Author Archives: Lyle W. Norton

About Lyle W. Norton

Free-lance writer specializing if wine, food, travel and jazz reviews.

Lesser Known Wines from Pouilly Fume

vineyards in Pouilly Fume

While cruising the Canal Lateral de Loire, we moored the boat near Sancerre and planned to do some wine tasting.  Wines from the Sancerre region and nearby Rue Pouilly Fuisse are exquisite and easily recognizable in the California marketplace. However, today we decided to travel east of the Loire River to explore some lesser known white wines from Pouilly Fume’.

The Pouilly Fume’ appellation has only 1,300 hectares under vine compared to 3,000 in Sancerre.  The region is small but has produced dry-farmed wines for four centuries.  The only grape planted in Pouilly Fume is Sauvignon Blanc, but the distinction in the wines comes from the terroir, more specifically the soil types:  limestone, marl, a lime rich blend of clay and silt, sand and flint.

Neighboring Pouilly sur Loire, a sub-region of Pouilly Fume’ produces its wines exclusively from the chasselas grape, named after a commune in the Saone et Loire region of Burgundy. A little known varietal with a global presence, chasselas vines grow in Portugal, Switzerland, New Zealand, Chile and other countries. Wherever it is grown, dry, full fruity wines are found.

Distressed vines with signs of esca

Exploring the Pouilly Fume and Pouilly sur Loire vineyards, we found that the soils types could change within a few meters.  Although the region is 270 feet above sea level, there was clear evidence of sea fossils in the stones. 

The autumn changes were visible and some vines looked more stressed than others.  We discovered that this was due to the esca disease, which affects the trunks of the vines, requiring the replacement of nearly ten percent of stock each year.

Recent mechanical harvest missed some grapes at the end of the rows which we plucked from the vine and sampled.  Tasted side by side, the differences and similarities between the Sauvignon Blanc and chasselas were as evident as they are in the glass. Distinctively, Sauvignon Blanc offers more tropical while the chasselas more stone fruit on the palate.

Eventually, we landed in the tiny community of Les Loges, population 78, where ten families have produced wines for generations.  It was there that we met one such heir, winemaker Clement Marchand, owner/winemaker of Domaine Marchand & Fils, whose family has been in the community since 1650.  Today, he makes his wines in the same cellar created by his grandfather, a damp stone chamber filled with stainless steel and fiberglass tanks where the juice of his recently harvested

Winemaker Clement Marchand

grapes were in a slight fermentation boil.  Later, the wines are aged for months in oak barrels.  

Marchand grows high environmental grapes, a method known in this county as biodynamic farming.  While explaining that balance is critical in his wines, he added that it’s all about the soil where limestone can add hints of citrus, flint a mineral element and stone fruit from the marl.

Marchand produces about 25,000 bottles per vintage, divided among his four releases, all of which we tasted.

The Pouilly sur Loire 2017, made to taste young, had clear hints of almond on the nose and a crisp, healthy acidity that would pair well with shellfish.

The Sauvignon Blanc in the Pouilly Fume’ 2017 (Les Kerots) was also fresh and crisp, but with more stone fruit flavors and a lingering finish.  This wine would enhance any seafood dish.

The Pouilly Fume’ 2016, from the local marl-based fossil soil named kimmeridgian, had much rounder texture and a more creamy mouthfeel than the first two, delivering nice stone fruit  flavors.  The “Kimmeridgian” was Marchand’s highest priced release at approximately $30.

Our last wine, the Pouilly Fume’ Prestige 2016 was complex, but not too heavy with nice texture and soft, tropical flavors that  lingered on the tongue.

I believe that environmental elements can effect the way the wines are perceived.  There I was, standing in an ancient

Marchand & Fils Winery in Pouilly Fume

cellar, tasting wines that date back centuries in an authentic, small and secluded French enclave, east of the Loire River.  Of course, they were all tasting great.

