Sonoma Winter WINEland 4: Mueller
Our only stop on the Northern Sonoma Winter WINEland to pour exclusively from the Russian River Valley was MUELLER, established twenty years ago after founder Bob Mueller had spent a similar period establishing himself at esteemed Californian wineries like Sonoma’s own Chateau Souverain. Mueller was also the one winery we visited all day that had us taste inside the cellars, but while this cold location benefited the 2010 Mueller Chardonnay LB –100% malolactic, 100% barrel aged, and therefore, far too blousy for my tastes – it was less desirable for the half-dozen Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs on offer, especially given their surprising heft.
My abilities to make detailed notes were additionally hampered by the miniscule pours and equally minor differences. All six of Mueller’s Pinot Noirs are 100% aged in (30-40% new) French oak; all hail from vineyards in the “middle reach” of the Russian River Valley – an area which, says the winery, “experiences the full impact of cooling fog”; all are pushing 15% in alcohol. Almost all distinctions between the wines are to be found in the vineyards, including slight variations in clones.
To the wines themselves – produced, it should be noted, from “a cool year with nasty heat spikes in the midst,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “a vintage where big, flashy wines,” which would fairly describe Mueller’s offerings, “would be a challenge.” I found the 2010 Mueller Pinot Noir Russian River, the entry level wine that, like its Chardonnay sibling, is limited to 450 cases and priced at (ahem) $32 a bottle, to be upfront and alluring, what you could fairly call a “nice” wine. I was very much taken by the 2010 Pinot Noir Cuvée X ($45), limited to 145 cases; harvested from the Saralees Vineyard, it gave off that gorgeous Rainier cherry nose, and while the vanillan oak was certainly present, the finish was refreshingly bright and clean. I was equally fond of the 2010 Mueller Pinot Noir Eastside (also $44), which I noted as “pretty” – one would hope for as much with Pinot Noir – even as I also observed its “toasted oak.” My favorite of the six, however, and I didn’t appear to be alone in this judgment, was the 2010 Pinot Noir Emily’s Cuvee, priced at $48 despite the relative abundance of some 450 cases. Produced from four different Pinot clones grown at a vineyard close to the Russian River banks, and unique amongst Mueller’s wines for the fact that part of it is fermented with wild yeast and a smaller part of it with pure strain yeast, I noted “vibrant cherry, big body, dense finish, but very good.” The Wine Spectator gave it a highly generous 92pt rating and observed that the tannic structure would support up to ten years bottle ageing. I suspect they’re right.
I was not so impressed with the 2010 Pinot Noir Tempi ($44, 145 cases), produced from a single vineyard block, and afforded 40% new oak, the most of any of Mueller’s red wines; I jotted down that it was “darker, too big, not my Pinot style.” Nor was I taken on the day by the pricey 2010 Pinot Noir August Recher ($48, 170 cases), which had such a tight nose that I couldn’t get much out of it at all. In fairness, this was my sixth Pinot in barely 15 minutes, the cool serving temperature was hardly helping my palate, and perhaps this final wine needed time to open up. Nonetheless, the awkward truth remains that I would have felt embarrassed touting the delicacy of Russian River Valley wines to my tasting partner if not for the fact that we’d already been treated to those couple of delightful Pinots from Dutton-Goldfield and that restrained but jubilant Zinfandel from Taft.
I’m loath to criticize Bob Mueller, a man who clearly has credentials, a proven track record, and no shortage of fans among wine critics (who, it should be noted, rarely taste a big fat wine they don’t like). I should also thank him for being the only wine-maker on our travels present to pour his own wines (though he headed in for lunch just as we started tasting). All the same, I wonder whether he wouldn’t be better off reducing the number of offerings, thereby increasing his capacity and lowering his price in the process – and possibly picking his grapes just a little bit earlier, before they max out like this. In the meantime, Mueller’s offerings can be summarized as Californian Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs made in the decidedly New World style – and therefore, not particularly to my taste.