When Domaine Serene came out with a $200 wine called Monogram, I must admit I had my doubts. Not that a Pinot Noir can't be worth that much. Lord knows there are plenty of red Burgundies that go for far more than that, and I understand the argument that if California Cabernets can fetch that much or more, why not a great Pinot? I get it, it makes a statement, but that doesn't mean I'm jumping on the bandwagon.
Domaine Serene won't send me the wine to taste blind with its peers, which is how I rate all wines for Wine Spectator. And since Monogram is sold entirely on a mailing list, tracking down a bottle on my own is futile. Not sensing much of a groundswell of interest for it in the collector community, I'd pretty much given the wine a pass.
(I did taste the first vintage, 2002, at the winery. It struck me as a lovely wine, but I couldn't see what made it better than Domaine Serene's other wines. Non-blind, I rated it 92 points, a tick behind the winery's 2002 Mark Bradford Vineyard bottling.)
So when winemaker Tony Rynders invited me to taste all the bottled vintages over dinner in San Francisco, I accepted. And the verdict? Terrific stuff, but I'm still not convinced that Monogram is worth the upcharge. That probably means they'll never send me a bottle to put in my serious tastings, but c'est la vie.
Rynders says he selects lots for Monogram that he thinks will age the best, and the 2002 today is going strong. It's lithe, remarkably silky in texture and beautifully focused, gushing with lovely cherry and raspberry fruit against lively acidity and polished tannins. It does feel like it can go for years, but I've had the Mark Bradford recently and it's just as juicy and rarin' to go. Non-blind, I'm still at 92 points for the '02 Monogram.
The 2003, from an ultraripe vintage, actually feels a little watery in texture, but it has lots of baked cherry pie and smoky flavors that rise up nicely on the smooth finish. Non-blind, 90 points.
There was no 2004 Monogram because Rynders didn't find the ageability he wanted in any of the available wines. The 2005, bottled but not scheduled for release until next year, strikes me as the best one yet. Bright, elegant, refined, it has the sort of open texture that lets its pretty flavors soar. Cherry, spice and raspberry make a bold entrance, and then hints of minerals add depth to the finish. Non-blind, 94 points. This one could make the case for Monogram as something different, if it stands out when tasted against the rest of Serene's '05 single vineyard Pinots, which I should be tasting in the next couple of months.
Rynders also brought along a little vertical of Coeur Blanc, the white Pinot Noir he's been bottling since 2004. Based on a wine he learned about in Northern Italy, Coeur Blanc is a white wine made from lightly-pressed ripe red Pinot grapes. It's not rosé or blanc de noir, but the color of Chardonnay, and it's barrel-fermented.
The result is stunning, and so is the price, $60. But really, there's nothing else out there quite like this wine, and the current vintage, 2005, has a brightness and lively character that carries its ripe pineapple and cream flavors as elegantly as a Chardonnay. Who would have thought that a Pinot Noir could taste like pineapple? Non blind, 91 points.
The ageability of Coeur Blanc is still an open question. The 2004, which I rated 91 points when it was released, is a soft, round wine that has lacy acidity to balance the citrusy flavors, but tasted today it's not as rich or distinctive as it was. Non blind, I'd go 87 points today.
The 2006, just bottled, seems to be settling in nicely. It's not as juicy as the 2005, but it's soft, generous and seems to have hidden depths waiting to emerge. It should get to 90 points.
In other news, Rynders also told me that he bought into a new vineyard being planted in Walla Walla, Wash., at an elevation of 1,000 feet. It's above the Seven Hills Vineyard, whence comes the fruit for Domaine Serene's Rockblock Syrah bottlings. Rynders makes Syrah in a bold, clear-headed, beautifully-focused style. The new vineyard, called Octave, is planted with Bordeaux varieties.