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George Wine Company Hansen Vineyards Vintage VII Pinot Noir 2009
The journey that took George to Sonoma County, California began on a small island in Southern New York State commonly referred to as The Big Apple. After growing up in NYC, George went on to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and the University of Houston Law Center. Following nine years in academia, and significant financial debt, George moved to Los Angeles and became a United States Government Bond trader. During a fourteen year career as a bond trader, George arrived at work five days a week at five in the morning. In 1994, about ten years into his trading career, George had some Williams Selyem Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir with his seared ahi dinner. That night, George had an epiphany, as wine became an equal partner with food in the dining experience, and decided that one day he would move to Sonoma County to make Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.
Four years later, George sold his house in Manhattan Beach, quit a fourteen year career, and moved to Healdsburg, California to make Pinot Noir.
George arrived in wine country in 1998 with an enthusiastic desire to learn as much as possible about grape growing and winemaking. Accordingly, George signed up for courses at Santa Rosa Junior College as well as the University of California (Berkeley and Davis). All of a sudden, George was studying vineyard management instead of business management, canopy management instead of financial management, and the laws of nature instead of the laws of man.
As George had learned numerous times in the past, while academia is helpful, hands-on experience is crucial. George was able to convince Bob Cabral, the handpicked successor of the original winemaker Burt Williams, to let him work the harvest of 1999 at Williams Selyem Winery. In exchange for an enthusiastic worker, Bob would answer countless questions from Curious George. The relationship was mutually beneficial, and George was permitted to be involved in virtually every aspect of the winemaking process at Williams Selyem in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002.
Prior to moving to Healdsburg, George made numerous trips to Williams Selyem and was always greeted by Burt's daughter, Margi. Through Margi, George was able to barrel taste with Burt at her winrey (Brogan), as well as Burt's son Fred's winery (Seven Lions), and Burt's common law Russian son Nikolai's winery (Woodenhead). Conversations with Burt were initially confined to esoteric subjects like hose diameter and fermentation temperature, but have enveloped over the decade into subjects like the virtues of the Mediterranean Diet and San Francisco culture in the late 1960s. Bob, Burt and Burt's children have been very generous with their encouragement, friendship, knowledge, wine and wisdom.
The first vintage of George Pinot Noir in 2003 was a little over one hundred cases, and was made at Hirsch Vineyards in Cazadero, as was the 2004 vintage. The subsequent vintages were all made at the brand new Moshin Vineyards Russian River Valley facility on Westside Road in Healdsburg.
George had been a customer of Martinelli wine for a decade prior to starting his own label, and approached Carolyn Martinelli after the 2003 harvest about the possibility of purchasing fruit. She mentioned there was a new vineyard planted in 2000 across the road in an organic apple orchard to the specifications of their winemaker Helen Turley. Carolyn said she would check with her husband about the availability of grapes from this vineyard. Lee Martinelli appeared a few minutes later, and agreed to provide George with his first Russian River Valley fruit in 2004. Russian River Valley fruit from Nick Leras in 2006 and Fred Hansen in 2007 followed. Although George is the only full-time employee at George Wine Company, dozens of people have assisted in return for the fruits of their labor. JJ and Joey have helped with everything from bottling to graphic design for over a decade, since George made a hundred bottles of garage wine at the turn of the century. They both enjoy Pinot Noir, though Joey gave up drinking years ago. Fortunately, Joey's wife Jan still enjoys drinking George Pinot Noir.
The goal of the second decade for George will be to continue to improve quality through grape grower cooperation and through a maturing winemaker.
A standout region for its decidedly Californian take on Burgundian varieties, the Russian River Valley is named for the eponymous river that flows through it. While there are warm pockets of the AVA, it is mostly a cool-climate growing region thanks to breezes and fog from the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir reign supreme in Russian River, with the best examples demonstrating a unique combination of richness and restraint. The cool weather makes Russian River an ideal AVA for sparkling wine production, utilizing the aforementioned varieties. Zinfandel also performs exceptionally well here. Within the Russian River Valley lie the smaller appellations of Chalk Hill and Green Valley. The former, farther from the ocean, is relatively warm, with a focus on red and white Bordeaux varieties. The latter is the coolest, foggiest parcel of the Russian River Valley and is responsible for outstanding Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
One of the most finicky yet rewarding grapes to grow, Pinot Noir is a labor of love for many. However, the greatest red wines of Burgundy prove that it is unquestionably worth the effort. In fact, it is the only red variety permitted in Burgundy. Highly reflective of its terroir, Pinot Noir prefers calcareous soils and a cool climate, requires low yields to achieve high quality and demands a lot of attention in the vineyard and winery. It retains even more glory as an important component of Champagne as well as on its own in France’s Loire Valley and Alsace regions. This sensational grape enjoys immense international success, most notably growing in Oregon, California and New Zealand with smaller amounts in Chile, Germany (as Spätburgunder) and Italy (as Pinot Nero).
In the Glass
Pinot Noir is all about red fruit—strawberry, raspberry and cherry with some heftier styles delving into the red or purple plum and in the other direction, red or orange citrus. It is relatively pale in color with soft tannins and a lively acidity. With age (of which the best examples can handle an astounding amount) it can develop hauntingly alluring characteristics of fresh earth, savory spice, dried fruit and truffles.
Pinot’s healthy acidity cuts through the oiliness of pink-fleshed fish like salmon and tuna but its mild mannered tannins give it enough structure to pair with all sorts of poultry: chicken, quail and especially duck. As the namesake wine of Boeuf Bourguignon, Pinot noir has proven it isn’t afraid of beef. California examples work splendidly well with barbecue and Pinot Noir is also vegetarian-friendly—most notably with any dish that features mushrooms.
For administrative purposes, the region of Beaujolais is often included in Burgundy. But it is extremely different in terms of topography, soil and climate, and the important red grape here is ultimately Gamay, not Pinot noir. Truth be told, there is a tiny amount of Gamay sprinkled around the outlying parts of Burgundy (mainly in Maconnais) but it isn’t allowed with any great significance and certainly not in any Village or Cru level wines. So "red Burgundy" still necessarily refers to Pinot noir.