Marin County AVA: tiny but growing source for delicate, minerally Pinot Noir


photo by Ken Zinns

2011 MARIN COUNTY WINE CELEBRATION – Escalle Winery, Larkspur, California (6/11/2011)

I’ve enjoyed wines from Marin County, mainly Pinot Noir, that I’ve tried over the years. I’ve wanted to attend this event for the past few years, and was finally able to make it to the 7th Annual Marin County Wine Celebration this year. This tasting of 33 wines from 14 producers confirmed the hypothesis I’d developed from sampling a number of Marin AVA wines in the past: this appellation is a darn good source for delicate, lighter bodied, minerally Pinot Noirs.

Marin County is a relatively tiny appellation, with only about 200 acres currently planted to vines. That’s up by about 75 acres in only the past four years, a dramatic increase. Most of those vines are in west Marin, in areas protected from residential and other development through agricultural easements engineered by the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT). MALT is a private, member-supported, non-profit organization that was created in 1980 by a coalition of ranchers and environmentalists to permanently preserve Marin County farmland for agricultural use.

The site of this tasting was the historic red brick Escalle Winery in Larkspur, which was established by Frenchman Jean Escalle in the 1890s. It became a popular destination for San Franciscans on weekends at the turn of the century. The cellar’s antique wood paneling and worn wooden floor lent the tasting a delightfully old fashioned ambience. The tasting was organized by the Marin County Winegrowers Association, with all proceeds benefitting MALT and DG Education Services.


photo of Escalle Winery by Ken Zinns

Marin is bordered on three sides by the Pacific Ocean and San Pablo Bay. These bodies of water help to temper the climate, keeping it warmer than Napa and Sonoma during the winter months, leading to earlier bud break than those appellations. They also keep it cooler during the summer growing season, which can easily extend well into October. There can also be a fair amount of rain in the spring, which depresses yields. As a result of these climatic conditions, the wines tend to be lighter in body, lower in alcohol, higher in acidity and fairly delicate compared to the wines of many other California wine regions. Those are particularly appealing qualities in Pinot Noir, and there are some very good Pinots being produced. The vineyard acreage in Marin County is planted predominantly to Pinot Noir, with small amounts also of Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

My favorites at this event, which I scored 90 points or higher, were:

Whites
2010 Pey-Marin Riesling “The Shell Mound” – 90+ points

Pinot Noir
2009 Bailiwick Wines Borderline – 90+ points
2010 Bailiwick Wines Borderline (barrel sample) – 90-92 points
2008 Burning Bench Cellars Moon Hill Vineyard – 90+ points
2009 Couloir Wines Chileno Valley Vineyard – 91 points
2009 Dutton-Goldfield Devil’s Gulch – 90 points
2009 Easkoot Corda Vineyard – 90+ points
2008 Kendric Vineyards – 90+ points
2010 Point Reyes Estate – 91 points
2009 Skywalker Vineyards reserve – 90+ points
2008 Vision Cellars Chileno Valley Vineyard – 90+ points
2009 WillowBrook Chileno Vallley Vineyard – 90+ points

My favorite Marin County AVA wines to date, prior to this event, rated 92 points or more:
2005 Pey-Marin Pinot Noir Trois Filles – 92+ points
2001 Corda Pinot Noir – 92 points

For more detail on the producers and my tasting notes, see below.

Bailiwick


Bailiwick was launched in 2009 by brothers Bryan and Paul Vais. They’ve been making wine as hobbyists since the ’80s. Their Borderline Pinot is based on fruit from the Chileno Valley and Kendric vineyards lying along the Marin-Sonoma border at the southern edge of the Petaluma wind gap. Those vineyards are planted to a Swan selection, Dijon and Pommard clones. I was impressed by both their inaugural, ’09, release, and what they’ve got in barrel from 2010.

