There are a ton of wineries on my “must visit” list (yes, a “ton”), and most of them, to be honest, are those that do not garner a ton of press. There is Smith-Madrone (well-known in the wine-geek world), Hanzell (a legend in Pinot and Chardonnay), and either Arnot Roberts, Bedrock, or Wind Gap–small producers all with a loyal following.
At the top of the list now, though, is another small producer with some of the best Sonoma Pinot Noirs I have tried in the last couple of years. Emeritus has been making Pinot Noir in Sonoma since the early years of this millennium and while I had certainly heard of the wines, but given the small production and lack of a tasting room, it proved difficult to get my hands on any.
At the head of Emeritus is Brice Cutrer Jones and while, at first glance, those not familiar with the Sonoma wine “scene” might not recognize the name, anyone who has tried any Sonoma Chardonnay would definitely recognize that middle name as part of the well-known Sonoma-Cutrer brand. Yes, Brice founded and built Sonoma-Cutrer into one of the best American Chardonnays in the market, but after 25 years of toil, he sold Sonoma-Cutrer in 1999, although he stayed on with the company Around the same time he bought the Hallberg Ranch, a rolling 115 acre apple ranch near Sebastopol.
He quickly ripped out the apple orchard, replacing it with Pinot Noir. Why would the champion of Chardonnay suddenly switch to Pinot? A few years earlier, at Sonoma-Cutrer, Brice and his team had planted a few acres of Pinot as a bit of experiment and seeing the success of those experimental plots, he decided to go all-in with Pinot.
Just prior to acquiring Hallberg Ranch, Brice also purchased a smaller plot of land near the Sonoma Coast for his oldest son Victor, which was also planted to Pinot (and was named William Wesley after Brice’s father). A third vineyard, Pinot Hill, was planted in 2008 and is also in the Sonoma Coast appellation. All three vineyards are dry farmed—a rarity in Sonoma, but fiercely defended by Brice despite the lower yields.
A few months ago, I was invited to join in on a rather exclusive online wine tasting (there were only three other wine writers) of the current releases of Emeritus Pinot Noirs, it was a bit of a no-brainer. In the past I have voiced my concern over online tastings, but I have since come around to realize their value, and this was a case in point. Given the small number of participants, the presence of both Brice Cutrer Jones and his daughter Mari (who oversees the new tasting room) to partake in the discussion, and the stunning beauty of the wines presented, this tasting was likely the best online experience I have had.
I have never met Brice in person, but he does not seem like the type of guy that would mince many words, and this came through during the tasting. He recounted story after story, covering the struggles he had in getting Sonoma-Cutrer started (and maintained), what he thinks of public company ownership of wineries (he’s not a fan), and the commercial winemaking practices of a certain neighbor to Sonoma County (he is really not a fan).
The wines we tasted were simply exquisite (yes, I am a fan):
2013 Emeritus Pinot Hill Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir: Retail $55. Eucalyptus a go-go. Holy goodness. Plenty of tart cherry and a hint of earth. OK. Whoa. On the palate this is the best of a couple of worlds: the fruit of California, but the soul of Burgundy. This is unmistakably a Cali Pinot, but it crosses many borders. I would like to hold on to this for a while, but now? Yes! Outstanding. 92-94 points.
2013 Emeritus Hallberg Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: Retail $42. The eucalyptus is a bit tampered here, but still present, more sour cherry and plenty of gusto. First impression? Balance. The fruit, acidity, earth? All there. The fruit is perhaps more present, but the intrigue? A slight, but only slight, drop-off. At the end? Fantastic. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points.
2013 Emeritus William Wesley Pinot Noir: Retail $67. Originally started as a partnership with Aubert de Villaine of La Domaine de la Romanée Conti and while the distance and cost of the partnership proved to be a bit too daunting, his influence is still noticeable. Big. Big. Rich dark red fruit. A bit of earth, but harbor no illusions, this is about the fruit. On the palate, this is what every Burgundian Pinot aspires to be: fruit, fruit, earth, and more fruit. Whoa. If you do not like this wine, you might need an intervention. Sure, it is bold, and even brash, but it is gangbusters from A to Z. Whoa. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.
I am not the only fan of these wines, here is my pal, James the Wine Guy’s take on a previous vintage (maybe I can convince him to visit the winery with me one of these days—I think that’s a bit of a no-brainer, too):