Gorgeous Sonoma Coast Syrah

Today’s Story: Pax Mahle Wines

Pax Mahle Wines was established in 2000 by Pax and Pam Mahle with a focus on Syrah and more “esoteric” varieties that can thrive in the cooler climate vineyards of Sonoma County and Mendocino. Pax and Pam moved to California wine country in 1997, though after a few years with Dean & DeLuca sourcing wines Pax decided he wanted to move into the production side of the wine business. Though Pax quickly rose to stardom producing Rhône variety wines (namely his Syrah), he expanded into working with Trousseau Gris, Chenin Blanc, Gamay Noir, and Mission with similar success. Pax farms his vineyards eschewing the use of chemicals and crushes his fruit by hand and foot as part of his minimal intervention philosophy. Pax only uses natural yeasts during fermentation and sulfur is added as minimally as required for stabilization only. Thanks to the high quality vineyard sites and his winemaking philosophy, Pax’s wines are magnificent representations of the varieties and terroir from which they come.

I previously wrote about the 2017 Sonoma Hillsides Syrah from Pax.

Today’s Wine: 2016 Griffin’s Lair Syrah

100% Syrah; 13.2% ABV

The 2016 Griffin’s Lair Syrah is deep ruby in color but with deep purple hues in the bowl of the glass. I let this open up in the glass for about an hour, though I think decanting is the proper move. The aromas are of medium (+) intensity, with the nose showcasing notes of blueberry, blackberry, plum, violets, pine, cracked pepper, iron, and crushed rock. Meanwhile the flavors are also of medium (+) intensity and the palate displays notes of blueberry, black plum, black cherry, sweet tobacco, mild smoke, cracked green peppercorn, charred green herbs, and chalk. This dry red is medium-bodied with medium (+) acidity, medium (+) but fine-grained tannins, medium alcohol, and a medium (+) length finish. Very good quality, though I think patience will be further rewarded by cellaring this bottling.

Price: $60 (I found it for $50). I think this is somewhere between the fairly-priced and good value status, especially if you find it for around $50 like I did. There’s a great Old World charm to this wine, while the complexity and intensity are quite solid. It is still rather youthful though, so decant this or give it a couple more years.

Complex Sonoma Coast Syrah Made in Miniscule Quantities

Today’s Story: Black Trumpet

Black Trumpet is a very, very small wine producer established in 2012 by Sophie Drucker and Garrett Pierce. Born out of their passion for Syrah and the Black Chanterelle Mushroom, Black Trumpet is a one to two barrel (25-50 case) annual production of Syrah from Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. They pick Syrah from some of their favorite organically-farmed sites (today’s 2019 bottling comes from the Charles Heintz Vineyard), and all harvesting is accomplished by hand. Grapes ferment in open-top barrels with partial stem inclusion and wild yeasts, with limited to no sulfur additions throughout the process. Come bottling, the wines are never fined or filtered to preserve both the variety characteristics and the expression of terroir.

Today’s Wine: 2019 Syrah

100% Syrah; 14% ABV

The 2019 Syrah is deep ruby in color and completely opaque. I decanted this for about an hour, as it’s still incredibly youthful. The aromas are of medium (+) intensity, with the nose showcasing notes of blueberry, black plum, blackberry, anise, violets, mild smoke, cured meat, and cracked pepper. Flavors are also of medium (+) intensity and the palate displays notes of blackberry, blueberry, licorice, bacon fat, charred green herbs, clove, black pepper, and chocolate. This dry red is medium-bodied with medium (+) acidity, medium tannins, medium alcohol, and a medium (+) length finish. 1-2 barrels (25-50 cases) produced each vintage.

Price: $35. I think this is very reasonably-priced given both the quality level and miniscule production numbers. In its youth, this is already very well-balanced with solid complexity and intensity. This also gives off a very Northern Rhône vibe while still showcasing the Californian fruit which I think can prove attractive for both Old and New World palates.

Finessed Old World Style Syrah From California’s Sonoma Coast

Today’s Story: Radio-Coteau

Radio-Coteau is somewhat of a cult winery (though not in the sense many people use the term nowadays) established by winemaker Eric Sussman in 2002. Though the winery is situated in Sebastopol and Eric owns a ridgetop estate vineyard above the town of Occidental, he also sources fruit from vineyards throughout the cooler climates of the northern coast within western Sonoma County and Anderson Valley. Eric brings his impressive history with wine to Radio-Coteau, one that includes stints in Washington’s Yakima Valley, the 1995 vintage in Pauillac on the Left Bank of Bordeaux, and the 1996 vintage in Burgundy at Domaine Comte Armand of Pommard and Domaine Jacques Prieur of Meursault. It was in France when Eric first heard the term “radio-coteau,” which means “word of mouth” or literally “broadcasting from the hillside.” Coupled with his flair for Old World style wines, Eric named his winery after this phrase to signify both a tight-knit community mindset as well as his wines being a true representation of the terroir. Working extensively with organic and biodynamic viticulture in well-drained and marine soils, Eric produces refined examples of Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel.

