(Bloomberg) — I'm not sure what stood out more: the exceptionally complex, refined flavor of the wine, or that it came from a California pinot noir with an alcohol level of 14.5 percent. The wine tasted more Burgundian than Californian.
Still more puzzling was that I'd never even heard of the winery — Windsor Sonoma — and riffling through recent books on California and pinot noir wines turned up nothing at all.
Windsor Sonoma's website revealed that the winery is owned by Pat Roney, a longtime marketer and executive at California wineries and one-time chief executive officer of the Dean & Deluca gourmet grocery chain. He bought the property for the winery in 2007, and he buys grapes from other vineyards as well.
"We try hard to achieve a Burgundy style, using 100 percent pinot noir," said Roney, 54, in a phone interview. "We use a lot of skin contact and extended maceration."
Winemaker Anthony Austin, who's been making pinot for 32 years, focuses on the quality of the fruit, doesn't typically filter the wines, Roney said. Often called finicky, fickle, and capricious, pinot noir needs a cool climate and specific soil composition and is prone to mildew and rot. The greatest pinot noirs are made in Burgundy, where grand crus can sell for $2,000 and more. Even there, lesser examples may need chaptalization, a process of adding sugar to boost the alcohol to 13 percent.
Napa Valley pinots have lacked consistency, with many so high in alcohol as to make them unrecognizable as pinots. But for a decade now, Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, with its cooling fog rolling in from the Pacific, has shown enviable promise for making consistently fine pinots. A few, like the well-balanced examples from William Selyem costing between $49 and $90, are sold only by subscription.
I tasted a few other modern Sonoma County pinots from recent vintages and various price spreads, and found a wide range of flavors, body weight, fruit, acids, and alcohol.
Failla Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast 2007($75)
This 12-year-old winery makes an array of pinot noirs from its own grapes and those of other vineyards, including the well-regarded Hirsch, which amounted to 475 cases. Light in color and bouquet, with 13.9 percent alcohol, the wine is medium bodied, with a pretty strawberry note. Tasted twice, 18 hours apart (re-stoppered), it loosened up the next day, supple up front, though the finish is neither lingering nor full-flavored. It can be matched with tomato-based foods, like the minestrone vegetable soup I enjoyed with it for lunch.
Freeman Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007 ($44)
As in Burgundy, Freeman's wines are blends from various vineyards. In the case of the 2007, four are from the Sebastopol Hills and Petaluma Gap, with 1,804 cases made. I find it the closest to the Burgundy style of all Sonoma pinots I've tasted, with a velvety richness very close to wines from the Cote d'Or. If you'd never tasted a pinot noir in your life, this is what it's supposed to taste like. It's a steal at $44.
Morlet Family en Famille 2006 ($110)
If you are looking for the boldness of California-style pinots married to Burgundian finesse, this should make you very happy. Not surprising then, that the Morlet family has been making pinot noir in Burgundy for generations. The family's California scions, Luc and Jodie Morlet, while keeping the alcohol at 14.5 percent, have managed to balance dark, sweet fruit with impeccable acids. Still, $110 is a lot of money for a Sonoma pinot.
Martinelli Vineyards Moonshine Ranch 2007 ($79)
Tuscany-born Giuseppe Martinelli and Luisa Vellutini planted grapes in the Russian River Valley in 1887 and began making wines, mostly zinfandel and muscat Alexandria, a few years later. Grandson Lee Martinelli took over in 1973, first as a grape grower, then, with his wife Carolyn, as a wine producer working with wine maker Helen Turley, known for her big-bodied, plummy wines.
Moonshine Ranch, a mile from the Russian River, uses hand-picked clusters, and the wine is neither stabilized nor filtered, with just 464 cases made. At 14.6 percent alcohol, the wine is nudging into the "hot" zone, with a strong nose and dried fruit flavors that make it a fine choice for spicy foods.
Incidentally, I've learned over the past few years that California pinot noirs tend to blossom after decanting and are often even better the next day.