Marchand explained that it is hard for his wines to make it to US markets, dealing with limited production and competition of established wines like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from our soils.  Feeling fortunate to have discovered this region and acknowledging that we may not see them anytime soon, my travel mates and I purchased some bottles for the boat.  Pouilly Fume’ is a hidden gem worth exploring.

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Somm 3 Celebrates California Wine’s Epic Story

The first documentary film, “Somm” chronicled the arduous regime of four young sommeliers, struggling to prepare to take the Master Sommelier exam.  “Somm 2” tells the story behind producing a bottle of wine, examining the challenges of each vintage through harvesting of the grapes to proper aging as it evolves.

Director Jason Wise’s latest release, “Somm 3,” that recently had its San Francisco premiere at the Clay Theater on Fillmore, chronicles the ongoing comparisons between old and new world wines that began on a May afternoon in 1976 with a blind tasting now commonly known as the Judgement of Paris.

The film begins its homage to history by bringing together three icons of the modern wine story to do some tastings of their own.  Wine critic and prolific author Jancis Robinson, master sommelier Fred Dame and Steve Spurrier, one of the organizers of the 1976 Paris Tasting, come together in the Clos du Val barrel room to share their favorite releases and memories of the past fifty years.

Jancis Robinson, Fred Dame and Steve Spurrier

Owner of the Caves de la Madeleine wine shop in Paris, Spurrier was immersed in the French wine scene and, after months of persuading skeptics to participate, he organized a blind tasting where the top French wine experts compared the best wines from their country with some new generation California wines.  The wines of the competition were as follows:

Chardonnay California: Chateau Montelena 1973, Chalone Vineyard 1974, Spring Mountain 1973, Freemark Abbey 1972, David Bruce 1973, Veedercrest 1973.

French Chardonnay:  Meursault Charmes 1973, Beaunne Clos des Mouches 1973, Batard-Montrachet 1973, Puligny-Montrachet

California Cabernet Sauvignon:  Stags Leap Cellars 1973, Ridge Monte Bello 1971, Mayacamas 1971, Clos Du Val 1972 (1st vintage)

1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1970, Freemark Abbey 1969

French Cabernet Sauvignon:  Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1970, Chateau Haut-Brion 1970, Chateau Montrose 1970, Chateau Leoville-Las Cases 1971, 

The wine world was shocked when Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena 1973, from winemaker Mike Grgich, was named the top chardonnay with releases from Chalone and Spring Mountain placing third and fourth.

I have recently tasted impressive village and premier cru chardonnay from Meursault Charmes and Puligny-Montrachet in Burgundy, wines that command hundreds of dollars per bottle.  In 1976, the showing of our reasonably priced California releases in Paris turned the wine world upside down.

Also, on that day, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 scored slightly higher that the iconic Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Haut-Brion which brought instant credibility and California wines exploded onto the world market.

On May 24, 2006, exactly thirty years after the Judgment in Paris, a reprise tasting of the original ten red wines was held in California

Judging at the 1976 Paris Tasting

with both local and French experts.  After thirty years in the cellar, not only did Paul Draper’s Ridge Monte Bello Vineyard 1971 prevail, but the top five were all from California.

The prestigious Monte Bello Vineyard lies in the northern Santa Cruz Mountains above Silicon Valley and produces a sensational wine each vintage.  The latest Ridge Monte Bello 2015 ($215), a blend of cabernet sauvignon (77%), merlot (11%), petit verdot (7%)and cabernet Franc (5%) boast several ratings in the high nineties.

“Somm3” also provides the platform for today’s wine experts to gather for a new Judgement tasting.  Master Sommelier Dustin Wilson, owner of Verve wines in New York and San Francisco assembled an esteemed panel to compare old world Burgundy wines with pinot noir from California and other regions throughout the world. Without giving the results away, California wines were competitive.  

I have recently visited and tasted red wines (pinot noir) from Saint Romain, Meursault and Volnay in Burgundy. I also live in Sonoma County, near the Russian River Valley and am familiar with wines from the top appellations in California and Oregon.  In a blind tasting, with no disrespect to the superb French wines, it would be difficult for my palate to stray far from home.

