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2019-03-19, 04:59 AM

High on acid and real sense of purpose at 2019 World of Pinot Noir

Landmark Westside Rd. barn passed by many a visitor to Russian River Valley's Middle Reach neighborhood
My general impression of the 120 or so Pinot noirs that I managed to taste at the 2019 World of Pinot Noir taking place at Santa Barbaras The Ritz-CarltonBacara this past March 1-2, 2019 was: Still lots of full bodied wines, with alcohol levels typically in the 14.0%-14.5% range (with outliers at 13.0%-13.5%), despite the predominance of 2016s, a vintage that saw a return to more or less normal (whatever that is) conditions, after four consecutive years of drought.

When elevated alcohol is a negative, of course, wines came across as harsh or hot, often with sweet, ripe cola-like or raisiny aromas, with little or no delineation or sense of delicacy one would hope to find in the varietal and I tasted more than of few of them over the weekend.

But at their finest, many of the fuller scaled Pinot noirs came across as plush and impeccably balanced, lively with acidity, and pungent with as much varietal perfume as non-fruit (i.e. earth related) nuances. The best of them took me back to the vineyards themselves, almost as if I were standing in among the rows and surrounding terrain, rather than in a room with a glass, rubbing elbows with the usual WOPN haut monde.

Now thats what I call Pinot noir, or at least American style Pinot noir, combining body and intensity with some tangible semblance of terroirrelated identity, and showing a maturation of viticulture and winemaking mastery that, just 30 or 40 years ago, even the most positive thinkers thought the industry would take another hundred years to achieve (I remember because I was there).

Pinot noir cluster grown in the stingy, windswept terroir of Santa Catalina Island

As documented by IMHP comments in past post-WOPN reports, my beef has always been that its impossible, and therefore unconscionable, to rate well made Pinot noirs. Yes, artistry and skill can be scored or ranked to some extent. Thats the fun, human element of a wine category like American Pinot noir we love our favored brands, and can grow to practically idolize talented winemakers although even that practice ultimately comes down to personal preference, like Stones vs. Beatles or Picasso vs. Matisse (in other words, meaningless).

But what cant be compared are largely Nature determined factors, like Musigny vs. Chambertin, Dundee Hills vs. McMinnville, Green Valley of Russian River Valley vs. Russian River Valleys classic Middle Reach neighborhood, or Santa MariaValleys Presquile Vineyard vs. Santa Maria Valleys Bien Nacido Vineyard. I simply cant because I have different expectations of Pinot noirs from each place. Pinot noirs of genuinely interesting provenance are supposed to be as different from each other as Fat and Skinny, Goofus and Gallant, and yes, the Stones/Beatles and Musigny/Chambertin analogies. There are no ideal definitions of Pinot noir fruit, balance, ABV, TA or pH, tannin or color. Objectivity is delusional.

Hyde Vineyard in Los Carneros-Napa Valley

Hence, the 21 Pinot noirs that impressed me the most over the 2019 WOPN weekend were those that seemed to scream their differentiations, and real sense of purpose, out the most. To help me understand what it was that I found appealing, I took the trouble of contacting and querying each of the 21 wines winemakers, asking them to

1. Remark on the source of their wines, and how they define the sensory qualities unique to each vineyard or appellation.

2. Shed some light on their winemaking choices (yeast selection, whole cluster, oak regime, etc.) they have been doing in conscious pursuit of as much terroir expression as balance.

3. Share some thoughts or philosophy on how they achieve their goals while addressing concerns (such as alcohol or fruit ripeness) that are still hot topics of discussion among the trade, media and consumers.

World of Pinot Noir tasting (photo courtesy of Tenley Fohl Photography)

My report on these Pinot noirs, in alphabetical order:

2016 Adelaida Vineyards, HMR Vineyard, Adelaida District-Paso Robles Right or wrong, Ill fess up to a predisposition towards this vineyard. I recently, for instance, enjoyed a 20-year-old bottling of HMR Pinot that was in pure and pristine shape, attesting to the integrity of the fruit from this vineyard, originally planted in 1964 by Dr. Stanley Hoffmann (founder of Hoffman Mountain Ranch) with the guidance of Andr Tchelistcheff. The mid-70s HMRs were among the American grown Pinot noirs (along with Chalone, Sanford & Benedict, Carneros Creek, Eyrie or Knudsen Erath) wed occasionally put into blind tastings with Burgundies (often including at least one by Domaine de la Romane-Conti, which were affordable luxuries back in the late 70s). We did wrong things to learn the right things.

The 2016 lives up to the vineyards heritage with its pretty, finely chiseled, flowery perfume, and fine, silky, zesty length the sites kitchen spice/cherry pie/rosehip-tea-like character coming across with delicacy and an almost ineffable intricacy (its there, even if not seemingly there) on the palate.

I asked Adelaida winemaker Jeremy Weintraub to share his own thoughts on the sites sensory profile. His response: One of the threads running through the vintages back to the oldest bottle that we have on property, from 1976, is an aromatic blend of red dried herbs, floral tea, cranberry. The wine is somewhere on the light-body end of the spectrum, with more weight than Santa Maria Valley but far less than something from Russian River Valley.

Weintraub attributes much of the 33-acre blocks consistency to the work of ranch manager Mike Whitener, who planted HMR as a teenager in 1964, so hes seen it all. The current trellising (a pretty rudimentary VSP) was installed in 1996, and use of shade cloths on the south-facing sides (vines are planted east-west, on 8x12 spacing) since 2013 has minimized sun damage. Irrigation is largely unnecessary in the water-retentive clay-limestone soil plus, of course, the old vines deep root systems; and because of multiple aspects in this rolling hillside site, Weintraub will pick the HMR as many as 21 times (as was the case in 2016).

Adelaida's limestone replete, old vine HMR Vineyard Pinot noir block

A vineyard like HMR, says Weintraub, requires removing the ego from the winemaking, and so the wine is not so much made as farmed. Adds Weintraub: Certain blocks, well ferment without destemming, but I want the wine to smell like fruit, not a bowl of vegetables. I dont follow recipes (ask my daughter!), but in 2016 we did about 15% whole cluster because my impression of 2016 was that wed get nice fruit aromas while allowing for some stem inclusion. Fermentation in concrete tanks (manufactured by Vino Vessel) really helps maintain freshness of the fruit. We dont inoculate with yeast, and we use about 30% new French oak to enhance complexity.

The knee-jerk impression of Paso Robles, of course, is that its too hot to grow Pinot noir, and therefore overripe or big alcohol wines are inevitable. Calcareoussoils, however, are predisposed towards higher grape acidity, which give wines an intrinsic balance. Besides, says Weintraub, I dont need to worry about alcoholic Pinot noirs from HMR, especially since at this point in the life of the vineyard, the vines are self-regulating and the older blocks simply wont make that much sugar... The important thing is not a number but the impression that the wine is leaving as you drink it and in your memory.

Balletto winemaker Anthony Beckman in Sexton Hill Vineyard, Russian River Valley's Sebastopol Hills

2016 Balletto Vineyards, 18 Barrel, Sonoma Coast While Sebastopol Hills the southernmost corner of Russian River River Valley closest to the wind, fog and cold air coursing through from Bodega Bayand the Petaluma Gap is not a recognized AVA, it is the most distinctive (IMHO) of the Russian River Valleys so-called five neighborhoods in terms of terroir/sensory dynamics. 18 Barrel is a 100% Sebastopol Hills selection blended on the basis of these dynamics as much as pure quality: ultra-bright cherry/licorice perfume, zingy, ringing qualities on the palate, and a woodsy sensation (to me, something of a mix of redwood and Madrone) blowing through the nose and all the way into the finish, like breath of cool California coastal air.

Dont take my word for it. I asked Balletto winemaker Anthony Beckman, whose observations are based upon his experience working with the Balletto familys extensive acreage in 16 separate Russian River Valley vineyards, including the neighborhoods of Santa Rosa Plains and Laguna Ridge. Says Beckman: Sebastopol Hills produces Pinot that is more spice and earth driven, and where red fruits take a back seat to these savory elements. This makes the wine difficult to pin down aromatically, especially in the 2016 18-Barrel, where the spice, earth and bright fruit all hit at the same time. Its a big, aromatic nose, but not in a fruit-bomb way, and thats what makes it so alluring and interesting.

Structurally, Ive always found Sebastopol Hills Pinots to be edgier than those of most of Russian River Valley. Not quite Mendocino Ridge or McMinnville-Willamette Valley-edgy, but certainly built more on an acid/tannin backbone, which Beckman calls scaffold-like, than most parts of Sonoma Coast. Instead of a weighty mid-palate based on viscosity, says Beckman, it is this acid/tannin core that gives the volume and persistence... without a lot of weight to Sebastopol Hills Pinots. Beckman tries to parse it with descriptors like volume over density, and tannins over lushness.

Pinot noir in Balletto's Sexton Hill Vineyard (Russian River Valley's Sebastopol Hills)

Maximization of this profile, of course, starts with farming (we can write a book about this, says Beckman) and extends to conscious decisions to pick multiple times, from 22.5 to 24 Brix (Beckman considers anything higher than 25 to be a mistake for these vineyards). This precludes the need to add tartaric acid and is much more conducive to the 100% native yeast protocols Beckman established more than ten years ago.

Explains Beckman, Native yeast lengthens the amount of time it takes to ferment (some ferments wont even begin fermenting for 10 to 12 days) and allows for a little more extraction time when the grapes are cold and there is limited alcohol (both of which work as solvents and change the extraction level)... Im really pushing for good tannin extraction from the skins and trying to avoid bad tannin extraction from the seeds, especially since these are earlier picked vineyards at lower sugar/higher acids, so the seeds are never brown and crispy and their extraction needs to be limited by being extremely gentle to ensure the seeds stay inside their little purse-like berry skin.

Beckman pushes the envelope further by exacting 60% to 100% whole cluster fermentation in choice lots, which he finds contributes to both a lifted aromatic profile and adds a good portion of tannins and structure to the finished wine. This is a scary proposition, but extra barrel time and bottle age (at least a year for the latter) helps shed the overt whole-cluster profile and move toward something with both aromatic depth and balanced texture.

Beckman speaks frankly about the pressure to produce overripe wines to kowtow to prevailing tastes: I feel that ripe Pinots begin to lose their sense of place and start to taste all the same, regardless of where theyre from. Still, Ill spend an entire levage worried that the wines will be thin, tart and tannic. But what keeps me going year after year is the lifted aromatics that you get, and how time in barrel and bottle changes them into complete wines with depth, structure and, hopefully, ageability and uniqueness.

Big Basin Vineyards winemaker/owner Bradley Brown

2016 Big Basin Vineyards, Alfaro Family Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains Red cherry laced with sweet herb (wild mint/pennyroyal) fragrances, with the faintest ocean air brininess lingering in the backdrop; tart edged, somewhat lean and wiry, yet very fresh and palate ringing in its light (13.3% alcohol), laser sharp yet ultimately gentle (verging on delicacy), effusively fruited feel.

While Big Basin winemaker/owner Bradley Brown loves a high elevation grown Pinot noir (I was also impressed by a scintillatingly spiced 2016 Big Basin Coastview Vineyard, sourced from a 2,400-ft. elevation Gabilan Mountains site), the Alfaro Family is one of the winerys four vineyard-designates coming from the south end of the Santa CruzMountains AVA in the Corralitos/Pleasant Valley area, largely consisting of hilly sand dunes sitting at 400-650-ft., a scant 3-4 miles from the deep, cold air Monterey Bay. While there are sensory variants, most of these plantings end up sharing commonalities, which I identify as feminine structures and sweet herby/floral qualties. Brown singles out the Alfaro Family sites fully lignified stems, allowing for whole cluster fermentation giving body and fine, dense tannin to the structure, without harsh tannin or astringency.

Alfaro Family Vineyards in Santa Cruz Mountains' Corralitos/Pleasant Valley area

For Brown, the ability to do 100% whole cluster (minus nutrients and even sulfur, which is added only post-ML in the barrel) is also advantageous to achieving transparency; and accordingly, barrel choices (about 25% new) is relegated to coopers employing long, gentle, light toasts, which also helps to amplify site. Working with vineyards so close to the cooling fog influences of the ocean also allows Brown to pick when we see the physiological ripeness... this results in wines that always finish under 14%, and often 13% alcohol. Brown also says that he could choose to pick at riper levels that produce 14.5% wines, but he has a Burgundy influenced ethos and clearly, this is working just fine for followers of Big Basin Vineyards who have developed a taste for leaner, higher acid styles of Pinot noir.

2015 Brewer-Clifton, Sta. Rita Hills Not to minimize the three decades of experience and meticulous work going into their estate grown wine, but in recent years this winery has made the crafting of world class Pinot noir look almost easy. An electric-bright and extravagant nose of strawberry pure with whiffs of wintergreen and pine is solidified by a seriously firm and sharply etched palate-feel, the tannin/acid structure coming across like steel girders, giving a savory sense of concentration to the vivid, high toned and precision-cut fruit.

Brewer-Clifton founder/winemaker Greg Brewer concurs on the ebullience and savory nature of this bottling, describing it as very much Sta. Rita Hills. Reflecting the Asian influence in his thought process, Brewer writes: I typically see the pure fruit ushered in by a spicy aromatic followed by a tea-like/soy-reminiscent mouth-feel umeboshi (i.e. Japanese salt plums) comes to mind. In respect to winemaking choices applied to vintage variations within the appellation, which he describes as incredibly stable within the context of an environment, Brewer remarks, Our pursuit is sincere transmission of our estate with as much lucidity and vulnerability as possible. Hence, overwhelmingly, whole cluster fermentation and strictly neutral cooperage (with no racking) are both appropriate for us to arrive at that aesthetic.

2016 Day Wines, Momtazi Vineyard, McMinnville-Willamette Valley There was a larger than usual contingent of Oregon wineries at 2019 WOPN; and for me, this bottling stood out among the numerous outstanding Oregonians for its star-bright bluish dark red color and intense, compact, black cherry/sweet woodsy (bark and needles) nose with a sense of immensity and concentration, notwithstanding a zesty/edgy, compact and focused feel to a medium weight body, finishing with a notable tweak of coffee roast/burnt leaf savoriness that seemed to be more fruit than oak/toast related.

While winemaker/partner Brianne Day generally finds McMinnville AVA Pinot noirs to be darker and bigger in style than other areas of Willamette Valley, she tends to find a common thread of pretty, sweet herb aromatics and a dark, savage fruit component in those of the biodynamically farmed Momtazi Vineyard. Hence, says Day, I am especially light handed when handling the fruit I think this accentuates the aromatics, which I find quite compelling.

Momtazi Vineyard in Willamette Valley's McMinnville AVA
Pinot noir, contends Day, can be balanced at 12% alcohol or 14% alcohol. Accordingly, partial whole cluster (30% in the 2016 Momtazi), gentle cap management (to avoid over-extracting), and relative cool fermentation temperatures (to retain aromatics) are part of her approach, although no two wines are made identically. For Day, native yeast is a number one thing a winemaker can do to make a site-expressive wine, and cooperage (20% new oak at the most) generally involves 4-10-year-old barrels (I want the majority of the barrels that I use to be a breathing levage vessel without inputting wood flavor or tannin).

Day picks on acids and ripeness levels, telling us: I don't believe that hang time is a good thing it gives time for the fruit's acids to diminish and for the fruit to become overripe... fruit is ripe, literally, when birds will eat it, since the function of the grape is to propagate a vine, and the acid sack that surrounds the seed has to be present for the seed to pass through a bird's digestive track... This is far more important and relevant to me than walking through a vineyard and seeing if fruit tastes good.

Norm Yost with Flying Goat partner Kate Griffith

2015 Flying Goat Cellars, Dierberg Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley From a deceptively brick-red robe, a billowing, luxuriously floral nose encapsulating a spiced strawberry perfume; the high toned qualities following through in a zesty, finely etched palate feel, combining sensations of generosity with lightness and delicacy defying a full scaled (14.8% alcohol) body.

Flying Goat owner/winemaker Norm Yost cites distinctive qualities of Dierberg, which stands out in comparison to other Santa Maria Valley vineyards, most of which Yost has been working with for some 20 years. A Dierbergs primary aromas are black cherry and raspberry, but you also often find some leather, clove and allspice; and on the palate, this can come out in layers of jammy fruit, spice and plums.

For Yost, the big concern in 2015 was dehydration and overripeness from a dry winter and warm season, which was mitigated by timely irrigation. Typically, I look at seed maturity as a ripening parameter, says Yost, but in 2015 I decided to overlook this parameter due to the extreme heat conditions. Although our 2015 Dierberg hit 14.8% alcohol, I believe its balanced and has a beautiful expression of terroir.
Yost typically cold-macerates for up to 3 days in 1.5-ton fermenters, and he inoculates with RC212, known for producing bright fruit, berry and spice characteristics with good tannin structure. He prefers Rousseau and Cadus barrels (25% new) because both of these cooperages fit my winemaking style by not overpowering the wines, allowing me to leave it on the gross lees for as long possible I feel this preserves the flavors of the site and gives the wine more texture.

Gary Farrell winemaker Theresa Heredia in Rochioli Vineyard (Russian River Valley's Middle Reach)

2016 Gary Farrell Winery, Rochioli Vineyard, Russian River Valley Huge doses of black pepper/peppermint spice definitely the spiciest Pinot noir bottling experienced over the weekend inundate a red fruit perfume (raspberry veering towards cherry/strawberry) with both floral (rose petal) and woodsy (forest floor) facets, followed up by just as much layering on the palate pinpoint-sharp, lively, fine, silky sensations, intense, long, titillating.
While Rochioli stands as one of the titular growths of Russian River Valleys long venerated Middle Reach, this neighborhood, as Gary Farrell winemaker Theresa Heredia reminds us, is not all the same... the cobbly, riverbed soil of Rochioli, for instance, gives beautifully pure, red fruit scented Pinot noir, whereas the finer, silty Yolo series soil in Allen Vineyard just across the road gives more savory, earthier, often exotically spiced Pinot noirs (explaining why the winery also combines the contrasting profiles by producing a Rochioli-Allen Vineyard Pinot noir). But when a pure expression of Rochioli is executed to such perfection heightened by the laudably disciplined focus and restraint Heredia appears to have brought to this vaunted brand one cannot help but being wowed by this single vineyard rendering as one of the purest expression of Russian River Valley Pinot noir to be found.