For more on Radio-Coteau, I suggest visiting the extensive website here. There are some very interactive maps of the vineyards, and fantastic photos that also show the livestock and gardens living on the estate site.

Today’s Wine: 2011 Las Colinas Syrah

100% Syrah; 13.3% ABV

The 2011 Las Colinas Syrah is opaque medium purple in color. This was firing on all cylinders as a pop-and-pour, so I simply let it evolve in the glass in lieu of decanting. The aromas leap out of the glass with pronounced intensity, offering up red plum, cherry, blackberry, dried violet, cigar box, licorice, gamey meat, dried underbrush, smoke, scorched earth, and clove. Meanwhile the palate is equally intense with notes of black plum, black cherry, blueberry, violet, tobacco, dried herbs, slate, black pepper, chalky mineral, mild chocolate, and baking spice. This dry Sonoma Coast Syrah is medium- to full-bodied with medium acidity, medium but refined tannins, medium alcohol, and a long finish. This is as Old World as it gets for California, and is certainly one of the most elegant Cali Syrah’s I’ve had to date. 330 cases produced.

Price: $50. I think I’m on a value streak lately because this Syrah is absolutely worth its price and can even strike up there with high-quality Northern Rhône bottlings. This is perhaps the most elegant and finessed California Syrah I’ve tasted for the price-point and is deliciously chuggable. Well done.

California Pinot Rooted in Burgundian Traditions

Today’s Story: Littorai Wines

Littorai is a small family-owned and operated winery established by Ted and Heidi Lemon in 1993. Dedicated to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Littorai produces vineyard-designate wines (save for the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) from coastal vineyards in the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley of California. Ted is a career winemaker, having earned an Enology degree from the University of Dijon in Burgundy in 1981. During his time in Burgundy, Ted worked stints at a number of prestigious domaines including Domaine Georges Roumier, Domaine Bruno Clair, Domaine Parent, Domaine de Villaine, Domaine Delorme, and Domaine Dujac. In 1983, he became the first American ever to become winemaker and vineyard manager of a Burgundy estate by taking the reigns of Domaine Guy Roulot in Meursault. Though his stint at Roulot was fairly short-lived (this was during the uncertainty following Guy’s death), Ted returned to the United States and worked or consulted at a number of wineries before establishing Littorai. Heidi worked in wine as well prior to the couples’ own project, with an impressive resume including Domaine Chandon, Robert Pecota Winery, Robert Long Vineyards, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

As one might surmise, Ted’s winemaking philosophy is shaped tremendously by his studying and work in Burgundy. Ted believes the soil and more broadly terroir are the leading factors of winemaking and he strives to showcase a true sense of place with each bottle of wine he produces. To this end, Ted is very particular about the vineyards he sources from (though today his fruit is roughly half purchased and half estate grown) and common characteristics include low yields, organic viticulture, and biodynamic practices. Ted and his team further believe in manual farming and they only use natural materials such as “estate produced compost” for “fertilizer.” In the winery itself, Ted remains somewhat hush on his process but does certify there are no additives in his wines such as cultured yeasts, cultured bacteria, acidification, or enzymes. Littorai wines are also bottled unfined and unfiltered off the original lees. Production numbers are quite limited, and all wines sell direct to consumer via the mailing list or to various restaurants.

In 2003, Ted and Heidi purchased a 30-acre biodynamic farm to advance their goal of generative agriculture. The Lemons produce as much as they can on-site for both farming and winemaking needs, which the inhabitants of cows, sheep, chickens, and ducks assist with. Several years later, the Lemons completed their winery in 2008 and the walls are made of caged bales of hay! Natural cooling from nighttime temperatures helps maintain the winery and the cellars, and it is set up using gravity flow to minimize handling of the wines.

To view the source of the above information, view pictures of the winery and vineyards, or join the mailing list for Littorai Wines, visit their website (previously linked) here.

Today’s Wine: 2016 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

100% Pinot Noir; 13.4% ABV

The 2016 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is translucent pale to medium ruby in color, though it’s almost opaque. This requires about 45 minutes to an hour to blossom in the glass, showcasing a nose of black cherry, black raspberry, stewed strawberry, blueberry, violet, leather, tilled earth, chopped herbs, baking spice, and white pepper. The palate showcases classic notes of bing cherry, jammy raspberry, stemmy strawberry, plum, cola, leather, sweet tobacco, underbrush, slate, clove, and oaky spice. This is light- to medium-bodied with high acidity, medium (-) tannins, and a long finish.

