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Sonoma's Best Pinot Noir: A Report From Pinot On The River

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 pinot.festival.logo.jpg 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. pinot.river.shot.jpg 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.


  • 2002 Peay Vineyards Pinot Noir. 260 cases made. Score: 10. Price: $42.
  • 2001 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Score: 9.5/10. Price: $27.
  • 2002 Woodenhead Elk Prarie Vineyard, Humbolt County Pinot Noir. Score: 9.5/10. Price: $50.
  • Papapietro Perry Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Score: 9.5. Price: $42.
  • 2001 Merry Edwards Windsor Gardens Pinot Noir. Score: 9.5. Price: $54.
  • 2003 Loring Wine Company "Rosella's Vineyard" Pinot Noir. Score: 9.5. Price: $46.


  • Woodenhead Wiley Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. Score 9/9.5. Price: $45.
  • 2003 A.P. Vin Gary's Vineyard Pinot Noir. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $46.
  • 2002 Roessler "Blue Jay" Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $30.
  • Papapietro Perry Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $38.
  • 2001 Scherrer Fort Ross Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Very interesting light fruit on the nose, almost kool-aid aromas. Score: 9. Price: $42.
  • Loring Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara. Score: 9. Price: $46
  • Loring Gary's Vineyard Pinot Noir. Score: 9. Price $46.
  • Loring Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir. Score: 9. Price: $46.
  • Woodenhead Buena Tierra Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley. Really interesting caramel aspect to the nose. Score: 9. Price: $46.


  • 2002 Orogeny Pinot Noir, Green Valley. Nice cranberry elements. Inaugural vintage, vineyards managed by the Dutton family. Score: 8.5/9. Price $25.
  • 2002 Holdredge Pinot Noir. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $ ??.
  • 2002 Morgan "Double L" Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands.500 cases made. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $45.
  • 2002 Roessler Cellars Sonoma County Pinot Noir. 480 cases made. Score 8.5/9. Price: $26.
  • 2002 Roessler Cellars Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir. 480 cases made. Score 8.5/9. Price: $42.
  • 2002 Acacia Pinot Noir. Score: 8.5. Price: $50
  • 2002 Williams-Selyem Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Slightly hot finish. Score: 8.5. Price: $39.
  • 2003 Inman Family Pinot Noir. First commercial vintage. Score: 8.5. Price: $40. Only sold from winery site.
  • 2000 Skewis Montgomery Vineyard Pinot Noir. Score: 8.5. Price: $45.
  • 2002 Sapphire Hill Pinot Noir. Score: 8.5. Price: $ ??
  • 2002 MacPhail Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. First commercial vintage. Score: 8/8.5. Price: $??
  • 2001 Landmark Vineyards "Grand Detour" Van Der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir. Earthy with notes of tea. Score: 8/8.5. Price: $ ??

    I don't know how these snuck into the tasting but I'm glad they did.

  • 2002 Shea Wine Cellars "Pommard Clone" Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, OR. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $38.
  • 2002 Shea Wine Cellars "Estate" Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, OR. Score: 8/8.5. Price: $35.

    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.

  • 2002 Peay Vineyards Viognier. Excellent acid, nice mineral tones amidst Asian pear and lemon zest. Score: 9. Price: $30.
  • 2003 Inman Family Pinot Gris, Russian River Valley. Sur lees aged with heavy battonage. 2nd vintage. Fabulous grapefruit aromas and flavors, excellent acidity for a Gris. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $24.
  • 2002 Peay Vineyards Syrah. Very light, European not-hit-you-over-the-head style. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $45.


  • 2001 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Score: 9.5/10. Price: $27.
  • 2002 Blue Jay Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $30.
  • 2002 Orogeny Pinot Noir, Green Valley. Nice cranberry elements. Inaugural vintage, vineyards managed by the Dutton family. Score: 8.5/9. Price $25.
  • 2002 Roessler Cellars Sonoma County Pinot Noir. 480 cases made. Score 8.5/9. Price: $26.

    These folks are all on their first, second, or in some rare cases, their 3rd vintage, and they are going places, mark my words...

  • Roessler Cellars
  • Woodenhead Vintners
  • Orogeny
  • MacPhail Cellars
  • A.P. Vin
  • Inman Family
  • Holdredge

    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.

    Comments (6)

    Matt wrote:
    11.01.04 at 9:21 PM

    Thanks for the review.

    To set the record straight - the

    "Loring Clos Pepe VIneyard Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills. Score: 9. Price: $46"

    is not from Sonoma, but the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County.

    Alder wrote:
    11.02.04 at 7:34 AM

    Excellent. Thanks for the correction !

    Dan wrote:
    11.02.04 at 1:33 PM

    Although Sonoma wines were the majority, there were several wineries, and wines that were not Sonoma. I believe that Shea was the only Oregonian, but other non-Sonoma wineries were Acacia(Carneros), Morgan(Santa Lucia Highlands), Loring(Santa Barbara), Testarossa(Los Gatos). I'm sure that there were a few more as well. The diversity let Pinot lovers taste great Pinot from several great appellations.

    Eric Hall wrote:
    11.02.04 at 2:23 PM

    The Organizers of "Pinot on the River", thank you for your kind words, and are pleased to announce these dates:

    "Rhoning on the River", May 21, 22, 2005 http://www.rhonefestival.com

    "Pinot on the River II", October, 28,29 & 30, 2005 http://www.pinotfestival.com

    Bob Summers wrote:
    11.16.04 at 11:28 AM

    I attended this tasting. I am in near total agreement with your assessment of the wines. The overall quality was amazing. I did not put a single glass to my nose that I did not wish to taste. Not every wine was "great", but every wine at least "tasted good".

    I would rate the `02 Acacia St. Clair in the top group. Although, as the most tannic and backward wine of the tasting it probably didn't impress many, I believe it will be tremendous with 10 years of cellaring.

    I was extremely impressed with the Woodenhead wines; very expressive of their origins. Nikolai has as much personality as his wines. With the engaging folks from Peay Vineyards at the next table, I spent a lot of time in that "neighborhood".

    Thanks for taking the time to post these notes.


    paul root wrote:
    02.24.05 at 4:49 PM

    Just a reminder that (due to the size of the county, Sonoma, with the exception of Napa Cab, pretty much rules the roost in CA wines) there still exists a bit of an inferiority complex here. People tend to get miffed when the geography gets skewed...Anderson Valley is in Mendocino county, a number of the wines mentioned are in the SLH and Santa Barbara regions and Sonoma Valley is an AVA roughly S-E of Santa Rosa...Guerneville is in the Russian River area.

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