Hilliard Bruce estate in Santa Barbara's Sta. Rita Hills
2016 Hilliard Bruce, SKY, Sta. Rita Hills The week after the 2019 WOPN, owner/grower John Hilliard informed me that he had just put his 21-acre Hilliard Bruce estate up for sale. In his usual (and refreshing) blunt fashion, he said, Sadly, I never could sell enough wine and Im just not that good a salesman... wine does not sell itself. What Mr. Hilliard is, however, is one of the most detailed, quality driven and conscientiously sustainable grower/vintners in the state, which has been borne out in the exquisite Hilliard Bruce grown Pinot noirs produced by both other wineries and under Hilliards own label.

The 2016 SKY grown on the propertys windiest and rockiest slope and planted exclusively to a Calera selection is a quintessential Sta. Rita Hills Pinot: soaring, penetrating perfume, intensely rich and floral, manifested in dense, thickly woven (savory acid/tannin/texturing) yet astoundingly fine and delicate sensations, almost floating over the palate with bombs bursting in air. Ethereal.

Winemaker Sonja Magdevski who has 14 vintages of crafting Santa Barbara wine under her belt (and is also the proprietor of her own Casa Dumetz brand) sheds light on this bottling: In 2016 Greg Brewer (of Brewer-Clifton) became Wine Director for Hilliard Bruce, which he held until August 2018. Under his guidance, he sought to highlight the unique aspects of the property by showcasing each individual clone as they corresponded to the natural curvature of the estate.

Hilliard Bruce's John Hilliard

The majority of the SIPCertified ("Sustainability In Practice"), 21-acre Hilliard Bruce vineyard is planted in sand, although the Calera section has the added bump of loam mixed into the earth. One unique aspect of the property is that extremes are mitigated by natural tendencies of the land... The Calera clone is a winemakers clone that is notoriously low yielding with small berries. The small amount of clay in the soil adds an element of flavorful weight to the grapes. We also added a kicker cane to boost yield, thereby elongating the already tannic clone among more clusters.

According to Magdevski, the 2016 SKY was inoculated with RC212; there was no whole cluster, and cooperage was 100% neutral. Yet the wines balance and intensity finishes with an utter sense of luxuriousness. Adds Magdevski, 'balance, whatever your meaning may be, speaks for itself if someone is paying close attention to the farming and journey of each vintage... it comes from flavor and pleasure, not a scientific measurement... If fruit is not balanced in the vineyard it wont be balanced as a wine... In my experience I have found that vineyard designated wines made sincerely always express theirterroir regardless of ripeness levels.

Hyde Vineyards' Larry (seated) and Chris Hyde

2015 Hyde Vineyards, Carneros-Napa Valley Estate Somewhere between the 2000s and the 1950s and 60s the start of the groundbreaking work done by Louis M. Martini, Beaulieu, Robert Mondavi, Winery Lake and others LosCarneros somehow lost its luster in the world of Pinot noir (or as Saintsburyused to put it, Beaune in the U.S.A.). The recent extraordinary estate bottlings by Larry Hyde and his son Chris are bound to restore some order. The 2015 screams Carneros with its pure, ripe, aromatic black cherry concentration, but then it takes things further by lavishing layer upon layer of plush, curvy, velvet textures punctuated by bright acidity. Non-fruit delineations may be negligible, but who needs that when a wine is so damned, well, ravishing?

Nonetheless, Chris Hyde finds a strong sense of place in the familys eponymous label. I think its our winds, and earthiness or minerality that stand out in our Pinot noir, reflecting the appellations shallow clay soils and fog chilled mornings and nights, largely influenced by the Petaluma Gap. Whatever the case, sour black cherry has always been associated with Los Carneros grown Pinot noir profile, and the 2015 Hyde has that in spades.

According to Hyde, minimal amounts of new oak (20%), whole cluster (usually around 5%) and forgoing of adjustments or filtration help hone the wine in on its intrinsic character especially in 2015, another drought year, when rain during bloom already provided a small crop and great concentration in the wines.... Our focus is on creating wines that are balanced, and expressive of the site.

2017 Lombardi Wines, Hill Justice, Petaluma Gap Gobs of strawberry veering towards black fruit, lush and concentrated, fill out the nose and a concentrated presence on the palate, strengthened by some young, muscular tannin, fashioning a compact, dense, meaty yet seamless, moderately weighted feel.

Commenting on this, his first single vineyard-designate wine (Lombardis Sonoma Coast bottling is sourced from an all-star selection of sites, including Griffins Lair, Sonoma Stage and Spring Hill), winemaker/owner Tony Lombardi tells us: The fruit off Hill Justice is a product of more extreme conditions a steep mountain slope off Morelli Lane... rocky, red soil of higher clay content, on the west side of Sonoma Mountain at nearly 1,100-ft. The 9-acre site is planted to Swan and Pommard selections, which thrive in this extreme environment.

Bunches are smaller, almost like hand grenades, and skins are a bit thicker than my other sites. I think this gives a finer tannin structure to the wine, along with deeper color and darker fruit characteristics. While young and boisterous, adds Lombardi, the alcohol (14.5%) is in balance with the fruit intensity, healthy acidity (3.54 pH/6.34 TA) and tannin... showing some nice, silky texture and expansive mouth-feel. Cant argue with that.

At the center of Santa Lucia Highlands, Soberness and Garys' (right) Vineyards

2016 Lucia Vineyards, Garys Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands True confession: It took me years to grasp, let alone appreciate, the extravagant, often big qualities of Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots. Why? #1, fuller bodied Pinot noirs are never my first choice; and #2, I hadnt been to Santa Lucia Highlands. But when I finally did, and felt the combination of chill air, bright sun, almost blinding winds, and smells of kicked up dusty sand and pungent pervasiveness of wild chapparal pushing up into the nostrils, I finally understood, particularly in respect to the thickened skins and high acidity of grapes ripening under meager circumstances. This is a place where harvests are called on acids dropping to palatable levels rather than sugars reaching a certain point hence, the bigger styles, which come naturally to the place.

