The Russian River Valley is home to sprawling vineyards, forests and—to some people’s surprise—a wide array of Pinot Noir. Virginie Boone, our Napa-Sonoma contributing editor, talked with Matt Coyne, the sommelier at Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant, about everything that makes the region unique while tasting some the region’s inimitable Russian River Pinot Noirs.
Virginie Boone: Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast podcast: your serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Virginie Boone, the Napa-Sonoma editor here at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, I’ll talk with Matt Coyne, the sommelier at Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant in the Russian River Valley in California. We’ll talk about some of our favorite wines from the region, the neighborhood’s concept, and the diversity that sometimes people don’t understand about this great place for Pinot Noir.
I’m here with Matt Coyne, sommelier at Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant which is located literally in the middle of the Russian River Valley, surrounded, we’re here on site, surrounded by vineyards and forest and all the beauty that I associate with Russian River Valley. So, Matt, tell me a little bit about how you got into wine in the first place and then, you know, specifically how did you get here to this beautiful place, Farmhouse Inn?
Matt Coyne: Coming up here to the area is really what got me into the business, through proximity. You know, when people would come to visit especially, of course being in the middle of a wonderful wine region, I couldn’t keep everyone kind of cooped up in the house all day, so I take them out for wine tasting. And that’s what really kind of developed my passion for the industry. After that, I really loved, you know, what it meant to be a sommelier, and looked at other sommelier for a little guidance, and decided to kind of pursue that educational track. And since then, I’ve worked in wineries or restaurants, back and forth. Through some sommelier friends of mine, more or less, I became aware of this opportunity and of course jumped on it right away. And the Farmhouse is just a really kind of unique and special place here on the Russian River. When folks come into dinner I can point out vineyards across the street, or a stone’s throw away, that makes some really incredible wines.
VB: What would you say—I mean coming into this position and coming back up to this region—what was your sort of understanding of Russian River…let’s keep it Pinot Noir for now, but like grand scheme of the wine world? Like what was your understanding, what are some things that you have learned since that have impressed you or surprised you?
MC: Well when I first got into the wine business and started tasting Pinot Noirs from the Russian River Valley appellation specifically, they tended to lean on being a little bit more kind of rich and ripe on the palate, a little more full, you know. So, I think that’s maybe an initial kind of perception of the Russian River in a lot of ways. Although, I will say that one really fun part of me being a sommelier here is to get to discover the diversity on offer within the Russian River Valley. Specifically, you can break down into the different areas of the Russian River that tend to have certain stylistic threads on the palate. And then also, you know, another way of looking at things is to kind of pursue your favorite winemaker as the, you know, decision—of when to pick, how to treat the wines in the cellar—can make a real difference in leaning towards more of a bright style, more rich style, or whatever else.
But yeah, living and working out here, I’ve very much noticed the broad range of styles, you know, are discovered in more detail. If you go from the Sebastopol Hills you can have wines that are, you know, very bright and kind of focused, a little bit more tart, a little more tightly wound on the palate, which can in a way be reminiscence of certain Pinots further out to the Sonoma coast. Whereas I think that you know, just so that’s an important kind of thing I’ve noticed is the Sebastopol here Hills area particularly.
But then beyond that, the differences within the different neighborhoods further east, so you know for instance the Laguna Ridge area, you know, tends to have a little more of this kind of bright fruit to it, whereas if you go further up West Side Road you start to get a little bit more richness on the palate as well. So, I think that, you know, just kind of learning about the different producer specifically their stores—getting to go out there and kick the dirt in the vineyard, and try a little wine from the barrel with the winemakers is really quite frankly priceless. And as a sommelier, I feel very lucky to happen to be here in the middle of Sonoma County where I can go see my neighbors and visit them and they happen to be world-class wine makers. It’s a real pleasure.
VB: Yeah. I do think there’s a lot of stylistic differences in wines and winemakers and certainly the neighborhood concept, which you mention, where they really are trying to differentiate just amongst themselves within the Russian River Valley. You know, you must have people that come in who are looking for rich ripe, kind of what their mentality might be of Russia River Pinot, and then I’m sure you have people come in that want something a little bit more refined, something a little bit more classically structured, maybe even age-worthy…
MC: Yeah absolutely. Well on the more kind of ripe and kind of rich or robustly kind of elegant style, Gary Farrell comes to mind, certainly; Donelan; Dutton Estate, their Deviate Pinot, I have a bottle under my bed. Never trust a skinny chef, right, kind of analogy? Yeah. Lynmar does a very nice job with some more again elegant, but just more robust wines on the palate. So those are a few to come that come to mind right away. Pont Neuf, actually a smaller producer, very nice as well. So those would be some kind of knee-jerk bottle recommendations on that side of things.
On the other side a little more kind of bright and focused: we mentioned the Pachyderm, that’s a personal favorite of mine. We’ve had their Hurst Vineyard on the list, I also really love their Thorn Ridge Vineyard, so a couple nice options to kind of look at on that side of things. And then when you look at some of the wines from—it’s kind of a middle road—when you look at some of the wines from the Laguna Ridge area, you have Kistler but Pellegrini-Olivet Lane Vineyard makes this really kind of bright cherries, so that’s maybe a little bit more of a kind of middle ground there?
