Sonoma Diary 3: A Restrained European Aesthetic at Radio-Coteau

“We are making wines that are in a more restrained style. We want to showcase fruit, not bury it in oak,” says Eric Sussman, adding, “I lived and worked in France for two vintages.” Eric grew up in New York, not in wine, and became interested when he went to agricultural school at Cornell. He started out in viticulture, specializing in organic viticulture in Washington state, then gained experience in Burgundy and Bordeaux, and then was in Sonoma before he started Radio-Coteau (originally with a partner). “When I started in 2002, it was all with purchased grapes, including some from the estate site. I made wine from here from 2002-2007. In 2012 the family offered to sell it to me.”

The winery is an old apple pressing plant near Sebastopol, a bare bones warehouse devoted to fermenting and then aging wine. The estate is about 10 minutes away at Occidental, and consists of a single block, with 20 out of 42 acres planted to vines; there are also apple trees, from which Eric makes several ciders. The ranch dates from 1892, with a house built in 1908 that’s used for tastings. The property is at 800 ft elevation,  8 miles from the ocean. The estate includes a biodynamic farm with goats, chickens, and a flower garden for making preparations. Grapes come about half from the estate and half from purchases. County Line is a second label, all from purchased grapes, introduced in 2003.

The winery is in an old apple-processing plant near Sebastopol, and the estate is a few miles away, higher up, at Occidental.

The estate grows Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Riesling. “How can we grow so many grape varieties here?” Eric asks. “The estate is right on top of the ridge on Goldridge soil, there is lots of light, it doesn’t get frost. We’re at the boundary of three AVAs, Russian River Valley, Green Valley, and Sonoma Coast. I label the wines as Sonoma Coast to express the maritime influence; I feel more coastal than Russian River Valley. We tend to pick early and all the Pinots and Chardonnays are under 14%.”

The wines are entirely natural. “We never acidify. The only additive is a bit of sulfur. If we have to do anything to the wine, it doesn’t go into Radio-Coteau.” The Chardonnay goes through MLF, but shows a relatively lean, almost saline style. Pinot Noir uses quite a bit of whole clusters, and shows an interesting reversal of the usual vintage character with a leaner version from 2017 and a rounder version from 2018, both tending to elegance rather than power. The restrained, faintly peppery Syrah reminds me of the northern Rhone. The Board and Batten blend of Syrah and Zinfandel shows an unusual combination of the fruitiness of Zinfandel and the reserve of Syrah. The Lemorel Zinfandel comes from the vines planted in 1946, still growing in gobelet form, and gives a cool-climate impression of the variety, with brambly fruits showing peppery overtones and a finish of bitter chocolate.

Tasting Notes on Current Releases

2020 Riesling
Spice notes tending to cinnamon on nose. Bone dry and lemony on palate, very much a New World style. Undeveloped at present (only just bottled) and needs a year for flavor variety to emerge, although already more variety develops in the glass.   88 Drink -2023

Sea Bed 2018 Chardonnay
Lean, lemony nose shows freshness, following to a flavorful palate with a good finish. Oak is not evident. It is ready now, as evidence also by a fugitive whiff of tertiary aromas. I wouldn’t call the style mineral so much as fresh, with a faint catch of salinity at the end.   90 Drink -2024

Belay 2017 Pinot Noir
Slightly earthy red fruit nose, palate shows mélange of red and black fruits with some subtle earthy notes in background that meld into a faint tannic bitterness on the finish. The aromatics more resemble a French Pinot Noir than the lifted notes often found in Russian River. Feels quite Beaune-ish with a nice sense of crispness, and even a touch of youthful asperity (perhaps from the 30% whole clusters), balancing the fruits. 13.6%   91 Drink 2022-2028

Belay 2018 Pinot Noir
Although 2018 was not generally as ripe a vintage as 2017, the 2018 Belay has more rounded and forward fruits than the 2017. Palate shows a touch more viscosity, with ripe fruits tending towards red cherries, and supple tannins better subsumed by the fruits. The smooth palate shows only a hint of tannins just at the end. This feels more Chambolle-ish. 13.0%   92 Drink -2031