Dustin Wilson’s new Judgement tasting in New York

As someone who appreciates the mystique of wine, the Somm trilogy is, in many ways, an education series, designed to introduce the viewer to the complexities of the industry, from farming through mouthfeel. It reinforces the perspective of wine as an art form with each vintage beginning as a blank canvas.  


The Smith Brothers are still making wine on Spring Mountain

 

On the westside of the Napa Valley, high above St. Helena is  where the vineyards of the remote Spring Mountain appellation are located.  The Smith Brothers, Stuart and Charles, have been pioneers in the hillside appellation since the early seventies when they cleared the land and re-established vineyards that had been abandoned since the turn of the century.

Records show that ownership of the Smith-Madrone property was first granted to George Cook in 1885. During the 1890s, the

Stuart and Charles Smith

aphid phylloxera infected and destroyed the vineyards on Spring Mountain and, in 1905, they were abandoned and remained fallow for sixty-five years.

Strangely, Stuart Smith discovered his passion for wine while completing undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley in the 1960s.  He soon completed a Master’s Degree at UC Davis and began the search for a place to pursue his craft.

Stuart has been called a leading voice for hillside vineyards, an accolade he downplays.  He claims that he was always looking for a higher altitude hillside site because he felt it produced the best grapes.  When the opportunity arose for Stuart and Charles to purchase old George Cook’s 200 acre property with overgrown vineyards, they jumped at it.

They were aware that there could be protests as they de-forested parts of the mountain to form the best vineyard sites.  While inspecting each vineyard location from his all-terrain vehicle, I found Stuart to be someone who cares deeply about the madrone forest and the soil, while using eco-friendly farming practices in his vineyards.

Charles Smith serves as the winemaker and storyteller at the winery.  I caught up with him as he was leading a small group of out-of-state tourists through their story and palate of wines.

The Smith Brothers like to keep it simple and consistent.  They produce about 3,000 cases per vintage of the same four wines,

Smith-Madrone Chardonnay

focused on creating the best in each from what Mother Nature gives them.

The tasting began with a dry-farmed estate release, the 2015 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay ($34) that concurrently expressed complexity and accessibility.  Barrel-fermented for ten months in 80% new French oak, the flavors were layered and balanced, not overly crisp or creamy.

Riesling production is no longer associated with the Napa Valley, but there is a history.  Over the years, chardonnay has nearly dominated it out of existence.  However, the 2015 Smith-Madrone Estate Riesling ($32) is among the finest California releases that I have tasted.  While I agree in part with Charles’ assessment that their riesling is more full-bodied French style (Alsatian) than German, the  expressive minerality on the finish is reminiscent of those from Germany’s Mosel region along the Rhine River.  

The climate on Spring Mountain is warmer like Alsace, allowing the grapes to ripen earlier.  With the 2015 vintage, the result is a dry, crisp wine with citric and floral qualities and an exceptional mineral-laced finish.  They make less than 700 cases, but this wine is worth pursuing.

The drought in California was in full effect in 2014 when rainfall on Spring Mountain, at 1800-foot elevation, was less than half of normal.  As a result, the cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals, from volcanic soil, developed smaller clusters with more concentrated flavors.

The 2014 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon ($52), blended with small amounts of cabernet franc and merlot, has a rich mouthfeel

Smith-Madrone “Cook’s Flat” Reserve

with flavors that coalesced on the palate.  With nearly 2,000 cases produced, it is aged for 18 months in mostly new French oak and will certainly evolve for several years.  

A blend of the best blocks of cabernet sauvignon (58%), merlot (17%) and cabernet franc (25%), the “Cook’s Flat” Reserve is only produced when the highest standards can be achieved. 

As opposed to some overbearing fruity wines, the 2012 Smith-Madrone “Cook’s Flat” Reserve ($225) is a refined release with deeply balanced flavors, made, according to Charles Smith, in an “Old World” style. He credits the cabernet franc for adding depth and complexity to the wine.