At 14.2% alcohol, this iteration of Garys is actually extremely restrained for the appellation. Whats amazing is its decadent intensity if this was a 100-point score magazine, Id probably use words like hedonistic and opulent. But its just me, and so I scribbled: lush, vibrant strawberry pure, and packaging in fresh, lively, svelte and electrifying medium weight body (and thats as hedonistic as my vocabulary goes). There is something of a singularity to this fruit expression, but this is something to be expected from the 50-acre Garys block which, unlike the Pisoni and Franscioni families surrounding vineyards, is planted to just one selection (the famously secret Pisoni clone), as opposed to the usual half-dozen or more hedged by most vineyards on this bench. Bottom line: a Garys should taste like Garys, not so much like the varietal or even other Pinot noirs grown in Santa Lucia Highlands.

Vineyard manager Mark Pisoni in Garys' Vineyard

Jeff Pisoni, the winemaker for his familys Pisoni and Lucia labels, cites the circumstances of the 2016 vintage, contrasting it with the prior, grueling drought years that brought concentration of tannins and acid... muscular wines (from) stressed vines working hard. 2016s earlier harvest dates also easily retained acidity. Crafty growers and winemakers like the Pisoni family are quick to adapt to higher tannin/acid years like 2016, telling us: We backed off on whole cluster and frequency of punch-downs, although we still did a cold soak because the phenolics extracted during that stage are different and more gentle than those extracted during fermentation.

Par for the course for Pisoni, fermentations are native, and cooperage has been whittled down to coopers and barrels lending subtle wood that doesnt overwhelm, because I do not want it to detract from the site expression. While the family has adjusted to recent vintage challenges through vineyard practices (leafing, canopy management, crop level, irrigation, etc.) and a goal of achieving ripeness at moderate alcohols, Pisoni warns that trying to target a finished alcohol without knowing how the farming is done can lead to a disaster because a given sugar level can deliver phenolics/tannins that are way overripe or way underripe, if not farmed correctly. As it were, the Pisonis are hitting it on the head.

2016 Lumen Wines, Presquile Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley Beautifully pristine, fresh, airy red fruit fragrance (cherry/strawberry) with floral/rose petal/faintly green leafiness; the flowery qualities consummated in a light, lithe, silky notably slender and long, zesty mouth-feel. All told, very Presquile.

Will Henry, who crafts LumenWines with old hand Lane Tanner, describes the quintessential Santa Maria Valley qualities expressed by Presquile as a distinct fresh-herb quality as well as a spiciness that is unlike any other Pinot region. I often pick up tarragon and mountain sage, as well as white pepper, cardamom, and other exotic spices. Lumens first shot at Presquile fruit was in 2015, which was so crazy good that it shocked us... the fruit at Presquile is certainly unique... berry size is very small, and the yields are typically quite low both of which lead to a natural concentration of flavor and complexity in the finished wine. Their 2016 was slower to mature, thus picked about 1.0 Brix higher than normal for Henry and Tanner (at 24.2), but the result was still the feathery, feminine, zesty acid style of Pinot typical of the site.

Otherwise, Lumens winemaking is very contemporary; meaning hands-off... we dont mess with it too much, picking as early as possible so that there is no need to adjust acidity or add anything to the wine to bring it into balance. They also eschew stems or whole cluster, preferring to let pure fruit expression shine through. They inoculate with a Burgundian yeast selection used by Tanner before the dawn of time, and oak is relegated to a small percentage of new Hungarian, and the rest neutral... for that reason, the variation you taste between our Pinot noirs are very pure expressions of place.

Reflecting on the evolution of American Pinot noirs, Henry shares interesting food for thought: The challenge two decades back in France, and even in Santa Barbara, was getting fruit ripe enough before the vines started to go dormant for the winter. Wine writers tended to rate the warmest vintages the highest, because vineyard practices were still rather primitive, and the world was also a bit cooler and the wines from warmer vintages were preferred by most palates. Vineyard practices have come a long way, and the world is warmer, which has allowed winemakers to ripen fruit to levels never before possible, even in places like Burgundy or Germany.

Now winemakers are able to make stylistic decisions not possible before. Some winemakers still want the ripest fruit possible, and then adjust for it in the winemaking process. Some base their decision solely on sugar content or pH of sampled fruit; some, like us, base it on flavor maturity. Pick too early and the wine tends to be too vegetal; too late, it tends towards pruniness and lower acid. We try to time our pick perfectly, just when the vegetal flavors go into the background and the fruit begins to show its full complexity, and still has firm acidity and a good, low pH allowing for greater stability and aging. Most of our 2018s, for instance, came in under 13% alcohol, but then that was just what the vintage gave us.

Mindego Ridge Vineyard and surrounding redwoods and Madrones

2015 Mindego Ridge Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains This vineyard has been qualifying for my proverbial pantheon of top American crus by dint of its pervasive transparency: super-bright, high toned raspberry fragrance permeated with airy, woodsy notes; both savory and brightly fruit in a long, lanky, lingering and finesseful palate.

Thomas Fogarty winemaker Nathan Kandler who has been crafting a Mindego Ridge cuve since 2013, and is able to compare it with the winerys seven other Santa Cruz Mountains vineyard-designate bottlings (Faillas Ehren Jordan crafts the Mindego Ridge estate bottlings for owner/growers David and Stacey Gollnick) contrasts the densely forested, 950-ft. elevation Mindego Ridge site as a perfectly positioned south-facing hillside that has warm days and pretty chilly nights... It is the highest acid Pinot noir I have worked with, which allows, or rather forces, you to push the ripeness out farther than other sites in Santa Cruz Mountains.

The climatic factors help to yield a wine rich in supple tannin and dark fruit flavors. As the vineyard matures we have been increasing the whole cluster component, further adding layers of texture and the full range of aromatics we usually find in Mindego Ridge, such as pomegranate, blackberry, black fruits, baking spices, black tea, clove, and citrus peel.

Peay Vineyards' Andy Peay and Vanessa Wong

2016 Peay Vineyards, Ama Estate, Sonoma Coast Peay was one of the In Pursuit of Balancemovements original poster childs, which stands to reason you couldnt make a big wine from Peays estate at the extreme, and most frigid, end of WestSonoma Coast near Annapolis if you tried. I found all of their bottlings (a good half-dozen) shown at 2019 WOPN to be exhilarating, but their 2016 Ama seemed to rise above the rest, figuratively and literally: at least in terms of purity of fruit floral, dark cherry, woodland/forest floor notes billowing from the glass, and then charging through the palates light, tingly, extended, live-wire feel before ending with savory/toothsome, cherry skin, leafy/earth and spiced cobbler sensations.

