Illusive “wow factor” of wine found in a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

How do you know when you like a wine?  “It should have a wow factor … it should scream at you,” says John Saemann, vintner at Clouds Rest Winery in Sonoma County.  Clouds Rest has been hand-producing Pinot Noir from a small Sonoma Coast vineyard since 2002.  These are collector’s wines, priced outside my budget at around $100 a bottle. Good news: a new addition to the Clouds Rest Pinot lineup is available, and at a much lower price point. It’s Femme Fatale, a younger release from the same vineyard, priced at $45 ($39 with case discount). K&L Wine passes along their discount, bringing it down to $39 for a single bottle purchase – outright affordable for a Pinot Noir in this class.

2008 Femme Fatale

I got the wow factor when I tasted the 2008 Clouds Rest Femme Fatale recently … rich cherry red, aromas of ripe stone fruit, flavors of blackberry, plum, pepper, light smoky tannins and hint of rosemary … rolling into a soft, mouth-filling viscosity. My attention shifted to follow the flavor explosion and structure of this wine.  And I’m not alone. Beth Arnold wrote of Clouds Rest Pinot Noir in Huffington Post, “Their Pinots retail for at least $100 a bottle. But, my God, I was almost in tears they were so good.”  And she lives in Paris, so you can imagine the wines she has access to on a regular basis.  “Pinot is a wine for me that brings together so many varietal characteristics into one glass,” John told me, with a heavenward roll of his eyes. Wow factor is more than the look, feel and taste of the wine … it is a quality that transports and totally engages you — like a great movie or a conversation with a good friend.

Seamann says Clouds Rest wanted to give more people access to their Pinot Noir, but without compromising the label.  Femme Fatale is the answer; grapes come from the same vines and terroir Clouds Rest is known for, and the wine-making process is the same, except for bottle aging.  Femme Fatale is released earlier (younger), saving the winery on storage cost. How much? Up to 3 years of bottle aging for the collectors wines. Savings are also passed along through simpler packaging. Femme Fatale’s lighter weight bottle is less costly to ship. Paper labels save cost compared to gilt silk-screened labels on the heavy Burgundian bottles used for collectors’ wines.

Narrow rows above the clouds at Clouds Rest -- Photo: Scott Schuette

What goes into creating the “wow factor” in a wine?

A few things: winemaking skill and style, choice of barrels, choice of grape stock planted, farming style – and terroir. Think of terroir as the vineyard version of “location, location, location.” In this respect, Clouds Rest, on it’s perch above Petaluma California, is very unique.

I walked the vineyard with Scott Schuette, Clouds Rest General Manager and unofficial photographer. Scott tells me the vines are planted at 1250 feet, on an ancient volcanic knoll that was never before cultivated. It had been impossible to farm because of steep terrain and the volcanic rocks strewn over the landscape. To create the vineyard, Seamann ripped out rocks – some quite large – down to a 6-foot depth. Huge piles of extracted rocks dot the property today.  Rows are planted just 3 feet apart, the only known 36”x36” density in California — and possibly anywhere. On less than 2 acres, there are 10,000 vines – producing volume equivalent to about 10 acres of vineyard. Crowding plants this way would normally invite mildew and fungus. But because Clouds Rest is situated in the Petaluma wind gap, there is constant movement of marine air between the Sonoma coast and San Pablo Bay. Rows are deliberately angled to capture maximum sun and air movement on the hill.

Volcanic rocks extracted

The Clouds Rest philosophy is to orchestrate what the vineyard gives them. Having a rockstar winemaker helps too: Anthony Austin who studied under Andre Tchelistcheff, a legendary winemaker of Napa and Sonoma Valley. A Healdsburg (Sonoma county) California native and University of California Davis graduate in enology, Austin directed the first crush at Firestone Vineyards in 1976. He went on to become an award-winning winemaker of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Santa Barbara area, and returned to make wine in Sonoma in 2001.

Irrigation lines and a huge water storage tank are visible on our walk, and yet no water was used during this wet weather year. These deliberately austere conditions – rocky, windy, crowded, dry — are influenced by the French “intensive” method. Intensive farming forces the vines to compete and struggle, resulting in small fruit of dense and complex flavor.

Dense clustering

Pinot Noir is a notoriously difficult grape to cultivate. It is thin-skinned, prone to rot, viruses, diseases, and vulnerable to over-crowding.  Tchelistcheff has said, “God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir.” There is a reason Pinot Noir is higher priced: the grape is difficult to grow and takes a great deal of viticultural skill and hands‐on processing to result in a good bottle. Against these odds, the wow factor is alive and well in Femme Fatale.  And Austin believes the harsh conditions at Clouds Rest force the grapes to develop thicker skins; thereby retaining more flavor and essence.

What gives wine the “wow factor” for you?

At the end of the day, the wow factor is about what you like. Wine preference is unique to each person, so what appeals to you may be different than for others. What gives a wine the wow factor for you? Where does the aroma and taste transport you to? What do you think goes into creating the wow factor in a wine? Please comment below – Simple Hedonisms would love to hear about your experiences!

Where can you find Femme Fatale?

Fem Fatale, as well as Clouds Rest Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, are available at Roadhouse Winery Tasting Room in Healdsburg, and Bounty Hunter in Napa. Check the Clouds Rest website for online purchase and for a list of restaurants pouring Clouds Rest wines. And as mentioned, K&L Wines is carrying 2008 Femme Fatale.

Clouds Rest will be pouring at Family Winemakers of California, Aug 22-23 at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.

Clouds Rest will be a featured in the “Grand Reserve” tent at Taste of Sonoma: Wine Country Weekend during Labor Day holiday. They are also pouring at the Sept 3rd Winemakers Lunch and at other venues throughout the event.

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3 Responses to “Illusive “wow factor” of wine found in a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir”

  • Eric:

    We will also be pouring this wine at Roadhouse Winery, on Friday Sept 3rd for a Winemaker Paella Lunch, as part of Labor Day, Taste of Sonoma, Wine Country Weekend. Tickets available here:

  • Gwen Wright:

    I get sick and tired of trying to explain outstanding Pinot Noir to those who have not experienced it. “Almost in tears” that’s what I’m talking about!! For my $100, I’ll forgo two or three so-so bottles for a glass of something that evokes serious emotion! Looking forward to tasting these wines soon! Thanks for the article.

  • Thanks for commenting Gwen, and your thumbs-up on the concept of the value of an evocative bottle of wine … I also struggled with descriptions. I liked Arnolds’ quote, she gets closer to it.

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