The next hot pinot noir region? Vintners turn their sights on Anderson Valley
The market for pinot noir has seemed insatiable ever since the 2004 movie “Sideways,” in which the protagonist waxed poetic about the finicky varietal while denigrating merlot.
It launched a pinot bull market now officially called the “Sideways effect” and proven by data in a Sonoma State University research paper. Top pinot noir growing areas such as the Russian River Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands have dramatically risen in both price per ton and overall acreage since 2005, according to data from Turrentine Brokerage, and the two biggest suppliers of pinot noir, Sonoma and Monterey counties, have seen an increase of acreage by 41 percent and 88 percent, respectively, in the past decade.
The growth has not threatened grape prices as Sonoma farmers averaged $3,519 a ton for pinot last year, a 67 percent increase over 10 years, while Monterey growers averaged $1,814 in 2015, a 33 percent increase.
Just over the past year, top vintners have begun turning their attention to what could be the next prime pinot region - Mendocino County's Anderson Valley.
The grape, with a thin skin and tight clusters, is a difficult variety to grow, and it needs a cool climate to thrive. But there are not many of those exclusive regions in the world with available land for the fruit, which makes wine noted for its lower tannins and higher acidity.
“I think now it's either true that the Sonoma Coast or Anderson Valley is the best place to go for pinot in the country. I think a lot of people think that,” said Douglas Stewart, owner of Lichen Estate, located half way between Boonville and Philo along Highway 128.
Stewart first garnered acclaim in the Anderson Valley with his previous brand, Breggo Cellars, whose 2006 Pinot Gris was called the “finest ever in the New World” by renowned wine critic Robert Parker. His new venture features an inventive winemaking style paired with his estate-grown fruit, including a multivintage pinot noir wine and a sparkling blanc de noir. They range from $35 to $65 a bottle.
“Anderson Valley's reputation in my view has grown very dramatically since '05 when we first started at Breggo,” Stewart said.
And that's not just bluster from a local booster with skin in the game. It's been evident in recent acquisitions, such as Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa in May buying Copain Wines, whose Wells Guthrie was one of the first winemakers to discover the potential of the valley's pinot noir grapes.
Long Meadow Ranch in Rutherford a year ago bought the Corby Vineyards, with 50 acres of pinot noir, 17 acres of chardonnay and 2 acres of pinot gris. The sale price, according to one knowledgeable source, broke the record of $100,000 per planted acre in the Anderson Valley.
And this summer, Kosta Browne Winery, arguably the hottest pinot noir producer in Sonoma County, purchased Anderson Valley's Cerise Vineyards. It was the winery's first land purchase outside of Sonoma County, with 64 acres mostly planted to pinot noir and chardonnay.
“Kosta Browne is always searching for great vineyard sites throughout California to continue raising the bar for world-class pinot noir and chardonnay, and Cerise Vineyards' pedigree of clones and prime terroir was a pursued and longing choice for the winery,” said Dan Kosta, co-owner of Kosta Browne.
The deals parallel the growth in the pinot noir sales at the retail level, driven in some part by Meiomi Wines, which produces a more popular, sweeter style developed by vintner Joe Wagner. The varietal had an 11 percent growth in dollar sales in the 12-month period ending Aug. 7 through supermarkets, drugstores, convenience stores and other retail establishments tracked by IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.
Pinot noir sales were the highest among a set of five top varietals that included chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot grigio. It also had the highest price per case at $115.80.
“There's a market for us... We see steady growth,” said Ted Lemon, whose Littorai winery has become synonymous with premium pinot noir sourced from grapes from both the Sonoma Coast and the Anderson Valley. His wines reflect his Burgundy training, with polished tannins and mouthwatering vibrancy. Never over-ripe or soft, they have firm structure that allows them to improve for years in the cellar.
“I don't see any difference in the Littorai clientele on the preference for Sonoma Coast to Anderson Valley,” Lemon said. His winery is based in Sebastopol.
The recent activity in Anderson Valley is a boon to Mendocino County's winemaking industry, which had an $87 million grape cash crop in 2015. That represented about 8 percent of the overall North Coast crop for the four-county region, which is still dominated by Napa and Sonoma counties.