  • 2009 Bailiwick Wines Pinot Noir Borderline – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Pre-release (summer ’11 release) – medium cherry red color with 2 millimeter clear meniscus; appealing, light cherry, tart raspberry nose; light-medium bodied, cherry, raspberry, black raspberry palate; medium-plus finish 90+ points (inaugural release; Swan selection, Dijon and Pommard clones; 16 mos. in French oak, 50% new) (90 pts.)
  • 2010 Bailiwick Wines Pinot Noir Borderline – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Barrel sample – medium dark cherry red color with 3 millimeter clear meniscus; nice raspberry, floral, stems nose; tart raspberry, tart cherry palate with light stemminess; medium-plus finish 90-92 points (1/3 whole cluster) (90 pts.)

Burning Bench

Burning Bench is the new winery name for the Moon Hill Vineyard, a three acre vineyard planted with Dijon clones in 2002. The vineyard is located high on south facing slopes of the ridge separating the Nicasio and San Geronimo valleys. For the first time with the 2008 vintage, the grapes were crushed by foot over a one week period, which may have led to the greater focus and intensity in the 2008 as compared to prior vintages.

  • 2006 Burning Bench Cellars Pinot Noir Moon Hill Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Light medium red color with 4 millimeter clear meniscus; roses, sour cherry nose; light-medium bodied, one-dimensional, tart cranberry palate with medium acidity; medium finish 88+ points (88 pts.)
  • 2007 Burning Bench Cellars Pinot Noir Moon Hill Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium red color with pale meniscus; strawberry, tart raspberry, strawberry pie filling nose; strawberry pie filling, sugary, tart cherry palate with near medium acidity; medium finish (89 pts.)
  • 2008 Burning Bench Cellars Pinot Noir Moon Hill Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; brett, stemmy nose; tart cherry, stems, light brett, cinnamon, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 90+ points (foot crushed over 1 week) (90 pts.)

Couloir


Couloir founder and winemaker Jon Grant has previously worked at Turley, PlumpJack, Corison and Robert Mondavi. He’s a ski mountaineering enthusiast, and named his label with a term that means “a steep mountainside gorge.” The one-third whole cluster he used in his Chileno Valley Pinot definitely shows on the nose and palate, but I think it will integrate in an attractive way with two or three years of age.

  • 2009 Couloir Wines Pinot Noir Chileno Valley Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Slightly cloudy medium cherry red color with 4 millimeter clear meniscus; stemmy, bell pepper nose; silky textured, tart red fruit, cinnamon, stems, green pepper palate; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (1/3 whole cluster) (91 pts.)

De Loach

  • 2009 De Loach Chardonnay Stubbs Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Tart apple nose; dull, apple palate with low acidity; medium finish (83 pts.)
  • 2009 De Loach Pinot Noir Stubbs Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium dark cherry red color with pale meniscus; tart cherry, apple, light brett nose; cherry, raspberry, apple palate; medium finish (86 pts.)
  • 2009 De Loach Pinot Noir Skyview – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium dark cherry red color with pale meniscus; red berry, cherry nose; silky textured, tart cherry, raspberry, berry palate; medium-plus finish 87+ points (87 pts.)
  • 2009 De Loach Pinot Noir Marin County – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; tart cherry, hibiscus, floral nose; tart cherry, hibiscus, floral palate; medium finish (88 pts.)

Dutton-Goldfield

Longtime friends Steve Dutton and Dan Goldfield started this winery in 1998. The Devil’s Gulch Vineyard is on a steep hillside in western Marin, planted to Dijon clones. The 2009 from this vineyard has appealing floral qualities and good balance.

  • 2008 Dutton-Goldfield Pinot Noir Devil’s Gulch – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium dark cherry red color with pale meniscus; brett, tart cranberry nose; brett, tart raspberry, cherry palate; medium finish (88 pts.)
  • 2009 Dutton-Goldfield Pinot Noir Devil’s Gulch – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Pre-release – medium dark cherry red color with 2 millimeter clear meniscus; floral, hibiscus, cranberry, rhubarb nose; balanced, raspberry, tart cherry, hibiscus palate; medium-plus finish (90 pts.)

Easkoot

This is the first vintage for Easkoot, which is named after Alfred Derby Easkoot, Marin County’s first land surveyor. Winemaker Shane McManigle did a great job with this wine, from grapes that were entirely destemmed and aged in French oak, 22% of which was new. Shane left Easkoot for a job in Oregon after finishing work on the 2009 vintage. Matt Duffy has taken over as winemaker.

