Sonoma County Barrel Auction: "Tuns" of Fun and Pinot Noir

Sonoma County Barrel Auction: "Tuns" of Fun and Pinot Noir

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

Even more fun than a barrel of monkeys (or unicorns) is 90 barrels of unique Sonoma County wines. I know this first-hand, having attended the recent Sonoma County Barrel Auction. The third annual event broke its previous revenue record by more than $100,000, garnering $794,500.

Centerpiece to the event was the trade auction itself. Wine shop and restaurant buyers duked it out (paddled it out?) for lots of 5, 10 or 20 cases. The wines, still in barrel now, will be shipped to the winners after appropriate aging at the wineries. For most of the wines, that will be sometime in 2018.

It was no surprise that the top-earning lot was from hugely popular Kosta Browne. Twenty cases of a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir called “The Shire of Freestone” Kosta the successful bidder $60,000. Pride Mountain attracted the most money per case though. Five cases of their estate Cabernet Sauvignon went for $333 per bottle.

I tasted both of those wines before the auction. The Kosta Browne offered rich body with deep, dark fruit on a savory backdrop. Pride’s entry was a lively, juicy and balanced wine of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon showing black cherries, chocolate and elegant tannins.

The auction did not resemble other wine auctions you’ve probably seen. Sonoma County puts on a festive sale and the auctioneer neither stood still nor spoke in hushed tones—let alone with a British accent. John Curley was energetic, almost theatrical, but precise. His performance both inspired bidding and kept the pace brisk.

As I’m not a trade buyer, my primary interest was less the auction than the preview tastings. The wines do not go into widely available releases, but they provide interesting insights. Sometimes that’s because the wine is from a single vineyard or varietal. Even multi-vineyard, multi-winery blends can be educations though.

There were several such multi-winery, sub-regional blends and they were indeed revealing, especially when there was more than one such wine from a single AVA.

Sonoma County Barrel Auction

Contrasts in West Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

West Coast Sonoma Vintners Lot #34, was a four-wine blend from Vanessa Wong (Peay Winery), Chris Pittenger (Gros Ventre Cellars), Ehren Jorden (Failla) and Carroll Kemp (Alma Fria) sourcing from three vineyards in the Annapolis region on the northwestern Sonoma Coast. The result was medium-bodied with fine, firmish tannins and chewy, black cherry fruit accented by rose petal. Despite the floral aspect, this was a muscly take on Pinot Noir, reflective of the rugged nature of the source vineyards’ terrain.

West Coast Sonoma Vintners Lot #87 covered more geography and included more separate wines. The producers were Peay Vineyards, Littorai Wines, Red Car Wine Company, Freeman Vineyard, Failla Wines, DuMOL and Gregory James Wines. In contrast to the Annapolis cuvée, this wine had a fresh and gentle palate with pretty, red fruit and fine, soft tannins. The take away is that, while the West Sonoma Coast is, overall, a very cool area that leans toward pretty, red-fruited wines, it is still a large zone with many mesoclimates that differ substantially.

The "Neighborhoods" of the Russian River Valley AVA

The Russian River Valley Winegrowers offered a single auction lot, but it included four cases each of five different 2016 Pinot Nor wines. And each of those wines was a multi-winery blend from several vineyards within a “neighborhood” of the Russian River Valley AVA. That AVA comprises nearly 14,000 planted acres and spans a wide range of climates and terrains.

The Sebastopol Hills are far south and west within the Russian River Valley and receives oceanic cooling and fog through the Petaluma Gap. The wine from that area, made by Alex Kanzler (Kanzler Family Vineyards), Greg LaFollette (Alquimista Cellars), Brian Maloney (DeLoach Vineyards) and Kathleen Inman (Inman Family Wines) came from the Kanzler Estate, Mes Filled, Mabaroshi and Sexton Road Ranch Vineyards. The neighborhood’s cool climate showed clearly from the nose of flowers and herb to the fresh, medium-bodied palate which emphasized black tea, bay leaves and herb.

Further west, Green Valley is the coolest part of Russian River Valley during the growing season and also the foggiest. It also features one of Russian River Valley’s most famous soil types, Goldridge sandy loam. A sedimentary soil formed when the area was an inland sea, it’s a well-draining, low-fertility soil which encourages vines to focus their energy on grapes rather than growth. Winemakers Joe Freeman (Rubin Family Vineyards and Winery), Fred Scherrer (Sherrer Winery), Dan Goldfield (Dutton-Goldfield Winery) and David Munksgard (Iron Horse Vineyards) represented their chill neighborhood with a medium-bodied wine with moderate, fine-grained tannins that highlighted gently ripe red fruit against a floral backdrop. The vineyards were Rubin Family Estate, Hallberg, Dutton Ranch-Emerald Ridge and Iron Horse-Thomas Road.

The next wine came from Laguna Ridge, a hilly spot with Goldridge soils and an area that’s warmer than Sebastopol Hills yet still south of the river and cool relative to neighborhoods to the north and/or east. Here you find Joseph Swan’s Trenton Estate Vineyard, Davis Family Vineyards’ Soul Patch and Gantz Family Vineyard, used by Kosta Browne. Winemakers Rod Berglund (Joseph Swan), Guy Davis (Davis Family) and Nico Cueva (Kosta Browne) demonstrated the structural power that Pinot Nor can achieve in moderately warm growing areas. On the palate, this wine was about firm tannins and it will change dramatically as barrel maturation continues.

Middle Reach is the warmest of the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir neighborhoods, being further north and more isolated from the Pacific’s cooling influence. The river itself does moderate temperatures there though. The structure is slightly more prominent in this wine than even the Laguna Ridge. It will blossom after another eight months in barrel. The Middle Reach vineyards were Thale’s, Bucher, Bacigalupi and West Pin with the components made by Heidi Bridinghagen (MacRostie Winery & Vineyards), Chris Donatiello (C. Donatiello Winery), Theresa Heredia (Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery) and Erin Miller (Twomey Cellars).

The final Russian River Valley AVA neighborhood is called Santa Rosa Plains. It’s a flat area on the eastern side of the Laguna de Santa Rosa wetlands and relatively close to the city of Santa Rosa. It’s cooler than Middle Reach and also features Goldridge soils. This wine included fruit from Olivet Lane Vineyard, Jane’s Vineyard, Winery Block and Halo’s All Vineyard. Lynn Krausmann (Olivet Lane Estate/Pellegrini Wine Company), Greg Morthole (Davis Bynum), Anthony Beckmen (Balletto Vineyards) and Rick Moshin (Moshin Vineyards) made the components which added up to a chewy, fruit-forward wine of medium-plus body with flavors of plum and spicy dark berries and undercurrents of tea and forest floor.

As with the West Sonoma Coast lots, the Russian River Valley collection demonstrates how diverse different parts of a large AVA can be. I’m often asked how Russian River Valley Pinot Noir differs from those of Carneros or the Sta. Rita Hills. Because of these contrasting neighborhoods (and winemaking styles), t’s only possible to answer that in the most general sense.

Put together your own Sonoma County Pinot Noir survey - JJ Buckley has a huge selection of wines to choose from!

Wine Trivia: A tun is a very large barrel, holding roughly 950 liters.

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel and SOMM Journal, where he is a contributing editor. Online, he writes for his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine), PlanetGrape, and the San Francisco Wine School where he also teaches. Fred’s certifications include the WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. In that same year, he was inducted into the Eschansonnerie des Papes, the honorary society of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC.