Tasting Sonoma’s Best Barrel Lots

Attending trade auctions at which the wine industry offers special barrel lots that are generally unobtainable by ordinary consumers serves two purposes from my point of view.

Firstly, these special barrels of wine are often the creme-de-la-creme of a winery’s production and an interesting gauge of what a winery thinks is their best stuff. I enjoy evaluating a best effort and using it as a benchmark for what a winery might be capable of. Of course, not every winery puts the same level of effort or care into these auction lots, but generally, they’re pretty representative of a producer’s best abilities.

Secondly, given that the auction lots are all barrel samples, they are quite often all from the same year and therefore provide a horizontal look at the quality potential of a given vintage.

All of which brings me to the recent Sonoma County Barrel Auction, which took place last Friday in Healdsburg.

A fundraiser that supports the marketing and advocacy efforts of the Sonoma County Vintners, the barrel auction provides an opportunity for members of the trade (retailers, resaurants, etc) to purchase “one of a kind” wines that are made specially for this event.

This year’s event included 63 barrel lots, which were offered up for tasting on Thursday, May 2nd. A large number of the barrel lots were from the 2023 vintage, which provided me the opportunity to see how that year is shaping up, especially in the context of Sonoma County Pinot Noir.

The 2023 vintage has been heralded as nothing less than epic, with some folks calling it the vintage of a lifetime. It was certainly a calamity-free vintage, marked by a much cooler-than-usual growing season, followed by a warm autumn with no adverse weather events. This allowed winemakers to precisely time their harvests, which yielded fruit with excellent acidity and almost any level of maturity desired.

My read on the vintage, through the lens of the 60 or so wines below, is that it is indeed an excellent one, but I’m not sure yet that I prefer it to 2021, which continues to be my favorite vintage in more than a decade. The 2023s have great acidity and wonderful juicy fruit, but they also have some surprising structure, especially amongst the darker red grapes, but also in Pinot Noir, depending on the level of extraction pursued by the winemaker.

The tasting event yielded similar impressions to those I have formed in previous years. Namely, I continue to be disappointed that some of Sonoma County’s very top wine producers seemingly don’t have an interest in supporting their regional organization by donating barrel lots for the auction. The lineup of auction lots could be significantly more star-studded than it is. I was very happy to see producers such as Pride, Ridge, Aperture, Flowers, Williams-Selyem, Rochioli, Peay, and a few others in the lineup, but there could have been many more exciting barrel lots than there were.

A view down the rows of tables (making things look a lot busier than they were).

I also continue to be disappointed at the level of attendance at this barrel tasting (I didn’t attend the auction itself, so perhaps more people showed up for that event). It’s not fair to compare it to Premiere Napa Valley, but as someone who attends both events, I am sad to see what appears to be a relative lack of interest and excitement about Sonoma wines. Of course, this more subdued enthusiasm by the trade may well be the explanation for why some of Sonoma’s most sought-after wines don’t offer up their wares for auction.

Of course, the lack of a crowd at a public, walk-around wine tasting makes it a very enjoyable experience for methodical tasters such as myself. It was a beautiful sunny day, with a little wind, and cool temperatures. I had a wonderful time strolling around the main courtyard of Bacchus Landing, savoring what were a number of excellent wines.

The highlight of my tasting was unquestionably the…

Source : https://www.vinography.com/2024/05/tasting-sonomas-best-barrel-lots