  • 2009 Easkoot Pinot Noir Chileno Valley Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; ripe cranberry, rhubarb, floral, hibiscus nose; elegant, tart cherry, tart raspberry, with near-medium orange acidity; medium finish 90+ points (1st vintage; clones 117, 777 and “unknown”) (90 pts.)

Kendric

Stewart Johnson is the owner, farmer and winemaker here. The winery is named after his father Kendric, who passed away as this project was getting started in 2001. This Pinot comes from an 8.5 acre vineyard in Northern Marin near the Sonoma border on which the Johnsons have a long term lease. Stewart planted it in 2002 to Dijon clones 115, 828, 37, 667, 777, Pommard and a mystery clone he obtained from Gloria Ferrer, that might be Martini. Both of these wines had an unusual flavor profile. The 2008 was particularly good.

  • 2007 Kendric Vineyards Pinot Noir – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium red color with pale meniscus; lifted, cinnamon, VA, raspberry puree nose; baked raspberry, raspberry puree palate with a sense of salinity; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)
  • 2008 Kendric Vineyards Pinot Noir – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Pre-release – medium dark cherry red color with pale meniscus; cinnamon, tart cherry, graham cracker nose; tight, tart raspberry, graham cracker, hibiscus palate; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 pts.)

Pacheco Ranch

Pacheco Ranch has been family owned for over 170 years, and claims to be the oldest land grant property engaged in agriculture in California. These are light-medium bodied, cedary, herbaceous, low alcohol Cabs that are essentially a throwback to the kind of California Cabernet that was predominant in the early 1970s, for those who like that sort of thing. They sell for a very reasonable $25.

  • 2004 Pacheco Ranch Winery Cabernet Sauvignon – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium dark red violet color; tart cassis, cedar nose; light-medium bodied, tart cassis, cedar palate with a little herbaceousness; medium finish (88 pts.)
  • 2005 Pacheco Ranch Winery Cabernet Sauvignon – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium dark red violet color; high pitched, tart cassis, cedar nose; light-medium bodied, tart cassis, cedar palate with a little herbaceousness; medium finish (88 pts.)
  • 2006 Pacheco Ranch Winery Cabernet Sauvignon – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium dark red violet color; tart cassis nose with a sense of smoke; tight, light-medium bodied, tart cassis palate; medium finish 88+ points (88 pts.)

Pey-Marin

Jonathan and Susan Pey bring impressive resumes to their Marin-based project. Jonathan studied in France and received his BS in Agriculture and MBA in California. He has worked for Domaine Louis Jadot, Chateau de Pommard, Robert Mondavi, Sterling and Penfolds. Early on in her career, Susan became wine director for a large restaurant group based in the Bay Area, and she continues to be one of the leading restaurant wine buyers in the U.S. The grapes for their very good Riesling are sourced from their own 20-year-old vineyard planted to the Neustadt clone. Their “Trois Filles” Pinot Noir, named in honor of their three daughters, is sourced from two sites, including their eight-acre, 18-year-old Pey-Marin Vineyard. It’s an assemblage of batches from different Dijon and heritage clones. In 2008, they included 10% whole cluster, and raised it in French oak barrels, 35% new, with no racking but “extensive ‘sur lie’ stirring.” I’ve enjoyed the prior vintages of this wine, back to 2003, very much. For me, the 2008 is the weakest vintage of this wine, which is no doubt due to the difficulties of that very challenging vintage.

  • 2010 Pey-Marin Riesling “The Shell Mound” – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Light green-tinged yellow color; aromatic, green apple, peach nose; tasty, medium-bodied, tart peach, green apple, mineral palate with near medium acidity; medium-plus finish 90+ points (Neustadt clone, no malolactic) (90 pts.)
  • 2008 Pey-Marin Pinot Noir Trois Filles – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium dark cherry red color with pale meniscus; baking spice, raspberry, light sandalwood, oak nose; smoky, tart raspberry, cedar palate; medium finish 88+ points (good, but not as strong as Trois Filles in prior vintages) (88 pts.)

