A few weeks ago we reviewed the two best newcomers: Reuling Vineyards and Ernest Vineyards. Today we want to review seven excellent wines. This is Pinotfest 2014: the best of the rest. In roughly the order in which we tasted them, they are:
- Wayfarer Vineyards
- Paul Lato Wines
- Bethel Heights
- Failla Wines
- Archery Summit Wines
- Patz & Hall Wines
- Skewis Wines
Wayfarer is the culmination of a 30 year quest by Jayson Pahlmeyer. Those who have been around the industry for a while will be familiar with Pahlmeyer wines of Napa Valley. Jayson Pahlmeyer planted the winery’s first cabernet sauvignon in 1981 using cuttings of Bordeaux varietals smuggled into the U.S. through Canada. The first vintage was 1986. But for 30 years he dreamed of Burgundy. In the early 1990s he nearly closed a deal for vineyards in Burgundy. Luckily for us, the deal fell through at the last minute. But his patience was rewarded about 1997 when the Wayfarer Farm on the Sonoma Coast came on the market. The result is Wayfarer Vineyards and some pretty good pinot noir.
The Wayfarer 2012 Golden Mean ($115) blends fruit from the Fort Ross-Seaview vineyard. The wine opens with aromas black cherries and rose petals. Earth and more black cherries on the palate are balanced with nice acid. A long finish with spice and tannins rounds out a great experience. The specific grapes are Pommard clones 4 and 5 plus Swan.
In addition to Jayson, his daughter Cleo is the verve behind Wayfarer. With a degree in art history and a background in the international art market, Cleo seems out of place in the wine business. But, as she told her father, “When it comes to the future of Pahlmeyer, I am all in!”
The Pahlmeyers are ably assisted by Bibiana González Rave, the consulting winemaker. She’s very good, having done a stint as winemaker for Lynmar Estate. (We are members of the Lynmar wine club. Along with Hartford Family, they are year in and year out the most consistently excellent pinot noir producers that we know.)
Paul Lato featured Paul Lato himself. His 2012 “Happiness” Hilliard-Bruce vineyard (Santa Rita Hills) was very good. Aromas of red raspberry and vanilla are followed by the distinctive “desert” flavors characteristic of the Santa Rita Hills. Tannins and spice finish a very nice experience.
Bethel Heights was our first Oregon winery of the afternoon. They are located northwest of Salem in the Aeolian Hills.
The winery has been around a while, bottling their first commercial vintage in 1984. Bethel Heights was founded in 1977 by five refugees from academia: Ted Casteel, Pat Dudley, Terry Casteel, Marilyn Webb, and Barbara Dudley. Today their production is about 10,000 cases per year, making them quite a success in Oregon. Somehow we missed them on our Oregon road trip a few years ago. And now we regret that.
The next generation is gradually taking over at Bethel Heights. Terry and Marilyn’s son Ben Casteel and his cousin Mimi Casteel are the winemaker and viticulturist/general manager respectively.
The 2012 Aeolian (green label, $42) opens with aromas that knock your socks off. Typical of Oregon pinot noirs, this is lighter, with distinct acid. By contrast, the 2012 Casteel (red label, $60) features very light aromas followed by intense flavors of spice and earth.
We first encountered Failla at Pinot on the River in 2011 (“Feeding Frenzy at Failla” was our alliterative headline). So we thought we’d try them again. And we were not sorry.
Failla’s 2012 Sonoma Coast is a fruit bomb that explodes on palate with black cherries, brambleberries, leather and a long finish. By contrast, the 2012 Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast is more complex and less explosive. The wine opens with spices, merging into tannins with notes of brambleberries.
Failla has an interesting history. Co-founders Ehren Jordan and Anne-Marie Failla followed very different paths only to end up in the same place. Ehren, the winemaking genius, got his degree in art history from George Washington University. His introduction to wine was a part-time job as a stock boy at Bell’s Wine Shop in Washington, D.C. At the tender age of 21 he ended up in Aspen, spending his days skiing and nights bussing tables. By the end of the season he was thee sommelier/manager of the restaurant. Obviously there was talent. He burnished his credentials working for Jean-Luc Columbo in the Rhône Valley. On returning to Napa in 1994 he worked as winemaking partner at Neyers Vineyards. In 1996 he proposed to Anne-Marie. The two were married in 1997.
[pullquote]Prior to construction, a pride of mountain lions appeared to have taken a wrong turn coming out of hibernation. The first beast laid siege to the residence, crashing through a window in pursuit of a cat and making short work of it…inside! Within a week a trio of adolescents was on the front doorstep and they weren’t looking for sugar. Let’s just say we now have the emergency after-hours phone number for the Department of Fish and Game tattooed to our eyelids.[/pullquote]
In 2006 Failla was building their tasting room in the hills next to the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley. This anecdote is unforgettable →
Anne-Marie Failla is the CFO and someone dear to my heart: she has a degree in economics from the University of Virginia. After numerous stints in investment banking, venture capital, and entrepreneur at an internet ” start-up cum flame-out in San Francisco” she had learned the ins and outs of both spreadsheets and unrealistic forecasts. After moving to Napa she worked in William Hill’s cellar, followed by marketing jobs at Beringer and Chappellet. In the early years of Failla she pruned vines, picked grapes and learned to wield a mean weed-whacker.
Today they are looking forward to help from their two daughters, Audrey and Vivien.