Harrison Grade 2016 Syrah
Quite fruity nose with some hints of asperity and a faint touch of menthol. Round fruits on palate with a touch of white pepper in a classic northern-Rhone-ish flavor spectrum. Altogether a restrained cool climate style.   89 Drink -2026

Board and Batten 2018 Red
This is a proprietary red, usually 70% Syrah and 30% Zinfandel, although the 2018 also includes 5% Pinot Noir. Nose shows slightly lifted fruit-driven aromatics. Some overt richness on the palate is offset by peppery spices and a faint catch of tannin on the finish. 89 Drink -2024

Lemorel 2017 Zinfandel
This comes from the vines planted in 1946. Brambly nose shows some spicy impressions. Round blackberry fruits on palate with brambly notes and asperity at the end. Hints of bitter chocolate on the finish. Fruits are supported by good acidity (but not showing the overly piquant character Zinfandel often has). Definitely a (relatively) cool-climate version of Zinfandel, with good sense of flavor variety, and even a touch of tannic dryness.   89 Drink -2029

Experiments at Chateau Margaux: biodynamic, organic, and conventional viticulture

Far from the stuffy reputation for sticking to tradition, Chateau Margaux has one of the most active experimental programs in the world of wine. Paul Pontallier presented the results of some of these experiments in a seminar in New York this week. “I believe in doubt,” he says, explaining that he thinks viticulture and vinification should be based on knowledge gained from testing situations rather than on unsubstantiated beliefs.

The first experiment was a comparison between wines made in the 2012 and 2011 vintages from vines that had been cultivated conventionally, organically, and by biodynamics. This experiment started 5-6 years ago with a 2 ha plot—unfortunately not one of the best, says Paul—and is going to be extended to a slightly larger, more homogeneous, plot next year. The plot is divided into groups of rows that are cultivated with different methods, and every effort is made to stop treatments from spreading into the other rows. There’s more than one separate block of each type in order to minimize soil effects.

I have always been a skeptic about the effects of different types of viticulture. It seems obvious that organic viticulture is better for the environment than conventional treatments with herbicides and pesticides, but it does not seem axiomatic that it will necessarily produce fruit of better quality. Whether biodynamic treatments add anything to organic cultivation has always seemed rather doubtful to me. One problem is that no one has tested the effects in any sort of controlled way, and you might well argue that many of the well known organic or biodynamic wines are better than conventional wines simply because the producers are more skilled at what they do. So this was a very rare opportunity to see whether wines made under exactly the same conditions, but from grapes cultivated in different ways, show any differences.

The wines were tasted blind: all we knew was that the first three were from 2012 and the second three were from 2011. The immediate surprise was that in each group two wines were closely similar and the third was distinctly different. The two similar wines shared brighter fruits and acidity, more sense of aromatic uplift, more presence on the finish: in each flight the other wine had a slightly flatter profile with less finesse. My assumption that the last wine must be the result of conventional viticulture turned out to be correct. I had not expected such a striking demonstration of the advantages of organic viticulture,  but I feel the results were completely convincing.

The differences between organic and biodynamic examples were much narrower: in 2012 I had a slight preference for the organic wine, whereas in 2011 I had a very slight preference for the biodynamic wine. The differences were slight enough that I would not have argued if I had been told they were different bottles from the same lot.

Paul Pontallier says that to date they have found no objective differences in grapes or wines from the different treatments; and soil measurements this year suggested that if anything the conventional soils have more diversity. One of the most stunning aspects of the comparison, it seems to me, is that a clear difference should be evident between conventional and organic/biodynamic in only five years, given that it takes at least three years for a vineyard to be converted. Many producers whom I’ve asked about the effects of conversion say that the most significant difference appeared after something closer to a decade, so it will be fascinating to see whether these differences are sustained and broaden in the future.