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harvey steiman at large

Of Monograms and White Hearts: Domaine Serene

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 5, 2008 12:40pm ET

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.

Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  March 5, 2008 2:59pm ET
Very exciting news about the new Bordeaux-varietal planted vineyard. Talented winemakers are always fun to follow, regardless of what they're making.
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  March 5, 2008 4:26pm ET
I'm an unabashed Oregon pinot fan, and think that Rynders is a great winemaker and pretty entertaining guy, from the industry events I've seen him at, but $200 for a bottle of Oregon pinot noir is, shall we say, aggressive pricing. It is impossible to put Monogram's price into perspective without tasting it blind. We all understand why the limited supplies of Burgundy demand the prices they do, but this is a barrel selection, not a very special terroir.

Harvey, it would be great if Domaine Serene would allow you to blind taste an older Monogram against it's peers to see if the claim about ageability held any water. Then again, if they can get $200/bottle, and sell it all on the mailing list, more power to 'em.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  March 5, 2008 6:44pm ET
Domaine Serene is my favorite US winery. Tony does a great job!! Actually, I enjoy the elegant silky flavors of the Grace over the more powerful Mark Bradford. You're correct on the ageability of the Coeur Blanc. I bought my maximum allocation of six bottles and they were wonderful, but I had my last 04 just recently and it was fading fast. The 05 is again great. Drink'em fast. My biggest concern is that Serene has a multitude of great single vineyard pinots and chards, plus blends, along with the Rockblock group of Syrah and Viognier. I just hope that with the addition of the Bordeaux blend, Tony doesn't lose focus. He's turning out a lot of different individual wines. Monogram is a marketing game, and with the 10 or so cases of their wine I buy every year, it hasn't been a game I've participated in. To me,One (1) case of Monongram does not equal 2 cases of Grace or Bradford. Sorry guys! But give them credit for marketing chutzpah, they sell it all.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  March 5, 2008 7:13pm ET
well, JL just reviewed 2 rhone blends from Amador county for $65 although apparently they are pretty good. So I guess beauty, and QPR, are all in the eyes (and wallets) of the beholder.
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  March 5, 2008 7:41pm ET
This blog had excellent timing as i plan on bringing a bottle of the 2005 Coeur Blanc to dinner in NYC with a 2005 Pur Sang, and a 96 Poul Justine Brute. I'm very excited to taste it and see exactly what to expect from this bottling...thanks for the thoughts and honest comments.
Dale Rouse
March 6, 2008 10:38pm ET
After reading a recent W.S. article about Domaine Serene the owners came across as rather arrogant as if they were somehow responsible for single-handedly making Oregon a premiere winegrowing region. Monogram is just a monument for their over inflated egos
Ron Zimmerman
Woodinville, WA —  March 8, 2008 12:29am ET
Domaine Serene's owners, Ken and Grace Evenstad, are gracious, charming, and keenly intelligent. I think it is exemplary that they are upping the ante in Oregon. Tony is creating terrific wines that very much deserve the premium pricing that the Evenstads are achieving (after years of solid work). And consider Oregon: 2 tons per acre on hand-harvested hillsides using LIVE and organic vineyard management. Kind of makes the boys in Napa look like pirates, me thinks.
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  March 9, 2008 12:41pm ET
I have to say that after opening the 2005 Coeur Blanc I was vastly dissapointed, both as a lover of Oregon Pinot Noir...and with the price for what came out of the bottle. It simply was not worth the money...and I'd rather spend an extra $17 for another bottle of Pur Sang next time...which deserves ALL the whoop-la it's getting as one of the best Loire white wines...
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  March 11, 2008 1:19pm ET
Kirk, wouldn't argue with your problem with the price. Coeur Blanc is a very lovely wine. It is a Pinot Blanc however that has oak. I don't know what you matched it with at dinner, but I can say it doesn't match with everything, especially light seafood(chilean seabass for example). Other foods it matches brillantly with.

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