We did visit Archery Summit on our Oregon road trip. So we dropped by their table. We especially liked their 2012 Red Hills Estate ($85) with its earthy aromas and palate and a long finish of spice and tannins. But it’s sure no bargain.
[pullquote]I firmly believe that the best wines in Oregon are made from the Dundee Hills and Ribbon Ridge AVAs. At Archery Summit we have all the ingredients to build upon the winery’s past successes.[/pullquote]
Archery Summit does not have the long history of Bethel Heights, but they’re also no newcomer. Founded by Gary Andrus in 1993, the winery assembled a portfolio of six vineyards. Five are in the justifiably famous Dundee Hills ava, with the sixth on Ribbon Ridge. Gary was assisted by vineyard manager Tim Scott.
Archery Summit is into a new generation of management, with Chris Mazepink holding the titles winemaker and general manager. Here’s what Chris has to say →
Patz & Hall
We’ve run into Patz & Hall several times before and always been favorably impressed. At Pinotfest they were pouring five pinots. We both thought the 2012 Gaps Crown was the best of a pretty good lot, with the Hyde Vineyard in second place. We split on third place. I voted for the Jenkins Ranch, while Norma went with the Sonoma Coast blend. So, in the order of our preferences:
The 2012 Gaps Crown vineyard ($70, sold out on the website) seduces you with aromas of cranberry and dark fruit with a hint of earth and spice. The wine explodes on the palate featuring strawberries, cherries, and red raspberries, followed by a hint of vanilla. Tannins and spice round out an excellent finish.
The Gaps Crown vineyard is actually in eastern Sonoma county, near the Napa county line. The altitude combined with wind currents keep the grapes cool. A classic California microclimate vineyard.
Hyde Vineyard is at the far south end of Sonoma county near the intersection of Sonoma, Napa, and Marin counties. Although technically located in Sonoma county, the vineyard is in fact part of Napa’s Carneros ava. The 2012 Hyde Vineyard ($70) is lighter than the Gaps Crown, with aromas of Bing cherries, cranberries, and oranges. On the palate there are red raspberries and more Bing cherries. The balance is tilted toward acid, with a finish of silky tannins.
The Sonoma Coast blend ($46) is on the big side. Aromas of lush strawberries and red raspberries with notes of mint and earth. Flavors of black cherries and spice lead to another long finish with a good balance of tannins and spice.
Jenkins Ranch is a vineyard we have encountered on many occasions. The vineyard is located in central Sonoma county but still gets enough cooling breezes. Patz & Hall’s 2012 Jenkins Ranch opens with aromas of red raspberries and rose petals. The palate is juicy and spicy with residual tannins. You can probably age this one a few years to good effect. (This wine is sold out on the website and no price is listed. The 2011 vintage is $55.)
We were not as fond of the 2012 Chenoweth Ranch ($60), despite the vineyard’s location north and west of Jenkins Ranch. We found this wine too light with very little pinot noir character.
Like so many wineries, Patz & Hall begins as the story of four friends: Donald Patz, James Hall, Anne Moses and Heather Patz. In 1988 these four decided to focus on pinot noir and chardonnay. Lucky for all of us. Here’s a quick biographical sketch of each.
Anne Moses met James Hall while the two were students at U.C. Santa Cruz. Anne interrupted her progress toward a degree in biology to take enology and viticulture classes at U.C. Davis. She returned to Santa Cruz to finish her degree. She worked for various wineries in a number of capacities, including stints at Far Niente and Spring Mountain.
Heather Patz runs customer relations, including the Salon Society wine club. She helped design and open the Tasting Salon with its seated, private tastings. However, she began in the business end of the winery, including accounting.
James Hall is the founding winemaker of Patz & Hall. Unlike Anne, when he went to U.C. Davis he transferred to finish his degree there. His first job was at Felton-Empire. But at Flora Springs he met Donald Patz, then the sales manager.
And Donald Patz (Heather’s husband, you could have figured that out) is still the national sales manager. One measure of his success is his 2012 election to the Wine Institute board of directors in 2012.
A quick search revealed that we have actually tasted Skewis pinots before. But this time we had extra motivation. Siduri’s Adam Lee recommended a particular Skewis pinot. We’re not stupid. We headed to the table next door to give Skewis a try.
And we were not disappointed. The 2012 Salzgeber-Chan Vineyard Russian River Valley Westside Road ($50) opened with very nice aromas of black cherries, spice, and earth. On the palate we found gooseberries and some minerality. The finish features a marvelous mixture of tannins and spice.
[pullquote]We believe that the finest Pinot Noir can only be made from low yielding vines located in premium growing regions. We work with growers who share this belief and rigorously limit yields by means of winter pruning, spring shoot thinning, and summer cluster thinning prior to “veraison.” As a result, the average crops in the vineyards we contract with are between two and two and one-half tons per acre.[/pullquote]
Hank and Maggie Skewis founded Skewis Wines with the intention of producing high quality, vineyard designated pinot noirs from California’s north coast. In 1994, they bought their first grapes from the Floodgate Vineyard in Anderson Valley. Since then they have sourced fruit from the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations. Annual production is all of 900 cases, placing Skewis squarely in the “determined to remain boutique” category. Here’s their philosophy →
The trade tasting at Pinotfest 2014 was a great, great experience. The wineries brought their best. Thanks to them as well as Farallon Restaurant and Peter Palmer for continuing to put on such a terrific event.