1996 J. Rochioli “West Block” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley

To paraphrase Shakespeare, there are wineries that are born great, those that achieve greatness, and those that have greatness thrust upon them. To explain: some fantastic wineries are started by people who are superstars already, and it hardly seems to matter what they do — these properties are destined for success. Some top wineries seem to come from nowhere, and indeed have greatness thrust upon them, when out of the blue, their wine scores highly somewhere and they are vaulted from obscurity to fame.

The majority of the best wineries in the world, however, fall into Malvolio’s second category through their own achievement. Achievement seems perhaps not quite the correct term, however, for the amount of sweat and energy that goes into building a world class winery over decades, even centuries. Wine lovers early in their education (and in their earning power) are often flummoxed by prices for wines that start to head north of $80 or $90 per bottle. Should they pursue their love of wine long enough to really learn (and see for themselves) what kind of work goes into some of the world’s best vineyards, and to taste the wine that they produce, such prices no longer seem outrageous.

Indeed, there are some wineries and vineyards in the world that seem to produce wines of such quality and consistency as to be nearly magical. In Europe, and especially France, such pieces of land are often given special designations, such as Grand Cru, to signify their quality.

There are very few plots of land in California that might be accorded Grand Cru status, should Americans decide to institute some method of classifying vineyards for quality, if only because many of California’s vineyards are so relatively new. There are some very few, however, that have definitively proven their distinctiveness and quality over several decades.

Unquestionably, the first vineyard on my list would be Rochioli Vineyards in the Russian River Valley. Tucked in between Westside road and the meandering curves of the Russian River as it heads south past Healdsburg, Rochioli Vineyards produces some of the most sought after Pinot Noir in California.

Since the early part of the century, the 162 acres of flats and sloping hillsides that run down towards this particular bend in the river have been farmed by someone with the last name Rochioli. After working the land for decades, Joe Rochioli, Sr., began buying up the land, bit by bit. By the 1950’s, he had been joined by his son Joe Rochioli, Jr. and together they spent several decades growing grapes that were sold to wineries throughout Sonoma County.

It wasn’t until the early Seventies, however, that the farm produced Pinot Noir which it continued to sell to various wineries. Like many long-running family winegrowers, however, eventually the hankering to make their own wine started to germinate, and in 1976 Joe Jr. made a few thousand cases of Pinot Noir at one of his customers’ wineries.

By the early Eighties, the Russian River Valley had clearly proven its potential for growing Burgundian varietals, and Pinot Noir in particular, and the Rochioli’s saw a gradual increase in the demand for their fruit. One small winery named Williams Selyem became a particularly good customer, and the single vineyard wines they made from Rochioli fruit rapidly made their fortunes and brought Rochioli to national and international attention.

Around this time, Joe Jr.’s son Tom had grown dissatisfied with his business career and decided to return to the family business. Capitalizing on the rapidly increasing demand for the family’s fruit, Tom helped transform the Rochioli ranch from a farm to a full working winery. With the help of another of their customers, Gary Farrell, the family produced its first vintage under the Rochioli brand in 1982, a 150 case production of Pinot Noir from a vineyard plot known as the West Block.

Within a few years, Tom had taken over as winemaker, a position which he continues to hold today, even as his father Joe Jr. continues to direct the management of the family’s vineyards.

Producing about 13,000 cases of wine each year, Rochioli produces appellation designated wines under the Rochioli Vineyards label, and single vineyard and block-designated wines under the J. Rochioli label. These latter wines, including this West Block Pinot Noir, are available only to their mailing list customers.

Tom Rochioli’s winemaking style, as well as his entire family’s philosophy of wine production are based in the traditions of Burgundy, and in particular the Cote d’Or. Exacting quality standards, clonal diversity, and vineyard management techniques produce top quality fruit, which is then babied through a traditional hands-off winemaking process that attempts to manipulate the wine as little as possible through its lifecycle.

More so than almost any other Pinot Noir in California, Rochioli wines are built to age, and do so beautifully, as this wine clearly attests. I have had the pleasure of drinking bottles dating back to 1990 in the past few years, and they are holding up magnificently. Whether they have the 50+ year longevity of old world Burgundy, only time will tell, but if any Pinot Noir America will likely age in that fashion, it will most certainly be Rochioli.

Whenever possible I avoid favoritism, as I believe my life and the lives of my readers benefit from a diverse exploration and recommendation of wines. However, when it comes right down to it, I am hard pressed to think of another California wine that I care for more than Rochioli’s block designated Pinot Noirs. And if I could have them all with 12 or more years of age on them? Well, as they say, just shoot me now.

Tasting Notes:
Medium blood red in the glass, with very little fading towards the rim, this wine has a mouthwatering nose of rosemary smoked meat aromas mixed with a background hum of raspberry and hibiscus. When the wine enters the mouth, it’s like John Coltrane snuck up behind you and started playing — the world slows down, and everything rings like crystal. Perfectly balanced between acid and tannin, fruit and earth, this wine sings with a delicate concoction of raspberry, leather, and the mix of herbs that the French refer to as garrigue. Like all fantastic aged Pinot Noir, those core flavors are just the beginning, however, as layers build and build headed into a long finish. This wine in particular has a gorgeous high note of tart red apple skin that hangs in the air (or is it the mind?) long after you’ve swallowed the wine. Drinking phenomenally well now, and likely to last at least another 10 years, and maybe more?

Food Pairing:
Good lord, who wants to eat food when you could drink wine like this? I served this wine in a still moment between courses at a recent dinner. While some people were content to pair the wine with the roasted leg of lamb we served, I found myself merely waiting for the wine to release me back into the flow of dinner, which it eventually did a few minutes after I drained the last drop from my glass.

Overall Score: between 9.5 and 10

How Much?: This wine was sold only to mailing list customers, meaning it must be bought on the secondary market. Current prices at auction are around $180.

It is possible to purchase this wine on the Internet.