Charles and Stuart in the early 1970s

The Smith Brothers have been doing what they do on Spring Mountain for forty-seven years.  As a result, they have gotten good at it.  Although the remote Spring Mountain vineyards are more difficult to access, an appointment to tour and taste at Smith-Madrone will prove to be a unique experience.


Chilean Pinot Noir

 

Aside from Burgundy in France, we, in California, enjoy the finest pinot noir in the world, sourced from five major appellations: Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, The Carneros, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley.  Without borders, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, north to south, would be a fitting sixth.

Although imports from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have challenged the myth that all quality pinot noir must be

Casabalnca Valley Vineyard

expensive, the consistently luscious and textural releases from northern Oregon to northern Santa Barbara keep us loyal with resolved acceptance of their price points.

Another challenger, south of the Equator, may be on the horizon.  Chile, geographically, is a long, thin strip of land along the South Pacific Ocean coast and, in the past decade, there are a growing number of vineyard plantings of pinot noir in the central and northern regions, that offer similar cool-climate growing conditions as those in California and Oregon.

Regions like the San Antonio and Casablanca Valleys, west of Santiago and the Elqui Valley, 250 miles to the north, have generated some excitement with pinot noir releases that are complex, fruit forward and affordable.  

San Antonio and Casablanca are relatively small areas where vineyards are blessed with rocky soils and direct exposure to the cooling forces of the ocean. By contrast, the Elqui Valley lies at the southern end of the Atacama Desert and while enjoying maritime influences, is hotter and, in recent years, been in a drought.

San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir Elqui Valley

Known for producing pisco brandy and table grapes, the Elqui Valley vineyards are now focusing on certain varietals like the San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 ($17), an intense, fruit forward release that I recently tasted.

The color is lighter than most California pinots, but the bouquet was deep red fruit, earth and even had a forest-floor quality.  The flavors were acutely red fruit and earthy with clear, but balanced tannins.

I compared the 1865 with a 2014 Lemelson Vineyards “Thea’s Selection” Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, at three times the price, and found it elegant, but more restrained than the Chilean wine.

Among many Casablanca Valley releases, the Casas del Bosque Pinot Noir Gran Reserva 2016 ($18) offered typical intense aromas of red fruit, but it was more medium-bodied with refined fruit, spice and earth flavors with soft tannins.

With deep mushroom and forest floor tones in the aromas, the 

Cuvelier Atanea Pinot Noir 2015 Casablanca Valley ($15) bursts on the palate with dark fruit and a myriad of earth and savory impressions.  I would pair this wine with lamb as well as salmon.

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From an organic winery in the San Antonio Valley, the 2015 Matetic “Coralillo” Pinot Noir San Antonio Valley ($18) is a very accessible, balanced wine that most palates will enjoy. In awarding this release 90-points, critic James Suckling described it as “fruity and fun” with ample, but forgiving tannins.

 

I have not yet tasted the 2017 Apaltagua Pinot Noir Reserva San Antonio Valley ($15), but the winery has a reputation for brighter

Apaltagua Reserva Pinot Noir San Antonio Valley

fruit driven flavors and descriptions of “roasted coffee bean notes,” along with the price, has me intrigued.

For the price, I found the Ritual Casablanca Valley Pinot Noir 2015 Casablanca Valley ($20)to be an intriguing and delightful wine with pleasant floral hints on the nose, an extraordinary rich mouthfeel and some cranberry fruit on the palate. In addition to the full structure and fresh fruit, James suckling, after awarding it 93-points, aptly described a

Ritual Pinot Noir Casablanca Valley

light chocolate and berry aftertaste.

Most of the Chilean pinot noir releases are expressive and ready to drink now.  As production continues to grow and availability in wine shops and outlets increases, the wines can become an accepted, reasonably-priced alternative for those choosing to explore the alluring “Heartbreak Grape”  outside of the grand California and Oregon releases.

 

  


Iconic Adelaida Cellars

 

I recently spent some time in Paso Robles visiting old favorites like Adelaida Cellars and Tablas Creek from the Adelaida appellation as well as TH Cellars, a new breed of Rhone producers in the nearby Willow Creek appellation. 