Price: $60. I could argue there are better values for California Pinot Noir, but this is a very high quality and well-made Pinot Noir that does pose good value against the more “cult-level” bottlings that can be twice as expensive.

Legendary Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

Today’s Story: Kistler Vineyards

Kistler Vineyards is a small family-owned and operated winery established in 1978 by Steve Kistler and Mark Bixler in California’s Sonoma County. Founded on the belief that California could produce Burgundy-style Chardonnay representative of each unique vineyard site, Kistler works with a single Chardonnay clone planted across 15 vineyards to produce 11 single-vineyard bottlings. In addition to Chardonnay, Kistler produces small amounts of Pinot Noir using two heritage selections sourced from a Grand Cru site in Burgundy. Kistler farms their vineyards quite meticulously, with both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir clones highly limited in yield in order to produce fruit of intense depth, contrentration, and focus. In pursuing wines of character and place, the winemaking team at Kistler ferments using only native yeasts with no machination of the fruit while being as minimally invasive as possible. At bottling, the wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered.

Today’s Wine: 2012 Cuvée Natalie Pinot Noir

100% Pinot Noir; 14.1% ABV

The 2012 Cuvée Natalie Pinot Noir is pale ruby in color and almost opaque. I let the wine slow ox for about 45 minutes before letting it blossom in the glass, opening up to reveal aromas of bing cherry, pomegranate, black raspberry, licorice, red florals, leather, dried earth, savory herbs, and mild cinnamon. Once on the palate, this showcases notes of baked strawberry, cherry, raspberry, plum, rose, sweet tobacco, forest floor, underbrush, white pepper, and mild oaky spice. This silky and elegant Pinot is light- to medium-bodied with high acidity, medium (-) tannins, and a long finish. 1,065 cases produced.

Price: $150 (though you might be able to find it closer to $130). As much as I hate to say it, I think this bottling is a bit overpriced. While undoubtedly delicious, there are simply too many Pinot Noirs out there that punch well above this in terms of value. $150 is a very, very expensive California Pinot and at that price point I’d be more apt to poke around Burgundy or buy 2-3 bottles of a more value-oriented wine.

Sky-High Quality From a Regional Pinot Noir

Today’s Story: Paul Hobbs Winery

Paul Hobbs Winery was founded in 1991 by Paul Hobbs with his initial release of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon from purchased fruit. I previously wrote about Paul and his winery’s history in The Steve Jobs of Wine when I reviewed the 2015 Katherine Lindsay Estate Pinot Noir, but I will recycle it here for ease…

Paul grew up in upstate New York on a working family farm and orchard, so one could say agriculture was in his blood from an early age. Though Paul helped plant, harvest, and sell crops at nearby farmers’ markets before school each morning, his first foray into wine was helping his father achieve his dream of replanting some of the apples, peaches, and nuts in their orchards to wine grapes.

When it came time for Paul to go to college, his father encouraged him to study viticulture and enology but instead Paul followed in his great-grandfather’s footsteps by studying medicine and graduated with a BS in Chemistry from Notre Dame. His father’s persistence paid off, however, and Paul moved to California after graduation and studied viticulture and enology at UC Davis where he received his Master of Science three years later. Fresh off his new degree, Paul was hired by Robert Mondavi for his advanced knowledge of oak aging and he was quickly promoted to the inaugural Opus One winemaking team. Following his experiences at Robert Mondavi and Opus One, Paul joined Simi Winery as their winemaker before beginning consulting roles for Peter Michael, Lewis Cellars, Bodegas Catena, and soon other wineries around the world.

Throughout these experiences with wine, Paul Hobbs crafted a dream of his own to produce vineyard designated wines under his own name. In 1991, Paul spoke with Larry Hyde in Napa and Richard Dinner in Sonoma about purchasing some of their fruit, and the resulting 5 tons of fruit from each vineyard culminated in the first Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc of Paul Hobbs Winery. Paul’s dreams entered their next phase in 1998, however, when he purchased his family’s first estate vineyard and established the Katherine Lindsay Estate (named after his great-grandmother) in Sebastopol, CA. The first vintage of this wine came with the 2003 harvest, and today Paul Hobbs consists of seven estate vineyards in some of the preeminent Californian regions for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Paul Hobbs practices sustainable farming in caring for his vineyards and a minimalist approach in producing his wines. To sustain the integrity of his fruit and each vineyard block, Paul demands a constant flow of communication and knowledge from the vineyards to the cellar. When it comes time for harvest, all Paul Hobbs fruit is hand-harvested using hand sheers to keep the fruit in pristine condition. During the winemaking process, all wine is fermented using only native yeasts that originate in the vineyards and the cellar and the wine is aged in finely grained French oak barrels. With his finished product, Paul bottles the wine unfined and unfiltered in an effort to display the purity of the fruit and the place of each wine with elegance and transparency.

