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Retrospective — Rochioli Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley

From the 4th Quarter 2017 Great Lakes Wine & Spirits Wine Catalog


Pinot Noir

Russian River Valley

Few, if any, California wineries are more closely associated with the rise in esteem of American Pinot Noir than Rochioli Vineyards & Winery. Located in the ‘Cote d’Or’ of the Russian River Valley, the Rochioli’s have been farming this property since the 1930’s. Joe Rochioli Sr. practiced poly-culture, as did most farming families at that time; in addition to hops, string beans & prunes, there was a small amount of acreage devoted to ‘jug wine’ blending grapes. French Colombard, Napa Gamay, and ‘Early Burgundy’ (Abouriou) were pretty common plantings in this area in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Planting Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon in the late 50’s was a bit of a leap; when Joe Jr. took over the property and planted Pinot Noir in 1968, it was a quantum leap. And not only did he plant Pinot, but he imported the vine material from Burgundy, France; hard not to call him a visionary. Based on early results with Pinot, Joe planted Chardonnay shortly thereafter.

Another visionary—Davis Bynum—was the first to recognize the potential of the Rochioli Pinot fruit, paying a shocking $350 a ton for it (Cabernet and Zinfandel both went for $300 a ton at the time). The vintage was 1973, and it was labeled as hailing from the ‘Russian River Valley’…the first wine ever declared as such, and 10 years before the appellation existed. Mr. Bynum was so impressed, he moved his fledgling wine company from Napa to a spot right down the road from the Rochioli’s farm. The rest as they say, is history.

Rochioli started selling fruit to other wineries as well (Williams-Selyem for instance, who also ultimately chose to set up shop right down the street from the Rochiolis). As an explosion of new vineyard plantings gobbled up lots of acreage in the region, Tom Rochioli (son of Joe Jr. and the winemaker at Rochioli), inspired by a visit to Domaine de La Romane-Conti started digging in to the various blocks and sites on their property—around 140 acres today—and made a prescient decision (must run in the family) to keep them separate, à la the Grand Cru sites in Burgundy. Though farming and vinifying by block is now commonplace, ‘micro-vinification’ was not the norm in 1987 Sonoma County.

Farmers by nature, the Rochioli family’s winery is fairly bare-bones: no glass-walled tasting rooms, no pneumatic punch-down contraptions, no spa. They do things simply and correctly: open-top stainless fermenters, followed by approximately 15 months in French oak of various ages. Not completely clear on practices like whole cluster/cold soak/yeast strains and other stylistic choices they apply. And did we mention they start with exquisite fruit? Regardless of their ‘recipe’, the wines are gorgeous. This is the Rochioli’s Russian River ‘entry level’ Pinot Noir…the single-block wines must be extraordinary!

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