The Sixth Annual Pinot on the River was pretty awesome.. And, right in my back yard.

Yesterday, the Grand Tasting was held at Rodney Strong Vineyard, a five minute drive from my home. If my daughter Melanie and her husband Heath hadn’t gone with me, I was entertaining the idea of walking from the event. Jose went to Suisun, so he could have dropped me off before he headed over there. My kids saved me from the long walk in the sun, but I would have had a lot of thinking time, wandering and wondering.

I have to thank Gregory Walter. He was my connection to the event, and made sure that the three of us had access to some really wonderful Pinot Noirs, all gathered in one convenient location.

I went to Pinot on the River with a very specific agenda: Uncover the hidden gems.

I wanted to find Pinots that would allow the sunlight to shine right through them, making the wine have a brilliance that could only be found when combined with sunlight and crisply white table linens. I love seeing right though a Pinot Noir. Raspberry is one of my favorite colors, and transparent strawberry and raspberry colors just sing to me.

I wanted the Pinots to all have a medium body. I’m not a fan of overly extracted, high alcohol wines. If I want a manly wine, I know where all the great Petites are. When I want a delicate red wine, I turn to Pinot Noir.

My love affair with Pinots began in the early 1990s, because we had a Russian River Pinot Noir at Belvedere Winery that I would taste each day upon opening the wine for pouring. It was this wine that first drew me in for red wines; and it’s kept me right there, for wines of a delicate composition and structure. Lately, I’ve had a few Pinots that are just too big for my preferences; they’ve been handled so much that the juicy fruit just isn’t there anymore… There are some that, if I told you what they are, you’d recognize and wonder what-the-heck is wrong with my palate. I’d tell you that there’s nothing wrong with my palate, it’s just not mainstream. I like what I like, because I like it… That’s all.

Over the years at these tastings, I’ve learned to go where the crowds are NOT.

Generally speaking, people don’t gravitate toward the new kids on the block. As a “people,” we seem to be drawn toward the familiar. I don’t find much adventure going in that direction, though. I want to learn what’s new. And, what I’ve learned about “what’s new” is that they’re brands which are primarily handcrafted. For the owners, what they’re doing… the thrill of living the dream is really alive and well within their souls, and case productions are minuscule as compared to the big kids on the block. They only work with what is manageable, and so this is more art than numbers. Tasting a wine, when the winemaker says, “We’ve only got 80 cases of this Pinot,” tells me that someone babysat three barrels of wine, and spent a lot of time hovering over this masterpiece. It makes me want to taste that winemaker’s last two or three years of his life. (Cake is from Arron Jonas Catering.)

And… that was my day. I stepped back and waited for some sign to draw me in the right direction.

I wasn’t disappointed… Not once. I do have to say that I was also naturally attracted to a couple of brands, because I have a relationship to them that dates back to earlier times for me. Full disclosure:

  • J Vineyards & Winery , the first wine I tasted, is a neighbor. I also used to work with Shelly Eichner, when she was in sales at J. I supported her with marketing materials.
  • C. Donatiello used to be Belvedere Winery, where I worked for the first five years of my wine career.

So, these two aren’t new to this blog, but the rest will be. Let’s see if I can do them all justice.

All of these wines are HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, if this is the style you are looking for, so you won’t see scores. They’re here because they’re all so delicious..

Ron, J Vineyards & Winery very friendly wine educator, was pouring two Pinots:

  1. 2007 J Russian River Valley Pinot: The color was gorgeous, and exactly what I wanted to find for the day… A Pinot Noir of beautiful character, body, and flavors. I found blueberries and strawberries on the nose, palate, and finish. It was seamless in all ways. $35.00
  2. 2006 J Nicole Vineyard Pinot Noir: Another beautiful Pinot, light shone through this ruby wine, delivering a warm spice, soft earthy notes, and Bing cherries. $65.00

Morgan Winery Pinots were being poured by Dan Morgan Lee. Proprietors Dan and Donna Lee’s Double L Vineyard is in the northern section of the Santa Lucia Highlands, a sub-appellation of Monterey. This organically farmed site has 45 acres, and is currently producing fine Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. Their wine making goals are to produce wines that are true to the variety and the source, show balance and complexity, and are enjoyable upon release. The core essence of their wines is ripe fruit, as expressed from the vineyard.