Fun fact: Paul Hobbs is widely known as “the Steve Jobs of wine” thanks to his “ardent exactitude” and immensely high demands for quality.

Today’s Wine: 2016 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

100% Pinot Noir; 14.1% ABV

The 2016 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is opaque medium ruby in color with purple hues. Given about 45 minutes to open up, the nose showcases aromas of brooding wild blueberry, dark cherry, plum, red licorice, dry charred earth, saturated gravel, hickory smoke, cinnamon, and oak. On the palate, I get notes of tart red cherry, black raspberry, pomegranate, blackberry liquor, scorched earth, slate and clay, dried cooking herbs, and cola. This is medium-bodied with medium (+) acidity, medium (-) tannins, and a long finish. Overall pretty ripe and somewhat opulent, this will only improve with a few more years of cellaring.

Price: $60. I will say there are better “value” Pinot Noir bottlings out there, but I do think this is a great entry opportunity into the Paul Hobbs portfolio and is remarkable in terms of quality and ripeness of fruit for a regional wine.

Mouthwatering Single Vineyard Chardonnay

Today’s Story: Rivers-Marie

Last week I enjoyed the 2015 Silver Eagle Vineyard Pinot Noir from Rivers-Marie so much that I decided to revisit the producer for a Chardonnay.

To recap from my post last week, Rivers-Marie is a family-owned winery established in 2002 by husband and wife duo Thomas Rivers Brown and Genevieve Marie Welsh. Thomas and Genevieve work with vineyards throughout the Sonoma Coast (especially in Occidental-Freestone) and produce Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa fruit as well. All of the Rivers-Marie wines are meant to be refined and terroir driven, showcasing each unique vineyard site through single vineyard bottlings. This being said, they produce some appellation wines as well.

Today’s Wine: 2012 B. Thieriot Vineyard Chardonnay

100% Chardonnay; 13.8% ABV

The 2012 B. Thieriot Chardonnay is gorgeous deep gold in color and transparent. This was singing right out of the bottle but blossomed further as it opened in the glass and warmed slightly. The nose showcases aromas of golden apple, crisp pear, stone fruit, honeysuckle, flint, toasted nuts, sea shell, saline mineral, and dried vanilla bean. Once in the mouth, the wine displays notes of green apple skins, mango, lemon zest, tropical citrus, toffee, slight smoke, dill, wax, saline, and brioche. This is medium-bodied and well-rounded with high acidity and a long, lingering finish.

Price: $100. This is pricey for a California Chardonnay no doubt, but I would certainly buy this again. While clearly a California Chardonnay thanks to the fruit profile, there are a lot of characteristics of Burgundy here and both the quality and depth are compelling. Pair with roasted chicken, lobster, or asparagus and shaved hazelnut.

One of California’s Most Famous Cult Pinot Noirs

Today’s Story: Marcassin Vineyards

Marcassin Vineyards is an incredibly small “cult” winery established by Helen Turley and her husband John Wetlaufer in 1990. Focusing entirely on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Marcassin produces around 2,500 to 3,000 cases of wine annually and a large majority goes to mailing list customers (with the waiting list said to be thousands of names long). The estate Marcassin Vineyard consists of 20 acres on the Sonoma Coast and, thanks to its growth from 10 acres over time, is now the main source of Marcassin’s fruit. With her vineyards planted very densely, Turley intentionally limits yields to produce healthier and more concentrated fruit which she then harvests on the riper side. Turley ferments her wines using only native yeasts, keeps them on the lees for 6-8 months, and ages them in 100% new oak barrels. When it is time for bottling, the wines are unfined, unfiltered, and do not see cold stabilization. The wines typically hit the market (or rather their collectors’ cellars) five years after the vintage.

