Next month will be the beginning of my fifth year of writing this column in the Sun. That realization prompted me to look back at the first column I wrote here in May of 2010. It was titled “Sonoma: Mecca for high-end Pinot Noir?” and I would have to say that the answer to that question is an even more emphatic “yes” than it was four years ago.
With all this in mind, I decided to put together my list with some brief notes on the Pinot producers here in Sonoma that in my mind are “must taste” wines if you love Pinot Noir. Some of these producers have tasting rooms, some do not – I have included their websites for more information. This is my list — your list might be different, and that is what makes wine interesting!
Here are my picks, listed in alphabetical order:
Anaba Wines — Winemaker Jennifer Marion makes several bottlings of Pinot Noir that are full of texture and nuance. She also makes terrific Chardonnay and white and red Rhone-style wines; the Turbine White is really great. Anaba’s tasting room is a little south of town (at Highways 121 and 116), Anabawines.com.
Athair Wines — Athair is the project of winemaker Jim McMahon. Athair is Gaelic for father. These are terrific and mostly unknown wines. Athair has no tasting room but the wines can be found on some local wine lists, Athairwine.com.
Auteur Wines – Kenneth Juhasz, longtime winemaker at The Donum Estate, and his wife Laura are the team behind Auteur Wines. French for “author,” Auteur showcases Kenneth’s masterful talents with Pinot Noir as well as Chardonnay, sourced from both California and Oregon. Tasting by appointment at their tasting room just north of the Plaza, Auteurwines.com,
Bryter Estates — Chicago transplants Bryan and Terin Ignozzi founded Bryter Estates in 2009, fullfilling their dream of living in wine country and making their own wines. Terin is the winemaker and her Pinots are bright, spicy and forward. The Bryter tasting room is located in Wine Alley on East Napa Street on the Plaza, Bryter.com.
The Donum Estate — Donum Estate is easily in my top 5 Pinot producers in California. This incredible estate was established on Ramal Road in Carneros in 2001 by Anne Moller-Racke. She has expanded the holdings since then with estate vineyards in Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley. Kenneth Juhasz was the founding winemaker and is now in a consulting role; Dan Fishman is the winemaker. These are terrific, complex, texture-driven Pinot Noirs. Donum Estate offers private tastings by appointment only, Thedonumestate.com.
Dunstan Wines — Dunstan’s home is the southern half of the Durell Vineyard at the western edge of the Sonoma Valley. Ellie Phipps Price established Dunstan in 2005 and Chris Towt joined Dunstan in 2006 both working toward the launch of the brand in 2008. The Dunstan Pinots, made by Winemaker Kenneth Juhasz (sensing a pattern here?), are nicely layered and balanced. Chardonnay and a Rose of Pinot Noir are also produced. For more information, Dunstanwines.com.
Hanzell Vineyards — Hanzell Vineyards is truly a local jewel. Founded in 1948 by James D. Zellerbach, the 200-acre estate wraps around and atop a hill to the north of and overlooking the Plaza. Today, Winemaker Michael McNeill creates benchmark Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that are know for their ability to age seemingly indefinitely. Tasting by appointment, Hanzell.com.
Nicholson Ranch — Nicholson Ranch Winery is the wine venture of Deepak Gulrajani. The winery is located on the 160-acre Nicholson family ranch. Situated at the junction of Highway 121 and Napa Road, it’s a great place to stop and taste. Four Pinots are produced as well as Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah. For more information, visit Nicholsonranch.com.
Patz & Hall – James Hall is another Pinot master vintner. His Pinots and Chardonnays, sourced from vineyards up and down the coast, are rich, complex and delicious and are benchmarks pretty much every year. Patz & Hall has just opened its new Sonoma House tasting room Eighth Street East; reservations are suggested. For more information, Patzhall.com.
R2 Wine Company – Roger Roessler and his brother Richard Roessler launched R2 Wine Company in 2010 after spending the previous decade building a critically successful lineup of high-end Pinot Noir under the Roessler Cellars label. Four years later and the focus is again on Pinot Noir with the flagship Black Pine Pinot and several single-vineyard bottlings, as well as some really nice Rhone-style wines. Drew Huffine is the winemaker. The R2 Wine Co. tasting room is on Broadway, just south of the Plaza, r2winecompany.com.
Schug Carneros Estate – This is another hidden Pinot jewel, founded in 1980 by veteran winemaker Walter Schug and his family. Walter’s son Axel is the managing partner and Mike Cox is the winemaker. The focus is on Pinot and Chardonnay; other wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. The Pinot style is fresh and lively with good structure and balance for aging. The winery and tasting room are located just west of the junction of Highways 121 and 116, Schugwinery.com.
Sojourn Cellars – Craig Haserot and Winemaker Erich Bradley have developed easily one of the top 10 California Pinot labels with Sojourn Cellars. These are bold and expressive Pinots sourced from top vineyards in the Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley that are very hard not to like. You’ll find great Cabernet and Chardonnay here as well. Tasting by appointment at their tasting room just east of the Plaza,, Sojourncellars.com.
Talisman Wines — Scott Rich and his wife Marta founded Talisman Wines 20 years ago as a small-lot Pinot specialist. Scott has a lot of Pinot experience and this has resulted in Talisman Pinots that are soulful, deep expressions of the vineyard and very ageworthy. Talisman recently opened a tasting room in Glen Ellen—worth the short drive! For more information, visit Talismanwine.com.
Three Sticks — Three Sticks Wines a wine venture created by serious wine entrepreneur Bill Price. Founded in 2002, Three Sticks Winemaker Don Van Staaveren produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Price’s northern half of the Durell Vineyard, and other notable vineyards, as well as a Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Work proceeds on their restoration of the Vallejo-Casteñada Adobe into their visitor center and offices just off the Plaza; they expect to open this summer. For more information, visit Threestickswines.com.
Townley Wines – Randy Bennett’s Townley Wines (Townley is his middle name) is another of the tiny Pinot stars that ride somewhat under the radar here. Randy is the assistant winemaker at Sojourn Cellars and while his approach at Townley is similar, he definitely has his own style. The Townley Pinots are wonderfully textured and layered. For more information, visit Townleywines.com.
As always, you can email me with questions or comments at [email protected]
Greg Walter, a Sonoma resident for more than 20 years, has been in wine and food publishing for more than 30 years, 15 of which were spent as a senior editor and later president of Wine Spectator magazine. Today he writes the PinotReport newsletter (Pinotreport.com) and publishes books through his Carneros Press imprint (Carnerospress.com).