California's Sonoma County has a near-perfect climate for growing cool-weather grapes. Fog banks that creep over the hillsides from the Pacific Ocean and relatively cloudy weather during key months (Californians call it "June Gloom") make many parts of Sonoma an ideal place to plant pinot noir and chardonnay.
Although chardonnay initially earned Sonoma its well-deserved place on the world wine map, many wine experts believe that it is the region's pinot noir wines that truly set Sonoma apart from the rest of California. Of course, a mention in the 2004 film Sideways did not hurt Sonoma's burgeoning pinot noir industry. Statistics show that merlot sales dropped and pinot noir sales increased after Miles, one of the film's two main characters, extolled the virtues of pinot noir. Consumers who tried pinot noir wines because of the film learned to appreciate the quality of Sonoma pinot noirs, particularly from the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs.
Today, wine lovers wait for months (and sometimes years) to get on the mailing lists of top Sonoma wineries. Sonoma winemakers have a long tradition of hands-on involvement, and their dedication to quality and patience with the delicate but rewarding pinot noir grape have paid off handsomely.
Let's take a closer look at some of Sonoma's top pinot noirs.
Hanzell Vineyards' plantings include the oldest pinot noir vineyard in the U.S. This historic vineyard, which dates back to 1953, was planted by Ambassador James D. Zellerbach. The ambassador named his wines after his wife, Hana, and Hanzell's best-known pinot noir comes from the Ambassador's 1953 Vineyard. The pinot noir tradition at Hanzell has endured to the present day, currently under the ownership of the de Brye family.
If you want to purchase Hanzell's best single-vineyard pinot noirs, you will need to join the winery's Ambassador's Circle or find the wines on the secondary market. As of this writing, a single bottle of 2007 Hanzell Vineyards Ambassador's 1953 Vineyard Pinot Noir will cost Ambassador's Circle members $145.
Kistler Vineyards is one of the best-known boutique pinot noir producers in the Sonoma Coast AVA. The winery, which was founded in 1978, produces only chardonnay and pinot noir, both in extremely limited quantities. Kistler Vineyards makes several single-vineyard pinot noirs, including Kistler Vineyard, Occidental Station Cuvée Catherine, Bodega Headlands Cuvée Elizabeth and Silver Belt Cuvée Natalie.
Kistler Vineyards sells its top wines to mailing list members only. At the time of this writing, a single bottle of 2005 Occidental Station Cuvée Catherine sells for $160 to $180 on the secondary market.
George Wine Company
George Wine Company literally is one person, and his name actually is George. George Levkoff began making wine in a garage, as many winemakers do, and currently shares facilities with Hirsch Vineyards. George Wine Company uses grapes from five different Russian River Valley vineyards to produce single-vineyard and blended pinot noirs. Quantities of each wine are extremely limited. Three-bottle packs of George Wine Company's current single-vineyard releases sell for $700; sales are made on a first-come, first-served basis. Existing customers receive priority.
Rochioli Vineyards & Winery
Rochioli Vineyards & Winery's waiting list for single-vineyard wine sales is said to be five years long. The winery produces five different single-vineyard pinot noirs, grown on separate blocks of the Rochioli vineyard, as well as an estate pinot noir. This Russian River Valley winery got its start in 1938 when Joe Rochioli Senior bought farmland he had worked and planted grapes on it. Joe's son, also named Joe, and his grandson Tom run the family business today, with spectacular results.
If you don't have the patience to wait five years, you may be able to find some Rochioli single-vineyard pinot noir wines on the secondary market. As an example, one bottle of 2005 Little Hill Pinot Noir will set you back $200 - $225.
Marcassin Winery is the brainchild of well-known consulting winemaker Helen Turley and her viticulturist husband, John Wetlaufer. Marcassin produces some of Sonoma County's best-known, most expensive pinot noirs and chardonnays. Under Turley's direction, the winery turns out fewer than 3,000 cases of meticulously-crafted wine each year. Marcassin plans to open a winery of its own in Windsor in 2011; previously, Marcassin shared facilities with Martinelli Winery.
Like many top producers, Marcassin sells its wines by mailing list only. On the secondary market, expect to pay $200 for a bottle of 2005 Marcassin Pinot Noir Three Sisters Vineyard and up to $400 for a bottle of 2005 Marcassin Pinot Noir Marcassin Vineyard.
Mark Aubert is another Sonoma pinot noir legend. Prior to starting Aubert Wines in 1999, he worked with Helen Turley at Peter Michael Winery and then moved to Colgin Cellars when she left her position there. He eventually began to create his own wines on a very small scale. Aubert , a true garagiste, makes single-vineyard pinot noir wines using grapes from two vineyards, Reuling Vineyard and UV Vineyard, with his vineyardist and partner, Ulises Valdez. (Aubert Wines also makes highly-regarded chardonnay wines.) Aubert plans to open a new winery in Calistoga in 2011.
Aubert sells only to customers on his mailing list, and the waiting list to get on that exclusive roster of customers is at least three years long. On the secondary market, you'll pay $175 to $200 for a bottle of 2005 Aubert Reuling Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir or 2005 Aubert UV Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.
Kosta Browne Winery
Dan Kosta and Michael Browne started their joint venture in 1997, when they were both restaurant waiters. Four years later, Chris Costello joined the partnership. Kosta Browne produces pinot noirs from both the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast AVAs. Single-vineyard Kosta Browne wines bear the name of the vineyard, while Kosta Browne 4-Barrel Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir are made from grapes originating in several different vineyards.
To buy Kosta Browne single-vineyard wines, you'll need to work your way up the waiting list, which currently holds over 15,000 names. On the secondary market, a single bottle of Kosta Browne 2005 Amber Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir sells for $160 and up.
Another classic Sonoma County garagiste partnership story began in 1979, when Burt Williams and Ed Selyem started making wine together in – no surprise – a local garage on weekends. By 1987, Williams Selyem wines were winning awards and capturing the attention of wine critics. John and Kathe Dyson bought Williams Selyem in 1998 and remain dedicated to its tradition of handcrafting top-quality pinot noirs, chardonnays and zinfandels.
As you might guess, Williams Selyem maintains a mailing list (called "The WS List") and only those customers currently on the list may purchase wines. Happily, the waiting period to get onto The WS List is only about a year long, as of this writing. If you want to buy a bottle of Williams Selyem wine on the secondary market, expect to pay $120 to $150 for a bottle of 2005 Williams Selyem Allen Vinyard Pinot Noir Russian River Valley or 2005 Williams Selyem Rochioli Riverblock Vineyard Pinot Noir.
Merry Edwards Winery
No discussion of Sonoma pinot noirs would be complete without a mention of pioneer winemaker Merry Edwards, who helped to blaze a trail for other female winemakers to follow. Edwards' involvement with winemaking began in 1973; for many years she worked for various wineries and taught enology courses at UC Davis. A visionary who helped establish an industry commitment to clonal diversity through her work and teaching, Edwards founded Merry Edwards Wines in 1997 and opened her Sebastopol winery ten years later.
Happily, Merry Edwards Wines sells directly from the company website, provided you live in a state that allows shipments of wine to private residences. Most readily available Merry Edwards pinot noirs retail for $36 to $55 per bottle, but a bottle of 2006 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Angel Wing, created in memory of Edwards' son, Warren Miller, sells for $90.