The 17h Annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival, held from May 16-18, 2014, featured an in-depth Technical Conference, Grand Tasting, Open Houses and more, all focused on that most fickle of grapes, Pinot Noir. Held in Anderson Valley, a pastoral Northern California wine growing region known for its rolling, forested hills, warm days and cooling fog that drifts in from the Mendocino coast nearly every afternoon, the 3-day festival offers a chance to relax from the pace of everyday life and consider all the facets that make Pinot so complex, versatile and seductive.
Held on Saturday, the Grand Tasting, which sold out as always, brought more than 45 vintners and a horde of happy tasters together under the tent at Goldeneye Winery in Booneville. Sunny skies prevailed and guests mingled with winemakers, sampling the many faces of Pinot while enjoying wood-fired pizza, seafood paella, cheese, cured fish, pate, a variety of salads and chocolate from local purveyors.
The following list represents the author’s subjective and personal list of top 12 Pinot Noir wines, presented in alphabetical order. Everyone’s palate is different and the Pinot Noir grape can take on different personalities depending on the clone, micro-climates and winemaker techniques, so among the many choices available there was a Pinot to fit every preference.
1. Avenging Angel Pinot Noir. One thing that makes this wine so special is the amount of heart and soul in every bottle, in addition to high quality grapes. A joint venture between Angel Camp Vineyard and Balo Vineyards, this is a memorial wine to honor a fallen brother, Christian Maltby, lost in 9-11 and a best friend, Edward Zalaznick, who died too young.
2. Drew Family Cellars, 2012 Pinot Noir, Balo Vineyard, Anderson Valley AVA. Produced organically, these grapes benefit from loamy soils, river rock and cool air that sinks to base of a steep canyon where the grapes lie.
3. Expression 39, 2012 Pinot Noir, Ordway Vineyard, Anderson Valley. This winery has a unique identification system, with four wineries in California and Oregon known by their latitude. Expression 39 is in Anderson Valley while Expression 44 is in Amity Hills in Oregon.
4. Foursight Wines, 2011 Charles Vineyard, “Clone 05” Pinot Noir. Always a favorite, this small, family owned winery, comprised of Bill and Nancy Charles, their daughter, the always smiling Kristy and her husband Joe Webb, consistently creates high quality Pinot Noir, like this perfectly balanced wine.
5. Goldeneye, 2011 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. The host of the Grand Tasting, Goldeneye has been perfecting their technique since 1997 in their estate winery. This wine, blended from four estate vineyards is elegant and refined.
6. Handley Cellars, 2010 Pinot Nori, RSM Vineyard, Anderson Valley. After laboring for 10 years this seven-acre estate vineyard is producing consistent yields, resulting in an intense, well balanced Pinot.
7. Husch Vineyards, The oldest winery in Anderson Valley, the Husch family were among the first to plant grapes, in addition to the apple orchards and grains that dominated the area at the time. The Oswalds, who have owned the property for 3 generations, have continued the tradition with an exceptional Pinot Noir.
8. Lazy Creek Vineyards, Don and Rhonda Carano bought this vineyard in 2008 but have 30 years of experience growing grapes, now focusing their attention on Pinot, in addition to Alsatian varietals, with excellent results.
9. Lichen Estate, 2012 Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley. A 100% organic farm, this seven-acre estate vineyard produced its first substantial crop in 2012 and, judging by this wine, is a winner, with four clones planted on three rootstocks.
10. Nelson Hill, 2009 Pinot Noir. This small vineyard produces only Pinot in the classic Burgundian style, with great success.
11. Philo Ridge, 2010 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. Blending grapes from two vineyards, Philo Ridge and Ferrington, this wine is rich with black cherry and soft tannins. They pride themselves on being 100% wind and solar powered, are off the electrical grid, and vegan to boot.
12. Toulouse Vineyards, 2010 Toulouse Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir. Toulouse has been creating fine Pinot since 2005, when their very first release won the SF Chronicle’s annual October Mendocino Pinot Noir wine judging event, and this year’s Pinot is no exception.
This year’s Technical Conference, widely regarded as being one of the most technical and relevant to growers in recent memory, was kicked off by a fascinating discussion by Jason Pelletier and Nancy Smith of the Nature Conservancy, who have been working with local farmers to document Navarro River flow by placing 10 stream gauges along the watershed. The data show that there is adequate annual water flow to supply the three main water consumers, vineyards, orchards and residential/commercial interests, but that seasonal timing is a critical issue. The (usually) heavy winter rains produce high river flows that shrink to a slow trickle in summer, which leads to the obvious solution: Create local storage so more water can be stored in the winter to service crops in the summer, develop a flow-driver diversion schedule and use technology to manage the water supply in a collaborative manner.
Jennifer Carah, also with the Nature Conservancy, delivered an intriguing report on the impact of illegal marijuana cultivation in Humboldt County, which can be extrapolated to other North Coast areas such as Mendocino. The ecological impact resulting from road building, construction of structures, water pumping, diesel spills, use of herbicides, rodenticides and fertilizers, garbage accumulation, human waste, timber harvesting, water diversion and damming are huge—the list goes on and on. One shocking statistic was the amount of water needed to grow marijuana: 6 gallons per day per plant (about 900 gallons per plant per growing season)! Unlike the previous talk there were no easy answers to the issue of illegal marijuana cultivation, but since Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana political change is in the air.
A very practical discussion by Glenn McGourty on how to manage vineyards in a drought year based on lessons from Australia reviewed strategies such as creating a smaller crop (fewer buds, dropping fruit), avoiding sun burn by light leaf pulling, using fall irrigation to protect next year’s buds, and, in drastic situations, dropping all fruit as plants will recover faster the following year.
Highlights from the rest of the Technical Conference included three tasting panels, each with their own focus. One looked at the different facets of Pinot Noir, including sparkling, still, rose and intense red. Another examined the inspiration for creating vineyard-designate wines, while the third panel looked at the effect of place on Pinot, from the headwaters to the deep end of the Navarro watershed. Highly scientific presentations were delivered by Steve Price, PhD who analyzed tannin and anthocyanin profiles, while Clark Smith attempted to bring the audience into a chemistry class, a difficult proposition after a delicious lunch under the trees, complete with wine.
The Grand Tasting provided a convenient way to sample the best Pinot Noir the Anderson Valley has to offer while the Technical Conference offered plenty of intellectual stimulation and practical information at the 17h Annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival.
Anderson Valley Festivals held three times a year
Barrel Tasting Weekend: July 26-27, 2014
International Alsace Varietals Festival: February 7-8, 2015
Pinot Noir Festival: May 15-17, 2015
To reach Boonville from San Francisco by car (approximately 2.25 hours, depending on traffic):
- Take U.S. 101 North
- Take Exit 522 to Highway 128 west, toward Ft. Bragg and Mendocino
- Follow Highway 128 until you reach Boonville