Sonoma Winter WINEland Part 2: Dutton-Goldfield

(Part 1)

First stop on the Winter WINEland trail: DUTTON-GOLDFIELD, where we were formally greeted outside the tasting room with a glass of their 2011 Dutton Ranch Chardonnay Russian River Valley. Brightly acidic, with great clarity and focus, lots of citrus fruits (from lemon to tangerine) on both nose and palate, a solid mineral backbone, and an appropriate dose of custard tart somewhere it the midst of it all, it was, for me at least, a thrilling start to the day. It was also fascinating to think of this Chardonnay in comparison to the more tropical and oaky examples from the Napa Valley – or even Sonoma’s own Carneros – less than twenty miles away. Those who fell into the ABC (Anything but Chardonnay) crowd partly in reaction to those heady Napa wines would be well advised to check out the Dutton Goldfield before completely dismissing the grape in its Californian cloak – although at $35 a bottle, it’s not exactly a cocktail wine.

The Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir: reminiscent of good Burgundy.

That price point can be explained in part by the cachet that the name ‘Dutton’ carries in the Russian River Valley. The family has owned farmland in the region for well over a hundred years, though they only started growing grapes on it in the 1960s, when Warren Dutton Jr. challenged prevailing opinion that the climate was too cool to do so. Partly as a result of the attention his efforts brought to the region in general (Russian River Valley was granted AVA status in 1983), and to the Dutton name in particular, both Warren’s sons subsequently launched their own wineries: as well as Steve Dutton (and Dan Goldfield)’s Dutton-Goldfield, brother Joe and his wife operate the Dutton Estate winery; together, the Dutton brothers and their extended families continue to operate 1100 acres of organically grown grapes, spread across around 60 parcels and vineyards, primarily within Russian River Valley, under the name Dutton Ranch; these grapes are sold to a variety of different wineries, who often use the Dutton name on their own labels. (Examples: the higher regarded Kistler Chardonnay Dutton Ranch, or the Steven Kent Dutton-Morelli Lane Chardonnay.)

To return to a wine in hand, however: the proof, as they say in the Russian River Valley, is in the Pinot Noir, and Dutton-Goldfield stepped up to the promise of the Winter WINEland occasion by offering a vertical taste test of its Dutton Ranch. The wine is sourced from five or so named vineyards mainly within the Green Valley sub-AVA of Russian River Valley, and aged judiciously for ten months in oak (40% of it new). The 2011 Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir Russian River Valley gave off the grape’s distinctive bing cherry nose, offered lots of acidity, delivered big red fruits on the palate, and plenty of those spicy notes that distinguish a good Pinot, all with sufficient tannins to merit some medium-term cellaring. Though I make it sound like a big wine, compared to the higher alcohol wines we would taste just down the road, this was positively Burgundian. The 2005 Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, from a supposedly textbook vintage, offered up a much richer, denser nose, with more floral notes on the palate and some herbal textures from the softened tannins. It was hard to choose a favorite; one of the joys of good Pinot Noir is that it’s succulent when young and suave with some age. Certainly, these were benchmark examples of why the Russian River Valley (and Green Valley in particular) has become so renowned for Pinot Noir – and for better or worse, they were the best we tasted all day.

The Cherry Ridge Syrah was laid out alongside bowls of the spices and fruit that are often considered ‘ingredients’ in such a wine.

Dutton-Goldfield also generously put up, for a similar comparison, a pair of estate Syrahs from their Cherry Ridge Vineyard. That vineyard’s position on a south-facing slope atop a ridge high in the Green Valley – a “warm spot in a cold area” as the winery puts it – would appear to be ideal for a grape that thrives on the border between warm and cool climate. To their credit, Dutton-Goldfield, went a step beyond even their impressive full-page production notes and, for the Syrah tasting, laid out a number of bowls filled with nutmeg, clove, cherry and the like, inviting us to see if we could recognize those aromas within the wines themselves. This was as useful an exercise for someone like myself, who often gets by on bluster, as it was for my friend Susie, who was genuinely intrigued to learn that wine could ‘suggest’ ingredients without actually including them. Each of the wines had been aged approximately 20 months in 50% new oak, but any cedar/sandalwood notes were suitably subtle.

The 2009 Cherry Ridge Vineyard Syrah Russian River Valley-Green Valley understandably had that much more zest, more forward black fruit (cherry as well as blackberry) and, to my taste buds, was more pronounced than the 2003 Cherry Ridge Vineyard Syrah Russian River Valley-Green Valley, which nonetheless, along with some of the black cherry that may well be part of the RRV terroir, gave off a classic northern Rhone vibe, from its grilled bacon aroma, to its pepper and spice (including, yes, nutmeg and clove now you mention it), along with some earthy leathery notes from its medium term cellaring; it was, in fact, my favorite of the five wines on offer. With less than 500 cases of each wine, the retail price – $45 for the younger wine and $60 for the older one – did not seem unreasonable; I’d pour a glass of their 2003 Syrah over a generic $12 red in a hotel bar any day of the week. Sadly, and perhaps wisely, my suitcases were already over the luggage limit and I had made it a point not to purchase anything all day. Suitably invigorated by the experience, and for my part aware that it might not get much better than Dutton-Goldfield, we resumed our journey through the Winter WINEland.

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November 2021