Arista Winery, Healdsburg, CA: Current Releases

It’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.


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?