Dan had a map on his table of the Santa Lucia Highlands, and was taking the time to educate people about that AVA. The northern end is closer to the ocean, experiences coastal influences, and produces lighter, tighter wines (12 Clones). The southern end (which is the Double L wine) producers more round, and rich cherry flavored wines. Dan was pouring two Pinots:

  1. 2007 Morgan Winery ~ 12 Clones ~ Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir: This was the first of two Pinots for Morgan Winery. I was astounded to find the Morgan Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterrey County) so easily approachable. This wine was more of a strawberry. blueberry Pinot… Strawberries on the nose with blueberries on the palate and finish. Lively acidity with this one… $32.00
  2. 2007 Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir (Estate): Cherry, berry, blueberries on the nose, with lots of blueberry fruit on the palate and Bing cherries on the finish. It was a rich, ripe wine that was very, very enjoyable. I can see this being a gorgeous wines with a creamy brie and cracker appetizer. $48.00

Gracianna was next… Lisa Amador was pouring her first vintage Pinot Noir, with only 50 cases of this wine being produced (two barrels). Lisa’s son Trini Amador studied wine making at Oregon State, getting his viticulture degree. Lisa said that when he was in high school, it was his dream to make wine.

  1. 2007 Gracianna Pinot Noir, Bacigalupi Vineyard | Russian River Valley. A beautiful Pinot having that raspberry transparency, and lots of strawberry flavors… silky and crisp with a tangy mouthfeel and is beautifully balanced. $48.00

Lucienne Wine was next. Had I know this was the same company that launched Cycles Gladiator, I would have had a high five going. I weighed in on the art work for that one. Loved it!

Owned by Nicolaus Lucien Hahn, the winery is a separate facility tucked into the Hahn Estates winery. It’s actually a winery within a winery. As the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation has become one of the most prestigious Pinot Noir growing regions in California, Lucienne has resolved to focus top vineyard practices, expert wine making, and the highest quality equipment to produce Pinot from the exceptional estate vineyards of Lone Oak and Doctor’s Vineyard. I tasted two wines with winemaker Paul Clifton.

  1. 2007 Lucienne Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, Lone Oak Vineyard. It was just a beautiful wine. This is a cooler part of the appellation (must be in the northern part), and the wine was more elegant and lighter in style. Beautifully balanced, it’s a perfect wine for an aperitif course. $45.00
  2. 2007 Lucienne Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, Doctor’s Vineyard. Gorgeously round and smooth, this warmer climate wine has very rich flavors, front to back, and it has more blackberry and blueberry fruit, with a slightly almond toast from the oak. $35.00

I decided to just take in the landscape for  few minutes, and wasn’t really sure which way to go (I don’t follow any easily discernible pattern), but I found myself being welcomed by Danette Desmond, who had caught my eye. There stood a mother, daughter Stephanie, and father Bill, all happy to be pouring their wine, as we all seemed to have a simultaneous break in the action (Danette stepped out of this picture, allowing Stephanie and Bill to shine.) As I wondered which way to go, Danette was solving that for me. I would have to have been insane to have turned that welcoming down. It was definitely worth the time.

I tasted their first release ever, and this is the one earlier about which I spoke – 80 cases made, which means three barrels of wine were pampered and nurtured, and now the family was pouring Bill’s labor of love.  The Desmonds are located on Starr Road in Russian River Valley. The position of their vineyard and a seasonal creek makes for a pleasing visual corridor. A mixture of native oak and eucalyptus trees follow the waterway and the vines, comprised of a field blend of Dijon clones 115, 667, 777, which receive full sun throughout their growing season.

  1. The 2007 Desmond Pinot Noir Russian River Valley was the first one where I tasted a hint of mint… Just a hint, mind you, but I picked it up. When I mentioned it, Danette told me that I’m the first to have ever found that note, but I’m not surprised… If it’s there, I’ll find it, because I love mint. This one was chocolate chip mint cookies, as compared to all the others. Totally delicious. The color was right where I wanted it to be, as were the cherry flavors that were enhanced with violets and strawberries. $36.00

As I drifted, I came to another row of vintners: Clouds Rest, Claypool Cellars, and C. Donatiello. (I now realize I was in the C’s. Was there a scheme? I think I totally missed that, until I’ve just written this.)

Tomorrow, I’ll keep going. This one reached a comfortable capacity for today.