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Wild West Pinot Draws Banker to Vineyards Among Cannabis Crops

October 24, 2011

Oct. 24 (Bloomberg) -- California’s Wild West wine country is the chilly Anderson Valley, where some of the state’s best pinot noir grapes grow alongside old redwoods and hidden marijuana plots.

Like others, Burgundy-lover Peter Knez, former fixed-income chief at Barclays Global Investors and BlackRock Inc. advisor, came for the pinot. Luck helped him snap up prize vineyards as Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed, he says as we head up a rough dirt road, wet with rain, to his steep vineyards and eponymous winery high above the valley floor.

With its marginal climate of warm, sunny days, cold foggy nights, long growing season and steep hillsides, this remote 15- mile-long valley in northwest Mendocino has become the spot for classic, balanced pinots with lively acidity and lower alcohol.

Think rose-and-spice scents, subtle crushed-cherry and plum flavors, silky richness, and Burgundy-like complexity.

Knez, who’s traded jacket and tie for classic wine country garb -- worn jeans, dark T-shirt and windbreaker -- is part of a new wave of believers.

His no-glam winery with an outdoor crushpad is filled with just picked pinot, fermenting in square turquoise plastic bins on the white-painted concrete floor.

Winemaker Anthony Filiberti, who makes his own fine pinots under the Anthill Farms label, worries about rain and one unpicked area. He looks tired. It’s harvest time.

‘Quirky Winemakers’

“Running a winery isn’t that much different from running a high-performance global finance team,” says Knez, as we get down to tasting. “Talented portfolio managers are a lot like quirky winemakers.”

The pretty, ready-to-drink 2009 Knez Anderson Valley is a steal at $27, while 2009 Cerise Vineyard is full, rich, savory. 2009 Demuth is darker and softer (both $39). Vibrant, spicy 2010 Demuth, from a year with no heat spikes, shows even more finesse.

Knez is part of a steady stream of pinot seekers making their way to the valley. Many are winemakers. The first to really draw drinkers’ attention to Anderson Valley’s pinot potential was Ted Lemon of Sonoma’s Littorai Wines, who worked in Burgundy. He began hunting grapes here in the early 1990s and buys some from Knez’s Cerise Vineyard.

More recently, Jason Drew arrived from Babcock Winery near Santa Barbara on a quest for pinots with more structure and acidity. On a ridge 10 minutes from the ocean he makes several excellent Drew Winery bottlings, like the 2009 Morning Dew Vineyard ($47), with aromas of pomegranates and wild raspberries and the structure to age.

Dogs Welcome

Long-time Napa winemaker Phil Baxter and his son Phil Jr., bought a nearby ramshackle farmstead with an abandoned apple orchard where they make several fine pinots, including the plush, plum-and-spice 2009 Run Dog Vineyard ($45).

Bigger players include Cliff Lede, with a winery in Napa’s Stag’s Leap District, who purchased 200-acre Breggo Cellars in 2009 and the famous Savoy vineyard last April.

Pinot noir wasn’t always Anderson Valley’s big draw. Back in 1973, when Deborah Cahn and Ted Bennett started Navarro Vineyards on 910 acres they bought for $240,000, “it was easier to sell gewurztraminer than pinot,” Cahn says. Over dinner I savor their rich, piercingly fruity 2007 Methode a L’Ancienne bottling ($30).

Rural and laidback, the valley is a refreshing contrast to gussied-up Napa and ever slicker Sonoma. Tasting rooms are dog friendly. Its main town, Boonville, has a hip hotel with deceptively simple cuisine, but it is still a down-home place where people attend trivia night at Lauren’s restaurant -- imaginative food in a knotty-pine-walled setting.

Marijuana Benefits

It’s the only wine region where I’ve seen highway signs proclaim roadside beautification was paid for by Medical Friends of Marijuana.

Not everyone here is happy to see more vineyards. Anti- development folks are concerned about water being pumped from the Navarro river and man-made ponds preventing water from filling streams. Unlike Napa, the valley has no ordinance regulating hillside vineyards.

There are already 1,453 acres of pinot, about two thirds of all planted vines. All 27 wineries make at least one. Between them and winemakers who buy Anderson Valley grapes, the quality keeps climbing.

Wells Guthrie, who owns Sonoma’s Copain Wine Cellars, picked up the Anderson Valley growers’ book and started calling after trying Littorai pinots years ago. He makes four brilliant single-vineyard pinot noirs, including the stellar, seamless 2009 Kiser Vineyards En Haut ($75) and gulpable bargain Tous Ensemble $28), and has bought a vineyard here.

Cold End

I catch up with him the morning after the rain stops. He’s on his way to inspect unpicked grapes in the cold Deep End, the local name for the northwest end of the valley, where fog rolls up the Navarro river from the Pacific.

“My sensibility is in Burgundy,” he says, as we eat bagels at the Moosewood Market Cafe. “I want laciness, not 15 percent alcohol. That’s what you get here.”

Pinot from Kiser vineyard grapes, he says, reminds him of the seductive reds of Burgundy’s Chambolle Musigny. Me too.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

--Editors: Adam Majendie, Daniel Billy.

To contact the writer of this story: Elin McCoy at elinmccoy@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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