Message to Sonoma: you’re no longer in your neighbor Napa Valley’s shadow.
You’re not the uncool kid at the dance, the next-to-last picked for the two-hand-touch football game during recess, or the slightly-less-talented and almost-as-comely sister when compared to Napa, at least not on the high-end of the vinous spectrum.
That bit of news flash will come as no surprise whatsoever to those producing and enjoying the best that Sonoma has to offer, many of whom I suspect will email me with encouraging (read: angry) words to let me know just how late I am to that party, but it might make those less familiar with Sonoma’s best wines reconsider their options when next given the opportunity to sample them. And reconsider they should, because Sonoma has probably never produced high-end wines quite as good as those that they’re making now.
That was the main takeaway for me when I attended the 2012 Sonoma Wine Country Weekend festivities as a media guest, a multi-event held across the Labor Day weekend and culminating in an Indian-themed (yeah, I didn’t get it, either) auction (their 20th) that raised over $1.6 million for Sonoma-area non-profits. Auction highlights for me included chatting about wines of character with real character viticulturalist Phil Coturri, talking with screenwriter-turned-proprietor Robert Kamen about penning The Professional (because that flik is just awesome), and drinking a bit too much of Joel Peterson’s gorgeously spicy 1997 Ravenswood Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel blend (spookily, Joel had near-perfect-detail recollection of our first meeting back in 2008…).
But I found my highest highlight (if you will) before the auction event, at the “Club Reserve” area of the 33rd annual Taste of Sonoma event (held at MacMurray Ranch)… because that’s where I got properly schooled in real high-end Sonoma juice…
I had decided to squirm my way into the Club Reserve area (where the more expensive wines were being poured) mostly because I needed a break. I love wine events, particularly when you can cover so much vinous ground as was on display in the big tents where Sonoma producers were pouring their wares to the public at ToS. But it’s difficult to maneuver through the crowds when you’re 5’5”, especially when just to get to those tents, you’ve gained something like six pounds eating your way through the various tables lining the MacMurray Ranch driveway, along which something like 60 local chefs were serving up samples of their culinary prowess.
And so I saw that Sondra and John from the excellent The Girl And The Fig would be serving fresh salads during one of the Grand Reserve events, and with the Grand Reserve price tag being $175 per person I figured it would be a good chance to say hello and to take a breather.
And then school was in session, where I was like the kid in the dream that nearly everyone in the western hemisphere has at some point: heading to a quiz for which I hadn’t prepared, and wearing my footie PJs instead of the school uniform.
I just wasn’t really prepared to be that beguiled by the stuff being poured back there in Club Reserve. Maybe because “Club Reserve” is a name that seems far better-suited to a cruise ship event. More likely, though, that I simply have, as many others who buy high-end wine, underestimated what Sonoma can do. But the proof is in the bottle, and there was a good deal of evidence getting poured that day. Following are my top five picks from a long weekend that included a lot of stiff competition, in terms of stacking a lot of excellent high-end wines against one another…
2010 MacMurray Ranch “Winemaker’s Block” Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley)
Not as earthy as their 2009, but still carrying the “savory notes” flag for this brand (I wonder what emblem would fly on that flag… I’m thinking a picture of sizzling bacon…). Plums, pomegranate, red berries, citrus pith, minerals, all coming from a highly textured wine that is big but isn’t brooding or boorish. The deal-clincher is the finish – it’s long and strong, and really elevates this one into another gear, and it’s a gear that will get geeks and non-geeks both humming into drinking mode.
2010 Buena Vista “Ida’s Selection” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Mountain)
I’m pretty sure this limited-selection Pinot was made by DeLoach’s Brian Maloney, at least that’s what I think proprietor Jean-Charles Boisset told me. It’s tough to recall what JCB tells you, because he’s one of the few people on Earth capable of making me look like I am totally standing still in terms of raw indefatigable energy (Gary Vaynerchuk is one of the others). JCB wouldn’t really let me out of his sight until I tasted this wine, but after trying it, I’m not complaining. I actually told JCB and his team there that they might have underpriced this wine a bit (not something I do often). Dark cherries, a ton of baking spices, topped off with bright red raspberry fruit. There’s a beautiful pithy citrus rind note to this wine, even hints of wet stone, and the whole thing is vibrant and, as I wrote in my notebook, “lovely, lovely, lovely.”
2008 Kamen “Kashmir” Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley)
The rumor goes like this: several years ago, viticulturist Phil Coturri dynamited the land to create what would go on to become the vineyards that supply fruit to Kamen, during which he cranked up Grateful Dead through speakers trained towards town in order to cover up the sound of the demolition (nothing against the Dead, but Iron Maiden and Metallica seem better suited to the task… anyway…). In this price range, you’d expect the wine to be really f*cking good, and you’d be right; graphite, elegant spices, and deep, rich blackcurrant lend refinement to a big, stylish Cab here. The 2008 Kashmir is intensely structured, but it gets “redder” in the fruit department the more that it opens up. Very (!) young right now, it will need time for those redder fruits to dominate and the scaffolding within to soften up and get cozier. In the meantime, queue the Led Zeppelin… Duh-dah-duuuh, Duh-dah-duuuh, Duh-da-duh…
2008 Pride Mountain Vineyards Reserve Claret (71% Sonoma County / 29% Napa County)
Chalk a point up for blenders (both in terms of grapes and source fruit), because this one shows why blending can make for a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts. 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, they might be shy to promote the preponderance of Merlot but that’s about the only shy thing about this release. It’s complex, with spices, balsamic notes, concentrated cassis, and a nice mixture of dried herbs on top. Powerful stuff, but a tangy red fruit core is there underneath all of the darker, riper “bulk” of vanilla, chocolate, blackberry and plum, and I think it suggests a nice long life ahead (rather than something that will collapse under its own concentrated density, like a poorly made soufflé, or a cosmic singularity).
2009 Donum West Slope Pinot Noir (Carneros)
Stunning. Threw me for a loop, too, as it’s probably the best Pinot I’ve yet had out of Carneros, and it certainly evokes a lot more “Sonoma Pinot” than it does “Napa Pinot,” which is a very (very) good thing. It was also the best overall wine I tasted during the entire Sonoma Wine Country Weekend jaunt (and that’s saying something, because I tasted a sh*tload of wine that weekend). It’s a savory Pinot, with some spicy meat, but that meat is being slowly warmed by fruit so bright that it ought to have planets revolving around it. The mouthfeel is a step apart, with structure and bite and pith but also full of juicy cherry and red berry fruit and hints of chalky minerality. It made me want to punch myself upside my head fir nit having paid any real attention to Donum before. Stunning, really, and one to savor; and I mean savor as in hoard it for yourself, rather than opening it when your friends are around, unless your friends happen to include me that day in which case you have my permission to ignore that suggestion…