Point Reyes

Point Reyes was the first winery and tasting room in Marin County since Prohibition. Their vineyard is located above Tomales Bay, two miles north of Point Reyes Station on Highway 1. They specialize in sparkling Pinot Noir, and produce still Pinot in particularly good years. The sparkling wine in this tasting wasn’t bad at all, but the 2007 Pinot Noir was one of the stars of the tasting, complex and delicious.

Sean Thackrey


Sean Thackrey pictured right

I’ve been a fan of Sean Thackrey’s idiosyncratic, old vine, ageworthy Rhone blends, especially the Orion, over the years. I was disappointed, however, with these Pinots. Both were bretty, but the latest bottling, the 2008, was dominated by brett.

Skywalker/Viandante del Cielo

Skywalker’s 21-acre Pinot Noir vineyard was planted in 2007 on MALT protected easements, on a ridge with east and west facing slopes providing full-day sun exposures and cool coastal evenings. They also farm a five-acre Chardonnay vineyard on the valley floor that was planted in 1995. Their first Skywalker Vineyards Pinot release, after years of winemaking trials, was the 2008 Pinot Noir. The 2009 Pinot Noir Reserve follow up was particularly good, although it would merit from a couple years of cellaring.

  • 2008 Skywalker Vineyards Chardonnay Estate – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Pale straw yellow color; nice lemon, tart pear nose; pear, ripe lemon, yellow fruit palate; medium-plus finish (clone 4, on PC114 rootstock) (89 pts.)
  • 2010 Viandante del Cielo Rosé of Pinot Noir – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Light medium orange pink color; floral, pink grapefruit nose; pink grapefruit, chalky, citrus, tart currant palate; medium finish (with a touch of Chardonnay) (87 pts.)
  • 2009 Skywalker Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium dark cherry red color; rich raspberry, French oak, baking spice nose; tight, tart raspberry, baking spice, French oak palate; needs 2-plus years; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 pts.)
  • 2009 Viandante del Cielo Pinot Noir Estate – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium dark ruby color with pale meniscus; light oak, sandalwood, baking spice nose; tight, light-medium bodied, tart cranberry, baking spice palate with a bitter note; medium finish 87+ points (clones 828, 667, 777, 115 and 23) (87 pts.)

Vision Cellars

Vision Cellars was started by winemaker/owner Mac McDonald in 1995. He claims that his father, who made moonshine in Texas during Prohibition, was considered Texas’s finest moonshine maker thanks to the fine grains he used for his corn whisky. Mac’s winemaking was inspired, however, by his first taste of Burgundy in 1955. Mac makes Pinot from several appellations. His 2008 Chileno Valley Vineyard is particularly appealing, floral and minerally.

  • 2006 Vision Cellars Pinot Noir Chileno Valley Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Light red color with 4 millimeter clear meniscus; tart strawberry, baking spice, chlorine nose; tangy, delicate, light-medium bodied, tart strawberry, light red berry, baking spice palate; medium finish (89 pts.)
  • 2008 Vision Cellars Pinot Noir Chileno Valley Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; floral, tart red fruit, rosehips nose; tasty, light-medium bodied, tart raspberry, rosehips, mineral palate; medium finish 90+ points (90 pts.)

WillowBrook

WillowBrook was started by young winemaker Joe Otos in 2001 with partners John Tracy and Ed Sillari. They started by sourcing Pinot Noir from the Russian River and Sonoma AVAs, but added a Marin County Pinot in 2006. The 2009 was particularly good, with silky texture.

  • 2009 WillowBrook Pinot Noir Chileno Valley Vineyard Marin County – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium cherry red color with 2 millimeter clear meniscus; tart cherry, raspberry, baking spice nose; silky textured, raspberry, cherry, baking spice palate; medium finish 90+ points (17 mos. in barrel) (90 pts.)
  • 2008 WillowBrook Pinot Noir Chileno Valley Vineyard Marin County – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Marin County
    Medium cherry red color with 2 millimeter clear meniscus; tart raspberry, cranberry nose; tart raspberry, tart cherry, slight smoke, baking spice palate; medium finish 88+ points (11 mos. in French and Polish oak barrels) (88 pts.)
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