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My Favorite West Coast Pinot Noirs
By Ed McCarthy
Mar 1, 2016
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Some of my Burgundy-loving friends do not accept the idea that excellent Pinot Noirs wines can be made outside of Burgundy.  And yet I find it possible--even with Pinot Noir being such a difficult variety to work with--that the grape can be made into fine wines in certain other limited terroirs around the world. True, these wines are not the same as Burgundy.  How could they be, when the grapes are grown in a different area?  But they still can be very good Pinot Noir wines.

I am particularly fond of some Pinot Noirs from California’s Sonoma County, and a few from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  My first love of Sonoma Pinot Noirs began with wines I discovered in Russian River Valley, starting with those of the iconic Joseph Swan about 30 years ago, and my affection for RRV Pinot Noirs continues with today’s great wineries there, such as Littorai.

Then, about five or six years ago, I stumbled upon a fairly new area, a strip of land hugging the coast next to the Pacific Ocean called the ”Extreme Sonoma Coast”--to distinguish it from the huge Sonoma Coast AVA, of which the Extreme Sonoma Coast occupies a small part.  Fans of the area also call it “The True Coast.”  The area starts just north of Bodega Bay, a coastline town (where Hitchcock’s unforgettable horror film, The Birds, was made); and extends up the coastline from the village of Ft. Ross (just above Bodega Bay) 23 miles north to the hamlet of Annapolis.  Many of the vineyards and about 30 wineries, almost all very small family operations, are clustered in an area north and east of Ft. Ross extending 12 to 15 miles east towards Sebastopol, the main town in the area.

No vineyards existed on the Extreme Sonoma Coast until the late 1970s because the region was thought to be too cold to ripen grapes.  Then, a small winery called Wild Hog Vineyard was founded in 1977; it was followed by David Hirsch, who planted Hirsch Vineyards in 1980.  Later, David and Diane Cobb planted their Coastlands Vineyard in 1989.  Flowers Vineyards, the largest winery on the Extreme Sonoma Coast, was established in 1990.

What they know now in California is that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have a high tolerance for very cool climates.  Look how well these two varieties have performed in Champagne, one of the coolest, northernmost wine regions in the world!  A little Syrah and Zinfandel also grows in the Extreme Sonoma Coast, but 
Pinot Noir is king here, followed by small amounts of Chardonnay.

What attracted me to Extreme Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs is their subtlety, delicacy, and structure. Most have rather high acidity with relatively low alcohol.  Their color is nearly transparent, medium red, they are never overly ripe, and they have complex flavors.  In short, they are my idea of cool-climate Pinot Noirs, reminiscent of fine Côte de Beaunes such as those of Volnay or Beaune. 

The cool Pacific winds are mainly responsible for the cool climate; the winds arrive through an opening in the mountains called the Petaluma Gap, just north of Bodega Bay.  I drove through this area last year from Sebastopol.  I think the temperature dropped about 15° when I arrived in the coastal area.  Vineyards are on hillsides ranging from 400 to 1200 feet high.  Fog envelops the area in the morning, with sunshine and cool breezes in the afternoon.

Cobb Wines is my favorite winery on the Extreme Sonoma Coast.  Ross Cobb produces Pinot Noirs almost exclusively, from five vineyards, one of which the family owns.  He is also makes a small quantity of Chardonnay.  Cobb doesn’t make a lot of wine, only 1800 6-bottle cases of Pinot Noir.  His best Pinot Noir, in my opinion (and his) comes from the Emmaline Ann Vineyard.  The vineyard is situated on a hill, 800 feet high, near the hamlet of Occidental, and is Cobb’s foggiest vineyard.  I tasted 2012 and 2013 Cobb wines with Ross Cobb on his visit to New York in mid-February.  His 2012 Emmaline Ann, as usual, was outstanding: it is delicate and elegant, but with complex aromas and flavors of raspberry, cherry, herbs and spices, with a hint of forest floor.  It possesses marked acidity and only 12.5° alcohol. It is completely delicious now, but will age well.  Only 175 cases were produced, about $70 to $75 a bottle. 