Today’s Wine: 2007 Blue-Slide Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir

100% Pinot Noir; 14.9% ABV

The 2007 Blue-Slide Ridge Pinot is opaque pale to medium ruby in color with purple hues. This took some time to open up in the glass, but once it did the incredibly complex nose changed overtime to showcase black cherry, blueberry, black raspberry, black licorice, dried tobacco leaf, forest floor, black pepper, black olive, cinnamon, charred green herbs, and crushed rock. On the equally complex palate, the wine changed with each sip to display notes of sweet raspberry, red cherry, wild blueberry, strawberry jam, red licorice, tobacco, loamy earth, underbrush, mushroom, mild baking spice, and charred oak. This is medium-bodied with medium (+) acidity, medium (-) tannins, and a long finish. Still a lot of life left in this wine, though it is pretty well balanced already given the high ABV.

Price: $275. While this is certainly one of the best California Pinot Noirs I’ve had, I can’t say it is a good value at the price I paid. I understand the incredible rarity of this wine, but it is simply a treat that has been on my bucket list that I don’t see myself spending the money on again. If you are on the mailing list, however, that is a completely different story. Pair this with seared duck breast, roasted chicken, or rack of lamb.

Rockstar Single Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot

Today’s Story: Rivers-Marie

Rivers-Marie is a family-owned winery established in 2002 by husband and wife duo Thomas Rivers Brown and Genevieve Marie Welsh. Thomas is well-known throughout California winemaking thanks to his consulting practices and winemaking stints with names like Schrader, Maybach, and Outpost, however Rivers-Marie is a personal project born in Pinot Noir. Working with vineyards throughout the Sonoma Coast (especially in Occidental-Freestone), Thomas crafts Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon (Calistoga, St. Helena, and Oakville) in a more restrained, terroir-driven style than can be expected from his other ventures. The Pinot Noir bottlings consist of appellation wines and a number of single vineyard offerings, all produced with native yeasts and partial whole cluster fermentation. Thomas’ Chardonnays are made in similar minimalistic fashion with whole cluster barrel fermentation, no stirring, limited sulfur additions, aging in 0-25% new French oak, and are bottled unfined and unfiltered. The Cabernets are made to walk the fine line between power and elegance, showcasing classic Napa Valley fruit but not overpowering the terroir expressions.

Today’s Wine: 2015 Silver Eagle Vineyard Pinot Noir

100% Pinot Noir; 14.1% ABV

The 2015 Silver Eagle Pinot Noir is opaque medium purple/ruby in color. This takes some time to open up in the glass, but once it does the nose showcases aromas of cherry, black raspberry, dried strawberry, forest floor, game, cola, mint, baking spice, and crushed rock. On the palate, the wine displays notes of plum, black cherry, licorice, blue florals, tobacco, charred earth, dried green herbs, and iron. This is medium-bodied with high acidity, medium (-) tannins, and a long finish.

Price: $75. Not cheap for California Pinot Noir and getting up there with some of the bigger “cult” brands, but this is very elegant and definitely worth the price. This seems to be made in a slightly more refined style than many of the opulent, “in your face” Pinots that command similar or higher prices. Pair with herb-roasted chicken, mushroom risotto, or assorted charcuterie.

Clean, Honest, and Burgundian Cali Pinot Noir

Today’s Story: Ceritas Wines

Ceritas Wines is a small, family-owned winery spearheaded by husband and wife duo John and Phoebe Raytek. John and Phoebe source their fruit from trusted vintners mainly in the West Sonoma Coast and Santa Cruz Mountains, with all sites practicing sustainable or organic viticulture. John is highly involved in the vineyards they source from, and in many cases the vintners only sell fruit to Ceritas and are labeled “Monopoles.” Considering himself a winemaker of the Old World style, John believes that fruit should lead the way throughout the winemaking process and he is merely there to watch over, listen, and learn about each unique site. In the cellar, John practices minimal intervention but “flexible” winemaking, with the wines meant to showcase with honesty and transparency the terroir of each specific vineyard site.

Today’s Wine: 2017 Porter-Bass Vineyard Pinot Noir

100% Pinot Noir; 13.3% ABV

The 2017 Porter-Bass Vineyard Pinot Noir is mostly opaque pale ruby in color with hints of purple. This took a good hour to open up in the glass, with the nose showcasing aromas of red cherry, strawberry, blueberry, rose petal, forest floor, stemmy underbrush, crushed rock, flint, and mineral. On the palate, I get notes of dusty raspberry, dried cherry, crunchy pomegranate, plum, slightly stale licorice, violet, garden herbs, and stony mineral. This is light- to medium-bodied with medium acidity, medium (-) tannins, and a long finish. Gorgeous wine and very Burgundian in style, though 3 more years in the bottle will do it wonders.

Price: $75. Though not an inexpensive Pinot Noir, this still offers strong QPR when compared to the “big boys” of California Pinot Noir and the quality is impeccable. Pair this with roasted chicken, duck breast, or charcuterie.