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

Sonoma Diary 2: A More Sophisticated Style at Kosta Browne

Is it still true that Kosta Browne has a ‘big’ house style, I asked current winemaker Julien Howsepian. Founded by Dan Kosta and Michael Browne in 2001, the winery became famous for its forceful style for Pinot Noir. “This happened as an accident when some fruit came in at very high (25.2) Brix,” said Dan Kosta, “We made the wine, and it was just perfectly  exhilarating. That turned me on to picking fruit when it tasted good, rather than when people are telling me.”

Dan Kosta and Michael Browne sold the winery in 2017, and it moved through some subsequent changes of ownership before ending up with Duckhorn in 2018. “[The big style] is still true,” Julien says, “but we have tightened it to make a more balanced wine with a more sophisticated style.  We decided we wanted to fine tune the cellar, but we still have a bold style that is Californian, that is who we are. We want to celebrate California fruit. We’re a little more restrained, but we don’t want to turn our back on what made us successful.”

Located in old apple processing plant that’s part of a development on the outskirts of Sebastopol, where Kosta-Browne is the anchor, production is exclusively Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It has broadened from Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Santa Lucia with the addition of Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley. There are five AVA Pinot Noirs, 1 Chardonnay, and 20 single-vineyard wines (15 Pinot Noirs and 5 Chardonnays).

Kosta Browne is in an old apple-processing plant in The Barlow, a development on the outskirts of Sebastopol

The late harvest policy for the old style at Kosta Browne often produced wines around 15% alcohol. They did not taste as over the top as the alcohol level might suggest, but there was no mistaking the forceful style. The current releases that I tasted on my visit ranged from 13.4% to 14.4% and in no case was alcohol particularly evident on the palate. It is fair to say they do indeed show a more sophisticated style.

The Russian River Chardonnay (One Hundred Sixteen, named for route 116 that runs through Russian River Valley) shows an underlying richness, but a mix of vessels for fermentation and aging has given it good flavor variety. “We didn’t really develop this style for our Chardonnay until 2015,” says Julien. The main difference moving to the single vineyard El Diablo Chardonnay is the increased sense of refinement. “This is our leanest Chardonnay,” Julian says. “It marks our progress with Chardonnay. We used to pick later, then one year we picked a week earlier, and realized that we’d missed the mark.”

The Pinot Noirs share impressions of earthy red fruits on the palate with an underlying richness cut by a sense of structure partly reflecting some use of whole clusters. The Russian River Valley AVA release has smoky undertones and lifted red fruit aromatics. Gap’s Crown Vineyard from Petaluma Gap is more forceful and intensifies the sense of earthiness, and has more grip on the palate. Free James from a vineyard near the coast gives a more linear, cool-climate impression, with a sense of mountain tension. Moving to Mount Carmel from Santa Rita Hills, the aromatics are higher-toned, and the sense of tension increases. “This is the coolest region we work with,” Julien says. Cerise Vineyard from Anderson Valley is the most concentrated and most tannic release.

The house style remains relatively bold, but fruits are (relatively) more restrained and better balanced by the structure. Refinement increases from AVA to single vineyard, and each single vineyard has a character you can relate to its soil, climate, and region, far from the uniformity of super-ripe fruits. Julien says the wines drink best from 3 to 6-8 years after the vintage.

Tasting the Current Releases

2019 Chardonnay One Hundred Sixteen (Russian River Valley)
Fruitful nose with bright fruits tending to citrus contrast with smoky notes from new oak. Nice balance on palate: I wouldn’t call this lean, but it shows a citrus flavor spectrum and is not big or buttery. Some richness comes through the textured palate, which is flavorful. The wine fermented 80% in barriques and 20% in foudres, and aged two thirds in wood, including new French oak, used French oak, and Austrian oak. 13.5% 90 Drink -2025

2018 Chardonnay El Diablo (Russian River Valley)
The vineyard is at 500 ft in a warm site on the east of the hill, planted with a tight spacing of the Robert Young and Montrachet clones. The wine ferments and then ages half in foudre and half in barriques; overall there is 48% new French oak and 14% new Austrian oak. Aging lasts 14 months The wine gives a leaner impression than the 116 Chardonnay, starting with its smoky nose. The palate is smoother with a silkier texture. There’s an impression of stone fruits in front with citrus behind. Good acidity supports the fruits. Flavor variety develops slowly in the glass. 13.4% 91 Drink -2018

2019 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley)
The predominant source for the AVA release is Bootlegger’s Hill (almost a quarter), with about ten other sources. This vintage used 6% whole clusters and includes about ten clones, It ages in 45% new French oak for 16 months. Complex nose shows earthy notes, smokiness, bright red fruits, and some lifted red fruit aromatics. Smooth silky palate reprises those smoky notes with a sense of tobacco. Silky tannins are barely noticeable on the finish, which leaves a smoky, earthy, tobacco aftertaste. 14.1% 91 Drink -2027

2018 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast)
The vineyard is in the Petaluma Gap AVA planted with a variety of heritage and Dijon clones. Fermentation uses 10% whole clusters, with aging in 40% new French oak and 15% concrete to keep freshness. The nose is more forceful and earthier than the Russian River release. The red fruit palate offers a rounder impression but also has more sense of structure. Earthy red fruits on the palate are cut by a touch of tannin on the finish; good grip on the palate. Needs another year for the tannins to soften and allow the fruits to show as earthy strawberries, but already this is the roundest and approachable of the single vineyard Pinot Noirs. 14.4% 92 Drink 2022-2029

2018 Mt. Carmel Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills)
Aromatic nose is higher-toned than Gap’s Crown from Russian River. Earthy red fruit impressions are poised between strawberries and cherries. Firm tannins are just evident by some bitterness on the finish. You can see the greater use of whole clusters (49%). This has the greatest sense of tension of the single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and something approaching a sense of salinity on the finish. 13.5% 92 Drink 2022-2029

2017 Free James Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast)
The vineyard is at Freestone, very near the coast. The wine aged in almost 50% new French barriques for 22 months. The nose has taut aromatics and a sense of tension. The palate has relatively restrained fruits tending to red cherries, and the sense of tension returns on the palate. Fruits are more linear and there is more of a cool-climate impression than other cuvees. 13.4% 91 Drink -2028

2017  Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley)
The wine ferments in a mix of wood and concrete and ages in barriques for 19 months with almost half new oak. Earthy red fruit aromatics show on the nose. This is the densest and most viscous of the releases, the weightiest with the greatest sense of extract, with red fruits supported firm tannins that show a touch of bitterness on the finish. It’s the most tannic of the single vineyard wines. That earthy impression increases in the glass. It would benefit from more time to let the tannins soften. 13.4% 92 Drink 2022-2029