All of Emmaline Ann Pinot Noirs have been gorgeous since Ross Cobb’s first one in 2006.  Ross had a great streak of Emmaline Ann Pinot Noirs in 2007, 2008, and 2009--but I think this 2012 is right up with those vintages.  (At the end of our tasting, the 2012 Emmaline Ann bottle was the only one empty, thanks primarily to yours truly.)

Ross Cobb makes four other Pinot Noirs:  I think his second-best is Diane Cobb, made from the best block of the family vineyard, Coastlands, and named after Ross’s late mother, a botanist, who planted Pinot Noir in Coastland Vineyards.
The 2013 Diane Cobb I tasted resembled Emmaline Ann, but was a bit more powerful, with 13° alcohol.  Only 275 cases were produced.

Other Extreme Sonoma Coast wineries I like include Peay, Lioco, Hirsch Vineyards, and Drew Family.  All of these Extreme Sonoma Coast wineries are small; the best way to buy bottles is to contact the winery directly.

A few wineries outside the Extreme Coast buy Pinot Noir grapes from wineries on the Coast and make single-vineyard Pinot Noirs under their own name.  The best include Failla from Napa Valley, plus Williams Selyem, Hartford Court, and Littorai from Russian River Valley.  In fact, the national attention the Extreme Sonoma Coast has received in the last several years has a lot to do with these more well-known wineries making Pinot Noirs from Extreme Coast grapes.

Some of the pioneers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley conceivably have done more to convince consumers and wine critics of the possibilities of Pinot Noir in the U.S. than those of any other wine region in the country.  I remember getting excited about Oregon’s Pinot Noirs about 30 years ago, first tasting the Pinot Noirs of the late David Lett at The Eyrie Vineyards and of Dick Ponzi at his Ponzi Vineyards.

The Pinot Noirs of The Eyrie Vineyards most remind me of the Pinots of Cobb Wines.  When David Lett started making Pinot Noir in 1970, no one was making Pinot Noir wines that were delicate, subtle, and elegant.  Dark, ripe, highly extracted Pinot Noirs were the norm in California.  I loved Eyrie Vineyards’ Pinot Noirs from the beginning; and they have stood the test of time, aging well for 30 years or more.  David Lett’s son, Jason, has continued making Pinot Noirs in the same style of his father.  One of the main style factors of The Eyrie Vineyards and Cobb Wines is picking the grapes fairly early--and not letting the grapes get too ripe and lose acidity.

Dick Ponzi’s winemaker-daughter, Luisa Ponzi, also makes some of Oregon’s best Pinot Noirs, but in a more powerful style than The Eyrie Vineyards.  I was stunned by Ponzi’s 2012 Reserve Pinot Noir, definitely a world-class wine (about $60).  Ponzi makes two less expensive Pinot Noirs, but the Reserve is its finest.

Domaine Drouhin Oregon makes everyone’s list of the great Oregon wineries.  The fact that a French house thought enough to start a winery here (in 1987) and then Joseph Drouhin sending his winemaker daughter, Veronique Drouhin, to Oregon to make the wine spoke volumes about the state’s potential.  All of DDO’s (as it’s called) Pinot Noirs are fine, but it’s top of the line "Laurene" bottling really impressed me with its 2011 ($60).  The Laurene 2012 is the current vintage.

Two other Oregon wineries that have always been favorites of mine are Elk Cove and Lange Estate.  The standard Pinot Noir at all of these wineries is about $35 (Domaine Drouhin Oregon, about $40).  I think these wines offer great value, because they are making some of the finest Pinot Noirs in the country, if not the world.

I know that Pinot Noirs are the favorite--or one of the favorites--wines of so many people.  I also realize that one must choose carefully to discover really fine Pinot Noirs.  I hope this column helps you find some excellent Pinot Noirs.