I love watching the wine world evolve. In particular I enjoy seeing new wines spring up like the proverbial dragon's teeth, sown by the visionary and the lucky in sometimes surprising places. I harbor the private theory that great wines can be grown in a lot more places than they currently are. Which is why I'm thrilled to explore wines from the fringes of the known winegrowing world, such as Malbec from the far southern reaches of Patagonia, or perhaps closer to home, Alsatian varietals grown in Marin county.
Marin County wine? Those unfamiliar with the San Francisco Bay Area may not find it particularly remarkable to contemplate quality wines being produced a few minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, especially given the Bay Area's proximity to famed growing regions such as Napa, Sonoma, or the Santa Cruz Mountains to the South. However, those more intimately familiar with the region's climate will recognize that many parts of Marin are a bit chilly to contemplate the growing of any sort of grape, even the famously cool-climate tolerable Pinot Noir. The fog and wind effects are substantial, and the geology of the soils could charitably be described as schizophrenic.
Yet careful students of history can easily find records of extensive winegrowing in the area dating back to the early 1800's. Vineyards were planted as close to San Francisco as Larkspur, and extensively in the more sheltered San Rafael area.
Most of these efforts were quite forgotten by the time that people like Jonathan and Susan Pey decided they wanted to make wines without leaving the county of their residence. For this reason, a lot of people told them they were crazy to ignore the much more proven winegrowing areas that weren't so far away. But the Peys had a vision for creating great, handcrafted wines from Marin, and like the earliest pioneers who settled the area, surviving on elk and fending off grizzly bears, they stuck to their guns. The fruits of those efforts are now showing themselves with full force. Pey-Marin Vineyards and its second label, Mount Tamalpais Vineyards, have proven to be the vanguard of a growing number of wines made in the county, and are gathering much acclaim.
Jonathan and Susan began their winemaking careers after separate, extensive experiences in the wine industry. Jonathan's BS degree in Agriculture and an MBA put him on track for working on the business end of some of the world's highest profile wine brands, including Domaine Louis Jadot and Chateau de Pommard in Burgundy, Australia's Penfolds, and Robert Mondavi and Sterling Vineyards closer to home. Susan has been a wine director and buyer for one of the Bay Areas largest restaurant groups for years, and is one of the top professionals in her position in the US. Together, along with their three daughters, and help from folks like vineyard manager Mark Pasternak, they fully manage the entirety of their small production of wines from various vineyard sites around the southern part of Marin County.
Speaking of vineyard sites, one of their more remarkable (some say harebrained) efforts has been to produce a dry Riesling from the frigid foothills of Mount Tamalpais in the western part of Marin, just 8 miles from the coast. These rolling hills of vineyards, which also produce Pinot Noir as well as Merlot, may well be the coldest single growing location in the entire state. Such conditions make for challenging wine growing, with harvests typically three to four weeks later than most areas of Northern California that flirt with the danger of rain and rot, along with the potential to just never quite get ripe enough at all.
Once the hand-harvested grapes do get in, the winemaking regimen is pretty straightforward with cold soaking for the reds and then pressing into 50% new French oak barrels for aging ( the Merlot also gets 40% American oak). The Riesling is whole-cluster pressed in the style of Champagne, and then like the Vin Gris (which is free run juice bled off from the crushed Pinot Noir and Merlot) goes through secondary fermentation in stainless steel before bottling.
With a total production of only 1100 cases of wine (across four varietals) Pey-Marin Vineyards is a perfect example of the many small boutique wineries that lie waiting to reward those wine drinkers that have the energy and interest to seek out producers off the beaten track. Its quality wines are also a perfect example of the benefits of persistence and vision that characterize many family-run operations.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2005 Pey-Marin Vineyards "The Shellmound" Riesling, Marin
Pale straw gold with a hint of greenness to it in the glass, this wine has a lovely fresh nose of honey, pears, and bits of citrus aromas tinged with a papery/parchment note. In the mouth it is bright and dancing with excellent acidity and a lovely balance between mineral and citrus flavors, that turn towards distinct lemon notes on the finish. Completely dry, with a playful personality, this is quite probably the best dry California Riesling I have ever had. 269 cases made of this, its inaugural vintage. Score: 9. Cost: $20. Where to Buy?
2005 Mount Tamalpais Vineyards Vin Gris, Marin
A bright medium rose-pink in the glass, this wine has a fruity nose of alpine strawberry and watermelon candy aromas. Thankfully it isn't sweet at all on the palate, with good acidity and light strawberry and raspberry flavors that are well balanced. While not amazingly complex, this is a solid, pleasant, and easy-drinking rosé without any obvious flaws. 250 cases made. Score: 8.5/9. Cost: $16. Where to Buy?
2004 Pey-Marin Vineyards "Trois Filles" Pinot Noir, Marin
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a stunning nose of damp earth, dried and fresh herbs, and a tart fruit character that I'll end up calling rhubarb compote. In the mouth it has lovely acidity and great juicy red fruit flavors that waver between redcurrant, raspberry and cranberry. The wine has a tight, taught quality that I expect more from Burgundy than California Pinot Noir. Hot damn, if this is what Marin can do with Pinot Noir, give me more! 372 cases made. Score:9/9.5. Cost: $36. Where to Buy?
2004 Mount Tamalpais Vineyards Merlot, Marin
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a dark nose of wet earth, plum, and oak. In the mouth it is extremely earthy, with smooth tannins that surround a core of subdued Bing cherry and sour plum fruit flavors. These are shot through with a light flavor that can only be characterized, plain and simple, as mud. But don't take that as a pejorative, it simply seems to be the character of these grapes and the place they come from. On the finish is the only time I get a bit of the green brambliness I would expect from Merlot grown in such a cold clime. Most people seem to be wrongfully shunning Merlot these days, but I would would warn away anyone looking for a traditional fruity Merlot -- this wine is much more old-school Bordeaux-like in character, and will reward those looking for something more complicated than plums in a glass. 355 cases made. Score: 8.5/9. Cost: $27. Where to Buy?
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