Today I had the pleasure and the fortune to attend Pinot On The River, the first (hopefully annual) festival celebrating Sonoma County's Pinot Noir. To those familiar with the Sonoma Valley it will come as no surprise that this event was both a heck of a lot of fun, and filled with stupendous wines. If you're not so familiar with Sonoma, there are really two important things to know. The first is that unlike its rockstar cousin, the Napa Valley, Sonoma is a lot more laid back. If Napa is a collared shirt tasting experience often with standoffish or disinterested folks, Sonoma is a tie-dyed t-shirt tasting experience -- low key, the opposite of ostentatious, all the while gregarious and friendly. The other thing to know is that Sonoma County produces some killer Pinot Noir, both from the cool climate vineyards of the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast, as well as from the heat sinks that are the inner Anderson and Alexander Valleys.
Combine these two facts with a totally cloudless day and 65 degree temperatures, decant and serve with artisanal goat cheese and you've got a smashing way to spend a Sunday. A word to the wise (or to the disappointed and uninformed) put this on your calendar for next year. It's a keeper.
As I mentioned in my posting about this event earlier in the week, this was a three day affair including gourmet dinners and winemaker led tours of some Sonoma Pinot vineyards capped off by the event that I attended today, which was a public tasting and live auction for charity. The event was held and centered around a small spa resort, called appropriately Retreat Resort & Spa, just outside the sleepy town of Guerneville, CA on the banks of the Russian River.
At the back of the resort are a courtyard and a small meadow, which served as the stages for the event. The courtyard covered in a tent (which was hardly needed on a day like today) and filled with scores of Pinot producers pouring their wines, and the meadow with a raised stage for the auction and musicians along with a couple of small tables filled with cheese and bread. Through both of these spaces, happy, relaxed people milled all afternoon.
I really appreciated two things about this tasting which will keep me coming back year after year if the organizers can keep them consistent. One was the complete lack of a mob. Those who attend industry tastings in San Francisco and Napa will be familiar with the crush of people straining three rows back in front of tasting tables, squeezing and jostling for a 2 ounce pour of juice. Such a crowd was conspicuously absent, whether due to just the right amount of promotion on the sponsors' parts or the aforementioned Sonoma atmosphere, I don't know.
The other thing, perhaps more germane to this site, was the overwhelming level of quality evidenced by the producers on offer. When I go to tastings, I typically taste a couple of wines at a table, and if I find them suitable, I retaste them and make notes. If the wines suck, I move on to the next table. At most tastings, even the best ones like Family Winemakers, I usually end up jotting notes on about 60% of the wines. Maybe 70%. At this tasting there were only two or three producers whose wines were ordinary (though not bad) enough to escape my notebook. It's worth noting that the majority of these wines are upper echelon (read: expensive) but even that doesn't usually guarantee the level of quality I encountered.
Here's a sampling of the very best of the wines on offer lumped into a couple of categories that might be useful to you.
EXCELLENT to OUTSTANDING
VERY GOOD to GREAT
WINES NOT FROM SONOMA
I don't know how these snuck into the tasting but I'm glad they did.
OTHER (non Pinot Noir) WINES
These were actually a nice changeup in pace from the Pinots, but I also don't know how these snuck in either.
UP AND COMING PRODUCERS
These folks are all on their first, second, or in some rare cases, their 3rd vintage, and they are going places, mark my words...
After tasting all of these wines its clear to me that the trend towards fruit forward and more extracted Pinot Noir is firmly entrenched in Sonoma. This is a style that, when done right, I really like a lot, but which tends to send Burgundians headed for the hills. Those who are looking for earth, tea, and farmyard in your Pinot Noir will have to search fairly hard to find wines to match more European sensibilities, though there are producers who are making such wines. Let me be clear about these wines, though. While some are certainly the Pinot Noir equivalent of Turley Zinfandels (massive fruit bombs), and there is even a time and a place for those, the majority of them are excellently balanced and a joy to drink.
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