When I hear winemakers and others in the trade speak favorably of a winery, I’ve learned to take notice. So when in the first hours of my visit to Sonoma County last month, I heard several people mention Red Car winery, I decided to pay a visit. Luckily, my cousin had purchased tickets to the Sonoma County barrel tasting weekend, so we were able to waltz in without an appointment. (We stayed in the lower Russian River Valley AVA, while the drunken hooligans were up north.)
We met winemaker Carroll Kemp, who explained that Red Car is part of the “In Pursuit of Balance” group founded by Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards and Rajat Parr, wine director for the Michael Mina restaurant group. Kemp described the group’s approach as “neo-traditional” with values such as “acid is more important than tannin, balance is more important than extraction. If you really want great pinot noir, you have to have those things.”
When I asked if this was a movement back toward a more restrained style of winemaking, Kemp shrugged. “If there’s a movement out here, it’s primarily because that’s the way our region makes wine,” he said, somewhat disingenuously perhaps. (I’ve tasted some flabby Sonoma pinots.) “Wine styles don’t change overnight. The weather, foods people eat, the way they dress, all play into it.”
Red Car is also part of an organization paradoxically named the West Sonoma Coast Vintners. The idea behind this group, Kemp explained, is to emphasize winemaking along the real Sonoma coast, rather than the entire, expansive AVA by that name that includes the Russian River Valley and points further inland – even parts of Carneros.
Red Car is located along the Gravenstein Highway, west of Santa Rosa, but makes wine from grapes along the Sonoma Coast. The winery has 14 acres in the brand new Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, part of the “extreme” Sonoma Coast that was carved out of the larger appellation last fall. Kemp was pouring his 2010 Estate Pinot Noir, which he said was probably the first wine to be labeled with the new AVA.
Kemp said he was eager to use the new AVA on his label to distinguish the smaller area where the wine was grown from the larger designation. “For my direct sales customers, I think it will mean something,” he said.
Red Car wines show great finesse and complexity. The 2010 Boxcar Pinot Noir ($28), a blend of grapes from five vineyards, is a terrific example of “Sonoma Coast” at its best, while the single-vineyard bottlings ratchet up the expression of terroir. That 2010 estate wine from Fort Ross-Seaview ($65) is surprisingly well integrated considering it’s the vineyard’s first vintage, from fourth-leaf vines. It was fruity, suggesting pomegranate and cherry, while the 2010 “The Aphorist” from Bartolomei Vineyard near Forestville had a woodsy spice that suggested a redwood grove. The 2010 Pinot Noir from Heaven and Earth Vineyard near Freestone – “the coldest part of Sonoma County,” Kemp said – was fine and delicate. (The latter two wines were barrel samples and not yet released.)
These wines are not made or priced for everyday drinking, but they are worth seeking out if you’re interested in the best Sonoma County and its wild coast have to offer.