest red grape was Zinfandel. Then it turned to Cabernet, as America's wine industry smelled the financial success of being in the same category as French Bordeaux. 

Today, it's a different story. With the explosion of consumer demand for lighter red wines, and the discovery that the western part of Sonoma is suited for growing it, Pinot Noir plantings have topped Cabernet Sauvignon plantings in Sonoma, with more than 13,500 acre of Pinot to 12,500 of Cabernet.

It makes me think how prophetic Robert Sinskey's dad was. Back when people did not value Carneros land very much (and he was able to buy a lot of it), Robert Sinskey MD (senior) believed America's palate was changing and that people would like food friendly wines as much if not more so than tannic big reds like Cabernet. Though he died last year, his vision was on target. He planted nearly 200 acres of Pinot Noir on former sheep grazing land. Many others have followed in his footsteps.

Today, an acre of Pinot Noir vineyard in Sonoma will run you $150,000 (which is about $50,000 more than one across the Mendocino County line in Anderson Valley). And of course, Pinot Noir took Oregon by storm. 

Some of the oldest Pinot Noir vines in Sonoma County (or the state, for that matter) were planted in the 1970's at Porter Creek in the Russian River Valley, a region that ranks, along with the Carneros, as one of the major areas for Pinot Noir in Sonoma County.

Here are a few of my favorite Sonoma Pinot Noir wineries:

Russian River Valley AVA

Littorai gets the grapes for one of its most renowned wines, May Canyon Pinot Noir, from this gorgeous site tucked away in a clearing surrounded by forests. Proprietor Luke Bass makes a small amount of Pinot Noir under Porter Bass label. 

Tasting here is by appointment only, but is a treat you will never forget. It's an intimate visit with the Bass family on their incredible piece of paradise.

One of the most successful, small family run wineries, the tasting room shack filled with gorgeous Pinots is a favorite with locals and tourists alike. It's also one of my personal top picks. 

Winemaker Alex Davis, who trained in Burgundy and elsewhere in France, makes his wine without additives (save for sulfites), meeting the Biodynamic Wine standard. But you don't need to know that. The wine speaks for itself. He makes a variety of estate Pinot. Don't expect that the most expensive bottle here is the best...taste for yourself. 

Sonoma Coast AVA

Benziger Family Estate

Sonoma's most well known Biodynamic producer has a golden spot in West County...hillside plantings in Freestone. Though pricey ($75 a pop), these Pinots have done well in many wine competitions. You can't taste them in Freestone, though. But the Benziger team happily hosts sit down Pinot Noir Experience tastings at their Glen Ellen hospitality center.

Another family owned gem of a winery, this one is easy to get to as it lies close to the town of Sonoma (by appointment only). 

Fort Ross-Seaview AVA

Way out yonder in the West of the West lies this tiny farming outpost, which was one of the Pinot pioneers in this sparsely populated, wild region in Cazadero. They make just 400 cases a year of their estate Pinot Noir. 

Today their neighbors are all into Pinot, and a cult following of Fort Ross-Seaview grown Pinots has evolved.

Various Sonoma Appellations

This is a winery that buys only organic grapes from local growers. Suzanne Hagins fell in love with Pinot while working in Burgundy. She and her husband Chris Condos make a number of wines from North Coast sites under the Horse and Plow label, but Suzanne's true love of Pinot Noir (and other fine grapes) shows in her The Gardener line of wines. The couple have built a tasting room in Sebastopol and are waiting for officialdom to approve it before it can be opened for tastings. But you can order the wines online.


Other Sonoma producers with organically grown Pinot include Emtu Wines (whose Pinot Noir is on the wine list at Chez Panisse), some of the Marimar Estate wines, Medlock Ames, Merriam Vineyards, Petroni Vineyards (Moon Mountain AVA), and a few bottles from DeLoach (their estate Pinot and, when available, the Maboroshi Pinot).

Personally, I think it's time to pop a cork of Porter Creek Pinot here and now to celebrate the rise of Pinot in Sonoma. Cheers.

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