Andy Peay confirmed my own findings by acknowledging the Amas typical fruits on the red spectrum... red apple and cherry skin with spice and minerality... oftentimes earthy, tea and dried pine needle qualities. Peay attributes these sensory qualities to the vineyards location in a cold climate maritime zone... 3 miles from the Pacific... air temperatures rarely exceeding the low 70s at the warmest time of day.

Peay Vineyards at the extreme edge of West Sonoma Coast
Winemaker Vanessa Wong digs down deeper, explaining her somewhat Yin/Yang approach when assembling the different blocks (varying clones, rootstocks, exposures, slopes, etc.) to produce an Ama from their 33-acre estate: Scallop Shelf Estate Pinot noir, for example, comes from barrel lots that have floral and black tea aromas as base notes... Barrel lots with more foresty, spice and strawberry aromas tend to go into Pomarium, while those with darker berry and with savory notes go into Ama... Ama, in particular, is like a study in opposites of our vineyard, containing both one of the earliest blocks to ripen and the latest blocks of Pinot noir to ripen... the most forwardly fruit driven blocks which would be too much by itself if it werent married and tamed by its earthy/savory polar opposite.

The goal from Day 1, says Peay, was to grow our own grapes and make a wine that was transparent to where it was grown... Some people like power and that is fine. For me, Pinot noir is about elegance, complexity and nuance. You can make Pinot noir with great depth of flavor and persistence on the palate without pushing ripeness to an extreme. But that takes the right site and the right farming.... We didnt want to struggle against the joyful California sun and the monochromatic fruit expression and high sugar it promised. We want florality, fruit expression and earthiness in a harmonious balance. Thats why we deal with the challenges of farming and low yields on the Coast. You dont need to reach into the toolbox to adjust a wine to a model in your head of what you want the wine to be. We chose the location so the fruit would fit that model.

Presqu'ile winemaker Dieter Cronje in the Presquile estate

2016 Presquile Winery, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley The winerys own, estate grown 2016 Presquile Vineyard came across as typically ultra-fine, almost ethereal, yet notably forest-floorish in its flowery perfume; but I couldnt help being even more compelled by the lavish, multi-faceted yet even keeled qualities of their 2016 Bien Nacido bottling. It seemed to epitomize what so many other vintners love about this venerated vineyard the layering of both red and black fruit, the earthy, almost Mexican spice notes, the pervasive, love-it-or-leave-it herbiness, and the faint sensations of meat and loam in the mouth, all arranged within the context of Presquile Winerys own customary feathery touch.

So I asked Presqu'ile winemaker Dieter Cronje how he contrasts the Presquile estate (owned by the Murphy family) with the Miller familys Bien Nacido Vineyard, located just a few miles apart. Says Cronje: I always think of Santa Maria Valley as having a imaginary border that separates the North (where Bien Nacido is located) and South (Presquile) sides. The South is dominated by sandy soils and the North has more structured continental deposits. Generally, the North is also a little warmer than the South, and these conditions typically result in wines from Bien Nacido to the North being more robust with thicker skins and a blacker fruit profile, compared to Presquile on the South side.

Bien Nacido Vineyard looking westward into Santa Maria Valley

Over the years Cronje has learned to adjust winemaking aesthetics to sites, particularly in respect to whole cluster fermentation: On the sandy soils stems tends to be more green, whereas on the heavier, more structured soil at Bien Nacido the wine tends to produce enough fruit character to balance a whole cluster profile. 2016 at Bien Nacido was on the warm side, so we felt confident we could push our whole cluster percentage. In regards to yeast selection, says Cronje, I think that if you want to make true terroir driven wines, wild yeasts from the vineyard or your winery is the way to go. In further pursuit of interpretation of vineyard, Cronje adds, We have been moving away from new oak little by little and have noticed that we prefer our wines without much of it.

In regards to the alcohol and balance debates, Cronje comments that he is lucky in the sense that how our vineyard ripens and how we like to drink and make our wines are all on the same road, and not coincidentally this leads to lower alcohol wines. Cronjes instinct to pick sooner for as much natural acidity as possible is also a case of site aligning with preference. We do not like to manipulate wines if we don't have to, and the wines that take the least work are those that are harvested at slightly lower potential alcohol levels.

2015 Red Car Wine Co., Fort Ross-Seaview Estate This wine delivers almost everything you could hope from a vineyard located at the extreme edge of West Sonoma Coast average elevation 1,100-ft., less than 4 miles from the Pacific which is a seemingly effortless sense of finesse, or what Aussies describe as integrated (Ive never figured out why they use that word more often than anyone). The red nose red cherry, red licorice, red briary berries is intense, laser sharp, and tinged with sweet spice. On the palate, these sensations are revved up by energetic acidity, watering and titillating the palate, in a sleekly textured body (just 13.1% alcohol) that feels airy light, nearly ethereal, and not in any way weak, bony or undernourished.

Red Car winemaker Tanner Scheer sheds further light by explaining: 2016 is our sixth vintage from this site, and is laden with characteristics weve come to know as hallmarks of the region... perennially aromatic, energetic, even electric with bright, fresh, tart wild berry fruit and integrated tannins. Mind you, I did not share my notes (energetic, integrated, wild" or "briary berry) with Mr. Scheer. Lets just say the words are an accurate coincidence.

The extremely dry 2015 vintage, adds Scheer, was a dismal year for farmers, but absolutely stellar for winemakers... offering us a level of complexity and depth we had not seen from our vineyard... a bit darker in color, and more layered, yet entirely indicative of the region and site. Accordingly, winemaking at Red Car is non-invasive... wines are truly made in the vineyard... we dont make adjustments (pH, TA, alcohol, etc.), and practices like whole cluster and oak are applied sparingly as tools," not rules.

Above all, says Scheer, we set out every year to produce wines that scream Western Sonoma County at the top of their lungs, year in and year out, rendering concerns over alcohol or ripe fruit levels neither here nor there. Not to sound cavalier, says Scheer, but we have simply found that the wines we like to drink, and of course to make, are typically in the lower alcohol range. Given that we do not adjust acid values, it is imperative for us to pick at corresponding times, prior to acid degradation in the vineyard. Naturally, this lends to lower alcohol percentages.

