The Russian River: Pinot Noir Superstar


Wine is made by people--who leave their imprint on the wines. But wine is less a product of people than of place, and one of those places--with a personality all its own--is out here in the rolling hills of western Sonoma County.

There are 11 appellations--defined growing regions--in Sonoma County. But unlike some of the others, Russian River is limited in what it can grow well. The western half of Russian River is even more limited.

But what grows well here produces some of the greatest wines in California, perhaps the world. Why has the region's reputation as a great wine-growing region been so late to develop?

One of the reasons is that this area northwest of Santa Rosa is not easy to locate. The roads wind about in a fashion reminiscent of pickup sticks; wineries are located not on main arteries but on tiny veins that often are dead-ends.

Also, the region makes wines that are often awkward waifs when they are young; time in the bottle improves them. They take introspection to understand.

Pinot Noir is the variety that does best here. Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Gewurztraminer, Semillon and Petite Sirah are also good, but Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc struggle a bit. (Some marvelously complex Cabernets can be made here, though they require bottle age to tame their hardness.)

Pinot Noir, though, grows slowly, ripening later than in other areas. Cool nights help offset any hot days that arrive around harvest time, allowing Pinot Noir to retain its natural fruitiness and acidity.

The best Pinot Noirs here (and there are no mediocre ones) are from Joseph Swan, J. Rochioli, Davis Bynum, Williams and Selyem, Laurier, Dehlinger, Mark West, Iron Horse and De Loach. But in the last five years, the best I have tasted are the Pinot Noirs of Gary Farrell.

Now, with the release of his 1988 Pinot Noir from grapes off the Howard Allen ranch, Farrell has hit the pinnacle. This limited and expensive wine ($25 a bottle) is a wine of incredible depth--one of those rare treats worth the price.

Its aroma is deep and spicy, but it is more graceful than many darker-styled wines. The flavors are rich with cherry and spice elements that explode flavor on the tongue. (Farrell's Sonoma County bottling, $15, is also superb, but the Allen wine is the killer.)

In 1988, Northern California had unusual growing conditions. A May rain hit just at flowering time, reducing the size of the crop. Farrell said that although there was less juice per acre of fruit, the wine was more concentrated and flavored.

In many areas of the world, the amount of sugar determines when the grapes are harvested. Farrell said in the Russian River, picking by sugar level is not always a true indicator of ripeness. With Pinot Noir especially, it is the taste of the grapes-- and their appearance--that are the true indicators of flavor development.

"Rochioli can walk into his vineyard and look at the grapes and taste them and tell you just when to pick," said Farrell, "and the grapes will have the perfect acid and pH."

Rod Berglund at Joseph Swan, located east of where Farrell gets his fruit, notes that making Pinot Noir is another conundrum. He said modern methods that emphasize crushing the fruit, filtering and pumping simply don't work. The grape rebels.

"It's easy to screw up even the best grapes," said Berglund. "But the people who have had the guts to make Pinot Noir out here are refugees from the 1960s, adventuresome people, artists who never had the technology. So they had to make the wines more simply. Which makes better wine."

Handling the Pinot Noir fruit more gently, he said, makes more delicate, flavorful wine. Thus many wine makers are now eliminating the crushing of the fruit, preferring instead to simply tread on the whole clusters (sometimes bare feet replace boots).

"Tom (Dehlinger) was a professional before he opened his winery and he was meticulous, so he made wine with more consistency than some of the others right from the start," said Berglund.

Dehlinger's wines are made in the southern Russian River area, where it's just a trace warmer than in some of the cooler pockets. They have more fruit extract, but also a bit more astringency. Dehlinger now is experimenting with growing and vinification techniques that will make a slightly more delicate wine.

Across the road, to the west and a mile north, lie Iron Horse's Pinot Noir vines, in the cooler Green Valley. Iron Horse makes a lighter yet still substantial Pinot Noir, one that ages beautifully.

A few miles further north, Laurier produces another delicately styled wine, one often more pink than red, but with great flavor. Back east, toward Santa Rosa, Mark West's Pinot Noir is scented with cloves; De Loach accents cinnamon and rose petal.

One of the greatest Pinot Noirs of the region in the last few years has been from Williams and Selyem, lighter-styled wines that are spicy with cinnamon, clove and cherry. Bynum's Pinot Noirs (made since 1978 by Farrell) are similar to his own wines, but with an intriguing earthiness; Rochioli's wines are loaded with cherry flavors and tend toward the lighter style.

Farrell's Howard Allen wine is limited; just 300 cases were made and demand is high. Dehlinger's newly released 1988 Pinot Noir ($16.50) has intense clove and cherry flavors in a harder package. Swan's 1987 ($20) is more compact, dense, but with a grace not seen in Swan wines of the past. Williams and Selyem's "Russian River" ($20) is nearly as intense as any, with a sweet-oak character.

The 1987 J. Rochioli ($18) likewise has a violet-and-spice fruit and is graceful. Iron Horse's 1987 ($18), darker than in the early years, is still not as brooding as the Swan and Dehlinger, offering a bit more elegance.

The reason for the high prices for these wines has to do with supply. None of them are widely available. Farrell says: "Russian River hasn't gotten the publicity of some other areas, but that's OK. Actually, we're trying to keep this thing quiet because of the limited acreage out here."

There are probably fewer than 500 acres of top-quality Pinot Noir vineyard land here, and Farrell paid $1,500 per ton for the Rochioli grapes last year, a lot more than many growers paid for Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Moreover, he used some of the most expensive barrels in the world ($625 each) for aging the wines, because he liked the flavors they imparted.

Another day I will explore the other excellent wines of the Russian River area, but with the release of the exciting 1988 Pinot Noirs from this region imminent, the Burgundian red variety owns the spotlight.

Wine of the Week

1988 Meridian Pinot Noir ($14) --Other regions of California besides the Russian River region produce exceptional Pinot Noir, and this Santa Barbara County wine is a lovely example of a racy style of the wine, with loads of berrylike fruit. The wine is in somewhat limited supply (just 1,800 cases), but it's worth seeking out. The winery has scheduled a November 1 release date.

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