Burt Williams might speak softly and have a relatively unassuming appearance, but when it comes to age-worthy, elegant Pinot Noir he is one hundred percent deadly Jedi Knight.
That much was clear during the recent West Of West festival in Occidental, CA (I attended as a media guest), where Littorai’s Ted Lemon interviewed Williams to kick things off. It was tough for me to pay attention, because a) there were Sonoma Coast Pinots sitting in front of me ranging from `96 to `01, and I was ready to geek out, and b) I found the entire event confusing, because I’m an anal Right Coast guy who requires exposition and purpose stated clearly up-front, and the WoW Fest proceedings launched without much detail on either.
Fortunately, possessing a formal plan is not a prerequisite for making great wine. In fact, to hear Williams tell it, very little about Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir was planned in the early days when he first starting making Williams Selyem wine in his ‘spare’ time. “We got a call from an ATFA agent,” he mentioned, “who basically told us that we should get bonded before we got arrested; so, we got bonded.”
Williams also told us that “if the wine is balanced… if you pick the fruit before it’s really ripe… I know Sonoma Coast [Pinot Noir] can age!” Proof is in the vinous pudding: the 1996 Williams Selyem Riverblock Pinot Noir (about $100 if you can find it, and an ‘A’ rated wine if I’ve ever had one) is delicate, earthy and svelte, with cherries, plums, spices and hints of game meat. The finish could accurately be described as gorgeous; it’s a wine that doesn’t smack you over the head, but seduces you.
And it’s in drinking wines like that 1996 Pinot – wines which seem to be made at a more-than-expected frequency in the West Sonoma Coast area – that you say to yourself (if you’re me, anyway): “F*ck Napa Valley Pinot – this is where it’s AT!”…
The idea of the West Sonoma Coast is a bit of a rebellion against the large, amorphous and probably useless Sonoma Coast AVA, which spans over 500,000 acres and so many micro-climates that any consumer can pretty much treat seeing it on the label as a bit of a crap shoot in terms of what you’re getting when it comes to Pinot Noir (come to think of it, it sounds like Burgundy…) – it includes Dry Creek, Russian River Valley, and Carneros, for example.
The ‘true’ Western part of Sonoma Coast, according to the vintners who took part in WoW Fest, stretches over a much smaller area from the Northern Sonoma AVA and Russian River AVA borders to the Pacific. Five areas within the Western Sonoma Coast are under study, but only one (Green Valley) is an AVA with one other (Fort Ross-Seaview) being proposed as a future AVA. Generally, no one at Wow Fest seemed all that interested in seeking a Western Sonoma Coast AVA, though that didn’t keep them from getting into details about the sub-regions under study (from North-West to South-East: Annapolis, Freestone, Occidental, Sebastopol Hills, Fort Ross and Green Valley), waxing about the terroirs of each, and comparing the whole thing to the Cote d’Or in France.
Color me confused on the intent, but not on the result: some stellar wines are being made there by some very, very talented people. As in, tear-inducing, soul-achingly good wines in some cases.
Generally, they’re onto something near the coast when it comes to Pinot Noir, a grape that likes things chilly but not too chilly. Some parts of WSC are actually cooler (in Degree Days) than Beaune. “The ocean is our refrigerator,” Andy Peay told us during a run-through of the WSC sub-regions and its wines, “thanks to the wind and Petaluma Gap pulling in the fog and the ocean’s cooling influences.” There’s quite a bit of soil diversity there as well, thanks mostly to ancient (and probably brutally violent) action by the San Andreas Fault and Sonoma mountain volcanoes.
But I’m not sure I’m bought entirely into the WSC-as-de-facto-spiritual-Pinot-home quite yet – and neither are some of the area’s producers, from what I could discern during Wow Fest. It’s not that they doubt the potential, it’s just that they see much of that potential as still being untapped. As Ted Lemon mentioned “we’re still on a learning curve here.”
That sentiment was echoed by Hirsch Vineyards‘s irrepressible David Hirsch when he jokingly admonished SF Chron’s Jon Bonne (who was in attendance, and had recently took a public crack at Russian River Valley Pinot): “I know the media needs stories – sorry Jon! – but we have to be careful about making too many pronouncements.” Best we give Sonoma Coast more time, I think, to sort out the tastiest wheat from the Pinot chaff.
By the way, Jon – along with Rajat Parr and Ehren Jordan of Failla – led us through a blind tasting exercise with Pinots from RRV, WSC, and Willamette Valley (in OR), of which I got about 1/3 correct, which is a terrible performance (or actually a fantastic one, if you’re looking at it from a batting average standpoint…).
Anyway… WSC producers might actually be at a crossroads of sorts, but many of the wines I tasted show the roads ahead to be fairly smooth. A grand tasting of WSC producers was held after the event, and between that and the seminar tastings (and producer visits I managed to squeeze in afterward) here are the three wines that just about knocked my tube socks off:
2009 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast)
Makes a strong case for a Fort Ross AVA. Vibrant red berries all over your face, spices, a touch of herbs and all complimented by some earthiness, a little savory quality on the (rather long) finish, and just a hint of leather and smoke. This wine has a ways to go, but the horse has legs (courtesy of all that acidic lift) and isn’t at all horsey, if you get my drift. Just friggin’ awesome.
2010 Littorai Hirsh Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast)
Tasted from barrel sample at the winery. Littorai might not yet fully understand how good this wine really is. It won’t need a whole lot more time in barrel to achieve its full fantastic-ness. The red berries on this wine have a great purity about them, which along with the oak spices balance out the structure which is not insubstantial. Most impressive for me was in how this wine “presented” itself, as almost fully-formed and totally comfortable in its coolish-climate skin. Gorgeous.
2009 Cobb Joy Road Vineyard Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast)
And you thought I’d forgotten all about Sonoma Coast Chardonnay with all that Pinot talk, didn’t you? Shame on you. Ross Cobb has worked for just about everybody in WSC, or a least that the way it seems when you talk with him and the vintners and grapegrowers in the area. So it shouldn’t be surprising that his wines have a high degree of Kick-Ass potential, though they are pricey and very difficult to attain. But… I had to include this, because you should be on the lookout for Cobb wines if they’re not already on your wine geek radar. Svelte but also built a little fleshy in all the right places, this Chard is a bit of an enigma in all of its contrasts, but that just means that those who like ‘em big and those who like ‘em lean might both find something to love here. Citric lift and coconut playing nice together? Sign me up.