Sonoma wines and a great beer


Montafi Ranch Vineyard

Our friends were coming into town and wanted to taste some of Sonoma County’s finest.  After a brief glimpse at my wine notes, Carlisle Winery popped out.  Over the past few years, they have placed wines, both zinfandel, on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, including the Carlisle Zinfandel Russian River Valley Montafi Ranch 2014 96pt/$47, #14 on the 2016 list.  I contacted Sarah Weese at the winery and arranged a tasting of their new releases in the barrel room.

Ironically, a few days before our tasting, my friend, John, shared a bottle of 2014 Carlisle Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley ($37)that blends 11% petite sirah with zinfandel from two vineyards in this northern Sonoma County appellation.  The dark fruit and concentrated flavors that I had read about were there and the presence of petite sirah was clear on the finish.  Now, I was excited to learn more.

Carlisle Vineyard

We also planned to make our traditional stop at Merry Edwards Winery near Sebastopol to taste their new sauvignon blanc and pinot noir releases.  Owner/winemaker Merry Edwards is a true icon in the world wine industry.  Her Hall of Fame credentials are impeccable and, after a storied career, she has settled into the Russian River Valley to produce high quality wines from her estate and other prominent vineyards.

Our last stop at the Russian River Brewing Company in downtown Santa Rosa was the pleasant surprise of the day.

To quote someone else, it was “a long and winding road” to the remote Carlisle Winery production facility, north in the town of Windsor.  No fancy tasting facility, just a small barrel room and production patio where a few staff, led by owner/winemaker Mike Officer, concentrate on creating fine wines with fruit from prominent Sonoma vineyards.

Entrenched in a software development career, Mike Officer’e true passion since college was winemaking.  What began as a hobby, Mike, along with his wife, Kendall, were soon producing 300 cases in their garage,  This evolved into the establishment of Carlisle Winery and Vineyards, where they could focus their attention on small lot releases of old-vine zinfandel and Rhone varietals like syrah and petite sirah.  Today, after adding winemaker Jay Maddox to the team, Carlisle produces 9,000 cases annually, twenty different wines which are nearly all distributed to loyal members of their mailing list.

We joined Weese in the barrel room and began our tasting with Grüner Veltliner, a white Austrian varietal. With only 159 cases, the 2015 Carlisle Sonoma Mountain

Carlisle “Steiner Vineyard” Gruner Veltliner

“Steiner Vineyard” Grüner Veltliner ($30) comes from the only such vines in the county. It is pressed whole cluster and fermented in stainless steel tanks. There is no oak or malolactic fermentation, just natural flavors.

With a medium-bodied mouthfeel, the nice aromas and flavors of grapefruit and lime evolve into honeydew melon on the finish. It is rare to find Grüner Veltliner in California and one this good belongs in my cellar.

2015 Carlisle “Mancini Ranch Vineyard” Zinfandel

Next up was a comparison of two current old-vine zinfandel releases from prominent vineyards, one in the Russian River Valley and the other in the eastern Sonoma Valley appellation.  My friends preferred the 2015 Carlisle Russian River Valley “Mancini Ranch” Zinfandel ($47) which adds 15% of mixed varietals including Carignane, Abouriou, Valdiguié, Alicante Bouschet, Grand Noir, Petite Sirah.  Favoring red fruit flavors of cherry and raspberry, this wine is more austere, a wonderful food zinfandel.

I was partial to the 2014 Carlisle Sonoma Valley “Bedrock Vineyard” Zinfandel ($47) for its richness and intensity. Tucked away in the southeast region, this old-vine vineyard is wonderfully farmed and soaks up as much heat as any in Sonoma County. Adding bits of old-vine mourvedre, petite sirah and alicante bouschet, this release is well-structured with deep flavors of dark fruit, licorice and a hint of chocolate.

2015 Carlisle Palisades Vineyard Petite Sirah

From two lots in a Napa Valley vineyard, the 2015 Carlisle Napa Valley “Palisades Vineyard” Petite Sirah ($50) lives up to its reputation for delivering great flavors, vintage to vintage. The opposite of whole-clustered, the grapes are de-stemmed and crushed, but continue to lie with the skins for a few months to soften the tannins and enhance the deep purple color

Still young for a petite sirah, we decanted the wine which softened the tannins and exposed the balanced dark berry flavors and rich mouthfeel.

I am always curious of good syrah releases, those of complete balance when the fruit, spice and herbal flavors act as one. I found a good one in the 2015 Carlisle Russian River Valley “Papa’s Block Syrah ($44).  The grapes were fully ripened at harvest and about thirty percent were crushed whole-cluster to enhance the herbal flavors while fermenting in new French oak barrels, adding to the complexity of the dark berry flavors. Expect refined intensity and decanter if you plan to drink within the next year.

The group left with six bottles and all willingly joined the mailing list.  If you are seeking obscure, small lot wines whose reputation is on the rise, the list is your only option to hopefully secure future Carlisle releases.

Although she produces, vintage to vintage, fine single-vineyard pinot noir and chardonnay, everyone knows about Merry Edwards highly acclaimed Russian River Valley sauvignon blanc.  The nearly sold out 2015 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc 93pt/$32 placed #17 on Wine Spectator’s list of 2016 top 100 wines.  It is expected to be included each year.

2015 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley

On the nose, this wine has intense floral hints of jasmine and honeysuckle along with tropical fruit and crème brûlée.  The flavors result from the addition of sauvignon musque and six-months aging, sur lee, in French oak.  This softens the tart grapefruit and tangerine flavors with a rich, creamy texture.

We completed the tasting by comparing three new pinot noir releases, two very different single-vineyards and the last representing eight vineyards within the cool, higher elevated and marine influenced Sonoma Coast appellation

The 2014 Merry Edwards “Meredith Estate” Vineyard Pinot Noir ($63) is from the flagship estate vineyard, planted eighteen years ago. This full-bodied wine

2014 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Meredith Estate Vineyard

expresses ripened fruit through the nose and rich, concentrated red berry flavors with hints of vanilla and cinnamon on the finish

The Georganne Vineyard is the most northerly and warmest in the Russian River Valley, producing the 2015 Merry Edwards “Georgeanne Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($63), a very accessible, fruit-forward wine with signs of spice and coffee on a long finish.

I am drawn to the consistent quality of many pinot noir releases from the designated Sonoma coast appellation. To this point, the 2014 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($45) is moderately priced, but like previous vintages, offers approachable complex fruit and spice flavors.  This new release has a healthy

2014 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

acidity, concluding with a wonderful layer of cherry and caramel.  Whatever you prefer, Merry Edwards delivers tremendous quality from all her wines.

On the drive home, our friends asked if we had heard of the Russian River Brewing Company.

“Of course,” I said, “It’s located on 4th Street, but there is always a line around the block.”  It seems that this brewing company is known worldwide for their limited production of two beers: Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger.  Our guests son, knowing that they would be in the area, had requested some. We have also stopped by several times when my son is in town but were always met with extensive lines.

Pliny the Elder

Today, on a Monday afternoon, there were no lines.  We parked and went in. Pliny The Elder, the rare American Double/Imperial IPA was available by case or bottle.  We scored some and soon will be cool parents again

The group celebrated a wonderfully productive day with a glass of this unique Russian River release, one with a foamy head and complex pale ale flavors.





















About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner. View all posts by Lyle W. Norton

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