HANSEL PINOT: MORE THAN JUST ‘NUMBERS’

It has become the norm for consumers to ‘buy by the numbers’ or respond to some other publicity that calls attention to a particular producer. For that reason we still see Walter Hansel’s wines, which have performed admirably for a couple of decades after starting with some cuttings and a little help from Tom Rochioli, as still kind of under the radar. That is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s bad for them because they are performing well above the crowd but still aren’t quite considered the iconic producer they should be, though they don’t have any trouble selling wine.

The good part is that, because of their less-than-deserved notoriety and rather humble pricing, they are one of the best values in premium Pinot Noir. Take this 2016 Walter Hansel Estate Pinot Noir Russian River Valley. It is all estate-grown and made up of grapes from the five blocks on the property that are also the source of individual vineyard bottlings that do get their share of critical attention. It is loaded with personality, exudes a very tender and engaging palate of dark cherry and mulberry touched with the classic clove and spice notes that define the Russian River’s terroir.

As we have said many times, the ‘little guy’ is usually tasted among it’s higher intentioned siblings and tends to be overshadowed when the reviews are finally published. The thing is, as is often the case, once this one is given the opportunity to shine on its own, it impresses. We have been tasting Hansel wines for a long time and this is certainly among the most appealing. Fresh, lively and at the same time tender and seamless, this is what Pinot Noir is all about.

Wine Advocate’s Lisa Perotti-Brown gives a good assessment of the wine, “Pale ruby-purple colored, the 2016 Pinot Noir Estate has amazingly pure notions of crushed cranberries, Bing cherries and redcurrants with touches of garrigue, tilled soil and bay leaves. Medium to full-bodied, it delivers bags of crunchy red berry flavors and a lovely satiny texture with a very long, lively finish…91 points.”

But we know people, too, and among the individual estate designates, which score as high as 95 points, this one is less likely to get its due. We think the performance here merits a point or two higher. More important than numbers, this is a fantastic performer in the glass winning on all fronts, purity, complexity, palate feel and personality. Less than 900 cases were produced. For Pinot drinkers, this is a must. For our part, we have made the access price a bit more attractive with one of our special ‘click-through’ price deals.

HARTFORD HITS A HOMER

New World Pinot Noir is an interesting topic these days.  The wine world is constantly in a state of change as people’s tastes, economics, and world-wide competition alters the playing field on a constant basis.  We talk with distributors, winery owners, and winemakers on pretty much a daily basis and the subject of Pinot Noir is a recurrent one.  Our message over the last couple of years in particular has not necessarily been what the industry wants to hear.  While it is still a very popular practice among wineries to make multiple single-vineyard Pinot Noir bottlings, usually at rather premium prices, the people have shown a declining interest in the category over the last few years in recent times. 

People still like Pinot Noir.  A lot.  We aren’t predicting some sort of Pinot Armageddon.  But it is clear that, in the part of the world we see, people are considerably less interested in those small production offerings in the $50-100 range.  Oh sure there are a few mailing list types that claim that business is great for that sort of thing.  But our view of the marketplace would seem to suggest otherwise.  If we were to extrapolate our observations and project what market message is, it would seem to be this.  A lush, engaging, fruit-driven Pinot always has a place, but a price under $30 would be greatly appreciated.   Well, whether inadvertently or not, someone has created the perfect Pinot for the times.

It comes from the Jackson Family stable, a company that achieved wine-world domination by giving people what they wanted.  They became a major player from nowhere with a Chardonnay that pleased a wide audience, and built on that success.  Later on, it seemed Jess Jackson was concerned about his ‘legacy’, and much energy was spent creating brands that were intended to become iconic like Cardinale, Verite, and the like.  Hartford Court estate was the part of the family that focused primarily on individual bottlings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Old Vine Zinfandel . 

Hartford achieved great notoriety with these stylish, distinct bottlings, but pricing was a little bit of a hindrance on some of the upper-end offerings.  They always made solid, expressive wines at every level, with the occasional home run.  But the current Pinot program has to be a little intimidating for consumers because there were so many specialty bottlings at $50-80, it had to difficult to make a choice. 

As we did the research for this piece, we noticed Hartford Court was offering 14 different designated bottlings on their website.  That’s fine from a winery perspective we guess.  The team here has always had ‘chops’.   But in the process, whether they wanted to or not, they made one of the best ‘regular’ bottlings in their history in 2017, as if they had once again perfectly read the needs of the market and created this wine to fulfill them, just like those early days.

The 2017 Hartford Court Russian River Valley Pinot Noir does everything right.  Deep, saturated color as Pinot goes, classic Russian River spice in the nose along with dark red leaning to black fruits, seamless palate feel, and sufficient weight and tenderness to please just about anyone, Pinotfile or not.  It checks all of the boxes and, if it errs, it does so on the side of hedonism.

We could go on but Jeb Dunnuck did a pretty good job of cheerleading here, “A crazy good value, the 2017 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley is the appellation release from this team, and it comes from all of the estate vineyards across the Green Valley, Laguna Ridge, and Sebastopol regions. Complex notes of strawberries, cranberries, violets, pine forest, and flowers all flow to a medium-bodied Pinot Noir that has a kiss of salinity and marine notes, ripe tannins, and a great finish. This beautiful wine competes with wines costing 2-3 times the price…95 Points.”

It checks all of the boxes and, for our part, we’re able to get it to you for under $30.  Like the song says, “You can’t always get what you want…”.    Only sometimes, you can.

