Reviews & Recognition

Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs Blur the Boundary Lines

New York Times, February 16, 2017

It’s a question that comes up regularly: What is your favorite American region for pinot noir? I find it impossible to answer.

No matter the region, so many variables shape the making of a wine that the characteristics of a particular place can often be overwhelmed by grape-growing and winemaking decisions. Generally, my answer is that I don’t have favorite places, just favorite producers.

This, of course, is the sensible answer regardless of the wine you are discussing. Even in Burgundy, where expressing the intricacies of terroir has been raised to a high art, the human element remains the most important thing.

With centuries of vintages behind them, Burgundians can confidently describe the divergent characteristics of, say, Chambolle-Musigny and Nuits-St.-Georges. Differences in bottles may indeed abound within these appellations, but locals often assess the discrepancies by debating which wine most clearly expresses the spirit of Chambolle or Nuits. Or they can be explained away — a Chambolle-Musigny made from a Nuits-St.-Georges point of view, for example.

The same accumulation of history is not available for Americans, where the modern wine era traces back just a scant few decades. Here, the differences in terroir have not been so rigorously codified and agreed upon. A case in point is the Sonoma Coast of California, a region so unwieldy and with so many perspectives on what it is and what it can be that the appellation is all but useless.

It’s not news that this particular American Viticultural Area, as appellations in the United States are formally known, makes little sense except perhaps to the big wine companies that own vineyards in distant parts of it. The all-encompassing boundaries permit these companies to blend grapes grown 75 miles apart, as the car drives, and claim they are making an estate wine, which they could not do if the grapes came from different appellations. At the least, that violates the spirit of the term “estate.”

The big companies were the ones that pushed through the boundaries of the Sonoma Coast region, which stretches along the coast from the southern border of Mendocino County to the northern border of Marin, and juts inland more than 40 miles to the other side of Highway 101. It overlaps areas that are rightly part of other appellations, like the Russian River Valley, Green Valley and Sonoma Valley. Yet grapes grown in those areas can make Sonoma Coast wines, if the producers choose, with the connotation of its wind-swept, fogbound rugged terrain.

Not surprisingly, producers that are actually in the coastal portion of the region have initiated efforts to subdivide their corner of the appellation into more manageable slices, guided by soil and climate characteristics rather than business and political concerns. One such subappellation, Fort Ross-Seaview, already exists, and more may be coming in the next decade or so.

Despite the frustrating vagaries of the appellation, which make choosing wines difficult for consumers, the true Sonoma Coast shows great promise for pinot noir. A wine panel tasting of 20 Sonoma Coast pinot noirs from recent vintages offered ample evidence of the region’s potential rewards and frustrations.

For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Jason Wagner, wine director of the reborn Union Square Cafe, and Christy Frank, who with her husband, Yanai Frank, has two shops, Frankly Wines in TriBeCa and Copake Wine Works in Copake, N.Y.

The 20 wines in the tasting were bought at retail outlets from selections available to the public. Sorry to say, this eliminated some of the best producers on the coast, which make small lots of wine that are either snapped up immediately or available only by mailing list. This included bottles from Kutch, Failla, Anthill Farms, Hirsch, Cobb, Rivers-Marie and Radio-Coteau.

The wines that were available presented a mixed bag from the region, at a fairly high price despite our usual $100-a-bottle limit. From a retailer’s perspective, Ms. Frank pointed out the difficulties of dealing with the unwieldy region.

“If somebody asks for a Sonoma Coast pinot noir, I’d be hard pressed to hand them a bottle without finding out more,” she said.

For my part, the best wines were bright and precise, with finely delineated aromas and flavors of spicy, earthy red fruits and flowers balanced by brisk freshness and lively acidity. But we also found wines that were muddled, oaky and rustic in an unpleasant way.

These variations were evident partly because of where the grapes were grown. But other variables play into the wines, like the particular sort of pinot noir vines selected by the grape growers, which have different aroma and flavor characteristics that can be particularly meaningful in wines from young vineyards. And the stylistic preferences of the winemakers are crucial.

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Stony and earthy, with impeccably balanced flavors of red fruit and flowers.