Given the chance, I highly recommend anyone to make the investment of time and money to watch a winery evolve from its very first vintage. It doesn’t take much, just buying a bottle or two every year from a brand new winery that you think shows some promise, and then drinking them.
Such observation is a wonderful study in personality. You get to see, or perhaps more accurately, taste, how a winemaker settles into a winery and its vineyards, and how he or she begins to express whatever it is that can be expressed through the wines.
I’ve had the pleasure of watching Arista Winery since it made its official commercial debut about 4 years ago. If I had to characterize my first impression of the personality that was expressed in the very first bottling I might use the words “confident” or “steady.” That personality has been borne out over several vintages, as Arista has gradually expanded its portfolio of single vineyard Pinot Noirs.
Arista Winery is run by 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 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, just down the road from neighbors Rochioli Vineyards and Williams Selyem.
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.
These days, Leslie is assisted in the cellar by Mark McWilliams, Al’s son, who also runs the tasting room with his wife Jennifer. Their latest project is a 12 acre vineyard planted on their estate which will begin producing in a couple of years. For now, they continue to get their fruit from some top quality growers in the Russian River Valley and a couple of places farther afield.
These vineyard sites are small enough for Leslie to make row-by-row harvesting decisions, as well as to carefully ensure each vine bears the optimum level of fruit. The grapes are always hand harvested, ideally before sunrise, and sorted twice in the field, and then again when the bins reach the winery, and then one more time, before the grapes are crushed, fermented, and shepherded into the new French oak that all the wines age in, for periods of time ranging from 8 months to 18 months.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on whose perspective you take, the winery’s single vineyard bottlings have faced increasing demand and are now only available to mailing list customers.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as a press samples.
2007 Arista Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Light garnet in color, this wine has a nose of peeled willow bark, cranberry relish, and unripe raspberries. In the mouth it is smooth, with somewhat simple flavors of raspberry and cranberry with a hint of green wood and spice on the finish. Tasty, but not profound. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $34. Where to buy?
2007 Arista “Mononi Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of violets, plums, and black raspberries. In the mouth it is incredibly juicy and bright with black raspberry and pomegranate fruit qualities and a beautiful aromatic sweetness that lingers through the finish with a hint of green wood. Only 74 cases produced. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65.
2007 Arista “Bacigalupi Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Light to medium ruby in color, this wine had a bright nose of peeled willow bark, and bright cherry aromas. In the mouth, smooth texture is followed by cranberry and pomegranate flavors with excellent acid balance and a deeper darker quality to the wine. Score: around 9. Cost: $56.
2007 Arista “Longbow” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Light ruby in color with a faint cloudiness, this wine has a nose of peeled willow bark, cranberries, and a nice floral note. In the mouth it is smooth and bright with spicy plum and cranberry flavors carried by very nice acidity and an underlying note of wet, green wood that gives the wine some pleasing dimension. Score: around 9. Cost: $44. Where to buy?
2007 Arista “Perli Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Mendocino Ridge
Light ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of cranberry, pomegranate, and hibiscus aromas. In the mouth it is silky at first, but then grippy with light, leathery tannins that wrap around flavors of cranberry and raspberry with hints of wet wood on the finish. A slight heat creeps up the back of the throat with this wine. Despite that, it’s hard not to like. Score: around 9. Cost: $56.
2007 Arista “Toboni Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Light ruby in color, this wine has a bright nose of peeled willow bark, white flowers, and raspberries. In the mouth the wine is satin-like on the tongue, and possesses a beautiful and mouthwatering savory note of miso or umami that begs you to swallow the raspberry and cranberry fruit that follows. A nice finish melds these two components, bright with acidity, into a pleasing aftertaste that is worth contemplating silently. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $56.
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