Wine auctions are big business. Many major wine regions around the country and around the world hold auctions of some kind or another. They vary in their focus and approach, with some aimed at the general public, and others focused on the trade and media. Some are ways of raising money for the local community or charities. Some are used to raise money for the marketing of the wine region itself. All of them are a way of raising the profile of their regions through a focused celebration and the sale of what are often their best wines.
As a wine writer, such auctions are an opportunity to taste through a broad selection of wines (usually from the most recent vintage) in a single spot. Which is why I generally try to attend such events if I can, and try to taste as many wines as I can manage in the time provided for tasting.
I attend the trade-focused Premiere Napa Valley event every year and do my best to taste through all the wines on offer, but that has become nearly impossible as the number of lots on offer there has climbed past 200.
This year the stars aligned to open up a spot on my calendar and I had the opportunity to attend the Sonoma County Barrel Auction for the first time.
Like Napa’s Premiere auction, the Sonoma County Barrel Auction exists to fund the operations of the Sonoma County Vintners (SCV) association and the AVA-specific marketing organizations that partner with the SCV, through the sale of one-of-a-kind barrel lots to members of the wine trade.
The Sonoma County Barrel Auction, however, is both smaller in scope than the Premiere auction, and much more in its infancy, this year being only its third incarnation. Thanks to increasing returns from the auction, however, it seems likely to continue. This year’s auction of 90 lots raised a total of $794,500, an increase of more than $100,000 from last year. By way of comparison, Napa’s Premiere auction raised $4.2 million for the Napa Vintners this year.
The price tag of the wines isn’t the only difference between the two auctions, of course. The Sonoma County Barrel Auction feels much more intimate and casual, in part because there are less than half of the number of auction lots available for tasting, and also because there are around one quarter of the number of people in attendance. The tasting environment, too, feels a bit more laid back, ranging as it does through a number of conference rooms and the patio at the Vintners Inn outside of Santa Rosa.
As someone there primarily to taste the wines (as opposed to scope out potential purchases or schmooze with vintners), the vibe and the fewer number of lots, not to mention the lack of a crowd made for a more enjoyable tasting experience than the melee of Premiere Napa Valley.
Having said that, I think Sonoma County Vintners could stand to take a few tips from their glitzier cousins over the hill. For instance, I found a number of tables staffed primarily with marketing folks from the winery, rather than the owner or winemaker. Now this could be purely a coincidence of when I visited the table, so perhaps this was more the exception than the rule. I don’t make a lot of conversation with folks at tastings like this, but when I do, I definitely appreciate having the owner or winemaker there to talk authoritatively about the wine or the vineyard. If I were a buyer about to shell out thousands of dollars for the auction lot, I would certainly want the opportunity to meet the folks behind the label, not just some marketing person.
The other thing that I found a little disappointing was the lack of a number of big names in Sonoma County wine. Certainly a number of the more prominent and famous (read: most sought after and pricey) wineries in Sonoma were in attendance, such as Kosta Browne, Silver Oak, Ramey, Jordan, Martinelli, Williams Selyem, and Patz & Hall. A few others were there in spirit, having some of their wine included in some special blends, such as Rochioli, Merry Edwards and Littorai. But there were a notable list of absences.
The organizers of the event can hardly be blamed for this, as I’m sure they can’t compel participation (which doubtless has a very real cost) in any way. But I can’t help but think that the auction proceeds, not to mention the attendance and interest in the event would be helped by the presence of wines on offer from the likes of Kistler, Hanzell, Verite, Peter Michael Estate, Marcassin, and Kamen Estate. Not to mention some of the more prominent up-and-coming wineries such as Arnot-Roberts, Ceritas, Cobb, Ryme, Wind Gap, etc.
Of course, those folks would also have to be members of the Sonoma County Vintners association, which many may not be. And that point really represents what I think is the greatest weakness that this event will need to overcome in order to truly shine, and in order to start bringing in the big dollars and attention that it surely deserves.
The fact of the matter is that Sonoma county is a rather fractured and divided wine growing region. Unlike Napa, in which a significant majority of the more than 500 producers belong to the Vintners Association, only around half of Sonoma’s more than 500 producers belong to the Sonoma Vintners association. I have not checked the membership roles to be able to ground my speculation, but I wonder if there aren’t a lot of wineries that either don’t belong to any regional marketing association, or are members of their own specific regional groups such as Dry Creek Winegrowers, Alexander Valley Winegrowers, or Sonoma Valley Winery Association and not members of the Sonoma Vintners.
If true, it seems to me, that is a bit of a shame. Sonoma wines are world class, and deserve a lot more attention than they get.