ROCHIOLI DIRT, ROCHIOLI WINEMAKER, NEED WE SAY MORE

“Castalia is a legendary spring on Mount Parnassas in Ancient Greece favored by Apollo.  Its waters bestowed upon those who drank from its fountain the gifts of poetry and inspiration…”

The above quote is from the back label of this hidden gem of a Pinot, but the connection with Greece ends with the name. It did, however, seem as good a place as any to start a story with a rather close connection to one of California’s legendary producers.  We are always looking for the next remarkable find and, because of our apparently ‘unusual’ (so we are told) open door policy, sometimes the ‘next big thing’ simply walks in the door.

Now in all fairness, the ‘next big thing’ might be a little strong. It’s certainly not a question of quality as this is a screamer of a wine. But Terry Bering’s wine may never be ‘the next big thing’ simply because there isn’t enough of it and he doesn’t bother to court the media.  But there is certainly enough pedigree and experience behind this label-you-likely-never-heard-of to give it the kind of immediate credibility afforded few labels in today’s highly competitive market.

Let’s start with the vineyard designation on this lovely, precise, layered Pinot Noir.  The Burgundians had centuries to figure out the best places to grow Pinot Noir.  While California was definitely late to that party, we are definitely getting it figured out.  The Russian River is one of the premier, if not the premier spot for Pinot here in the golden state.  If this was like Burgundy, and there were Grand Crus, the Rochioli Vineyard would certainly be among of them.  This Pinot comes from that venerable property.

Getting Rochioli fruit is no easy task either.  It’s like those ‘friends and family’ arrangements…your name is Rochioli or you have been working with their fruit since long before they were recognized as one of the elite sites for Pinot (a la Williams-Selyem and Gary Farrell).  It’s a short list.  How did Terry Bering get on such an exclusive list?  He knows people. 

What people?  Well, the Rochiolis.  Terry has been winemaker at Rochioli for about a quarter century.  Talk about an insider, here’s a guy with intimate knowledge of the entire estate.  According to his notes, he has been making this Castalia label since 1992 and over that time has built the volume of this Pinot Noir up to a whopping…300 cases in 2016.  The core of the Castalia Pinot Noir Rochioli Vineyard Russian River Valley 2016 is from the Flad and Riverblock vineyards planted in the late 80s to the West Block clone, and the balance from three other vineyards on the property planted with 777,115 and 667 clones. This Pinot spent 15 months in 100% French oak, 25% new.

Given the extremely limited production and the fact that Terry has a ‘day job’, Castalia didn’t get very far in the ‘distribution chain’.  He decided to make the trek to SoCal a few years back (we started with the 2013) and actually physically dropped those first cases here himself. 

This is a special effort, but most folks could figure that out without tasting it.  It’s Rochioli Pinot made by Rochioli’s winemaker in what has already proven to be a grand vintage for Pinot Noir.  It’s not rocket science. We can tell you this is fabulous juice with classic Russian River spice (clove, cinnamon) beautifully woven with intense cherry and red currant and touches of vanilla. This is a classy, refined, exceptional Pinot that bears an incredible resemblance to those collectible Rochioli Pinots because it’s the same guy making it from the same hallowed vineyards.

Would we call this great California Pinot? Absolutely, and you know we’re pretty careful with our superlatives!  Give it a few minutes to unfold and you’ll see how all of the elements evolve in the glass.  We’d rather drink this than a lot of those blowsy, overoaked ‘mailing list’ Pinots from some of those other ‘famous’ wineries that cost a lot more.  Will Calstalia get a big score?  Not likely as few people even see it.  That also helps keep the prices reasonable and we have a special offer on this 2016 to boot (click here). There are still a few bottles of the Castalia Pinot Noir Rochioli 2015 as well.

Benovia Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015

If you look at our product listings, you will note that we post ‘third party’ reviews on the wines offered just like most everyone else.  What’s different about our approach is that you will also note we write a number of original pieces.  We taste a lot of wine over the course of the year and will make the point that context makes a huge difference in how a wine comes across.  So we give ourselves the opportunity to use our own voice to point out exceptional efforts that may not get that big score when judged in some sort of rapid fire tasting but sure hits the right notes for us ‘one-on-one’.  That is, incidentally how most of you will be consuming your wines.

If there was ever a prime example of how we see things quite a bit differently than the wine media, it is with Benovia winery.  We have been big fans of winemaker Mike Sullivan since back in his early Zin days with Deloach, and through an impressive group of Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels as he got the Hartford Court project going.  We have been quite pleased with his work since becoming the mind behind Benovia and have recommended a number of things from there over the years.

We’ll be the first to admit that the Benovia wines aren’t the kind of blowsy monsters that get easily noticed by the media.  They are, rather, succinct, pure and harmonious with well-woven flavors and nothing sticking out.  These are the kinds of wines to drink because they are outstanding examples of California classics of the type that were prevalent back in California’s more ‘formative’ years.  They are made to ‘seduce’ rather than ‘bludgeon’.

Not a lot of evident wood here, the style of this Chardonnay is an exploration of the terroir of the Russian River.  You’ve got finely meshed apple and citrus fruit with hints of almond and spice notes, the result of night harvesting, indigenous yeast and whole cluster fermentation and a sojourn of 12 months in oak.

The flavors are clean, persistent, and engaging while always fresh and vibrant.  The Benovia Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015 comes mainly from the winery’s Martaella estate and relies on a layered, nuanced, rather impressive demonstration of the vivid house style for its impression.  It will probably again get modest reviews from the press because it isn’t overtly big (though don’t get us wrong there is plenty of character).  But this one impresses where it counts, in the glass.  That is where this Chardonnay is made to perform, and we’d rather drink this than a lot of the other, higher- scoring (often oaky and flabby) options we have.

It would be easier for us to simply point to a Chardonnay that got a big review, and we have those, too. But this is one we believe in and the 2015 is a fine example to make new friends for what we feel is one of the more under-rated wineries around simply because the wines are balanced and made to drink rather than to go after ‘numbers’.