Rusack Vineyards' Santa Catalina Island Vineyard

2016 Rusack Vineyards, Santa Catalina Island Vineyard, California - It was probably questionable to plant (in 2007) Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel on the 74-square-mile Santa Catalina Island 26 miles off the Southern California coast, replete with salt crusted sand and schist, daily gale force winds and a stingy Region I/II climate. Nonethess, Rusacks irresistibly pretty 2016 is indicative of a positive maturation. The nose is floral and laser-like in its red fruit (cherry/pomegranate) profile, and the palate is finished with the winerys customary sleek, linear, citrus skin touch.

Shedding some light on the vineyards evolution, winemaker Steven Gerbac tells us: In 2016 we saw a decent amount of fog during the growing season, leading to a lighter color and feel than previous vintages, yet a good balance of weight and acid. Lower color called for longer maceration time to build body and tannins, and use of slightly more than normal new French oak (35% in 2016). The Catalina fruit doesnt usually see as much sun as its mainland counterparts, adds Gerbac, so it tends to come off a little more earthy... because of this we havent found the need to do any whole cluster fermentation, as those flavors come from the actual fruit. A sense of lightness, however, is perennial, as Catalina is definitely a vineyard that does better picked at lower Brix, which also goes for the Chardonnay and Zinfandel each year.

Winemaker James MacPhail (left) with Sangiacomo Family Vineyards' Steve and Connie Sangiacomo

2016 Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, Vi Maria, Sonoma Coast An inaugural release by the Sangiacomo Family, who have long farmed over 1,600 acres in the Petaluma Gap and Sonoma Coast AVAs, and crafted by James MacPhail (formerly of MacPhail Wines, and now winemaker/co-owner of Tongue Dancer Wines). While making a power statement in terms of its pungent, violet tinged black cherry aroma, with suggestions of rose petal and sweet kitchen spice, the pervasive character of this wine is its absolute seamlessness; the zippy flavors coming at you in silken, sumptuous layers.

MacPhail posits his approach to Pinot in terms of game time audibles, telling us: I am not a winemaker by formula... nothing is set in stone. So when harvesting comes, I look at a number of factors Brix, pH, TA, malic, YAN (i.e. yeast assimilable nitrogen), taste, seeds, skins, impending weather forecast, harvesting and crew availability, etc. By staying true to this approach, harvesting becomes more about the vintage and its natural expression. Like many experienced Pinot specialists, MacPhail has preferred protocols, like cold soaks, starting with native yeast ferments, avoiding DAP(diammonium phosphate) or helpers, but things like whole cluster depend on factors such as lignified stems. Says MacPhail, I have never and will never add whole cluster just to add whole cluster.

Tackling the balance question, MacPhail errs on the side of Nature, telling us: I have always argued that you can make very balanced, terroir driven, beautiful wines at 14.5% alcohol. I have never and will never make a wine at 12.5% alcohol just to make a wine at 12.5% alcohol. I have made a 12.50% alcohol wine (his 2011 MacPhail from Oregon), and it is still one of my all time favorites to this day a lot of that because it was made true to the vintage. I believe in what Mother Nature here in California gives us, and I want to stay true to that. I enjoy lower alcohol styles just as much as the next guy, and I too was trained and educated with Old World wines. But I dont make them that way just to make them that way because its not natural to what we get here in the New World especially if they end up being, as MacPhail puts it, not be fun to drink too green or stemmy.

2017 Sante Arcangeli Family Wines, Split Rail Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains There is a sun-splashed brightness to a lavish red berry perfume, tinged by woodsy/evergreen notes and fleshed out in a grippy, zesty acid, medium-full body, clinging to the palate like a nimble, rippled rock climber.

Although Split Rail Vineyard is another Corralitos/Pleasant Valley site, it sits further up a mountain slope, looking down at Monterey Bay, a good thousand feet (1,500 to 1,700-ft. elevation) higher than Lester, Alfaro Family, Christie, Savaria and other well known vineyards in the south end of Santa Cruz Mountains. The vineyards sandstone and clay soils are vigorous enough to support mammoth sized redwoods and Madrones surrounding the vineyard, and was originally planted for David Bruce to a David Bruce Selection (mix of Mt. Eden, Martini, W?denswil and Pommard).

Split Rail Vineyard on a Corralitos/Pleasant Valley mountaintop

SanteArcangeli Family winemaker/owner John Benedetti writes: If I had to summarize the Corralitos character, in general Id say red fruit, but with a clear maritime and redwood forest character. Subtle briny notes could be a good descriptor, but fog is really what I think of when I use that word the smell of the fog in a redwood forest. Benedetti also contrasts Corralitos with other parts of Santa Cruz Mountains by its ocean influenced, temperate climate: Split Rail is kind of on an island of its own, actually above the fog but only 5 miles from the ocean, and it has a more floral character, with a real mineral backbone. You tend to see thinner-skinned grapes here. As a result were not growing dark, brooding wines, but rather clean, red berry characteristics raspberry, cranberry, and just generally a bright fruit profile.

Benedetti employs whole cluster (typically 20% to 30%), but is not a slave to it. In fact, 2017s fuller crop and a Labor Day heat spike (hitting 106, extremely unusual for the area) called for 100% destemming because sugars (picked between 22.1 and 23.5) came up faster than usual, before stems showed much lignification. The vineyards multiple selections fermented with either AMH(Assmanhausen) or native yeasts contribute structural and aromatic nuances, and although there is plenty of sun and typically a moderate enough climate to get to 26 Brix and fuller bodied 15% alcohol wines, says Benedetti, Corralitos vineyards tend to show best when shown as fresh, lively wines, and that means lower alcohol (a relatively restrained 13.5% in the 2017 Split Rail, despite the heat spike)... But hey, Id be lying if I said I didnt absolutely love some Sonoma Coast and Russian River Pinots that clock in at 14.5%, where more ripeness and therefore higher alcohol tends to showcase the best qualities of that fruit, in many cases.

2016 Thomas Fogarty Winery, La Vida Bella Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains From another low-lying (about 450-ft. elevation) vineyard in the appellations Corralitos/Pleasant Valley area, a Pinot marked by an airy, high toned nose punctuated by a cranberry/strawberry/tart bramble perfume, a whiff of crushed green leaves and flower petals mixed with brine these distinctive sensations prickling the palate in a lean, zesty yet long and silky textured medium body.

