Sonoma makes great Pinot Noir, but it’s not all in the Label

Pinot Noir is the sexy grape that makes Sonoma chic.  There are so many marquee Pinot wineries in the region with signature names like Rochioli, Hirsch, Marcassin,  Kistler and Williams Selyem.

I have been professionally tasting Pinot Noir in Sonoma Valley for the past 16 years.  Because of my love of Pinot Noir, I am especially attentive in sampling and discerning these wines. There is a lot of Pinot Noir out there and retailers can afford to be especially selective.

Nothing Like a Well-Made Pinot Noir

While Pinot still only counts for about 6% of California’s grape production, the varietal has grown exponentially and captured the imagination of wine lovers.  Pinot Noir from northern California has especially been on a roll during the past decade. And Sonoma produces about 50 tons of Pinot Noir a year, which is a lot of wine!

The expansion of American Viticultural Areas (“AVA”) in Sonoma County, plus the three bumper crops of 2012-2014, has led to a glut of Pinot and a wide range of quality.  With three good vintages in Sonoma, better-made Pinots are especially delicious. But with the expansion of plantings, high yields and large AVAs, the quality is much more complicated than the geography delineated on the label.

What’s in an AVA?

Two of the most famous appellations in Sonoma Valley, “Sonoma Coast” and “Russian River Valley,” are now gigantic and show a very wide range of taste profiles and pedigree.

In 2008, E&J Gallo petitioned for an expansion of the 155,000 acre “Russian River Valley” appellation to include an additional 14,000 acres. In late 2011, despite protests from many growers, this was ultimately approved.

The “Sonoma Coast” Appellation (the word “Coast” adds nice marketing cache) now includes a huge geography that almost stretches from the Marin to Mendocino County lines. Wines with this designation include a wide variety of sub-climates and taste profiles.

“The Sonoma Coast and Russian River AVAs are just enormous — to differentiate our brands we really have to focus harder on vineyards, sub AVAs and our marketing story,” says Pat Roney, CEO and Chairman of Vintage Wine Estates’ Sonoma Coast Vineyards, Clos Pegase and Girard Wineries.

Sonoma County reacted to many producers putting their AVA designations on bottles, but excluded the fact that these wines were from “Sonoma County.” It wasn’t until last year that it was mandatory for the words “Sonoma County” to be on the labels as well.

Now that the delicious and big crops from 2012 and 2013 are on store shelves, and the solid 2014s will soon be released, there should be more bargains.  This will present a ton of opportunities for savvy retailers and is a good time to have a smart wine professional on staff to help guide consumers through this labyrinth. BD

Jonathan Newman is widely recognized as a leader in the wine industry. As chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, he was the nation’s largest wine buyer and brought a number of popular innovations to bear, including the Chairman’s Selection program and opening of local stores for Sunday sales. Jonathan has received significant industry accolades during his career. Follow him on Twitter at @NewmanWine and visit his website: www.newmanwine.com.

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