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The King of Pinot Noir

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I met Gary Farrell for the first time more than 20 years ago. He was a modest man making very good wine under difficult conditions in California's Russian River Valley.

The difficult conditions were self-imposed, for Farrell specialized in pinot noir. California pinot noir, at that time, was anything but a ringing endorsement for the potential of California viticulture. The pinots of that era were either colorless, thin and acidic or ponderous and boring.

The elegant pinots Farrell made for Davus Bynum and his own small label were the exception, not the rule. Few winemakers from that time had the first clue about pinot noir. They didn't know where to grow it and certainly didn't know how to make it.

In my earliest discussions with him about California pinot noir, Farrell laid much of the blame at the feet of University of California, Davis, the pre-eminent university in the nation for aspiring winemakers. Farrell stumbled, just as everyone else had, with his first attempts at producing world-class pinot noir that would rival the great red wines of France's Burgundy region.

He eventually blazed his own path, and the Gary Farrell winery eventually became a source for some of California's finest pinots. Farrell sold his "namesake" winery in 2004, and in 2007 hooked up with neighbor and colleague Bill Hambrecht to launch Alysian Wines.

Alysian is a Russian River Valley winery dedicated to small batches of high quality pinot noir and chardonnay. I hadn't spoken to Farrell in years when a sample pack of five Alysian pinots arrived at my office recently, to be followed by a brief email.

I was intrigued first because of Farrell's involvement, and later when I perused the technical information that accompanied the wines. Two of them were below 14 percent alcohol by volume, and the other three were nominally above the 14 percent mark.

Could it be that Farrell was up to his old tricks, making elegant pinot noir that wouldn't clobber you over the head with alcohol and massive fruit? The major difference between New World pinot noir today and the finest red Burgundies is structure.

New World pinots tend to be soft and voluptuous, and sweet to a certain extent. They taste good and have forged an impressive following, but they barely resemble the wines of Burgundy that inspired winemakers such as Farrell in the first place.

The Alysian pinots are that rarity in New World pinot, exhibiting the firm structure and weightlessness on the palate that are the hallmarks of great red Burgundy. This is accomplished without sacrificing aromatics, fruit concentration or flavor. The bright acidity and firm tannins are the bones, and superb Russian River Valley pinot noir grapes ensure there is plenty of flesh on those bones.

The landscape for California pinot noir has changed radically over the past 20 years. There are numerous other RRV producers doing stellar work with pinot, but as a group I do believe the five Alysian pinots sampled recently are the finest I've ever tasted.

I used to think of Gary Farrell as the king of California pinot noir. I still do.

TASTING NOTES

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Alysian 2008 Pinot Noir, Floodgate Vineyard, West Block, Russian River Valley ($55) — With a wild cherry, strawberry nose, the Alysian West Block Pinot Noir is inviting from first whiff. Beautifully balanced and well proportioned, it offers splendid ripe red-fruit aromas on the palate, with firm structure and a long, tantalizing finish. It is delicate without being thin and profound without being ponderous. Easily one of the finer New World pinots I've ever tasted. Rating: 97.

Alysian 2009 Pinot Noir, Russian River Selection, Russian River Valley ($42) — Although it lacks the finesse and refinement of some of the vineyard-designate pinots from Alysian, the Russian River Selection represents tremendous value in Russian River Valley pinot at such a modest price. It shows spicy red-fruit character and is firmly structured. Rating: 92.

Alysian 2009 Pinot Noir, Floodgate Vineyard, Rock Hill, Russian River Valley ($55) — The Rock Hill from Alysian exhibits lovely red fruits behind what is now a wall of tannin and firm acidity. But those distracting elements bode well for the future of this beautiful pinot, which would benefit from another three to five years of cellaring. The structure is positively scintillating. Rating: 98.

Alysian 2008 Pinot Noir, Rochioli Vineyard, Allen-Rochioli Blocks, Russian River Valley ($65) — This classic Russian River pinot has everything a pinot lover could ask for, except perhaps a modest price tag. Still, in today's wine market, the price is not onerous considering the quality. The Allen-Rochioli Blocks Pinot from Alysian has power and depth without the cloying hindrance of overripe fruit. It shows earthy aromas, a bit of minerality and lovely red fruits with a hint of spice. And it's a show-stopper of a pinot. Rating: 96.

Alysian 2008 Pinot Noir, Hallberg Vineyard / Crossroads, Russian River Valley ($55) — The Hallberg Crossroads Pinot from Alysian is the epitome of refinement, a delicate, sophisticated pinot that seems almost weightless on the palate, but with complexity of aroma and persistence of flavor that are usually the province of heftier wines with more power and color. This is the magic of pinot noir, as well as the magic of winemaker Gary Farrell. Rating: 95.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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