Which brings me to my last set of observations about the auction. While it is not surprising that the majority of the lots were Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (as those are historically the most expensive wines from Sonoma County), it seems like a missed opportunity to not have a bunch more Cabernets from Alexander Valley (which, if unique and special lots, might drive up prices), not to mention a few Zinfandels.
I must say that I expected to experience a few more “wow” wines than I tasted at this event. Perhaps that may be asking too much of Pinot and Chardonnay at a mere 8 months into their lives as wines, but their youth can’t be the only thing responsible. I enjoyed the tasting thoroughly, and as my scores below indicate there were a lot of excellent wines on offer. But there were many fewer really fantastic wines than there should have been, in my opinion, this being an auction of ultra special wines designed to command a premium.
On the other hand, maybe I was just in a hard-to-impress mood that day. Regardless, this was a worthy event, for a worthy cause, and I wish nothing but continued success and recognition for Sonoma County wines, and I hope as this barrel auction continues to establish itself, that even more famous producers will support it by donating barrel lots. I can’t wait to taste them.
Here are my notes as I recorded them for all 90 auction lots.
WHITE WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9
2016 Flanagan Winery “The Pick of Platt Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
Nutty, juicy, lean, lemony, bright, toasty. Great acid.
2016 Ramey Wine Cellars “Ramey’s Heart of the Russian River Valley” Chardonnay, Russian River Valley
Zingy lemon flavors and wet stones with a hint of yeastiness, tart.
2008 J Vineyards & Winery “A Celebration of Sonoma Sparkling” Champagne Blend, Russian River Valley
Lemon flavors backed by searing acidity, grapefruit and pith. Sweet tart sourness. A blend of Chardonnay 71%, Pinot Noir 27%, Pinot Meunier 2%
2016 Dry Creek Vineyard and Rochioli Vineyards & Winery “Iconic Sauvignon Blanc Collaboration” Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County
A blend of Dry Creek Valley fruit and Russian River Valley fruit. Passion fruit and apple with lovely lemony tones. A blend of 50% Sauvignon Blanc, 29% Sauvignon Musqué and 21% Sauvignon Gris.
WHITE WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9
2016 Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards & Winery “Shot Berry Chardonnay” Chardonnay, Chalk Hill
2015 Lynmar Estate “Susanna’s Vineyard Wente Selection” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
2016 Pellegrini Wine Company “Aida’s Aria” Chardonnay, Russian River Valley
WHITE WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
2015 Fisher Vineyards “40th Vintage High Elevation Heritage Chardonnay” Chardonnay, Sonoma County
WHITE WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
2016 Davis Bynum Winery “Gravel Lens” Chardonnay, Russian River Valley
WHITE WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8
2016 Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards “A Cut Above: Cutrer Single Barrel Chardonnay” Chardonnay, Russian River Valley
WHITE WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7
2015 Don Sebastiani & Sons “All in the Family Reserve Chardonnay” Chardonnay, Sonoma Valley
RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9.5
2016 West Sonoma Coast Vintners (Peay Vineyards, Failla Wines, Alma Fria, Gros Ventre Cellars) “Amazing Annapolis” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
First of its kind – a bottling of only fruit from Annapolis vineyards. Raspberry, tart sour cherry, juicy, herbal, fine tannins, mineral, and great acidity. Yum! So that’s what it tastes like.
RED WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5
2015 Dry Creek Vineyard “45 Years of Excellence” Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley
Lovely savory cassis and blackberry and earth mix with dried herbs. Ripe but not too ripe. Contains 20% Petite Sirah
2016 DuMOL “A Perfect Pairing: Dutton-Jentoft 21st Anniversary” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Rich, but balanced. Juicy, dark character but light on its feet. Tasty. Long finish.
2016 Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery “Rochioli River Block” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Juicy bright raspberry fruit with a dash of fresh herbs. Very fine tannins.
2016 MacRostie Winery & Vineyards “Elevation” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Juicy cherry and cranberry with a hint of herbs. Fine but muscular tannins, great acidity.
2015 Medlock Ames “The Top Terrace” Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley
Bright cherry, black cherry and cola flavors. Juicy with tight, muscular tannins. Long finish.
2015 Ravenswood Winery “Black Bart’s 1888 Zinfandel” Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley
Gorgeous, bramble, blackberry and juicy black cherry give way to herbs and earth. Contains 76% Zinfandel, 13% Petite Sirah, 8% Alicante Bouschet and 3% Carignane.
2016 West Sonoma Coast Vintners (Peay Vineyards, Littorai Wines, Red Car Wine Company, Freeman Vineyard & Winery, Failla Wines, DuMOL, Gregory James Wines) “West Sonoma Wonderland” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Bright cherry and cranberry, with stiffer tannins than the Annapolis bottling, juicy fruit gives way to herbs and earth. Lovely.
RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9
2015 Alexander Valley Vineyards “Let’s Be Franc” Cabernet Franc, Alexander Valley
Juicy, lush, cherry, floral, yum!
2016 The Calling “Follow Your Calling to New Heights” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Mountain
Very pretty cherry, raspberry, fine Yannis, good acid. Long.
2016 Westwood Estate Winery “Annadel Gap’s Crown Jewels” Syrah/Grenache, Sonoma Valley
Rich juicy, earthy, mineral, cassis, blackberry
2016 EnRoute Winery “For the Win: Widdoes Whole Cluster” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Bright, lean, faint tannins, herbs
2016 Ernest Vineyards “A Final Freestone Combined with Cleary” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Juicy lean, tart, cherry, raspberry, silky, smooth
2016 Dutton-Goldfield Winery “The Green Triangle” Pinot Noir, Green Valley
Juicy bright, cherry and raspberry with tight, faint tannins, great acidity and a long finish.
2016 Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery “Five Clone Cuvée” Pinot Noir, Fort Ross-Seaview
Tasty cherry and raspberry mixed with herbs and earth.
2016 Gordian Knot Winery “Triple Threat” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Bright sweet raspberry fruit, faint tannins.
2016 Arista Winery, Benovia Winery, Three Sticks Wines “A Celebration of Saralee” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Juicy, bright, cherry and cranberry, with a touch of herbs. Long finish.
2016 Jordan Vineyard & Winery “Déjà Vu All Over Again” Red Blend, Alexander Valley
Melange of cherry, herbs and tobacco. Smooth tannins. An unusual blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, and 1% Pinot Noir.
2016 Keller Estate “Pinot, if You Please” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Herbal and floral enough to suggest whole cluster, but none at all, it turns out. Raspberry and cherry fruit merge with an earthy note.
2016 Williams Selyem Winery “Sonata No. 3” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Cherry and cranberry, with smooth fine tannins. Not much oak influence, long finish.
2015 Gundlach Bundschu Winery “A Tale of Two Winemakers” Red Blend, Sonoma Valley
Classic in style — cherry and tobacco, tight tannins, good acidity, and length. A blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec and 4% Petit Verdot.
2014 Merriam Vineyards “Revel in the Right Bank” Red Blend, Russian River Valley
Lean in flavor, despite nearly 15% alcohol, with hints of herbs. And tight tannins — must be the lack of new wood. Nice. Good acid. A blend of 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc.
2015 Pride Mountain Vineyards “25th Anniversary Summit Cuvée” Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County
Smoky cherry, cocoa powder, graphite, fine tannins, silky, good acidity.
2016 Merry Edwards Winery and MacRostie Winery & Vineyards “The Dungeon” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Smooth, silky, cherry and raspberry.
2016 Kosta Browne “The Shire of Freestone” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Cherry and raspberry, rich, but restrained thank to good portion of concrete fermentation, citrus kick.
2016 Paul Hobbs Winery “Great Things Happen in Threes” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast Raspberry, cherry, smooth, fine tannins, great acidity, dense.
2015 Viluko Vineyards “Return of the King” Cabernet Sauvignon” Cabernet Sauvignon, Fountaingrove District Rich, cherry, tobacco, cassis, soft and lush. Contains 15% Malbec.
2015 Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley (Cast Wines, Comstock Wines, Kokomo Winery, Mill Creek Winery, Mounts Family Winery, Nalle Winery, Preston of Dry Creek) ” “Return of the Zintners” Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley Juicy, sweet blackberry and cherry, vanilla, faint tannins. Good. Acid.
2015 Silver Oak Cellars “Silver Oak 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon” Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley
Sweet cherry and coconut, with fine, but drying tannins. Smooth, the American oak relatively restrained here.
The Russian River Valley Winegrowers lot included 5 different wines, each from a different area of the AVA. Four of them scored around 9 on my scale, and one a little shy of that. Here are the four tastiest bits:
2013 Russian River Valley Winegrowers “Neighborhoods Exploration” Pinot Noir (Laguna Ridge area), Russian River Valley
Cherry, raspberry, snappy.
2014 Russian River Valley Winegrowers “Neighborhoods Exploration” Pinot Noir (Sebastopol Hills area), Russian River Valley
Cherry, a bit more lush, herbal, with distinct whole cluster presence
2015 Russian River Valley Winegrowers “Neighborhoods Exploration” Pinot Noir (Green Valley area), Russian River Valley
Juicy raspberry with fine tannins.