After inquiring about the availability of Tony Hermann, Resident Wine Educator, we started at Adelaida Cellars, with roots going back more than 50 years.  It began when Dr. Stanley Hoffman created the Hoffman Mountain Ranch Vineyard in 1964, after finding ideal

climate and limestone-laden soils to grow his beloved Burgundian and other French varietals. 

In the early 1970s, the neighboring Van Steenwyk Family followed Dr. Hoffman’s lead and began purchasing prime vineyard land like

Sunset over HMR Vineyard

the Viking Estate and, in 1994, the original Hoffman Ranch Vineyard.

Today, Adelaida is still owned by the Van Steenwyk Family and consists of 2,000 total acres, mostly natural hillsides, with 730 acres in walnuts and 180 acres of vineyards. They farm twenty different varietals, mostly Rhone and, recently have added some Portuguese grapes to the high elevation Bobcat Ranch Estate.  Their vineyards are all certified sustainable and yield 9,000 to 12,000 cases annually.

Since my last visit, Adelaida has added a very large, but elegantly appointed tasting facility that include’s member’s lounges, private tasting rooms and a space for wine dinners or wedding receptions. People can even get married on a hilltop bluff with 360-degree views.

Something that has not changed since my last visit is Tony Hermann, who is articulate and knowledgeable and makes any Adelaida tasting experience special.  He is in-demand, but request him anyway.

Winemaker Jeremy Weintraub arrived in 2012.  After receiving a political science degree in New York, he found himself making French

Jeremy Weintraub and Tony Hermann

varietals in Paso Robles, via a Master’s in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis and some hands-on experience.

Adelaida has evolved in recent years. Their labels now pay homage to the landscape and Jeremy’s tenet to make wine that reflects the land in which it was grown  Some of their standard releases like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and syrah remain while others are gone, and, to begin, Tony opened two new white Rhone varietals from Anna’s Vineyard: the Grenache Blanc 2016 ($35), aged ten months in neutral oak on its “chateau” yeast and the Picpoul Blanc 2016 ($35), a crisp,  flavorful release and fitting pair with shellfish.

The Adelaida Rose 2017 is also new and is as complex as any Rhone blend with 55% grenache, 14% mourvedre, 13% cinsault, 12% counoise and six percent carignane, except the grapes are picked earlier and the juice has little skin contact.

Pinot noir is extremely rare in Paso Robles, yet the 33-acre HMR Vineyard has some of the oldest low-yield vines on the Central Coast.  The Pinot Noir 2016 HMR Vineyard ($60) is partly whole-cluster fermented, spending 16 months in French oak.  It is Old World in its personality with

Adelaida HMR Pinot Noir

earthy aromas and flavors, spice hints and a nice mouthfeel.

Jeremy loves mourvedre and it is featured in his Anna’s Red 2015 Anna’s Estate Vineyard ($45), uniquely blended with cinsault, counoise, grenache and petit sirah after aging separately.  I found deep, balanced flavors of dark fruit and berry with peppery spice notes. This wine will evolve nicely, but is drinkable now.

In the Côte-Rôtie style, the Adelaida Syrah 2016 ($45), awarded 92-points from Wine Advocate, adds 10% viognier, a white varietal that surprisingly adds flavor and darkens the color of the wine. There is a forest floor quality to the aromas along with dark fruit and spice. Balanced, rich dark fruit, coffee and peppery flavors treat the palate through an extended finish.  

Shatter is something that occurs in grapes that experience some type of weather disturbance during budding, requiring the removal of damaged stock.  As a result, the yield of the Cabernet Sauvignon Adelaida District 2015($35), with added malbec and petit verdot was 50% of normal creating a concentrated wine that is drinkable now.

Adelaida Tasting Center

Most of the grapes for the Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel Select Adelaida District 2015 ($60) comes from the esteemed Viking Vineyard. Added malbec and petite verdot and 20 months aging in 50% new French oak build bold, full-bodied flavors that peak on the finish.    

Iconic in the history of Paso Robles wines, Adelaida Cellars remain on the cutting edge of the future and should not be overlooked on your next visit.


The Viader Story

 

The views are both serene and spectacular, overlooking much of the Napa Valley.  The vines below the outdoor deck seem to fall down the cliffs, quickly out of view. While it is known for producing limited amounts of fine Bordeaux-style wines, the real story behind Viader Vineyards and Winery lies within Winemother Delia Viader, Phd., her determination, persistence, sense of adventure and, of course, winemaking skills.

Armed with a PhD. in philosophy and a Master’s in Business, Delia arrived on Howell Mountain in the late 1980s determined to

Vineyards at Viader

become a farmer, something puzzling to her supportive parents.  She found this alluring, remote mountaintop property that was surrounded by steep cliffs with soil packed between rocks and boulders.

Luckily, she listened to her instincts rather than dozens of experts who told her that clearing the land and planting vineyards on the steepest, rockiest slopes in the Napa Valley was impossible.  It’s easy to say that Delia has carved out a piece of heaven, but she did it one stone at a time.

She has always had help from her son, Alan Viader, who remembers moving rocks from the future vineyards many afternoons after school.  He has worked with his mother ever since and with education and experience behind him, has become the winemaker who oversees all operations.  Delia has become the Wine Mother. She declares, “I’m the mother of the vines, the mother of the wines and the mother of the winemkaker.” 

Alan and I walked the extensive cave system where all the work is done after the grapes are harvested.  Everything at Viader is done in-house, from farming the estate vineyards through labeling the bottles.

The Viader Estate is 92 acres with 28 acres under vine. With the great Bordeaux blends in mind, they originally planted cabernet sauvignon, cabernet Franc and malbec, then later Rhone-style syrah.

Delia and Alan Viader

While the caves smelled of French oak, I noticed a variety of concrete options out near the crush pads. Delia was one of the first in the valley to introduce concrete aging and Viader has many concrete eggs, cones and large vats.  It is trend that is expanding everywhere and many winemakers are pleased with the enhancements that it provides.

I questioned who resolves disputes between Wine Mother and Winemaker.  Apparently, there are very few and those require little strategy to resolve.  Alan said they know what they want and he credits his fine palate to Delia. Both avoid making wines that punch you in the mouth, striving instead toward those that seduce you.

During the first eleven years of Viader, they made only one wine, a signature blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.  Their largest production wine at a sparse 81 barrels, the 2015 Viader Signature ($175) represents the “best of the best” of the cabernet sauvignon (69%) and cabernet franc (31%), blended and aged 24 months in French oak plus another year in the bottle. The Bordeaux-style elegance is up-front, but I found potency in the aromas and rich texture throughout.  

The Bordeaux’s are superb, but it’s nice to make wines in California with the freedom to explore. Delia’s unscientific poll on the 2015 Viader Black Label ($125), with cabernet sauvignon (48%), cabernet franc (21%), malbec (10%) and syrah (21%) finds that it is preferred by the younger members of the family over the traditional Bordeaux-style releases.

Some years ago, eight acres of estate syrah were planted in a new hillside vineyard.  While Alan has led this new twist and the syrah is evident on the nose and palate, the Black Label is still elegantly structured and balanced. Only 30 barrels were produced.

Malbec is featured in the small production 2016 Viader Homenaje ($150), blended equally with cabernet sauvignon.  Homenaje is a tribute to many people as well as the Viader Argentinian roots.  Although it has not been officially released, this unique Bordeaux blend is already exuding the fine character of the other releases.

These are refined wines for discerning palates. However, those wanting to indulge themselves into a memorable Napa Valley wine experience should schedule a private tasting at the Viader’s Howell Mountain estate.  Sitting out on a deck, overlooking the vineyards with views of the valley below, tasting exquisite California wines paired with fine cheeses is where you want to be.  There may be a better way to spend an afternoon, but nothing is coming to mind.


