The Pleasures of Pinot Noir
Living in California, it is easy to be a Pinotphile
Before the Virus dominated every conversation, we drove up to Russian River country once again, farther east this time. After attempting a sketch of the beautiful Valley in my last post, I felt that a description of the wines was in order. Pad and pencil in bag, we drove up.
The weather was unseasonably warm and dry. But the landscape hadn’t changed as quickly as the temperatures: The country was still in winter mode – the vines in dormancy stood leafless, the vineyards, drab. But the sky shone brilliant and our spirits soared in the sunshine, even as we worried about the scarcity of rain.
The Russian River Valley lies within the larger Sonoma County appellation, but it has been an AVA in its own right since 1983. It is known for its cool-climate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, by no means its only offerings.
Tastings at Dehlinger Winery are by appointment only. I didn’t give this much thought until I reached there and found that we were one of only two couples. Julia, our host, had set four places at the only table in their tasting room. With each place setting came a personalized welcome brochure (mine had my name and my husband’s) and a listing of the Pinot Noirs they were pouring. All this was part of the Pinot Noir Retrospective they offered in February.
I have been to all manner of tastings, but this was a cut above. Clearly, Dehlinger wanted their guests to feel special and unrushed, with time for discussions with the hospitality manager.
That Pinot Noir is so prominently featured is hardly surprising. This was the first varietal owner Tom Dehlinger planted on his property in 1975, almost a decade before Russian River acquired appellation status. Over time, as the grapes in the different sections of the property expressed terroir, their essence was captured in discrete bottlings. The Retrospective was about vintage and terroir.
The tasting covered wines from 1996 to 2017. The first was a 1996 Octagon Pinot Noir. Quite simply, the wine blew me away. It was not what you’d expect from a Pinot. Rather, that first sip tasted a little like Tawny Port. As I swirled, my nose picked up clove and spice and dark berries. Age had mellowed the acid you’d expect in a cool-climate Pinot and the wine was so smooth, it went down like silk. Sadly, for the four of us around the table, there was only one bottle left after the tasting. There was going to be no encore for us.
The second was a 2000 Old Vine Reserve Pinot Noir. Like the Octagon, age had turned amber the rim of the wine and had smoothed the sharpness of acid. Where in the Octagon I had been able to taste distinct flavors, in this I experienced only a smooth, rounded, wonderful wine.
The 2006 Estate Pinot Noir was the transitional wine between the old and the ones toward which we were headed. Great in its own right, I felt it was overshadowed by the older two that had gone before, despite cleansing crackers.
And then came the new ones from 2012, a drought year that stressed the plants and produced intense flavors; a 2014, also a “drought” wine, and the 2017. These are the Altamont Pinot Noir, the Champ de Mars Pinot Noir, and the Goldridge Pinot Noir, respectively. All are good wines and with age will probably reveal the characteristics of the old Dehlinger wines. I will hang on to the bottles we bought and write again in a few years to tell you how age has worked on them.
A comparison with Pinots from other Sonoma AVAs.
So how does this Russian River Valley Pinot compare with, say, the one from Auteur, also a small winery in downtown Sonoma, or Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast. (I have written about these wineries here and here. What distinguishes the Russian River AVA from the others in Sonoma? Without a side by side comparison, it is hard to say. I will try to understand and write at a later date. Meanwhile, if you have a chance to figure this out, write to me or guest write a post for me.
Martin Ray Winery.
A mile away from Dehlinger lies the gorgeous Martin Ray Winery. After six different Pinots, we didn’t think we could handle another tasting, but we hung out at the winery, enjoyed their cheese platter, and even took a little nap on their comfortable couches before our long drive home.
Martin Ray, the man, is very well known in these parts to those who claim an interest in wine. A few years ago, I heard about his Santa Cruz Mountains winery, but couldn’t trace it. Then, in searching wineries for this trip, I found a Martin Ray Winery. In Russian River?
On their website, I found that Courtney Benham serendipitously discovered 1,500 cases of Martin Ray wine in a San Jose warehouse. It is the stuff of novels: Thomas Hardy and the element of chance come to mind. The year of the great find was 1990. Thirteen years later, the new Martin Ray Winery came into existence in the Russian River Valley, endeavoring to make wines that spoke terroir.
As those of you who follow my blog know, I always talk to winemakers to get their stories. But the past several weeks have been unusual, and I can’t give you their voices. For the story of Martin Ray, I turned to the work of wine historian Charles L. Sullivan.
Martin Ray, the man and his vision.
So many decades after his death in 1976, Martin Ray is still revered by many winemakers. A devotee of Paul Masson, the Burgundian whose California Champagne made him famous, Ray, then a businessman and stock broker, took over his business in 1936. He believed in the greatness of the Chaine d’Or, the part of the Santa Cruz Hills that lies between Woodside and Los Gatos.
Ray acquired land on the Chaine d’Or and fermented excellent wines – Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Wealthy physicians invested in his winery. His property was known as the Martin Ray Domaine. But he is known mostly for the discipline he brought to winemaking. For instance, he said that a varietal with only 51 percent of the grape from which it derived its name was unacceptable, as was the use of grape concentrate in wines. And he demanded appellations with a set of strict, enforceable rules. These were new ideas that shook up the wine industry at the time.
Unsurprisingly, he was reviled as much as revered. In the end, his combativeness lost him much of his property and his winery was renamed the Mount Eden Group. Although Mount Eden has seen many owners and winemakers come and go, it is now functioning under a new owner quite successfully. And all of the things that Ray fought over are taken for granted in winemaking.
Photos: Dehlinger Winery
Martin Ray Winery