Last week Tom Stutz, La Rochelle winemaker, and I ventured up north to Sonoma County to find out for ourselves how the season was progressing.

Our first stop was the furthest north and the newest: Saralee’s Vineyard, home of our sole Pinot Meunier fruit. The Pinot Meunier project started out as a way for us to add something a little different to our lineup of Reserve Room wines, and we have been very pleasantly surprised to see how well the wines have also done in restaurants and with the press. Our first two vintages came from the Four Sisters Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast appellation. In 2011, the fruit was no longer available so we were able to source from Saralee’s, a gorgeous Russian River Valley (RRV) appellated vineyard. As you can see from the photo to the left, veraison has begun in this block. The grapes start to darken and soften…6-8 weeks after the start of veraison, the fruit should be ready to harvest.

The next leg of the trip took us to the Green Valley sub-appellation of RRV and

Freestone Hill Vyd.

the Dutton-Morelli Lane Vineyard from which we get a couple of tons of amazing Chardonnay. Entering this vineyard, situated 765 feet above sea level, and which has a house on the northern end, is like going to a speakeasy. You have to go through an old barn outbuilding jammed full of weathered picking boxes, bolting doors back in place as you go. We  emerged from this dark warren into the absolute perfect sunlight of a July vineyard day. The Hyde Selection of an old Wente clone of Chardonnay had not begun to get that waxy opacity that signals the start of the ripening race. It shouldn’t be long though.

Dutton-Morelli Chardonnay

A few miles from Morelli Lane is the Freestone Hill Vineyard, one of our Grand Cru Collection Pinot Noir sites. We get Dijon 115 Pinot from a 1.5 acre block at the toe of the hill where this vineyard is planted. Tom likes this location as it is the warmest part of a cold-weather site. Yields here looked to be relatively significantly greater than last year.

El Coro – La Cruz Vyd.

After a quick lunch at my favorite place in Sonoma County – The Underwood Bar & Bistro – it was on to the Sonoma Coast appellation, Petaluma, the La Cruz Vineyard. This site is the estate vineyard of Keller Estate Winery and has been a fruit source for us since the 2007 vintage. We had gotten a number of different clones in the past but are now getting only Dijon 828. This site is spectacularly situated above the Petaluma River on the east side. Planted on very light, well-draining soil, the Pinot from here has been wonderful. This block of the vineyard, owned by the Keller family who made their fortune supplying the interior material for Ford cars in Mexico, is called the El Coro block; it is named for this statuary chorus pictured to the right.

Pinot at Donum Estate

Our final stop was in Carneros at the southern tip of Sonoma at Donum Estate Vineyard. Another Grand Cru Collection site, this 200-acre vineyard is managed by Anne Moller-Racke, President of the Donum Estate brand. We are the only other winery to whom she sells fruit. Originally part of the Buena Vista plantings, we have been getting fruit from this glorious vineyard since 2009. Our first offering from the site is now available to purchase on-line.

Overall, the season is progressing beautifully (knock on wood). The weather has been moderate with very few heat spikes, the yields look to be about average to slightly above average (and significantly bigger than last year), and all of our vineyard partners are, again, showing their passion and skill for grape growing.

We’ll give an update when we get back to the sites in about a month.

Things that are appealing just because they’re different rarely last.

The simple pleasure of unoaked Chardonnay is obvious if one has had his fill of the richer, woodier, malo-y versions.

In the case of the ole Chardonnay switcheroo, though, choosing stainless steel is like turning your cell phone off while you’re on a date with your wife: you’ll be thinking only about the last tweet you missed, the date will end, and your twitchy fingers will be grasping for the on-button faster than you can say uncle.

There is a middle path, however. Chardonnay is one of the most noble grape varieties because when it is done exquisitely well, there are few wines that can match its elegance, richness, and sense of vivacity. In an earlier post, I wrote about wines that show balance and life by the momentum with which they move through the mouth; great Chardonnay has this “alive” quality, with richness, too, to make it even more compelling.

The La Rochelle 2010 Chardonnay – Dutton-Morelli Lane is absolutely one of these wines. Grown in the Green Valley of Russian River Valley appellation, this Hyde selection (of an old Wente clone) Chardonnay is farmed by the renowned Dutton family. We only got 2 tons each of the first two years and made just over 100 cases of wine. I wrote in my original tasting notes:

In the nose, this Chardonnay has a staid elegance to it that is driven by the aromas of pear, peach, and subtle orange marmalade. The wine was sur lie aged for an extended period of time, and the notes of brioche and fresh bread are in great balance. This offering was aged in 100% French oak barrels, 40% of which were new (Billon, Rousseau) for about 18 months.  
In the mouth, this wine shows a wonderful tension between fruit and acidity. On entry there is a magical liveliness to this wine; its momentum through the mouth is compelling, lean but not austere. The purity of fruit, mineral-laden mid-palate, and gorgeous acid contribute to one of the finest Chardonnays we’ve yet made.  

Quest: Pinot Meunier

April 22, 2012

La Rochelle has released two vintages of Pinot Meunier from the Four Sisters Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast appellation, and each has been very well received. In 2011 a communication gap, the size of the Grand Canyon, prevented us from getting fruit from this site…both in 2011 and forever after.

We have been searching for a site since then and may have found one in Saralee’s Vineyard in the Russian River Valley.

Pinot Meunier is a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir, named for the fine white hairs that look like flour growing on the underside of the vine’s leaf (Meunier means Miller in French). The wine is Pinot Noir’s rustic country cousin…Mary Ann to Pinot Noir’s Ginger. It is overladen with wonderful plummy fruit, great aromatics, and is a wonderful accompaniment to all kinds of food.

There were just over 300 tons of Meunier produced in California in 2011…the vast majority used for Sparkling wine. Meunier is one of the classic Champagne varieties. That leaves a very small number of tons that are used to make red, still wine from. Hence the difficulty in finding available fruit.

Saralee’s Vineyard is a gorgeous site right on River Road in the heart of the Russian River Valley appellation. In fact, if you look at a map of the appellation, it is nearly dead center. The 260-acre vineyard was planted in 1989 to over 60 different varieties. Now, the count is down to 17 different grapes, Pinot Meunier comprising just over 3 acres.

There a number of issues to overcome, but our love for the grape is intense so we will keep working on it. Hopefully in the next 18 months we will be talking about how well the wine from the site is coming along.