Visiting CIRQ Estate's Treehouse Vineyard

Monday, August 18, 2014

Aerial shot of CIRQ Estate's Treehouse Vineyard
Photo credit:
CIRQ Estate's Treehouse Vineyard
After finishing up our visit of Kosta Browne's new facility at The Barlow (full report) in Sebastapol we said goodbye to Tony Lombardi from Kosta Browne and hello to Kenneth Rochford and Damon Wong from CIRQ Estate. Along with Michael Browne they are the extent of the company behind CIRQ: A tiny new ultra-premium California Pinot Noir producer.
When CIRQ debuted a couple years ago it was exciting news. For the first time Kosta Browne's winemaker (Michael Browne) would have total control over the vineyards. Kosta Browne just recently acquired a parcel of land from one of the vineyards they source (20 acres of Keefer Ranch) so they can technically call a future bottling "estate". But CIRQ offers an opportunity to define the next generation of elite California Pinot Noir from the ground up.

Working with renowed Pinot Noir grower Charlie Chenoweth, CIRQ developed two vineyards: Treehouse and Bootlegger's. We visited Treehouse - an amazing hilltop property in west Sonoma County with red, iron-rich Franciscan soil surrounded idyllically by coastal cypress trees.
Damon Wong and Kenneth Rochford in the Treehouse Vineyard
In 2008 Treehouse was developed on land previously used for cattle. 13.5 acres of Pinot Noir are planted here.  CIRQ was established in 2009. Their first production vintage was 2011 when 500 cases of Treehouse were produced.
Treehouse is hard to figure out. The vineyard is located eight miles from the Pacific Ocean and yet, 100 yards away, lies a stand of coastal cypress. Nobody can explain it. Why those trees thrive in that place, when every other tree is either a redwood or a fir, is a mystery. Or perhaps, an omen. 

Treehouse is remote and expensive to farm. Irrigation water for the young Pinot Noir vines needs to be trucked in. It's named for a large tree that sits atop the property where they actually plan to build a treehouse. It was early August when we visited. Harvest would be underway a few weeks later.
Chenoweth Clone Pinot Noir Grapes
For as much California Pinot Noir as I enjoy this was the first time I can recall seeing Pinot Noir grapes hanging on the vine nearly ready to harvest. Although they look plump in the photo above I was actually surprised how tiny the grapes were. The low skin to fruit ratio produces concentrated wines.

We visited a week ago today and the shoes I was wearing still have red dust on them as if I'd been tromping around Mars. I was curious how separate CIRQ's operations are from Kosta Browne's. Although CIRQ produces their wine at Kosta Browne's facility as a client winery they are surprisingly well separated. The mailing list, marketing, vineyard operations, and fulfillment are completely separate. The only common element is Michael Browne.

As we were finishing up our time at Treehouse we got a chance to taste the 2012 Treehouse that's going to be released this fall. Since they don't have a tasting room we tried it right there in the vineyard.
2012 CIRQ Estate Treehouse Pinot Noir
A natural question that's been on my mind since I first heard of CIRQ was: What would it taste like? Would it go in a richer, riper direction than KB's already-rich style? Or would it veer in a completely different direction?

The answer, for me, based on this one tasting is that CIRQ is every bit as intense as Kosta Browne from a flavor perspective. But high acidity and a touch of tannic grip at release make CIRQ an ideal wine for enjoying with meals for special occasions.

The 2012 Treehouse is aged in 50% new French oak for 16 months with no racking. It is a bright and brilliant dark magenta visually. Aromatically it leans towards dark black fruits. It is brambly with prominent acidity and a bit of tannic grip. The intensity of flavor is striking with a pleasing mouthfeel. It presents itself as a brighter wine than most Kosta Browne Pinots.

Although it's tremendously enjoyable to drink now, the winery encourages restraint:
I decided to hold the wine back for a full year after bottling to give it more time for the tannins to integrate and for more complex aromas to develop. This is something I’ve always wanted to do. Our wines definitely benefit from added bottle aging. They emerge relaxed, composed. 
In an ideal world, our wine would rest for 3-5 years after release. I know this won’t happen for a good portion of the bottles, wine drinkers being who they are. But with at least a year of bottle age before they’re opened, the wine will present itself the way I intended.
I have a feeling they know their clientele. I bet most of the 2011s shipped this spring will be consumed by the end of the year. Hopefully a bottle or two will survive to start getting a feeling for how these wines age.

Wines from Bootlegger's, which we didn't taste, are said to be more elegant, plush and red-fruited. The soil at Bootlegger's is a khaki-colored Goldridge. Treehouse and Bootlegger's are the two vineyards in the CIRQ portfolio.

Is CIRQ worth $100 a bottle? If we look at Kosta Browne's 2012 pricing we see appellation wines at $64/btl and single vineyards at $84/btl. If/when KB releases an estate Pinot Noir it'll probably go for $100/btl. So while CIRQ's pricing at $100/btl sounds audacious at first it wouldn't make sense to price it south of the Kosta Browne wines. Although there are other California Pinot Noir producers up at this price point (Marcassin and Peter Michael come to mind, along with single vineyard bottlings from Paul Hobbs, Foxen, Williams Selyem, and Sea Smoke) I think some were taken aback that CIRQ would debut at an even, confident $100.

It was an absolute pleasure to visit CIRQ and taste this exciting new wine in such an amazing setting. I would love to have a couple bottles of CIRQ in my collection waiting for a special occasion, but the $100 price point is indeed tough for me to get my frugal mind around. That said, if anyone can convince me to break out the credit card and splurge it's Michael Browne. I'll be watching future releases with interest.

If you haven't already you absolutely have to check out where you'll find amazing videos describing what makes CIRQ and their estate vineyard special. Highly recommended. While you're there hop on their mailing list for future allocations.

Photos courtesy of John Corcoran

Question of the Day: Are you on the CIRQ mailing list? Have you tried it? Are you on the KB mailing list but couldn't bring yourself to pull the trigger on the $100 CIRQ? I'd love to hear your perspectives on this new project.


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