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pinot noir dream week with macmurray ranch, fort ross, and freestone
We taste an amazing amount of wine. Usually that makes for nice times where we find some good bottles, some bad bottles, and a lot of average bottles. But we must have been charmed this past week because we went three for three. Three wineries, three absolutely superb experiences.
The journey began at MacMurray Ranch, a gorgeous 1500 acre property in mid-western Sonoma County. Most people recognize the name MacMurray, of course, and correctly relate it to the iconic Fred MacMurray of Absent Minded Professor, Double Indemnity, and My Three Sons fame. What is not well known is that Fred was not engaged in the wine industry on this ranch (he did live here, as well as in Los Angeles, with actress wife June Haver), but in the cattle business. It was not until after his death that the giant Gallo operation (60 brands and 80,000,000 cases), in its endeavor to create premium wines, purchased the ranch from Ms. Haver and converted much of it into vineyards.
Our host for the day was Fred and June’s beautiful daughter Kate MacMurray, who grew up on the ranch, now resides there, and has become a valuable ambassador and wine educator for the Gallo group. It’s a highly desired position, and Kate loves it. She spends much of her time traveling for the company and promoting its wines.
We spent a very enjoyable 2½ hours touring and learning about the biodynamically farmed estate, looking at (and touching) artifacts from Fred’s movies (alas, there was no flubber), and sitting on the ranch house’s BBQ porch where we of course tasted the wine under the MacMurray Ranch label.
-2008 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Gris ($20): A lovely alternative to the usual Chards and Sauvignon Blancs in Sonoma and Napa, this wine offers plenty of figs and honey, a big mid and lower palate, and a clean, pleasant finish. Sip it alone or pair it.
-2007 MacMurray Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($28): You will rarely find a Pinot Noir at this reasonable price with as much fruit and spice balanced from nose to finish. Just a wisp of smoke on the back palate is a bonus.
-2007 MacMurray Ranch Westminster Block Pinot Noir ($60): At any price, this is a spectacular wine worth purchasing and drinking. Comprised of Russian River fruit, this layered, peppery, spicy, big wine permits winemaker Susan Doyle to throw her hat in the ring as one of the state’s best Pinot Noir makers.
High up on the northern coast of California, just north of the village of Fort Ross, sits the Timber Cove Inn, an old property in name, but now in the midst of a brilliant renovation. Few hotels in the world sit on a more impressive piece of land, overlooking as it does the state’s rocky coast and blue Pacific (de Gama must not have been here because the ocean is hardly peaceful). And with a newly engaged top chef serving an inspired menu to clientele who watch the sun set from their tables in a dining room with floor to ceiling windows, not much could add to the experience.
But something did. Not much farther away from the inn than a Tiger Wood’s drive, and actually overlooking the ocean a mile below, sit the vines of Fort Ross Vineyards. Reflecting the true Sonoma Coast wine appellation as perhaps the state’s closest vineyards to the water, owners Linda and Lester Schwartz have taken the fruit from these vines and masterfully created some superb wines.
-2008 Fort Ross Rose ($16): Ruby pink in color, this Pinot Noir Rose has a lovely round mouth of wild strawberries and red raspberries (even Monty, who regularly stays away from Pinks, liked this one).
-2005 Fort Ross Chardonnay Reserve ($43): If you have ever had a “milk punch,” the creamy nutmeg flavors in this non malolactic wine will remind you of one. Bright, yet elegant.
-2005 Fort Ross Pinot Noir Reserve ($52): Not to sound repetitious, but this Reserve matches the MacMurray Ranch (above) in terms of excellence. It is huge, with a hint of wood surrounding layers of intense red fruit, and completed by a kiss of blackberry. An incredible finish.
We would not be surprised if you have not yet heard of this newly opened operation. But we would also not be surprised if you are impressed when we tell you that this enterprise is owned by Joseph Phelps, one of the world’s great wineries.
Following what is becoming a welcoming trend in California, Phelps has decided to produce certain wines in the area where much of the state’s best Burgundian grapes are grown. It is encouraging that regional barriers and jealousies are breaking down so that wineries no longer stubbornly insist on harvesting their fruits only from the appellation in which the winery sits. Now we have Sonoma wineries buying Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, Napa wineries purchasing Pinot Noir grapes from Sonoma and the Central Coast, and everyone buying from Lodi and Lake County. Phelps, as have a few others in the businesses, has taken this a step further and actually built a new winery to take advantage of grapes that are now in sight of the very crush pads where they will give their life to make wine.
Freestone will produce wines under three labels – Fogdog, Ovation (formerly under the Joseph Phelps name), and the winery’s namesake. At present, you will find estate Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs under the Fogdog and Freestone labels, and an estate Chardonnay only under Ovation. As you will see below, prices are not low, and a credible argument could be made by some that they are a bit overpriced. However, it would be difficult to remain credible while denying their quality. Later this year, or early next, Freestone will take a gutsy step and release single vineyard wines designated to carry a $100/bottle cost point. In this economy, and really at any time, they had better be darn good Chards and Pinots. We expect they will be.
-2007 Fogdog Chardonnay ($40): With a good balance between the fruit and the oak, this Chard is full of citrus and stone fruit up front, while finishing with nuances of river rock and kiwi.
-2007 Ovation Chardonnay ($60): Aged on the lees, we found a creamy mouth feel with lots of tropicals and melons on the palate. The finish tasted of banana pudding with allspice.
-2007 Freestone Chardonnay ($75): Quite Burgundian with excellent minerality and lemon meringue notes following a nose of cotton candy. A nice option to weightier Chards, and an excellent food wine.
-2007 Fogdog Pinot Noir ($40): Dark red raspberry, distinct aromas, black cherry, spice, and star anise combine to create a wine with a full mouth and a long finish. There are some sour cherry overtones that will please some, yet deter others.
-2007 Freestone Pinot Noir ($75): As with the MacMurray Ranch Westminster Block and the Fort Ross Reserve, this is a Pinot Noir for the ages. There is an early blast of spice and fruit that seem to melt away into soft satiny berries. The nose and the finish both evidence smoky charcoal – a very interesting profile.
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.