2016 Russian River Valley Winegrowers “Neighborhoods Exploration” Pinot Noir (Middle Reach), Russian River Valley
RED WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9
2012 Russian River Valley Winegrowers “Neighborhoods Exploration” Pinot Noir (Santa Rosa plains), Russian River Valley
2015 Anaba Wines “None Other Than Barrel No. 1” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
2016 CIRQ Estate “CIRQ 23” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2016 DANIEL “Past & Future: Calera Clone Pinot Noir” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2016 Buena Vista Winery “High Elevation Cabernet” Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County
2016 Joseph Phelps Vineyards “Block 224 Spotlight from the Quarter Moon Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
2016 Donelan Family Wines “Hidden Gem” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
2016 DeLoach Vineyards “Hand-Harvested, Biodynamic Grown Wine” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2015 Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery “Don’s Four Barrel Mountain Reserve Red” Red Blend, Alexander Valley 90%, Dry Creek Valley 10%
2014 Gamba Vineyards and Winery “A Brand New Bottling of Old Vine Vineyards” Zinfandel, Russian River Valley
2015 Garden Creek Ranch Vineyards Winery “A Private Barrel Selection” Red Blend, Alexander Valley
2015 Fisher Vineyards “Cabernet’s Brilliant Alter Ego: Cabernet Franc” Cabernet Franc, Sonoma County
2016 Iron Horse Vineyards “ABS–’76: A Celebration of Founders Audrey and Barry Sterling” Pinot Noir, Green Valley
2015 Linked Vineyards “The Fabulous Five Percent” Cabernet Sauvignon, Knights Valley
2016 Martin Ray Vineyards and Winery “Take Us to the ‘Tower Block’ Pinot Noir” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2015 Mauritson Family Winery “Sonoma’s Own Everest” Cabernet Sauvignon, Rockpile
2016 Lynmar Estate “Quail Hill Select Pinot Noir” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2016 Patz & Hall “Magnum Cum Laude” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2015 Robert Young Estate Winery “Heritage Vines Estate Cabernet Sauvignon” Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley
2016 Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance (Adobe Road Winery, Bruliam Wines, Buena Vista Winery, DANIEL, Fogline Vineyards, Guarachi Family Wines, Keller Estate, Loxton Cellars, Rodney Strong Vineyards, Trombetta Family Wines, Wind Gap Wines) “Bridging the Gap” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
2014 Sbragia Family Vineyards “”Homage” to Home Red Blend” Petite Sirah, Dry Creek Valley
2016 Seghesio Family Vineyards “Beautiful Benchland Dry Creek Zinfandel” Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley
2016 Twomey Cellars “Last Stop” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2015 Westwood Estate Winery “Double Trouble” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Valley
RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
2015 Amapola Creek Vineyards & Winery “Richard Arrowood’s Reserve Selection” Petite Sirah , Moon Mountain District
2016 Balletto Vineyards “Feel the Burnside Road Vineyard Pinot Noir” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2015 Belden Barns “Serendipity: Single Barrel Select” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Mountain
2016 Martinelli Winery “To the Moon and Back!” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2016 La Crema “Taking on the Tradition of Excellence” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2015 Rodney Strong Vineyards “Serenity” Red Blend, Alexander Valley
2014 SIMI Winery “Close, But Not Tannat” Red Blend, Alexander Valley
2015 WALT Wines “”Bob’s Ranch” Pinot Noir” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
RED WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
2016 Benovia Winery “Take Us to the Top of Tilton Hill” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2015 Christopher Creek Winery “It’s All in the Details” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2016 Emeritus Vineyards “One Block, One Clone, One Unforgettable Wine” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2015 Francis Ford Coppola Winery “Eureka!” Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley
2016 Guarachi Family Wines “Top Secret” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
2015 Laurel Glen Vineyard “Randall’s Favorite Barrel of 2015” Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountain
2015 Kunde Family Winery “Expression of Moon Mountain” Red Blend, Moon Mountain District
2015 Joseph Swan Vineyards “Russian River Valley Rocks and Sand (Rocksand!)” Syrah , Russian River Valley
2016 Migration “The Best Block and the Best Barrel” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2015 Schug Carneros Estate Winery “Moon Mountain Selection” Red Blend, Moon Mountain District
2016 St. Francis Winery & Vineyards “A Sonoma Wine with Burgundian Roots” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8
2015 Knights Bridge Winery “Get to Know Knights Bridge 2015 Petite Verdot” Petit Verdot, Knights Valley
2016 Virginia Dare Winery “Dare to Dream” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
RED WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 7.5 AND 8
2015 Comstock Wines “The Mother Lode Whole Cluster Merlot” Merlot, Dry Creek Valley
2015 MacMurray Estate Vineyards “Must-Have Heritage Wine” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7.5
2015 B.R. Cohn Winery “Glory of Olive Hill Estate” Red Blend, Sonoma Valley
2015 Viszlay Vineyards “All About Block 3 Pinot Noir” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 6.5
2015 Pedroncelli Winery “Noventa: Paying Homage to the Home Ranch” Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley