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01.11.2006

Arista Winery, Healdsburg, CA: Current Releases

arista.logo.jpgIt's always exciting for me to try new wines from brand new wineries, and its doubly exciting when the wines are actually good. Lots of people spend an awful lot of time and money creating wineries in Napa or Sonoma and end up with wines that are barely noticeable in the sea of average wines available from the region.

If the inaugural release of wines from Arista Winery weren't noticed, it certainly wasn't because they were average. I guarantee that while you might not have heard of this Sonoma winery, if you enjoy Pinot Noir you will hear about them soon. I don't think I've had a set of debut wines from any winery that has been so consistently well made and delicious. These folks are about to have greatness thrust upon them.

Arista is a new project for John Copeland and Al McWilliams. Orthodontist Al McWilliams and his wife wanted to live and work in Sonoma County ever since they first visited from their home in Texarkana, Texas. When Al Gained a brother-in-law in wine industry veteran John Copeland, that dream became a reality. In 1996 the two started a winery called Pine Mountain Vineyards just outside of Cloverdale. That project, however, was just a stepping stone towards their shared dream of making Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley. In 2003 these two purchased fruit from several vineyards in the area while looking for a piece of land to start their own winery. In early 2004 they found that land: 36 prime acres of land on Westside Road near Healdsburg.

The wines below from 2003 vintage are the first commercial release for the winery, which will continue to use some purchased fruit until all of its own vineyards are ready. Even then, the goal will be to focus on small lots of carefully grown and harvested Pinot Noir from around the valley. Of the four wines below, I believe the Harper's Rest Pinot is the only one made from a vineyard that is now part of the estate. Harper's Rest is named after Reuben Harper, a pioneer in the area in the early 1800's. When he passed away in 1857 he was buried under a large Bay tree which overlooks the vineyard which now bears his name.

The Arista wines are made by Leslie Sisneros, who comes to the estate from nearly 13 years as a winemaker for Rodney Strong, Chateau St. Jean, Haywood, John Culbertson, Vinwood, and most recently, Kendall Jackson. At Kendall-Jackson she was responsible for a large portion of their entire four-tier portfolio of Pinot Noirs, and in this position she made wines from a majority of the major Pinot growing areas of Northern California. Sisneros also has a degree in Viticulture from UC Davis.

I don't know much about Sisneros' the winemaking process and practices at Arista, other than the fact that they all aged in 100% new French oak for 10 months, except for the Harper's wine, which was only 50% new.

The most attentive of my readers might not even notice this, but I have slightly revised my scores for a couple of these wines that I tasted at the Pinot on The River tasting earlier in the year. The Harper's Rest I've evaluated at a 9.5 instead of a 9/9.5 while the Toboni I have rated a 9/9.5 instead of a 9.5. C'est la vie.

Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.

TASTING NOTES:

2003 Arista "Ferrington Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, CA
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a lovely nose of cranberry, raspberry, and plum aromas. In the mouth it is medium bodied but with a lightness on the palate that comes from excellent balance, good acidity, and primary flavors of cranberry, plum, rhubarb and cedar. The wine has very fine. light tannins and slight earthy notes in the finish which is substantial. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $50. Where to buy?

2003 Arista "Harper's Rest" Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, CA
A medium ruby color in the glass, this wine has a floral nose of pomegranate nectar, cranberry, and light scents of flowers. In the mouth however it is powerful and lush, with flavors of earth, tea, cranberry and plums dominating the complex but balanced package. This wine has great acidity and a tartness that makes me want to drink a lot more, plus a lovely, very long finish with hints of vanilla and spices. Score: 9.5. Cost: $50. Where to buy?

2003 Arista "Mononi Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, CA
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a shy nose with light aromas of violets and aromatic herbs (lavender?) mixed with cherry. In the mouth it is silky and smooth with primary flavors of tart cherries supported by mysterious notes of mixed herbs or as the French would say, garrigue. There's definitely a touch of rosemary in the wine as it finishes long and lean. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $50. Where to buy?

2003 Arista "Toboni Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, CA
Medium ruby colored in the glass, this wine's noseis of violets, plums, and black raspberries. In the mouth it is tightly coiled, with flavors of black tea and cherries, and plums packed into a lean structure that is not as expressive as the other wines at the moment, though with a little time this wine may very well blossom into something more expansive and delicate. The finish is moderate in length and pleasant.
Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $50. Where to buy?

Comments (10)

Ray Ormand wrote:
01.12.06 at 5:09 AM

I'm confused. I have had the 2001 Zinfandel from Arista. It is still in stock at Circle Liquors in NJ at $12.99. Also believe I saw a 2001 Pinot there for the same price, but that no longer shows up on the website. Sounds like the 2003 wines were not the first commercial releases.

Alder wrote:
01.12.06 at 8:34 AM

Ray,

Yes, it's odd, isn't it? Their web site has an 01 Zin and a couple of 02 wines listed, but the letter that I got with these wines says that they're the first commercial release. Hmm. Something is not adding up. Maybe they're just trying to make a bigger deal of this vintage than the previous ones since it's the first time they've got their full Pinot lineup on the market, including one made from estate fruit.

Good catch.

St.Vini wrote:
01.12.06 at 9:00 AM

First "commercial" release means this is the vintage where they expect to start making a profit!

Alder, would you say that at $50, these wines provided 5 times the pleasure of a $10 bottle of Castle Rock Russian River Pinot (for example)?

I simply have trouble fathoming a new release at $50 without any track record, but maybe the wine-drinking public's thirst for Pinot will justify this price.

St.Vini

Alder wrote:
01.12.06 at 9:18 AM

Your saint-ness, or your Beatificatedness, (what is the right way to address a saint?),

Yes, these wines, sadly, are expensive, following the trend of most Sonoma pinots these days. But they're good enough that people will buy them at that price point. It's only a matter of time before they get high ratings from some critic more influential than me and they'll have no problem selling whatever they make.

The multiple of pleasure you discuss is sort of a silly question, and very hard to answer especially when you're only talking about small multiples like 5. It's when the multiples become something like 20 or 50 or 100 that the question becomes easy to answer, at least for me. Three times as good vs. five times as good for the price is subjective hairplitting.

To answer, however, these wines are certainly more pleasureable, complex, and collectible to me than a Castle Rock, which in its best vintages only occasionally hits a 9 on my scale.

cd wrote:
01.12.06 at 4:30 PM

I would also assume that since this a new project, they need to recoup some losses—such as land, building winery, etc.

Greg Walter wrote:
01.12.06 at 4:51 PM

The 2001 Zinfandel and Pinot were made by a previous winemaker (Daniel Moore, I believe) and a slightly different ownership structure with Moore and current co-owner John Copeland as partners. I believe the website's stated "founding" date of 2002 reflects a change in ownership whereby Daniel Moore left and the McWilliams took a more active role -- sort of a rebirth of the winery.

Brian wrote:
01.12.06 at 9:42 PM

I had the chance to taste two of the wines from Arista at the Pinot on the River in October. They were, in my opinion, some of the best wines we tasted - and there were a lot of good wines there. They are another new producer, but based on the effort with their 2003's, I'd say they certainly deserve the attention they are getting. Alder, thanks for pointing out another winery to watch.

Eric Hall wrote:
01.13.06 at 4:41 PM

Not only are their wines wonderful (try their Gewürztraminer!) but they are nice folks as well, and their facility is beautiful! I think the Toboni Pinot will age very well, so I've set some bottles aside, that we can try at the Oct 2006, Pinot on the River.

Jim Eastman wrote:
01.17.06 at 11:28 AM

I haven't tried any of the new releases, but I gave the 2002 Pinot Noir a try at a party of mine in December, and I rather enjoyed it.

I'll have to make a go of some of these new ones.

Fred wrote:
01.28.06 at 7:46 PM

My exposure to Arista closely mimics a friend who lives out there in Sunnyvale. He visited a few weeks after our stop in late October (a week before the river festival). We stopped in on a Sunday and I became rapidly attracted to the DirecTV Red Zone programming on the LCD TV on the counter, allowing me to catch up on the NFL scores (and my Packers demise after Ahman Green's injury). The wine rocked well and we shipped a few home. A friend was in a few weeks later and told me he had a very similar attraction to the TV with a college game that was on. Seems all the guys migrate to the TV and the women chat at the other end of the counter. My kind of wine tasting!

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