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Sonoma's Brice Jones Sees Red With Pinot Noir

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 5, 2007 9:58pm ET

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.

Steven Glazer
Orinda —  February 5, 2007 11:28pm ET
Thanks for the review. I have been unsuccessful in finding the Emeritus web site. Could you spell it out. Thanks.
Bill Shea
February 5, 2007 11:54pm ET
Have you given ratings for these wines yet?
Paige Poulos
February 6, 2007 12:39pm ET
The Emeritus web site is www.emeritusvineyards.com
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  February 6, 2007 12:53pm ET
Here's where you can find the emeritus label--http://www.goldridgepinot.com/index.htm
Jim Hinkle
aurora —  February 6, 2007 4:34pm ET
As one who started his wine drinking with Sonoma Cutrer Russian River Ranch Chardonnay, I can not wait to try the Emeritus pinots. Sonoma Cutrer was the class of CA chards and with the same team that founded and built that brand, I'm sure that Emeritus will be the class of American pinots.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  February 6, 2007 6:00pm ET
Jim... did they decide to bottle any of the wines with twist tops? I remember talking with them about the project a year or so ago - they wanted input on our experience with twist tops.

I think it's really cool to see people like Brice getting to create something new. I saw how energized Ken Brown (Byron, now Ken Brown Wines), Ken Volk (Wild Horse, now Aqua Pumpkin), and Chuck Ortman (Meridian, now Ortman Family) were when they stated their new projects... so I can imagine that Brice must be having the same kind of fun. Good for him!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 6, 2007 6:08pm ET
No on twisties, Brian (and I'm a little surprised, since he's hip to the problem). Brice did say he intended to use them at Sonoma-Cutrer, but didn't get the chance. I'm sure he can address that here if he likes.
Don Blackburn
February 7, 2007 5:47pm ET

We winemakers know that some 'corky' bottles are not identified as such, so the consumer just thinks it's a bad wine. We invest every year many hours of in-house testing to pick batches of corks that seem free of taint, yet despite this, the specter of 10% or 20% bad corks is always there with us. We do not jump at the first non-cork option we see, because the danger is too great of closing a bottle with a seal that allows in too much air or, contrarily, too little. The risk with cork finish is taint from mold, whereas the risk with a synthetic closure is oxygen imbalance.

We know how to prepare a wine for bottling under a cork, because we have been doing so for some time (33 years). We know how much oxygen to give it and how much S02 it needs, based on the wine's oxido-reductive constitution. We do not yet know how to treat a wine that might receive no new oxygen after bottling, in which case all the evolution taking place will be based on elements within the bottle. This is a new realm of enological discovery. In this endeavor, if someone is to fall off the edge of the earth, it will not be Emeritus.

Emeritus has undertaken an experiment which we hope will guide us in determining which type of bottle closure is the one most consistently conducive to wine quality and ease of opening. In conjunction with several other Sonoma wineries, we have bottled Pinot Noir under four types of closures: natural cork, a glass stopper made by Alcoa, Sarinex screw cap and Saranfilm screw cap. If we pursue this trial over five years, the first vintage will have four years of bottle age and will be thus well-positioned to guide us organoleptically. The winemaker's palate must be the determinant, not a machine or a table of results in some distant production facility or laboratory.

Weather eye on the horizon, feet firmly planted on the deck amidships, a gnarled hand gripping the tiller, we boldly go where no mold has gone before.
Paul Anderson
Longview, TX —  February 8, 2007 12:42am ET
OK, I know it is all about the wine but I am too much a graphic artist with a career in marketing to not really appreciate the designe of the bottle/lable of www.emeritusvineyards.com it is really sharp.
Eric Glass
Sebastopol, CA —  February 10, 2007 3:33pm ET
Jim...this may be a detail, but an important one I think. The 100 acre ranch is near Sebastopol, not Petaluma, which in my humble opinion is a MUCH more desirable area for pinot noir grapes.

Your tasting notes, and the comparison to Sea Smoke's Botella, have me salivating; can't wait for April!

+1 on the question re: your ratings of these wines?
Chris Lavin
Long Beach, CA —  August 16, 2007 3:49pm ET
Don, I have a few questions if I may.- If I'm not mistaken, you are dry farming the vineyard. What rootstock are you using? Also, when did you plant the vineyard? What clones are you using?Are you having any issues with the lack of water this year? It looked to me this week that (in the Russian River) most everything had gone through veraison - the berries looked excellent (hens & chicks) - so it looks like an excellent vintage if all goes smooth for the next 3-4 weeks.

BTW - I'm pouring the wine by the glass right now with much success. All the best.
Peter Nevin C/0 Devinewa
August 17, 2007 12:42pm ET
Hi Chris, we are dry farming. the crop is light and early this year, so we have not had to provide any supplemental water yet, and we begin picking in about ten days, so doubt we will be required to add any water. Vineyard planted in 99 and 2000, various rootstocks, and about a dozen clones¿all you might expect plus a few other "selections." appreciate the support, many thanks. if you'd like more, please email me directly.brice c jones
Chris Lavin
Long Beach, CA —  August 17, 2007 4:42pm ET
Thank you Brice. Chris Mattson is my go-to guy.

I was up for Pinot Forum earlier this week. Had the good fortune of tasting through a variety of top Russian River producers wines - Dutton-Goldfield, Williams-Selyem, Russian Hill, Iron Horse, Martinelli, Rodney Strong, MacMurray, Arista, Kosta Browne, Davis Family, Dutton Estate, Freeman, Holdredge (John is a character), Joseph Swan, La Crema, Lynmar, Merry Edwards, Papapietro Perry, Patz & Hall, Pellegrini; as well as, lunch with Kathleen Inman before the event began. Very educational. Master Sommelier Fred Dame moderated the forum.
Dr Michael A Meloni Jr
Stuart, Fl. —  August 21, 2007 9:08pm ET


Thanks for the comprehensive backround on both the terrior and personalities behind this wonderful wine.

I recently enjoyed a bottle of the Russian River bottling. It is a wonderful wine, bursting with flavor and head and shoulders above most of the California wines I've tasted over the past few years. I've squirreled away two cases of the William Wesley bottling and just may take your advice and let them age a year or two. (If my patience holds out that long.)

Brice and Don,

Thanks for creating such a magnificent wine. Your expertise and experience are readily apparent and greatly appreciated.

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