VB: Well I mean let’s talk about that a little bit, because we have some wines that we have liked in common: that Gary Farrell, the 2016 Lancel Creek Pinot Noir was one that you mentioned that you’ve recently added to your list. And it’s a wine that I’ve really liked in my reviews, I agree with you. I think that the interesting thing with Gary Farrell is there is sort of that lushness to it, at least in this in this specific bottling. And yet there’s a lot of acidity; there’s a lot of brightness. Is that kind of what you’ve noticed in some of these Gary Farrell wines?
MC: Yeah, absolutely. Specific to the Lancel Creek—you know the vineyards in the Green Valley appellation a little further west for Russian River, a bit of a cooler part of our appellation here—and specifically when I drink that wine, when you first get the wine on the palate you have this kind of richness, the satisfying kind of layers of flavors and nice kind of evolution on the palate, but everything about the wine is just a little bit more big for me when it first hits the palate. It does have that acidity but it’s kind of an undercurrent, it’s hard to notice at first, but it holds the wine and gives it kind of shape and depth.
But, then as you kind of enjoy the wine, for me there’s just real transition on the palate where it starts to kind of tighten up a little bit. You start to get a little more of this lift, this kind of—the wine’s kind of like the rope is getting a little bit more taut as it’s on the palate there, and it leaves you this kind of lifted, bright, high tone, kind of raspberry finish. It’s very nice, although again it’s very much a change on the palate. It has that kind of robust elegance, but then it leaves you with that longer kind of bright lifted finish. So, you know, and I think in terms of Gary Farrell, with a lot of the wines I do see that ability to achieve some kind of richness and robustness without the cost of elegance on the palate.
VB: Right. I would agree. Now let’s switch from that to Kistler, which you mentioned Laguna Ridge vineyard. Some of those vineyards oddly enough don’t have as much impact from the Russian River itself. They have a lot more coastal, for sure, but not necessarily driven from the river itself which is pretty unique for the AVA, wouldn’t you say?
MC: Yeah. And, you know, that’s one of the fun things I found is being a sommelier here in the Russian River Valley is kind of discovering the differences based on the topography in the area, to where you can’t really just say that one vineyard is three miles from the ocean or seven miles from the ocean, and have that be a direct correlation in terms of the wine style. What seems to almost make more of a difference is the access to the coastal air, in a way. And that does again kind of depend on that nuanced topography. So, yeah, Russian River Valley, of course we think a lot about the Russian River valley basin, and the vineyards that get that fog. And how far up the river they are, you know, kind of determines when that fog burns off and can make a big deal.
But yeah, I think those kind of nuances Kistler included with getting some different coastal air access to different, you know, kind of hills and whatnot. You know, devil’s in the detail—and that’s what makes it fun. You know, that’s what makes for me and even more fun Russian Rivers to discover these different wines where it’s not quite as straightforward. It’s not, you know, kind of one big area. It’s not uniform. I mean even within the Russian River appellation there is such a diversity of climates, soil, everything else, that it really just makes the offering from the appellation much more kind of varied and nuanced and robust.
VB: And another producer I know that we both like is Holdredge, and John Holdredge is the owner of Holdredge. He’s a lawyer by day, winemaker by night, or maybe vice versa. He makes a wide range of Pinot Noirs, mostly from Russian River, so some of them are site-specific, and then he makes an appellation wine just under the Russian River which is $40, I think is a pretty great deal and I know that you’ve, you’ve carried some of those. So, speak a little bit about what you like about Holdredge wines.
MC: Well I like the balance to the wines; the kind of combination of balance with intensity, you know. I think a lot of with Pinot Noir specifically about texture, and not just flavors, and structure. And with the Holdredge wines are particular to the Bucher Vineyard, and has for me this kind of bright cherry note, a bit of a dustiness to it; just a nice kind of elegant evolution of flavors on the palate, and in a real kind of seamless integration. So you have this bright cherry, you have some spice rack elements, some earthy notes, and it’s just a very kind of seamless transition of flavors, which I think is one of the hallmarks of a good wine is not just what the flavors are, but how well they kind of evolve from one to the other, or are balanced with each other.
Specific to the Bucher Vineyard as well, it certainly is in a warmer kind of our northern part of the Russian River Valley here, although the vineyard gets a little bit of afternoon shade as well, which I think, you know, helps to achieve kind of the style of the Holdredge Bucher on the palate. This kind of bright cherry but not overly kind of ripe and rich, for me it strikes a nice kind of focused style with a bit of a supple texture that allows people enjoying the wine to be satisfied with that fruit flavor—the richness, the intensity on the palate—but still having the brightness. And just to kind of dissect those two issues, the, you know intensity, you could have an intense wine that’s more crisp and bright, you could have an intense wine that’s more ripe and kind of rich. So, when looking at, you know, some of these more acid driven wines from the Sebastopol hills, for instance, it’s not that they lack intensity, it’s just that structurally they’re a little more linear on the palate, they’re a little less kind of broad-shouldered, a little more about the purity almost in a way.