Thomas Fogarty winemaker Nathan Kandler calls this ocean influenced corner of the appellation a fascinating piece of the terroir puzzle that is Santa Cruz Mountains... Its a cool region, but one with relatively small diurnal swings, although truly hot days are pretty rare. Soils are very deep sandy loam nearly beach sand in some places and well drained, varying in vigor from fertile and strong to barren and weak... La Vida Bella (located near Lester, Saveria, Christie, Alfaro and other well known vineyards) is among the best in the area because of its balance of nutrient holding capacity, which allows it to really display its site specific characteristics.

Adds Kandler, I often find really pure aromatics and fine grained tannin in wines grown on sand, and the 2016 La Vida Bella has that in spades. Structurally the wines from Corralitos are usually a bit lower in acid and tannin that the fruit we work with up in the mountains, and so we look for a touch more extraction to compensate. Corralitos fruit has a good amount of hang time due to the long season, so the tannin is ripe at pretty low maturity.

In the winery we mostly try and do as little as possible since wines from Corralitos are pretty transparent, and show any winemaker monkey business pretty easily. Stems can be green and weedy, but as the health of the vineyard has improved we have gone up to about 35% whole cluster on average. Our ferments are all native and we use about 20-25% new oak.

If you do things right in the vineyard you usually don't have to wait forever for things to come around, and you can pick at relatively low Brix and make beautifully pure and intense wines around 12.5-13.5% alcohol. You can certainly make great Pinot at higher levels of ripeness here, though it isn't easy to maintain that elusive fresh and lively character. Subsequently, Ill often have a big range of ripeness in the varying lots coming into the winery, depending on the clone and site.

Westside Farms in Russian River Valley's Middle Reach

2014 Thomas George Estates, Baker Ridge, Russian River Valley The hearts of Pinot noir aficionados undoubtedly skip a beat as they drive down Russian River Valleys Westside Rd. and see the iconic names (J. Rochioli, Williams Selyem, Gary Farrell, Bacigalupi, etc.) associated with the appellations Middle Reach the warmest of Russian River Valleys five neighborhoods, but also the source of the lush, round, full flavored style that originally catapulted the regions reputation for the varietal. A blessing as much a curse at least for regions like Willamette Valley and Santa Barbara, which took another decade or two to polish up their own positive perceptions, at least among consumers (as well as trade and media) who, for the longest time, were more accustomed to the expansive, generous styles of this Middle Reach.

In 2008 Tom Baker acquired the original, venerated Davis Bynum Vineyard in the middle of the neighborhood and immediately commenced to replanting; and in 2014 the estate (its name changed to Baker Ridge) seems to be coming into its own: effusive in floral/rose petal and the cherry/red fruit qualities associated with the neighborhood, mingling with sweet pine/foresty notes; the lavish fruit character firmly grounded in a firm, notably zesty, medium-full and layered palate-feel.

Thomas George winemaker Nicolas Cantacuzene embraces the rich texture and fruit expression that has become the essence of Russian River, but he also believes that the best expression of the Baker vineyard is captured when it retains its acidity... We dont believe overripe fruit or underripe fruit captures the terroir... the art is finding the sweet spot between each.

Vineyard maturation has enhanced those opportunities immensely. Adds Cantacuzene: Because we have some fractured shale rocks and gravel soil profile, this provides an interface for the roots to explore. The more the vines are encouraged to exploit the soil/rock interface the more resilient they have become, and the more expressive Baker Ridge has become. Primary fruit characters give way to more complex flavors, and slow, gentle, long native yeast fermentations help optimize that terroir in the bottle.

Wrath winemaker Sabrine Rodems on a typical wind whipped afternoon in San Saba Vineyard

2016 Wrath Wines, San Saba Vineyard, Monterey County San Saba is Wraths estate vineyard located inches outside the eastern edge of the lower bench of Santa Lucia Highlands. The 2016 reflects the growths penchant for bringing out primal qualities of the grape pungent with spice and red licorice fruit, notably meaty and bristling with the savory and spiced fruit, yet outwardly textured with ultra-fine, lacy layering.

Remarks Wraths cerebral winemaker, Sabrine Rodems: San Saba Vineyard carries a Monterey AVA, but the soil type and water are all products of the Santa Lucia benchland above. us with Arroyo Seco sandy loam and Arroyo Seco gravelly loam being the two primary soil types. The San Saba Vineyard cuvecomes from older plantings higher on the hill, closest to the bench, which tend to get richer flavors in the grapes without longer hang times.

On the winemaking, Rodems adds: The San Saba Vineyard represents our first selection of barrels the 2016 ended up being 30% Swan, 20% 667, 20% Pommard 4, and 30% (FPS/ENTAV-INRA) 828. Because of the dynamics of a barrel selection, this wine tends to be higher in new French oak (50%), and 20% whole cluster. Rodems keeps clones separate, which undergo different trials and experiments (percentage of whole cluster, early pick, late pick, whole berry, etc), but the goal is fo find "a style that we like that is the best expression of our vineyard. That said, Rodems says, We are a fan of about 20% whole cluster for added tannin and structure; and when you get big flavors like we do in our area, the wine can take it.

Wrath's San Saba Vineyard estate, falling just east of Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County

On the question of balance, Rodems speaks frankly: We all talk about balance winemakers, consumers, sommeliers yet I taste so many unbalanced wines, it is surprising to me. Pinot noirs are often over-oaked, or too much residual sugar, or too acidic, or overripe. I want a wine that tastes like fresh fruit with the additional complexities that the stem and oak can support and work synergistically with the fruit.

The 2016 San Saba is 14.3% alcohol, but I think when you are pursuing a balanced wine that has a depth of flavor, we want to pick in a reasonable Brix range and get maximum extraction from that fruit instead of relying on long hang-time and dehydration for density of flavor. After 16 years of making wine (good lord I feel old!) I rely on my intuition and mouth and use numbers as a guideline. Ultimately, I want a beginning, a middle and an end in a Pinot noir, just like a great story!

Pinot noir in Santa Maria Valley's Bien Nacido Vineyard

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