Dunne on Wine

Anderson Valley winemakers take a ‘Dalmatian dog’ approach to their pinot noirs

Another shot of Jason Drew in the vineyard of his Drew Family Cellars in Mendocino County.
Another shot of Jason Drew in the vineyard of his Drew Family Cellars in Mendocino County.

The more precise the appellation, the more prestigious and expensive the wine. Or so goes conventional wisdom in the wine trade.

In other words, “California” has a certain cachet on a wine label, but it isn’t as dear as “Napa Valley,” and even “Napa Valley” is enhanced when coupled with “Stags Leap District.” Add the name of a specific vineyard, such as “Tomahawk,” and the wine is even more precious.

Vintners in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley understand this, but not all of them are convinced that their best pinot noirs need to carry the name of a particular vineyard. “Anderson Valley” is enough to assure wine enthusiasts that a pinot noir has exceptional command and complexity, they believe.

They attribute their position to the “Dalmatian dog” approach to picking grapes and making wine in Anderson Valley.

No, the canines aren’t frolicking in vineyard and cellar. We’re talking philosophy and geography here, and the logic of vintners goes like this: Dalmatians are born pure white. The black or brown spots scattered across their coat only gradually emerge. Those spots may be clustered tightly or spread widely.

And that’s precisely how plots of grapes ripen in Anderson Valley, spot to spot, not uniformly. The valley is a sliver of gorgeous wildland, only about a mile wide and 17 miles long, stretching east and west along both sides of Highway 128 from just east of Boonville to just west of Navarro.

But as compact as it is, the valley’s topography and climate constitute a study in environmental diversity. Steep hillsides etched with streams bracket the valley floor. Elevations range from near sea level to 2,500 feet. Slopes face several directions, resulting in sharp variations in exposure to sunlight and wind, despite proximity. The western reaches are cool and foggy, the eastern warmer and sunnier. Overall, Anderson Valley is one of California’s cooler grape-growing areas, though the diurnal swing can be as much as 40 to 50 degrees on a summer day.

Given that diversity, pinot noir matures erratically across the valley, with one plot ready to pick long before or long after another. The spots may be close, or they may be far apart, like the markings of a Dalmatian.

“The old school of thought suggested that you pick the early fruit in the warmer end of the valley (Boonville) and work your way west toward the coast throughout the harvest,” says winemaker Jeff Jindra of Husch Vineyards at Philo, which in 1971 became the first winery in Anderson Valley to plant pinot noir.

That approach has been a fairly valid generalization, he concedes, but the thinking nowadays concerning ripening and picking takes into consideration elevation rather than just the east/west lay of the land.

Because the fruit is ready at different times, Jindra, among other valley winemakers, likes to blend pinot noir with grapes from several vineyards, though pinot noirs from one specific vineyard also can be exciting. “Some sites provide a fruity profile, while others might offer brighter acidity, tannin, earthy tones, elegance, boldness and so forth,” Jindra says. A palette with so many options gives him an opportunity “to craft a wine that has more character than one vineyard alone might offer.”

He recognizes that this tack runs counter to prevailing thinking within the trade, but he’s sticking to his approach. “More often than not I appreciate an Anderson Valley-designated wine simply because it speaks more completely of the quality of the region in a given year,” Jindra says. “The Dalmatian approach to picking and making wine is really an under-appreciated art.”

Jason Drew of Drew Family Cellars on Mendocino Ridge high above the valley floor also blends juice squeezed from several scattered vineyards into a single wine, building a pinot noir with more shadings of complexity, texture and flavor than he might be able to pull from a single site.

During last month’s Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival in Boonville, his robust yet silken Drew Family Wines 2015 Anderson Valley Fog Eater Pinot Noir ($45) was a prime example of the power of blended pinot noir. It was made with grapes from five scattered vineyards, which when combined yielded a pinot noir electric with suggestions of strawberries and cranberries while revitalizing the palate with brisk acidity. What’s more, its directness and layering lingered with uncommon endurance.

To be sure, Jindra and Drew, among other vintners in the area, also release vineyard-designated pinot noirs, and they, frankly, are the wines largely responsible for Anderson Valley’s growing stature for pinot noir that combines dynamics with elegance.

At the festival, Jindra’s Husch Vineyards 2013 Anderson Valley Knoll Pinot Noir ($40), named for the shale outcropping where the valley’s first pinot noir was planted, represented with clarity and verve the precision and originality that winemakers seek in vineyard-designated wines. While light in color, it was clear in aroma and frank in fruit flavor, with a stout spine and an alluring underpinning of earthiness.

For his part, Drew seized bluster and bounce in his Drew Family Cellars 2015 Anderson Valley Fashauer Vineyards Pinot Noir ($50), a vineyard on Greenwood Ridge at the western edge of the valley whose high mineral content he credits in part for the wine’s notes of zesty citrus, wild thyme and forest mushroom.

In addition to wines already mentioned, other pinot noirs I found especially captivating at the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival, regardless of whether they were blends or single-vineyard releases, were:

▪ Navarro Vineyards 2015 Anderson Valley Deep End Blend Pinot Noir ($55): Husky with fruit and refreshingly tangy with acid, Deep End just may be the ultimate Dalmatian-dog wine, blended from four different vineyard sites, four different pinot-noir clones and four different rootstocks scattered through Navarro’s 105 acres of vine, from down low to high up the slopes they occupy.

▪ Toulouse Vineyards 2013 Yorkville Highlands Weir Vineyards Pinot Noir ($55): Yorkville Highlands is a separate American Viticultural Area at the warmer east side of Anderson Valley, but was represented at the festival by this strapping and complex release. Weir Vineyards is at about 1,000 feet, helping account for the wine’s hearty fruit and keen acidity.

▪ Philo Ridge Vineyards 2012 Anderson Valley Marguerite Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50): This savory and silken pinot noir was my favorite of the festival for its vivid cherry and berry flavor, quickening acidity and persistent finish. It was at once challenging in its complexity yet comforting in its lushness. Alas, this is the last vintage from the 40-year-old Marguerite Vineyard, which has been removed for another but unspecified “cash crop,” whatever that might be.

▪ Phillips Hill Winery 2014 Anderson Valley Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir ($52): The pinpoint expression of place that vintners seek with vineyard-designated wines is captured here in vivacious raspberry fruit, luxurious texture and peppery spice. Cerise is a prized vineyard about 1,000 feet above the valley floor, often cloaked in fog and swept by winds.

▪ Donum Estate 2014 Anderson Valley Year of the Horse Single Vineyard Pinot Noir ($72): Made with fruit from the foggy and cool Angel Camp Vineyard at the far western stretches of the valley, the Donum stood out for its sweet berry fruit, solid structure and seductive elegance. Given its build and bite, it should continue to evolve dramatically in the cellar for the next five years.

▪ Walt Wines 2014 Anderson Valley The Corners Pinot Noir ($75): By Anderson Valley standards, The Corners is exceptionally dark, ripe and warm (15.1 percent alcohol), but it carries all that heft and succulence with grace. This is a wine for enthusiasts who like their pinot noirs with muscle and swagger.