Kosta Browne, Sea Smoke...Is Rhys Vineyards the Next Cult California Pinot Noir?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A few weeks ago I asked friends on Twitter this question:

Complete this sequence of CA Pinot Noir high-flyers: Kosta Browne, Sea Smoke, ______________.

I got some great answers: Williams Selyem, Sojourn, Roar, Donum Estate, Papapietro Perry, Adrian Fog. But since Twitter is character limited I wasn't able to completely describe the context of the question.

To me, Kosta Browne and Sea Smoke aren't just highly-sought California Pinot Noir producers with reputations for making full-flavored wines. They're textbook examples of shrewd marketing resulting in loyal customers willing to pay a premium for their wines in good times and bad.

Kosta Browne began producing wine in 1997 and their first publicly released vintage was 2000. If you look at Wine Spectator's highest rated domestic Pinot Noirs of all time their wines dominate the list. Although detractors bemoan their prices getting out of hand, the steady climb from $48 in 2000 to $72 for their 2008 single vineyard releases isn't hard to justify in my mind. They're based in Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, and produce wines from other people's vineyards. I enjoyed their 2006 Russian River Valley (92/100) and Sonoma County (93/100) bottlings each purchased at retail for around $60.

Sea Smoke's story is more site-focused yet pinning them down can feel elusive. Unlike Kosta Browne, they don't buy any of their grapes and their Sea Smoke vineyards are planted to capacity creating a famously popular waiting line for their wines known as "The List".  Located in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County, their positioning couldn't have been better aligned with the release of Sideways. Their three Pinot Noir bottlings range between $40 and $80. I saw a bottle of Sea Smoke Ten on a restaurant list for $245 recently. They also produce a One Barrel Pinot Noir (23 cases) that sells for $150. I loved their 2004 Southing Pinot Noir (95), their 2008 Southing (93), and their 2006 Sea Smoke Ten Pinot Noir (93).

These wines have an appeal that goes beyond what's in the bottle and beyond the label. There's an elusive quality about them. Perhaps contrived but you see it in brands like Scarecrow. Where is Scarecrow? What is Scarecrow? "It's not a place - it's a state of mind."

Opening wines like these announces to wine geeks it's a special occasion. When you're having a hard time getting your hands on a bottle you're tempted to pay a premium at retail or at a restaurant for a chance to try them. So adding a brand to this list isn't to be taken lightly.

And before I go much further gushing on about how much I adore these brands I want to acknowledge: One man's ceiling is another man's floor. Just like going to Best Buy and looking at stereo gear - the best things they have there aren't even up for consideration for a true stereophile. Same with wine. Hard core domestic Pinot Noir hounds are off looking at micro-production brands I've never even heard of.

And that's great. I'm not there yet and what I'm talking about here is a broad awareness in the wine community of brands that through hard work, quality production, savvy positioning, and a little luck obtain favored producer status that lasts a long time. The idea here is to catch one of these brands on the way up - when prices start around $30.

Until a couple months ago I had no familiarity with Rhys (rhymes with "piece"). A friend had an allocation and asked me if I'd like to try some. Then I read this. It's a love letter to Rhys Vineyards from highly esteemed Slate wine writer Mike Steinberger on par with the ode David Pogue wrote for the Canon S95 in the New York Times. It's impactful to me when a journalist writes such a striking endorsement for a specific brand.

Still, I read Steinberger's piece with skepticism. It goes on and on about terroir and praises the low alcohol levels of Rhys' Pinots - was I going to like these wines? Or was I going to have to squint and struggle to see the charm of these pieces of art?
My first taste of their wines came in the form of their Alesia label - the 2008 Alesia Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Other than the cork and a brief mention on the back label you wouldn't otherwise know it was produced by Rhys (it says "Produced & Bottled by Alesia Wines, San Carlos, CA") - they reserve that designation for wines produced from their own grapes.

Their focus is very much on site and letting the grapes speak for themselves rather than the winemaker guiding the style in a particular direction. That being the case it's understandable they'd want to distance their flagship wines from those produced from purchased grapes. In fact, 2008 is the last vintage they're producing Alesia Pinot Noir.

Though this wine was produced from grapes grown in the Sonoma Coast AVA (a more common area for Pinot Noir production) Rhys' own vineyard are in the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA.

I've heard the Alesia wines provide a reliable window into the Rhys style. As in: If you like Alesia wines you'll love Rhys wines. The alcohol level clocks in at a reasonable 13.9% (some of their Pinots are less than 13% alcohol) so it feels like a good will attempt to ween the high alcohol by volume crowd from their (our?) 15%+ expectations.

Here are my notes:

2008 Rhys Alesia Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast
13.9% Alcohol
$35 Release Price

My expectations were running high as I tried this wine for the first time - which could have set me up for a big disappointment. Fortunately, based on everything I've read about Rhys Pinots this wine absolutely delivered what it promised to be: A balanced, site-driven wine that points a light in a new direction for California Pinot Noir.

There's a laser-beam focus to the presence of this wine and a fresh, vibrant personality that's utterly appealing. Ample acidity reveals itself first as a slight pucker then later as a subtle citric quality. This mixed in with classic Pinot Noir markings of strawberries, a little earth, and perhaps slightly more substantial (if ultra-fine) tannins than I've seen in rounder new world Pinots. There's a wet river rock aspect that wouldn't be out of place in a red Burgundy.

Overall, a beautiful expression of Pinot Noir. 

92/100 WWP: Outstanding
(and I could easily add a couple bonus points for the back story and overall experience)

So I'm not saying Rhys is producing Pinot Noirs that are stylistically similar to Kosta Browne and Sea Smoke. Not at all. I'm suggesting you might want to jump on their mailing list if you're interested in catching a rising star. And check out the articles on their press page for more information. 

 Further Reading:
Question of the Day: Who are some California Pinot Noir producers you'd put one this level? I'd love to discover more producers to check out from your suggestions.


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