California’s Newest Cult Pinot Noir

Update 8.8.2012(15.7.2009)William Rusty Gaffney

Flying together: Rivers-Marie
Flying together: Rivers-Marie

Thomas Rivers Brown and his wife and business partner Genevieve Marie Walsh have quietly developed one of California’s most honored Pinot Noir labels: Rivers-Marie.  Although Brown crafts wine for at least twelve other wineries where the focus is Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, Rivers-Marie produces small lots of Pinot Noir from three vineyard sources in the true Sonoma Coast, specifically the Occidental-Freestone area.  Summa Vineyard is a 6-acre site owned by Scott and Joan Zeller, Occidental Ridge Vineyard is owned by Richard and Darla Radcliffe, and the Willow Creek Vineyard is owned by Raleigh and Patricia Wilson-Juckett.  Total production for Rivers-Marie was 650 cases in 2007 and 1,200 cases in 2008.  There are 4,000 people on the waiting list hopelessly biding their time for a spot on the mailing list.  Managing allocations is more difficult for Brown than crafting than wines!  The secondary market is the only source for most mortals.

Unlike many cult wine producers in California, Rivers-Marie keeps prices sensible, ranging from $25 to $60 for the five 2007 Pinot Noir bottlings (Sonoma Coast, Willow Creek Vineyard, Occidental Ridge Vineyard, Summa Vineyard, and Summa Vineyard Old Vines).  No one is California is making more striking, more perfectly balanced and age worthy Pinot Noirs than Rivers Marie.  The wines represent the culmination of the long-touted tantalizing potential for Pinot Noir in the true Sonoma Coast.

Yields on the Sonoma Coast in many vintages are marginal and barely financially viable.  Summa Vineyard yields about three-quarters of a ton per acre and some of the old vines yield significantly less.  At Rivers-Marie, the grapes are hand picked and sorted, 100% de-stemmed and given an extended cold soak of up to 10 days.  Aging is carried out on full lees for 10 months and the wines are bottled without fining or filtration.

2007 Rivers-Marie Occidental Ridge Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 14.4% alc., 180 cases, $45.  Dijon clones 115 and 777.  Aged in 40% new French oak.  Complex aromatic profile of dark stone fruits, crushed berries, sage, green garden and smoke.  Rich and perfectly ripe black raspberry fruit with an underpinning of earth, oak and orange peel.  Thick and robust, yet perfectly balanced with complimentary tannins and acidity.  The aromatic and fruity finish is haunting.  A thoroughbred that challenges the Summa Old Vines for superiority.
2007 Rivers-Marie Summa Old Vines Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 13.4% alc., 100 cases, $60.  Aged in 100% new French oak.  Flaboyant aromas of cherries and berries with a magical and penetrating Asian spice scent that smells like the most erotic pheromone in the world.  Unbelievably delicious sappy cherry and berry fruit with wisps of sassafras, cola and exotic spices.  The velvety texture is enough to bring you to your knees.  An incredible wine that defies adequate description.  Suffice it to say that this is a winegasm – one of those Pinot Noirs with such powerful charisma, that it drives men to do practically anything to get another bottle.

Agree? Disagree? Anything you'd like to add?

There are 4 responses to “California’s Newest Cult Pinot Noir”

  1. jason15th July 2009 at 6:34 amPermalinkReply

    1st note, nice little write up about some american pinot.

    2nd, how is a pinot noir with 14.4 % alc (maybe more if that is what the label says) perfectly

    3rd, why do writers when writing about american pinot make great efforts to state the clones used? when reading about european wines, almost never do you read what clones are used. is it to assumed they are all indigenous?

    again, good little contribution to the Burgundy Report

  2. Peter S15th July 2009 at 7:39 amPermalinkReply

    Really enjoyed reading this Rusty … especially your TN for the Summa ! It’s an estate I know of but have never tasted, and I’m now eagerly looking forward to a chance to taste some next month courtesy of an American visitor. Are you (or any other readers) able to translate tons/acre into hl/ha for me ?

    Thanks for sharing on this site,

  3. billn15th July 2009 at 8:15 amPermalinkReply

    Hi Peter,
    I think that 2 tonnes per acre is about 30 hl/ha, so 0.75 would be a miserly 11 hl/ha (sounds like the 1800’s and provignage!)
    Cheers, Bill

  4. Rusty16th July 2009 at 3:21 amPermalinkReply


    Hi Jason,

    Pinot Noir from California or Oregon can often be in balance at 14.4 or higher alcohol although in my experience as you get to 14.8, alcohol invariably peeks out on the nose and finish disrupting the harmony of the wine especially if the wine warms a little in the glass. When a wine has 14.4 or + alcohol, it must have plenty of fruit, tannin and acidity to balance. The trick in California is to achieve phenolic ripeness without excessively high sugars when there is still enough acid to balance the wine out. Many North American Pinot Noirs have too much fruit and alcohol and lack balancing acidity. Some add acid to overcome this but Pinot “purist” winemakers dislike this practice. Many wine people prefer the term harmony to balance.

    Pinot Noir clones and selections are the hot topic in California and Oregon. One reason is that vineyards are planted to one or several clones and selections in blocks and are not selection massale as in Burgundy (there are exceptions such as Rhys Vineyards in Santa Cruz Mtns). It is part of the discovery process as attempts are being made to determine which clones and selections perform best in which sites. Clones are primarily a pinot geek thing and of little interest to most consumers.


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