Uncovering Treasures Beyond the Golden Gate Bridge

by Chuck Hayward

Uncovering Treasures Beyond the Golden Gate Bridge

Post by Chuck Hayward | June 24th, 2011

Tasting through the pinots that were recently poured at the Seventh Annual Marin County Wine Celebration in Larkspur was a revelation. It had been about three years since I last had a chance to immerse myself in the wines from this emerging appellation. And while some of my past impressions were reconfirmed, at the same time, I gained a few fascinating insights that bode well for the region's future:

Chuck Hayward (r) chats with the legendary Sean Thackrey

The quality of winemaking is at a high level. Yes, it takes good grapes to make great wine, but it also requires skill. Many winemakers working with this fruit are at the beginning of their wine careers, yet with acclaimed vintners like Sean Thackrey and Scott McLeod (ex-Rubicon, now Skywalker) overseeing their crushpads, there is no shortage of star power. Plus, a few  of the winemakers now have around five vintages under their belt and have gained an in-depth understanding of their sites that they can pass on to new vintners. The combination of older vines and increased experience will provide the foundation for excellent wines in the future.

Noticeable characteristics distinguish Marin County pinots. One of the most telltale attributes is the dark color of the finished wines. It turns out that the strong winds which propel the fog into the valleys of Marin and Sonoma make it quite difficult to grow grapes. To protect themselves, the grapes naturally develop thick skins giving the resultant wines lots of pigment and powerful flavors. The prevailing winds also reduce yields by making pollination difficult, which creates smaller bunches at harvest and therefore higher skin/juice ratios.

In addition to the deep colors, the acidity traits are quite unique. Given the coastal locations of many sites, one would expect an intense presence of acid in the finished wines. At both tastings, though, the acids were well integrated and most wines possessed soft, fruit-filled finishes. The wines were not shrill or tart in the slightest but had enough presence to offer a sense of brightness and crisp elegance at the core of the palate.

Mark Pasternak (r) of Devils Gulch Vineyards and Stewart Johnson of Kendric Vineyards practice their hands on the hips stance

Finally, certain sites are beginning to show a true sense of place, differentiating themselves from other vineyards in the county. In fact, there are about ten separate vineyards in Marin County and it might be early days to discuss contrasts between them. Nevertheless, there was a distinctive mineral component appearing in many wines using fruit grown by Mark Pasternak at the Corda family's Chileno Valley Vineyard. That most likely comes from the sandstone component that dominates this site's loamy soils.

Vintage variation is apparent in Marin. This tasting proved to be a great opportunity to gauge the impact of vintage conditions on the wines I sampled. Selections from 2006 through 2009 were poured and it was clear the 2009s provided the most enjoyment overall. They showed more fruit intensity and vibrancy compared to the 2008s which offered more softness and less precision of flavors and textures. . Although approachable now, the '09s will certainly benefit from some short-term cellaring to allow the concentrated fruit to unfurl.

Surprisingly, the wines are great values. Marin County wines are handcrafted and made in small amounts and such qualities often send prices into the upper echelons. Most of the pinots I tried had suggested retail pricing between $35-$45, putting them pretty much in the middle of the price spectrum for wines of this caliber. Combined with the fact that most of these wines are released into the market with some significant bottle age, Marin County pinots stand out among their peers in the value category.

Some highlights of the tasting:

 2009 Kendric Vineyards Pinot Noir

Sourced from Kendric Vineyards. Made in an elegant, more delicate style, the colors are translucent at the core with subtle aromas that emphasize a sense of purity. Burgundian in style, sweetness of fruit interlaces with notes of vanilla, soy and beef marinade on the nose. Round in texture, the midpalate is light and ethereal yet provides great length, as very fine tannins form the foundation of a feathery finish. Based on tastings of previous vintages, a few years in bottle will bring more texture and nuance. A barrel sample poured from magnum. About 650 cases.

2009 Easkoot Pinot Noir

Sourced from Chileno Valley Vineyard. This first effort is an exciting release! Deeply colored, the wine offers up intensely focused fruit aromas that are quite pure. The dark cherry notes carry onto the palate where the fruit intensity contributes to a finish full of brightly textured flavors. This powerful wine maintains a core of elegance intermingled with hints of creamy oak and vanilla. About 270 cases.

2009 Couloir Pinot Noir

Sourced from Chileno Valley Vineyard. Very darkly colored and almost opaque at the center, the flavors are fresh and bright with ethereal weightlessness in the midpalate. The pure cherry notes are crunchy and zesty with hints of musky spice abounding on the backpalate. A touch tightly wound at this point, a few years might open up this release. About 100 cases.

"May the fruit be with you...." Skywalker Vineyards, owned by George Lucas

2009 DeLoach "Skyview" Pinot Noir

Sourced from George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, this is the best of DeLoach's three new Marin County pinots made under the supervision of Dan Goldfield. Approaching deep coloring at the core, this somewhat closed bouquet has a balance of fruit and spice that is mimicked on the palate. Broadly textured, there is just enough weight to avoid a sense of viscosity with flavors that strike a perfect balance between primary fruit and fresh earth notes. The finish is dry and tangy thanks to savory tannins and fresh acids. About 235 cases.

2009 Dutton-Goldfield "Devil's Gulch" Pinot Noir

Sourced from Mark Pasternak's Devil's Gulch Vineyard. Darkly colored yet still clear at the core, the expressive aromas of pure fruit are the first thing you notice. Bright and clean with lots of zippy and vibrant fruit, the midpalate has broad textures and there is concentrated fruit at the backpalate just waiting to unfurl. Well balanced overall while being slightly reined in by tangy acids. About 535 cases.

Marin County does more than just pinot. Here are two wines that also made quite a statement:

2010 Pey-Marin "The Shell Mound" Riesling

Sourced from the Chileno Valley Vineyard. Lemon infused aromas and flavors dominate this crisp, minerally wine. Possessing an elegant profile, the finish is a bit taut right now, making this perfect with oysters. Will gain some richness with a few years in the cellar. About 420 cases.

2005 Pacheco Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon

Sourced from the estate vineyard along US 101 near Novato. From a cooler vintage that was quite unkind to many Napa cabernets comes this medium-weighted wine that has fresh cranberry and cherry flavors with just a hint of savory texture. Fresh and clean thanks to integrated acids, it is hard to notice any oak impact in this classically flavored cabernet with a finish that is full and flavorful. An excellent value. About 438 cases.