The delectable aromas of orange blossom water, white peach and pure nectar drew the woman into the winery, where she quickly walked around trying to find the source of the incredible smells. Did someone bring in some special pastries for someone’s birthday? Was she going to miss out on the celebrations? Most importantly, miss out on these spectacular treats emanating heavenly smells? But there, she was stopped in her tracks to see a ring of people surrounding a tank fermenting one of their wines. As she came closer, she realized it was the tank giving off these exquisite aromas and everybody seemed glued to the vessel, deeply inhaling the delicious scents.
The wine producer Emeritus Vineyards, known as a Pinot Noir specialist, only produces vineyard-specific Pinot Noir red and rosé wines from their dry-farmed estates in Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast.
Well, that is until recently, as they now make a white Pinot Noir wine from their Russian River Estate. That fermenting vessel was on its way to creating a Pinot Noir Blanc.
Emeritus Vineyards was started by Brice Cutrer Jones, best known for building the famous Sonoma-Cutrer winery, which made its foundation on Sonoma Chardonnay. But Brice’s childhood was not the typical background for a wine producer as he was an Air Force pilot who first learned about wine from a General he worked under in the Vietnam War. He decided to go to the Harvard Business School to learn how to start his own wine company and he established 1,000 acres of Chardonnay and made Sonoma-Cutrer a household name.
Yet Burgundy wine producers would have the most influence over him, and so, when he sold Sonoma-Cutrer in 1999, he took a serendipitous opportunity to buy Hallberg Ranch, a 115-acre apple orchard in Russian River Valley. He didn’t plant Chardonnay, but instead, Pinot Noir, taking all the wisdom that he had acquired from his friends in Burgundy, he planted Pinot Noir using the Burgundy wisdom that was gained over “1,300 years” of wine grape growing, guiding him. And this titan, who built a Chardonnay empire in the past, became laser-focused on setting a new benchmark for New World Pinot Noir. Brice would source seven different Pinot Noir clones from the revered Côte de Nuits area in Burgundy, with a selection coming from a good friend, Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and some of the most iconic vineyards in the world.
When Russian River Valley first made a name for itself with plush Pinot Noirs, the superstar wines came from the sub-region, today called “neighborhood,” the Middle Reach. In contrast, Brice’s Hallberg Ranch is located in the Green Valley neighborhood, which has a much cooler climate. As warmer temperatures become part of climate change, the Green Valley has become a favorite among those who appreciate vibrant aromatics and refreshing acidity. Yet, nowadays, the tannins of Green Valley have mellowed with warmer weather patterns and juicy fruit has become more consistent. The top vineyards in the Green Valley have become like those top vineyards in Burgundy, and so, it has become the ideal place for Brice to show a new benchmark for Pinot Noir.
The Hallberg vineyards are dry-farmed to allow the roots of the vines to travel deep within the famous Goldridge soil, over 20 feet, and these vines today produce wines that display this sense of place, terroir, beautifully in the glass.
A new generation is taking over Emeritus, which helped become the impetus to experiment with a white Pinot Noir, as Brice was not interested in ever making white wine at Emeritus. Winemaker Dave Lattin is retiring to pursue his dream of renting out his home for 18 months, so he and his wife can travel the US in a big van. He will still do Emeritus wine dinners along the way on his van journey as his new title is winemaker emeritus and he will still be available to help out the new winemaker.
Keith Hammond is the new winemaker, a Sonoma native, and Dave’s “work son,” as he has been his assistant winemaker for years. The vineyard manager will also retire after being with Brice for over 40 years, working for him at Sonoma-Cutrer and then moving to Emeritus. His real-life son will be taking over for him as vineyard manager.
And Brice has taken a step back from daily operations and handed the baton to his daughter Mari Jones. There was an embarrassing ceremony where he gave Mari a 15-pound scepter to mark the occasion. It was Mari’s idea to at least experiment with making a Pinot Noir white wine; the results are better than anyone could have imagined. Mari has led the project of designing and constructing the tasting room as well as founding the E-Club – Emeritus wine club.
But she knows that their wines’ greatness solely depends on their vineyards and that the best Pinot Noir comes from family wineries who have devoted many generations to caring for their vines. And in a way, laser-focusing on vineyard-designated Pinot Noir wines in a cooler climate was partly inspired by Mari herself. At the age of 12, she took her first trip to Burgundy with her father, where she discovered Pinot Noir. After tasting an outstanding glass of Burgundy, she said to her father, “This wine is better than yours, you should make wine like this.” Understandably, her father was speechless but was in complete agreement and it was nice to see that his daughter was just as passionate about wine as well as having great taste at such a young age.
As a grown woman, now running Emeritus Vineyards, she strives to make sure Emeritus outlives her for many generations to come, just like that first Burgundy estate she tasted all those years ago.
2021 Emeritus Vineyards, Hallberg Blanc, Russian River Valley, Estate Grown Pinot Noir Blanc: The white Pinot Noir a.k.a. Pinot Noir Blanc is made by only using the free run juice, which is the juice that flows freely from freshly picked grapes before they are pressed, and the grapes are picked at night so that they come into the winery very cool, keeping their aromatic complexity and not picking up anything significant from the skins and seeds; the skins of the Pinot Noir grapes are what gives it its color. Citrus blossom and lemon tart with hints of saline minerality with bright acidity balanced by good weight on the mid-palate and juicy white peach flavors with white flowers on the finish.
2020 Emeritus Vineyards, Hallberg Ranch, Russian River Valley, Estate Grown Pinot Noir: A wine that seduces from the first sip with lots of lush fruit such as strawberry candies balanced by fresh basil leaf that finishes with breathtaking pristine fruit – an elegant beauty.
2019 Emeritus Vineyards, Wesley’s Reserve, Hallberg Ranch, Russian River Valley, Estate Grown Pinot Noir: Year in and year out, the center blocks of Hallberg Ranch give the most powerful wines and so those blocks are sourced for Wesley’s Reserve, named after Brice’s father. Big, broad shoulders on this wine with sculpted tannins that are enhanced by rich, juicy fruit and hints of wild thyme that has an incredible overall vitality.
2018 Emeritus Vineyards, La Combette, Hallberg Ranch, Russian River Valley, Estate Grown Pinot Noir: La Combette is named for a gently sloping triangular block at one of the higher points at Hallberg Ranch. Smoky minerality on the nose with mulberry puff pastry Danish flavors with elderflower liqueur and almond oil that has fine silky tannins finishing with lots of fruit and spices that bring visions of spiced berry crumble.
In 2007, Emeritus Vineyards acquired a second estate property named Pinot Hill, in the Sebastopol Hills, eight miles from Hallberg Ranch. The Pinot Hill vineyards are also dry-farmed and have the same Goldridge soils.
2020 Emeritus Vineyards, Pinot Hill, Sonoma Coast, Estate Grown Pinot Noir: Intriguing nose with broken rocks and crushed rose petals with zingy rhubarb that expands into more decadent flavors of dried red raspberries with round tannins and a mineral finish reminiscent of broken seashells.
2019 Emeritus Vineyards, Pinot Hill East, Sonoma Coast, Estate Grown Pinot Noir: Crisp, pristine cranberry and strawberry fruit with aromas so vivid that I could taste the cranberries bursting in my mouth with hints of rosebud and wet stones with lifted juicy red fruit on the palate with jasmine flower and fresh sage on the finish with finely etched tannins.
2019 Emeritus Vineyards, Pinot Hill West, Sonoma Coast, Estate Grown Pinot Noir: Black cherry and wild mulberries with candied violets and dried thyme with passion fruit and cardamom pods on the palate with these exotic flavors wrapped in lushly textured tannins.
2018 Emeritus, Pinot Hill Cruz, Pinot Hill, Sonoma Coast, Estate Grown Pinot Noir: From the A Block of the eastern exposure of the vineyard planted with cuttings from the legendary Grand Cru Richebourg vineyard in Burgundy. The second I poured this wine, it immediately started singing to me with vibrant notes of ripe raspberry, zingy cranberry and orange zest with cherry sorbet flavors highlighted with hints of saline minerality with mouthwatering acidity and a long, lively finish.
2018 Emeritus, Pinot Hill Elite, Pinot Hill, Sonoma Coast, Estate Grown Pinot Noir: From the D Block steeply sloped to the west and planted with cuttings from the prestigious Grand Cru La Romanée vineyard in Burgundy. A completely different animal on the nose with deeper, darker aromas of forest floor, cigar box and broken gravel with wild blackberries and black cherry preserves on the palate with hints of cocoa nibs with a plush, textured body and a sustained, flavorful finish.