The Carneros district is bathed in coastal fog that softly tiptoes in from the Pacific. This allows for a leisurely growing season with grapes luxuriating in style. Framing the gateway to both Napa and Sonoma, this understated region quietly turns out some of the most coveted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay fruit. The area’s Durell, Hudson, Hyde, and Sangiacomo vineyards are legendary in the wine business, commanding a high premium for their fruit and a long waiting list of eager buyers. Thirty years of grape growing has taught these folks a thing or two.
Wines from Carneros are not flashy, they’re cerebral and soulful. I have admired many of the wineries for their enduring spirit, consistency, tenacity and thoughtful land management.
Here are my top ten:
Amelia Ceja is a human equivalent of a hug, a rare being that feels like everyone’s loyal friend, sister and confidante. She is also one heck of a vintner. Her wines reflect her bright spirit. The Ceja winemaking dynasty began in 1967 when Amelia’s husband’s parents, along with his five siblings, came to the US to seek a better life. She started in the wine industry as a 12-year-old working the harvest in Napa. Today she is president of a winery that produces some of the finest Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in Carneros.
A partnership of Danish friends, Donum is comprised of three world-class estates in Carneros, Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley. Donum is known for their acclaimed estate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. I am a big fan of their Carneros bottlings. It is a wine that evokes the classic Burgundian characteristics of elegance and refinement.
Planted in 1979 by Ed Durell, his namesake vineyard is legendary. Some of the most important producers of Pinot Noir in California vie for its coveted fruit. The Dunstan label began in 2005 with grapes sourced from the vineyard’s small “Ranch House Block.” The lovely Pinots and Chardonnays are classic cool climate offerings with a nod to the charm and opulence of the royal site.
Etude was founded in 1980 by Tony Soter. The name “Etude” pays homage to the artistic and musical term that refers to a composition with a technical focus that allows the musician to practice a particular technique. Soter’s wine-etudes reflected a thoughtfulness in winemaking that made the brand highly desirable. The winery has since been acquired by Fosters Wine Estates. Jon Priest, who has been making the estate wines since 2005, has carried on Tony’s tradition. One of the most profound wines in their portfolio is Heirloom Pinot Noir. Sourced from specific vineyard blocks planted to “heirloom” clones, it is a head turner and a clear candidate for aging.
With thirty-five years of growing world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay under his belt, Larry Hyde is a living legend. He produces some of California’s most craved fruit. His own brand was formed in collaboration with the de Villaine family of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Larry created HdV (Hyde de Villaine), along with his sons Peter and Christopher, in 2009. They produce small quantities of truly extraordinary Pinot Noir and Chardonnay well worth seeking.
Lee Hudson has been farming in Carneros since 1981. He grows two dozen varieties of highly exalted fruit which he sells to some of California’s most illustrious winemakers. Eventually Lee decided to keep some fruit for himself and make a little wine. John Kongsgaard lends a consulting hand along with winemaker Christopher Vandendriessche. The wines are supple, bold, and substantive, without being overwhelming or monolithic. They are consistently well delineated and deftly balanced.
James Hall and Donald Patz met while working at Flora Springs. Their brand was founded in 1988. The debut Pinot Noir was produced with fruit sourced from the highly regarded Hyde Vineyard. Today, the prolific producer has several dozen wines in their portfolio that receive enormous press, trade and consumer praise. Their wines are sourced from vineyards ranging from the Santa Lucia Highlands to Mendocino. Their Carneros bottlings have been my perennial favorites.
Founded in 1981 by David Graves and Richard Ward, this well-known producer started making Carneros Pinot Noir long before it was trendy or popular. The winery is named in honor of George Saintsbury, a renowned literary historian and oenophile. A British professor in the 1900s, he wrote Notes on a Cellar-Book, an enthusiastic tome dedicated to wine and food tasting. Saintsbury produces a number of Carneros offerings, including Garnet, Reserve, and Brown Ranch Vineyard Pinot Noir. I have reveled in Brown Ranch bottling since 1998. Cellar dreamy, it rewards the drinker generously after a few years of rest. My last bottle of 2005 was still youthful and vibrant after a decade.
This new discovery is a project belonging to Robert Schermeister, who grew up in Idaho, far from vines and wines. Fascination with chemical and fermentation processes led to a degree in biochemistry, which then led to a wine career. Robert found himself in the middle of Australia, New Zealand, Washington and eventually Napa wine countries, where he honed his skills under the tutelage of Mark Aubert. He also worked in the cellars of some of the most illustrious California Cab producers, such as Futo and Bryant Family Vineyards, yet he knew his heart belonged to Pinot. For his inaugural 2012 offering, Robert chose fruit from Carneros’ Palladini Vineyard, which is located very close to Hyde Vineyard, and enjoys soil and climate similarities. The wines are fermented using 100% native yeast, a rare and gutsy practice. They are deeply authentic, an ode to varietal purity. Pay close attention to this tiny production brand, it has the potential of becoming a major player on California cult Pinot Noir scene.
Three Sticks is a play on the Roman numerals of founder Bill Price III’s name. One-time Jack Welch protégé and co-founder of TPG, a wildly successful private equity firm, Price’s winery acquisitions include Beringer, Chateau St Jean, Kistler, Kosta Browne, and Gary Farrell. His own brand, Three Sticks, launched in 2002. He recently appointed the legendary Bob Cabral, of Williams Selyem fame, head winemaker. An astounding visionary, Price has acquired some of California’s finest vineyards. His magnificent Durrell Vineyard, from where the fruit is sourced for his estate program, is one such property. The wines are stories in a bottle, and speak directly to the heart.
Carneros offers many unique and deeply fulfilling options for both sophisticated and novice drinkers. The wines grown in the unique climatic and soil conditions are disarmingly charming and immensely sound. They evoke a dance of finesse and refinement; as in waltz, rather than a polka. Don’t overlook this gem of a region, an area capable of delivering understated highs and consistent greatness.