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American Pinot Noir

Great American Pinot Noir is no longer the wine version of a UFO
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

 Joe Rochioli asserts he's "just a farmer."  

"My father grew hops here in the Russian River Valley," says the 65-year-old owner of Rochioli Vineyards. Indeed, an elegant stone-faced hop kiln, easily identifiable by its distinctive pyramidal roofline, stands adjacent to the Rochioli ranch. Sonoma County is dotted with kilns, as hops were once a major crop.  

But today, in western Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, wine grapes are the big cash crop. All sorts are successfully grown: Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and many others. But Pinot Noir put Russian River Valley on the map.   "Whoever thought people would be saying 'great American Pinot Noir'?" asks Rochioli, who, with his winemaker son and partner, Tom, creates some of those very Pinot Noirs.  

All the area's grape varieties reflect a familial finesse, a restraint and delicacy born of Russian River Valley's cool, Pacific Ocean-influenced climate and the winemakers' sense of community. The river undulates through the valley's flat, open expanse, twisting on the ground like a landed fish.  

The Russian River runs through Rochioli's property, a fact that somehow makes a tasteable difference in the wines--the Pinot Noir, anyway. For example, among Rochioli's multiple Pinot Noir bottlings are two that come from contiguous four-acre plots. The plots look the same, but their wines don't taste the same. One (called West Block) is closer to the river; the other (Three Corner Vineyard) is farther away. West Block is always better. "Dunno why," Joe Rochioli says. "It just is."  

That's the thing about Pinot Noir. It's the world's most sensitive wine grape, and no other variety is so indicative of its site. Pinot Noir will broadcast the most minute distinctions of site--exposition, air flow, water drainage, soil temperature--like a tattletale little sister with the lungs of a hog caller.  

This is one of the reasons for America's new Pinot Noir accomplishment. Unlike other red wine grapes, Pinot Noir demands your attention. It subtly reveals elements in the earth you can't even see, yet it is assertive enough to tell you they're there.   Winemaker Tom Dehlinger of Dehlinger Winery, another Russian River Valley producer creating some of America's best Pinot Noirs, displays a map of his 16 acres of Pinot Noir. "I have it broken down into 60 sections," he says, without a trace of awareness of just how, well, crazy that is. "It's all based on different soil types, ripening times, all kinds of things that have made themselves known over the past two decades.  

"When I make the wines," Dehlinger continues, "I separate them into 12 to 15 different lots to see how they evolve. Then, depending on the vintage, I'll blend these into between two and five different bottlings each year." Does this intense focusing make a difference? The results speak for themselves. Dehlinger's Pinot Noirs have improved steadily over the years. Today, his mailing list is closed and Pinot Noir lovers clamor to obtain a single bottle of his wine.  

If your soil doesn't have what Pinot Noir likes, well, you're better off growing hops. It's less embarrassing. However, when you hit, it's a gold mine.   Consider, for example, the success of Williams & Selyem Winery, across the road from Rochioli. It was Burt Williams's wine-making success with grapes purchased from Joe Rochioli that put him and Rochioli on top. Neither Williams nor his partner, Ed Selyem, owned any vineyards. All the Pinot Noirs they made, beginning in the early '80s, came from a number of northern California vineyards, mostly from western Sonoma County.  

But winemaker Williams had what can only be called a "touch." His Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir made Rochioli famous. In turn, the Rochioli's grapes were essential to Williams' & Selyem's success. The symbiosis was so effective that, in 1998, Selyem and Williams sold the winery--a nondescript warehouse plunked in a vineyard managed by Rochioli--to John Dyson, the owner of Millbrook Vineyards & Winery in New York State, for $9.5 million.  


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