The Sonoma County Barrel Auction gives wine buyers the opportunity to buy a totally unique barrel of wine from some of the county’s foremost winemakers. Christina Rasmussen travels to the auction, previews the lots, falls in love with a Syrah/ Grenache blend from Westwood, and sits enthralled as auctioneer John Curley shows off the skills that have seen him raise $85m for charity. This is the first of a series of articles written by Christina about Sonoma.
Founded in 1944, the Sonoma County Vintners represents more than 200 wineries of all sizes throughout California’s Sonoma County. It runs the Sonoma County Barrel Auction, which is aimed at demonstrating the stylistic range and world-class quality of winemaking in Sonoma County, as well as raise money for charity.
Foot stomps. “Bam!” The stage shakes and the floor rattles a little.
“Four thousand. 45, 45, 45, five thousand! Give me 55, 55, 55 six thousand! Let’s go, 65, 65, 65 seven thousand. Got it. Welcome to the auction. You want this wine don’t you?”
The third annual Sonoma County Barrel Auction had commenced.
I realise I’ve been holding my breath. A roomful of 250 tense sommeliers, wine buyers, winemakers and journalists sit completely and utterly enthralled by John Curley, the auctioneer, an Emmy® and Edward R.Murrow® Award-winning broadcaster, who has singlehandedly raised $85 million for Northwest local charities. He is on track to raise $100 million for non-profits within six years.
I can safely say that I have never been so entertained within a vinous situation, nor quite possibly in my life.
Rewind 24 hours…
Approximately 300 wines: finished and from barrel, in two sections over approximately six hours. Six hours seems a long time, but when there are so many wines to taste, winemakers to meet, and interesting and forward-thinking discussions to be held, time flies.
The particular notion I took away from my days studying the barrel samples was the great amount of experimentation this auction creates. Cuvées from tiny vineyards and from alternative varietals come to fruition where they might not have done before.
In the morning, I, together with a group of international and domestic press, buyers and sommeliers headed to Landmark Vineyards to taste the preview barrel auction lots from Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley.
The focus here was, of course, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, blends including Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, as well as more unique examples such as 100% Petite Sirah (from Amapola Creek), a 100% Petit Verdot (Knights Bridge) and a particularly striking Syrah Grenache blend (from Westwood). Tannat also featured in the blend from SIMI. Chardonnay was also well represented.
Overall quality was very good. These are, of course, baby wines-in-the-making, but acidity and tannin structure were excellent. The standout wines here for me were:
Lovely pretty violet notes with rose petals and red fruits. On the palate, it is velvety and lifted, with raspberries and a mineral mid-palate. Some subtle spice on the finish and a wonderfully smooth, silky tannic structure. This is a truly excellent wine, from an exciting biodynamic and organic producer. Some whole cluster (entirely dependent on the clone use) approximately 50-60% for the Syrah. 30-50% new oak. A wine I am still dwelling on.
I am holding my breath for somebody to import these wines.
Fisher Vineyards Chardonnay “40th Vintage High Elevation Heritage Chardonnay”
Fresh, lifted nose of lemon, some lemon pith and fresh pineapple. Long wet stone, biscuit finish. Elevage of 18 months in one new François Frères barrique and one of one use. Indigenous yeasts with no sulphur.
Joel Peterson, Ravenswood
Ravenswood Black Bart’s 1888 Zinfandel
Spicy, zippy, racy, nose of raspberry, black cherry and a distinct earthy edge that’s very pleasant. Ancient vine Zinfandel with low yields and real potential for ageing. A piece of planted history that is rare to come by in California. Indigenous yeasts, 30% new oak.
UK importers – Matthew Clark and Wine Society
I also really enjoyed the lively fresh plum and blackcurrant of the Seghesio Family Vineyards’ Zinfandel, which uses just 10% new oak to promote the fruit. The collaboration of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley was also a brilliant approachable expression of Zinfandel with lots of lively fruit and a peppery edge.
Half an hour later and we had arrived at Kosta Browne. We were greeted here by an experimental Chardonnay made by Kosta Browne that had spent two years ageing in cigar barrels. It was rather striking: restrained, lean, soft, generous palate of lemon peel with a nice flinty mid-palate and a saline, mineral edge.
Here we tasted predominantly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, the Petaluma Gap (which is due to become its own AVA in June), and West Sonoma Coast. Once again, quality was striking, with an evident move towards more restrained styles with less new oak than I would have expected. I was thoroughly impressed by the freshness of style.
One example I found fascinating was the initiative of the Russian River Valley “neighbourhoods.” This was started by Alex Kanzler of Kanzler Family Vineyards to attempt to uncover the unique terroir of each neighbourhood or “sub-appellation” of the Russian River Valley, by blending wines across multiple winemakers of each neighbourhood. I will explore this further in an article of its own.
Other standout wines for me here included:
Davis Bynum Chardonnay from the River West Vineyard
Here, winemaker Greg Morthole had issues naming his wine, due to regulations with AVA and clone names. He gave up and renamed it the “Bonehead Clone”, which then came back as “Clone Bonehead,” so there was no winning for him.
The wine is fantastic: honeysuckle nose, with dense, mineral, bright citrus acidity with peach and some apricot on the mid-palate. Unfiltered, indigenous yeasts, 50% new barrel and 50% old.
DeLoach Pinot Noir, Estate Vineyard
Black raspberries, lively black cherries, good spice integration. More of a muscular style of Pinot but one that I very much enjoyed. Plus the fabulous DeLoach winemaker and winegrower girls showed me their cowhorns and spoke to me about hyper concentrated microbes which was hugely interesting.
UK importer is Liberty.
DuMOL, “A Perfect Pairing: Dutton-Jentoft 21st Anniversary”
Lovely fresh, very pretty Pinot with a floral nose of lilacs, and a palate of fresh raspberries and blackcurrants. Quite sappy on the finish, with some cherry stones and earthy notes. A stunning example of Pinot Noir. Organic and biodynamic.
UK importer is Raeburn Fine Wines.
Erin Miller Twomey
Twomey Cellars Last Stop Vineyard Pinot Noir
Another excellent example of Pinot Noir that is more restrained; with floral notes and great purity of fruit. Tight and crunchy and will age beautifully. Elegant with great length. Erin Miller, winemaker, uses 27% new oak (low by Sonoma standards) to gain tannin from skins and pips of the grapes as opposed to from wood.
UK importer is The Wine Treasury
Ramey Wine Cellars “Ramey’s Heart of the Russian River Valley”
Just the epitome of an excellent Chardonnay. Malo not finished, but already clear this will just be beautiful. Lively lemon zest and a lot of minerality and pretty fruit.
UK importer is FMV
Fast track forward 24 hours again…
I sit completely under the spell of Curley, only to realise that over half an hour or perhaps even an hour has passed (who knows?). By this point, emotions are running high and more money is getting spent. I (painfully) watch the metaphorical hammer go down on (my) beloved Westwood Syrah/Grenache.
The soundtrack usually reserved for Chris Tarrant on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” plays. You can cut the tension inbetween bids with a knife. The next bidder raises his paddle. My jaw drops when Lot 64, from Pride Mountain Vineyards, goes for the equivalent of $4,000 per case.
The third Sonoma County Barrel Auction raised a record-setting $794,500, an increase of over $100,000 from the previous year. All profits go back into promoting Sonoma County Vintners and its AVA partners. It’s a fantastic and entertaining initiative that I hope to attend again; perhaps even to buy a barrel myself one day for my own future wine list or cellar.