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Pinot Noir: Goldeneye in Debut Wins Taste-Off
Anderson Valley, a cool, bucolic growing area in western Mendocino County that follows the track of the Navarro River as it makes its way to the ocean, is perhaps not as well known for its Pinot Noirs as, say, Carneros or the Russian River Valley, but this may soon change if the debut release of Goldeneye Pinot Noir is any indication of the region's potential.
Up to now, this appellation has been celebrated for true-to-form, Alsace-style Gewurztraminers and world-class sparkling wines. As to the latter, in order to make methode champenoise brut bubbly, the winemaker needs some pinot noir fruit, unless the aim is to focus exclusively on chardonnay in the form of a blanc de blancs. So, there's plenty of pinot planted here, but much of it is harvested specifically for sparkling wine production.
What's left in the vineyard to ripen sufficiently for traditional Pinot Noir has usually been turned into charming, lighter-bodied, fruit-forward wines by Anderson Valley wineries such as Navarro, Lazy Creek and Handley Cellars.
Now there's a new kid on the block, so to speak. Duckhorn Vineyards' arrival in Mendocino County -- with the purchase in 1996 of the 85-acre former Obesterwinery property and two other nearby ranch parcels -- marks the emergence of the Anderson Valley as a prime Pinot Noir appellation. It was a major decision for
the St. Helena winery whose stock in trade is Merlot, with four bottlings in its portfolio.
Duckhorn renamed the winery Goldeneye after the duck of the same name, and has since acquired additional vineyard sites in the valley, which have been planted with numerous clonal and rootstock combinations chosen for the region's cool climate -- from the lighter Dijon clones to the more rustic, deep Martini clones. The winemaker is Bruce Regalia, who previously held that position withObester.
Longterm, under the Goldeneye brand, several vineyard-designated Pinots will be produced, but there will also be an Anderson Valley blend each year, in which the focus will be on clonal and ranch diversity, working with 12 different clones from Anderson Valley estate ranches and from the Duckhorns' local grower, Lindsey Jones.
Regalia produced 375 cases of the inaugural 1997 vintage of Goldeneye PinotNoir, which was limitedly available from the Duckhorn consumer mailing list. Small quantities were also sold to select restaurants and retail merchants. It blew away the competition in its elimination panel tasting on June 15, 2000 -- boasting total ranking scores of 12 against the second-place finisher, 1998 Chateau St. Jean Pinot Noir from the Durell Vineyard, which emerged with ranking scores of 36, an enormous spread (the lower the number, the higher the group ranking, just like golf).
In the taste-off, which brought back the top three wines of four elimination tastings, the competition was tougher, and the spread between first and second place was but one point. Nevertheless, this was an impressive performance for a brand new wine against many long-established Pinot perfectionists.
1997 Goldeneye Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley ($42)
Attractive, forward, intense, spicy aromas of black cherry and blackberry fruit
compote, toasty, new French oak, coffee bean and smoked meat that developed with
airing. Rich, velvety and supple on the palate, with ripe flavors of black
cherry, black raspberry and plum enhanced by exotic spices, toasted oak and
vanilla, which extend into the long finish. A bold wine that's full and
satisfying rather than complex and nuanced, yet superbly balanced. (375 cases)
1997 Signorello Pinot Noir, Las Amigas Vineyard, Carneros ($45)
Similar in aroma to the Goldeneye, and just as intense, but with subtle notes
of green stems and herbs making a distinction, along with dark chocolate and
cinnamon. Concentrated, deep and rich in the mouth showing mocha-tinged, wild
strawberry-black cherry fruit, hints of green herb and brown spice. Best paired
with robust foods, such as a grilled, thick-cut, T-bone steak. (591 cases)
1998 David Bruce Pinot Noir, Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains ($50)
Spicy nose of red fruits and smoky oak. Deep, rich, concentrated flavors of
cherry-strawberry; silky smooth and plush, with a cola-tinged finish.
1998 David Bruce Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($35)
Pretty scents of violets, creamy oak and red fruit. Soft and round in the mouth
with varietal flavors of strawberry and red cherry, enhanced by a note of
clove-cinnamon spice. Medium-full tannins. (1,483 cases)
1997 Beringer Pinot Noir, Appellation Collection, North Coast ($16)
Fragrant nose of sweet red fruit and a hint of glove leather. Fleshy and smooth
with abundant cherry-strawberry fruit and silky tannins. A medium-bodied Pinot
with lots to offer and this price.
1997 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir, Olivet Lane Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($42)
Pleasant, floral aromas of Bing cherries, rose petals and Asian apices are
replicated on the palate, where the texture is silky and the medium-full tannins
ripe and smooth. Quite mouthfilling, yet also complex and harmonious. (2,400
1997 Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley ($50)
Deeply fragrant, exhibiting nicely toasty oak and strawberry jam plus lots of
vanilla. Round, supple and luscious, with lots of ripe red fruit and brown
spice, held together by good acidity and ripe, medium tannins.
1997 Signorello Pinot Noir, Martinelli Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($45)
Lush and smooth, but with just a hint of balsamic than took it down in the
rankings. This was offset to some extent by a pleasant, woodsy spiciness and
generous, cherry pie-like red fruit. Somewhat lean in the finish.
1998 Chateau St. Jean Pinot Noir, Durell Vineyard ($30)
Intriguing scents of peppery, black cherries and dried cranberries, anise and
moderately toasty oak. Richly textured and smooth with nicely concentrated fruit
focusing on black cherries, enhanced by hints of anise and cedar; long,
smoke-tinged finish. (410 cases)
1997 Byron Pinot Noir, Sierra Madre Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley ($32)
Turning a "sow's ear" of a vintage for South-Central Coast Pinot into a silk
purse of a wine, Byron's skill resulted in a rich, opulent Pinot with a silky,
luxuriant texture, copious amounts of rich dark cherry-raspberry-dried cranberry
fruit enhanced by Asian spices and a meaty quality, and fine balance. The
intense aromas correspond, showing some leather and cedar, as well. (2,394
1997 Mirassou Pinot Noir, Showcase Selection Harvest Reserve, Monterey County ($30)
I liked this wine more than the panel did, impressed by its aromas of smoky oak
and ripe raspberries. Moderately rich and fleshy with generous, fruity flavors
and medium tannins, finishing with a spicy flourish.
1997 Rodney Strong Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($16)
Smoky scents from the oak mingle with delicate, berry-red cherry fruit. Elegant
and restrained with moderate depth and concentration of red fruit, the wine
impresses with its elegance, rather than power.
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Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.