As of last weekend, Brice Jones was still wrestling with a name for his new venture. “I can tell you one thing,” he quipped. “It won’t be Sonoma-Jones.”
Sonoma-Jones would be a play on words akin to the name of his last venture, Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, in which he attached his middle name, Cutrer, to Sonoma, where his business was based. Sonoma-Cutrer grew into one of the superstar brands of the 1980s and '90s, with an exclusive focus on estate-grown and single-vineyard Chardonnays.
Despite its successes, Sonoma-Cutrer needed cash to buy out aging investors. In 1999, Brown Forman Corp., the Louisville, Ky., distiller and vintner, purchased the winery and 1,000 acres of vines for $125 million.
Jones hung around for two years before the inevitable clash in personalities—maverick vintner vs. corporate suits—and Brown Forman fired him. Sonoma-Cutrer has since grown from 140,000 cases in the Jones era to more than 400,000 cases.
This time around, a rejuvenated Jones, 67, has set his sights on Sonoma Pinot Noir. He and a small group of investors own about 140 acres of vines in two sites—100 acres near Sebastopol and 45 acres on the true Sonoma Coast, near Annapolis.
Don Blackburn, who made a name for himself while at Bernardus, is the winemaker. Russian River and Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir tends to have high acidity and intense, lively fruit flavors, and Jones and Blackburn are intent on making wines that showcase the fruit—as was the case with Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnays. The wines spend about 11 months in barrel, one-third in new French oak and two-thirds in older barrels.
The debut vintage would have been 2004, but a warehouse fire destroyed $100 million worth of wine, including inventories and library collections from some of the top wine names in Napa and Sonoma. So 2005 will mark the debut of the Emeritus label, with a Russian River Valley bottling ($32, 5,700 cases) and a William Wesley bottling from Sonoma Coast ($50, 570 cases). I tried both wines in blind tastings this week, and they were exquisite.
The Russian River bottling is sleek, lean and vibrant, with a captivating wild berry beam of flavors, and it reminds me of Sea Smoke’s excellent Botella bottling. It is a blend of the two vineyards and will be released in April.
The William Wesley, named after Jones’ father, comes primarily from the Sonoma Coast appellation. It is firmer, richer and denser and in need of bottle time. It is due for release in August, according to Jones, and it will be sold direct to consumers and not at retail, so you need to register at Emeritus Vineyards' website to receive the offering.