VB: Well let’s talk about that, because I love the earthiness and the savory components of the spice that you get in a lot of Pinots: some you’re getting more sweet baking spice, some you’re getting more what people describe as cardamom and more exotic Asian spice. How do you sort of see the spice components? Is it neighborhood specific in your mind? Is it producers specific, is it site specific? Like what do you kind of attribute the spiciness of certain producers to, or how do you feel about it when you’re recommending a wine?
MC: Well I like Pinots that have the kind of spice rack element to them personally, I think it can give the wine a nice definition. The spice rack element on Russian River Pinots I don’t attribute to specifically to one part of the Russian River per se, because I’ve seen it from all over Russian River. That kind of red or black peppercorn, cardamom, coriander kind of element can be found—you know, for instance, we use the Scherrer Pinot Noir, Fred Scherrer makes about five minutes up the road here, and that has a nice kind of black peppercorn spice rack note, which is part of what made the wine pair well with our chef’s rabbit that has a mustard grain sauce is a component of it. So that’s one example, you know, is kind of how to pair with that spice rack element, but I don’t necessarily attribute it to one neighborhood per se, or really too much in terms of wine-making style, outside of maybe the use of the barrel to get some barrel spice elements, but I definitely like it.
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VB: My last question for you is, certainly in the sommelier world, what would surprise—or what does surprise — people most about Russian River Pinot?
MC: I think it would be two things, mainly. First is the diversity, because I do think, you know, a lot of people when they maybe first try a Russian River, or hear about it, tend to associate it with a little more of this ripe and rich style. Which it is in part, and you know does that very well, but also again just a range of different lines. So, they’d be the one thing I think is maybe a little bit surprising to people as they kind of discover a little more in depth about the wines from the area. But otherwise, I think generally it’s the quality. It’s not the Russian River is not considered a quality Pinot, but you know I have to say, until, you know, I had the opportunity in my career to start tasting some of these wines that are really special. Kistler, again, you know, Williams Selyem, you know, it’s beautiful Pinot, I wouldn’t always drink it on a Tuesday night. So as my career kind of evolved and I got a chance to taste more and more of these wines, you know—and again, my background, I worked at a French modern cuisine restaurant as a sommelier, and really saw that burgundy-first California, specifically different areas in Sonoma, Pinot Noir back and forth. And I think it really illustrated the capacity for quality out here.
And one just kind of side note I think is fairly interesting: imagine when you’re a sommelier, or you’re a consumer, and sort of more into wine, and you’d like a Pinot Noir say from Burgundy. Well, it’s a little bit easier in a way to pick based on the village and have an expectation of a style in the glass if you have a wine from Jeffrey Schaumburg time, it’s going to be a little bit more powerful on the palate, whereas you might have something from Savigny-lès-Beaune, or a lot of what’s there need that’s going to be a little bit more kind of elegant, more about the red fruit, and some floral notes and things. And I think that similar level of stylistic expectation can be achieved in part out here, by looking at those different regions within you know the Sebastopol hills, versus say the middle reach, or Santa Rosa plains, they’re going to be a little more red fruit-driven and just more fruit forward in general. So I think as a long-term kind of vision for the area, the wineries in the area that have started the different kind of promoting themselves as neighborhoods a little bit more, and sometimes more specific than that the wineries on West Side Road have a, you know, kind of a little group where they kind of work together on things.
I think that really is going to improve the outlook for Russian River Pinots long-term. We’re not quite as restricted as they are in France, and different parts of Europe, in terms of how the wine is made. It’s a little bit more freedom for the wine makers here in the area. But I will say that there is a real trend towards minimal interventionalist; a lot of wine makers talk about making kind of Burgundian-style wines, letting the grapes speak for themselves, the terroir express itself in the glass, and I think that movement is going to make a little bit more over the long term of a common style in the cellar for us, and that’ll continue to emphasize and emphasize a little more the difference within the neighborhoods.
VB: Yeah, I agree, and I think the neighborhood concept. I would love to see more of that translated to, I think that it is being translated pretty well to the trade, but I think to consumers so that you do understand this is going to be a different profile. And it is very producer specific as well, so it’s hard to put everything into those camps without a lot of thought. But I do think it’s helpful. So, well, thank you. I want to thank you very much for talking about one of my favorite subjects—Russian River Valley Pinot Noir—and lovely to do it here at the Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant. Thank you again Matt Coyne.
MC: My pleasure. Thank you for having me, Virginie, and I love Russian River Pinot!
VB: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Wine Enthusiast podcast where Matt Coyne and I discussed some of our favorite things about Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. To recap three recently reviewed stylistic expressions that are worth picking up now, try: Gary Farrell 2016 Lancel Creek Pinot Noir, 96 points, $60; Kistler 2015 Laguna Ridge Pinot Noir, 96 points, $90; or Holdredge 2016 Russian River Valley 93 points, $40.
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