Wine Editor: May 2006 Archives

At Anderson Valley’s recent Pinot Noir Festival, residents were joking about how little recognition this Mendocino valley has relative to other top Pinot Noir regions in California.

The day before the festival, in fact, the Napa Register published a long piece in which writer Charles Neeve put the entire county of Mendocino into the “Lost Coast,” jumbled Anderson Valley up with Yorkville Highlands, and stated authoritatively that “much of this land is part of the Alexander Valley region.”

For the record, Alexander Valley is a completely different appellation in Sonoma County; the Lost Coast is a section of California coastline that’s mostly in Humboldt County; and Anderson Valley and Yorkville Highlands are about as different as two adjoining appellations can be. (Valley. Highlands. Get it?)

“When the universe revolves around you, you don’t need geography,” laughed one lady, referring of course to Napa’s position in the U.S. wine world.

“That’s good,” rejoined her companion. “We don’t want more people coming in here than we have already!”

The laughter didn’t last long, however, because the reality is that people are coming into Anderson Valley at a fairly brisk rate. Some are coming to live in a beautiful, pastoral, pristine place. The others are coming to make Pinot Noir.

At the festival’s Grand Tasting on Saturday, May 20th, I encountered Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs from half a dozen new labels, including Baxter, Black Kite, Breggo Cellars, Harrington, Standish, and Zina Hyde Cunningham. Existing labels including MacPhail and Saintsbury also unveiled new programs. These push the known number of valley Pinots past the mid-century mark, with more to come. If all the programs in barrel come to market as planned, there will be more than 60 different Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs a year from now.

To put this into perspective, most people consider Russian River Valley the benchmark region for California Pinot Noir. As Charlie Olken of The Connoisseurs Guide to California Wine taught me long ago, regional reputations are made when high-quality wines are made in sufficient quantity that many people can experience them, and Russian River certainly has passed that test. There are a lot of Russian River Pinot Noirs, and a fairly high percentage of them are outstanding.

But here’s an interesting thing. If you count up the Russian River Pinots from the last vintage that’s completely in the market (2003) you get into the mid-60s – not that much more than Anderson Valley. And if you count up the Pinots from the other important Pinot areas (Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Rita Hills) you find that Anderson Valley has more Pinots than any of them.

The recent surge in distinct bottlings is due largely to urban garagistes who are making small-batch, site-specific wines of exceptional quality from Anderson Valley vineyards – just as they do from good vineyards in Russian River, Sonoma Coast, and Santa Rita Hills. This trend is also evident among wineries that are based in Anderson Valley – they’re making more vineyard-designated wines alongside their appellation-based wines.

So at least the artisanal winemakers (and rich relocators) know where Anderson Valley is. Do you?

- Thom Elkjer
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If you were at Hospice du Rhône earlier this month, you could hardly miss it. I don’t mean the huge number of people at the Grand Tasting, or the, um, unusual seminar line-up. I mean the number of bottles of varietal Grenache: 37, according to my notes, and that doesn’t count the Grenache Blancs and the Grenache rosés, never mind the dozens of wines that included some percentage of Grenache.

Assuming that there are other Grenache producers out there who did not attend Hospice du Rhône, there could be 40 to 50 bottlings out there. That’s a huge increase in a handful of years.

The last time I wrote about varietal Grenache in California for “By The Glass,” back in 2001, I found 17 of them – and I hunted hard. More than a third of them were nothing to write home about. This year, the three dozen on offer at Hospice du Rhône were all successful wines, ranging from new programs such as Tallulah’s southern Oregon version to rock-steady regulars such as Alban, Beckmen, Cedarville, and Eaglepoint.

I had dinner with Gary Eberle the night after the event was over, and mentioned all the Grenaches I had seen. We were drinking a 1998 Châteauneuf-du-Pape I had brought, one that was mostly Grenache, so it seemed a good time to raise the subject. Eberle reminded me that one of the top wines from my earlier Grenache story was his. He’s not making varietal Grenache lately, but he had several ideas about the profusion of other people bottling Grenache on its own.

“They know how to grow it now,” was his first surmise. That means vintners have gotten the message that Grenache, which was bred to produce huge crops in hot, windy places, needs a brake (not a break) in the vineyard. Otherwise a Grenache vine loads up the fruit and gives up complexity.

“They don’t need it in their Syrah now,” was his second observation. That means vintners have also gotten a lot better at making Syrah, so they don’t need to blend in Grenache to make a good wine. Now that Syrah is California’s new darling alongside Pinot Noir, producers want to have “Syrah” on the label. That means they have to use at least 75% Syrah, and they can use up to 100%. So more Grenache is now available for the same treatment: a bottle of its own.

“They are looking for something new,” was Eberle’s third theory. Eberle has been doing something new with Rhône varieties in California for 30 years, so he’s more or less an expert on this topic. If he’s right, we’ll be seeing a lot more varietal Mourvedre soon because that will be the next new thing.

“But the main thing is, it makes a heck of a nice wine,” he said. Had to agree with him there. When I was leaving, he walked me to the door. Some other guests had brought some wine from a newish Paso Robles winery called Cass, and they had left three bottles on the table in the entry way. Eberle and I looked through them, as people in the wine business always do with they see bottles under a new brand.

There was a Viognier, and a Mourvedre, and – bada bing! – a Grenache.

- Thom Elkjer
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Tasted an interesting wine the other night. A one-off from Londer Vineyards in California, called "Immigrante." The label said it was a mix of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and PInot Noir, which has to be one of the oddest combinations you can imagine. Cabernet and Pinot Noir rule New World wine right now (not to mention a large chunk of the Old World called France). But Sangiovese? It's big in Italy, but a total loser in California. I thought, "how'd that dog get in there with the aristocrats?"

I forgot the question when I tasted the wine. Real nice red, full of ftuit and spice, good body, and a texture made for savoring. It made me think of pasta for dinner, so we whipped something up and feasted on the food and the wine.

I ran into Shirlee Londer at a farmer's market a few weeks later and asked about the wine. Wasn't "Immigrante" kind of a modest, aw-shucks name for a something with Pinot and Cab in it? "It's mostly Sangiovese!" she exclaimed. She went on to explain that the Londers' New York distributor warned them against releasing a wine called "Sangiovese" because the grape already had a bad rap. So the Londers gave it a proprietary name and sold it handily.

So yesterday I'm in San Francisco, where Sonoma County is putting on a big show. I'm tasting at the Ferrari-Carano table manned -- er, womanned -- by winemaker Sarah Girder and publicitymaker Cheryl McMillan. They pour me some of their proprietary red wine called "Siena," and I start to write up my notes. The description starts reminding me of my notes on Immigrante: real nice wine, fruit/spice/body/texture etc. etc..

So I ask about the grapes in "Siena." Sure enough, it's mostly Sangiovese.

I have to confess that, as a lover of Italian wine, I wrote a lot about Sangiovese when it started going into the ground in California and people started making the wine. I also have to confess that I didn't hesitate to call the public's attention to how unsatisfying that wine turned out to be in many cases. It was fermented too hot with the wrong yeasts, it took up too much oak from the wrong barrels during aging, and it was just generally dried out, astringent, and awkward.

Of course winemakers are smart enough to figure out where they went wrong originally, and they are now making good Sangiovese up and down the state of California. But bad press dies hard, so there appears to be a hesitation to put "Sangiovese" on the front of the bottle.

If you know of other examples of good Sangiovese by some other name, send me a message at so I can get the wine and taste it.

It may be time to start talking about California Sangiovese as a delicious change of pace, and bury its reputation as a major disappointment.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at