Dunne on Wine

Mike Dunne: Gold medals back up Sonoma’s image

A Benziger Family Winery tram travels the vineyard in Glen Ellen. Sonoma County’s 16 AVAs tend to be identified by varietal, perhaps wrongly.
A Benziger Family Winery tram travels the vineyard in Glen Ellen. Sonoma County’s 16 AVAs tend to be identified by varietal, perhaps wrongly. Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Sonoma County isn’t California’s most diverse wine region, it just seems that way. Napa Valley has as many American Viticultural Areas – 16 – but it’s more compact in layout and dominated by one kind of wine – cabernet sauvignon.

Planning a trip and a goal in Napa Valley is easy compared with setting an itinerary and an objective in Sonoma County, where its 16 AVAs are more scattered and more varied in terrain and yield. You want zinfandel, you head to Dry Creek Valley northwest from Healdsburg. You want pinot noir, mosey out to Russian River Valley west of Santa Rosa. And so it goes – Sonoma Valley for hearty cabernet sauvignon, Alexander Valley for supple cabernet sauvignon, Chalk Hill for fine-boned cabernet sauvignon, etc.

But how much of Sonoma’s reputation is perception is based on marketing skills and how much is grounded in grape-growing and winemaking skills?

A couple of experiences earlier this fall at the Sonoma Harvest Fair wine competition pretty much convinced me that there’s more than hopeful imagery to the growing standing of certain styles of wine within specific appellations of Sonoma County. At the same time, however, some surprises suggested that the identification of one or two kinds of wine with a particular area may be premature.

On the first day, the three-person panel on which I sat was assigned the class of zinfandels priced up to $29.99. The grapes that went into the wines could come from anywhere in Sonoma County. We evaluated 58 of them. Granted, this was but a slice of the many zinfandels in that price niche made in Sonoma County any given vintage, but in terms of source and style it was a fairly big slice.

Nearly half – 27 – were from Dry Creek Valley, no surprise given the historic concentration of zinfandel in that AVA. Ten, however, were from Russian River Valley, much more closely associated with pinot noir and chardonnay. Eleven of the Dry Creek Valley zinfandels won gold or double-gold medals, whereas three of the Russian River Valley zinfandels did likewise, which proportionately was nearly as respectable a showing as for the zinfandels from Dry Creek Valley.

When it came time to choose best of class, however, the unanimous honor went to an entry from neither appellation, but to the elegant, seamless and substantial Wilson Winery 2013 Sonoma County Zinfandel ($29). While the wine bears a Sonoma County appellation, 58 percent of the fruit that went into it was grown in Dry Creek Valley, with the rest coming from the nearby Alexander and Russian River valleys, reports winemaker Diane Wilson. She also notes that only about 10 percent of the wine saw oak, which helps explain the directness and freshness of its berry flavors.

Two of the three other candidates for best of class were from Dry Creek Valley, the fresh and lilting Owl Ridge 2013 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($20), juicy with classic zinfandel suggestions of boysenberries, and the quietly assured Homefire of Sonoma 2012 Dry Creek Valley Firework Vineyard Zinfandel ($16), also running gracefully to the boysenberry side of the zinfandel spectrum.

The fourth candidate was the beefy and peppery Rodney Strong Vineyards 2013 Northern Sonoma Knotty Vines Estate Zinfandel ($25), which like the Wilson is a blend of grapes from Russian River, Alexander and Dry Creek valleys.

On the second day, our panel was assigned one of the more prized classes in the competition – pinot noirs priced $30 to $44.99. There were 78 of them, a strong indication of just how popular, esteemed and competitive pinot noir is in Sonoma County. Again, we didn’t know where in the county they originated, though we suspected most would be from Russian River Valley, and most were, 56 of them (two more, we learned when the identity of the wines was revealed, also bore the Green Valley appellation, which is within the Russian River Valley AVA).

Of the 23 gold or double-gold medals we awarded, 15 went to pinot noirs with the Russian River Valley appellation and one to an entry with both Russian River Valley and Green Valley on its label. (Double-gold medals are awarded a wine when all members of a panel concur that it deserves gold, though the Sonoma Harvest Fair offers judges a quirk whereby they get one “silver bullet” with which they can elevate to gold or double gold a wine about which they feel strongly. This happened with one of our pinot noirs, the round and languid La Crema Winery 2013 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($40), not one of my favorites, but there you have it.)

All eight of our double-gold pinot noirs were up for best of class, with the earthy, smoky and warm Martin Ray 2013 Russian River Valley Green Valley Pinot Noir ($40) emerging as the winner, though in the first round of final balloting my vote went to what I felt was the more vital and complete Balletto Vineyards 2013 Russian River Valley Winery Block Pinot Noir ($42). As a measure of just how well Balletto Vineyards is doing with pinot noir, we also gave gold medals to its sprightly and layered 2013 Russian River Valley Cider Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir ($42) and its perfumey, minerally and buoyant 2014 Russian River Valley Sexton Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir ($42).

In short, on that day by that panel, Russian River Valley’s reputation for reliable and individualistic pinot noir looked to be affirmed, though wine enthusiasts especially keen on the varietal also can find seductive interpretations from Sonoma Mountain, Sonoma Coast and Carneros, as we found. (An extensive searchable database for the competition is at the website of The Press Democrat newspaper in Santa Rosa, www.pressdemocrat.com.)

In all, the competition drew 1,254 wines. Top awards went to the big, long and complex Trione Vineyards and Winery 2014 Russian River Valley River Road Ranch Sauvignon Blanc ($23) for best white wine, the ripe and hefty Matrix Winery 2013 Russian River Valley Estate Reserve Pinot Noir ($54) for best red wine, and the honeyed and spicy Clos du Bois 2013 Knights Valley Fleur Late Harvest Reserve Semillon ($40) for best specialty wine.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.