Discover LaRue Wines

 

I wondered, as a drove to meet Katy Wilson at the secluded Emmaline Ann Vineyard in Sebastopol, what would motivate a young winemaker to join the fray of great pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay production in Sonoma County.  Before I left the vineyard, ninety minutes later, I had my answer.

Katy Wilson, owner/winemaker of LaRue Wines, has had a strategy in place since she crafted a business plan for a small production

Katy Wilson

winery in Agricultural Business 101 at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.  Raised in farming, this could simply be a “she drove a tractor before a car” kind of story, but, a closer look reveals someone who, at a very young age, impressed her colleagues who, in turn encouraged and motivated her to make her own wines.

After stints in the Napa Valley and New Zealand, Katy settled at Flowers Vineyard and Winery on the Sonoma coast, then Kamen Estate Wines in Sonoma. Nine years ago, at age 26, Katy was offered some grapes and decided to launch LaRue Wines, vowing to limit production to 500 cases.  She named her new winery in honor of her great-grandmother, Veona LaRue Newell, who she described as inspirational and unique.

In addition to LaRue, Katy serves as a winemaker for Anaba Wine, Claypool Cellars, Reeve Wines and Smith Story Wine Cellars, all in Sonoma County.

Fine wines begin with great stock and Katy currently sources her grapes from five distinctive vineyards in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations. Today’s tasting began with her chardonnay release from a known Green Valley of Russian River Valley vineyard that has sourced grapes to Sonoma County icons like William Selyem, Kosta Browne and DeLoach since the early eighties.

The 2016 LaRue “Heintz Vineyard” Chardonnay ($60) expressed floral and mineral notes on the nose with vibrant citrus and stone fruit flavors through the finish.  Aged 17 months in French oak with 50% malolactic fermentation, Katy follows her instincts here,

Heintz Vineyard

that it’s sometimes best to leave the wine alone and let it develop peacefully.  Only 50 cases were produced.

As we tasted, Katy explained that the 2015 LaRue Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($60) had just began to open up during the last few months. Aged 20 months in French oak, 25% new, I found classic aromas of cherry and spice and a very balanced flavor profile and rich mouthfeel. At 240 cases, it represents about 40% of their total production.

With an east facing vineyard located west of Sebastopol that enjoys morning sun, the 2014 LeRue “Thornridge Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($70) used pommard and 115 clone to produce a “powerful, yet elegant” wine with dark stone fruits, berry aromas and  complex, integrated classic flavors.  Production is limited to fifty cases.

I was impressed with all of Wilson’s releases, but thought of the 2014 LaRue “Coastlands Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($80) as special and

LaRue Coastlands Vineyard Pinot Noir

unique, from dirt to drink.  It is uniquely derived from some of the county’s oldest pinot noir vines, grown at 900-1,200 feet elevations, two miles from the Pacific Ocean. It is partly whole-cluster pressed and aged for 32 months in 50% new French oak, which is very unique.

The “Coastlands” bouquet is rustic and earthy, with notes of dark fruit and spice.  The palate is very textural and classically fruit-

forward while the finish hangs on. Only a few barrels of this wine were produced.

Grown on six-acres south of Sebastopol, the grapes sourced for the 2014 LaRue Rice-Spivak Vineyard Pinot Noir ($70) come from volcanic ash soil, rare to this region. This release expressed solid spice and mineral elements along with the classic structure and pinot fruit.

In all the releases, there was a balance that made them very approachable to drink now while understanding that they will continue to mature for years.

Coastlands Vineyard

Since we were sitting in a handsome garden overlooking the vineyard, we ended the tasting with the 2014 LaRue “Emmaline Ann Vineyard” Pinot Noir.  The aromas were spiced and heavy with a forest-floor quality, yet the flavors were crisp and toasted.

My first impressions of LaRue wines were aptly described by the Prince of Pinot, William “Rusty” Gaffney M.D. when he said, “Her wines have a certain transcendent aura that reminds you why you fell in love with Pinot Noir in the first place.”

I plan to explore each vintage of Katy Wilson’s LaRue wines.