All About Pinot Noir.

Anderson Valley’s renown for Pinot Noir has developed over thirty years, most intensely in the last decade or so. In future columns we’ll meet some of those who contributed to the history of Pinot Noir in the valley. Today it’s about Goldeneye, which has been producing Pinot Noir in Anderson Valley since 1997. Located on the former Obester vineyards and winery, the property on Highway 128 just south of Philo was purchased in 1996 by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn of Duckhorn Vineyards in Napa Valley.

Building upon their reputation for excellence, the Duckhorns looked for the perfect place to make Pinot Noir. As Dan Duckhorn said in an interview with wine writer Steve Pitcher, who wrote about Anderson Valley Pinot Noir in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004, the vision for Goldenye was “to craft a distinctively California Pinot Noir of equal stature to our Duckhorn Merlot.”

“What’s exciting about Goldeneye,” says Zach Rasmuson, vice president/general manager and winemaker, “is that it is an ongoing, ever changing project and the study of a varietal in an appellation.”

Rasmuson, who grew up outside of Boston and got a degree in philosophy at St. John’s College, didn’t start out in the wine industry focused on Pinot Noir. While in college he knew he wanted to make something but was a terrible carpenter when he “fell in love with wine.” It turned out that Warren Winiarski, the celebrated owner of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley was on the Board of directors at St. John’s. (Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon was the legendary winner of the blind Paris wine tasting competition in 1976.) Rasmuson got to know Winiarski and snagged a job working the harvest in 1995.

“I never turned back,” he says. While working as a “cellar rat” at Stag’s Leap, Rasmuson felt he was learning the craft of making wine on the job. Knowing that good wine is first made in the vineyard he studied viticulture at Napa Valley College.

After his stint working with Bordeaux varietals at Stag’s Leap, Rasmuson’s interest was leanding toward the more temperamental Pinot Noir when he was given an opportunity to be assistant winemaker at Robert Sinskey winery, whose founder was a pioneer in Carneros Pinot Noir. “In addition, Sinskey was on the cutting edge of organic and biodynamic,” says Rasmuson.

Never feeling fully engaged in Napa Valley, Rasmuson spent his time off on camping trips to Anderson Valley and the Mendocino coast. He was drawn to the quality of life in Anderson Valley and with the emergence of the quality of Pinot Noir, “it was the best of both worlds,” he says.

In 2000 he got a job at Husch Vineyards near Philo as winemaker before being hired by the Duckhorns at Goldeneye in 2003. He lives in Rancho Navarro with his wife Michelle and their two daughters, Fay, 6, and Marlowe, 2.

Goldeneye’s tasting room is in a charming craftsmen style house that is as inviting outside as it is comfortable inside. Mission furniture, stained glass light fixtures and a scattering of duck decoys set a warm welcoming atmosphere where there is no traditional tasting bar. Instead, an oak dining table for eight is occupied by three happy tasters. Nearby, a couple sinks into an overstuffed chair and couch in front of the fire place. Jazz music softly plays in the background and a faint aroma of polished wood fills the air. Picture windows on east and west sides zoom in on vineyards. On a rare balmy afternoon at the end of December, on the outside large deck and courtyard area a few people are set up with their glasses and tasting dishes at picnic tables near a covered outdoor kitchen with a well used wood burning stone pizza oven.

The tasting at Goldeneye is personally attended by one of the staff like xx, who explains how it works from her concierge style desk. Two to five of Goldeneye’s wines, depending on the price you want to pay, are poured into balloon-shaped glasses. Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and Migration Anderson Valley Pinot Noir are always available. At times vineyard designated Pinot Noirs, sold only in the tasting room, are also on the tasting list. Tasters also receive a food sampling which on this day includes roasted almonds, slivers of Fiscalini San Joaquin Gold cheese and dried sour cherries. With each wine the taster receives an oversized coaster-like label with the wine’s growing, harvesting and technical information on the back side, along with comments from winemaker Rasmuson.

The labels on all Duckhorn wines play on variations of the duck theme—from the original Napa Valley Duckhorn Merlot to Paradux, a proprietor’s blend that features Napa Valley Zinfandel along with Bordeaux varietals. Goldeneye’s name is fitting because the vineyard lies in the migratory pathway of the Common Goldeneye duck. Duckhorn’s other Anderson Valley Label Migration is hardly a second tier, although the pricing is much lower than Goldeneye’s.

When making wine from nearly a hundred individual lots, “we choose the lots of wine from the top down,” explains Rasmuson. In the winery, he is found with a head lamp for illumination straddling between the rows of barrels stacked four deep. A new LEED (Leadership in Environmental Energy and Design) certified winery is being built up the road across from the old Jack’s Valley Market and won’t be finished a moment too soon for Rasmuson. “It was designed for the kind of winemaking and blending we do at Goldeneye,” he says.

Rasmuson and assistant winemaker Mike Lucia siphon and taste from the barrels of 2007 Pinot Noir. Shortly after harvest they designate those with exceptional promise for the Goldeneye label. They select some to be bottled as vineyard designated wine and they begin to choose the juice that will be part of the Migration label. The two blend wines for six or seven months of the year.

What Rasmuson loves about focusing completely on Pinot Noir is the ability to make wine that truly is an expression of its place. Most of Goldeneye’s five vineyards in Anderson Valley are hillsides. While appreciative of France’s Burgundy, Rasmuson describes Goldeneye Pinot Noir as having its own characteristics that can only be achieved by the land and climate here. “We are engaged with what we have,” he says. Each vintage Goldeneye Pinot Noir is “the most perfect blend from Anderson Valley we can make.” When a wine from a particular vineyard stands out, it will get its own designated label. The wine that goes into Migration is a little lighter and contains what the winemaker refers to as “red fruit” which on the Pinot Noir spectrum of light to dark is on the lighter range and has bright raspberry or cherry flavors.

Both wines consistently receive rave reviews from respected critics. Rasmuson just learned that Goldeneye will poured at the United States Senate’s luncheon in honor of President Obama’s inauguration in January.

Later in the year, from May 15-17, 2009, Goldeneye will host the grand tasting for the eleventh annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival. The tasting of more than 40 Pinot Noirs takes place in a tree shaded courtyard area adjacent to the vineyard on Saturday. On Friday are a technical conference and winery dine about in Anderson Valley. And Sunday, the valley wineries are open with special tastings, tours, and pairings of food and wine—all Pinot Noir.

TASTING NOTES: A classic French onion soup, where the onions are slowly browned for nearly two hours, made with homemade stock and topped with a slice of Schat’s baguette and grated Gruyere cheese baked until bubbling was sublime with 2006 Migration Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. The ripe berry and dark cherry flavors integrated with the wine’s mellow tannins played perfectly with the rich sweet onion and salty cheese aromas and taste.

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