Pinot noir is a grape that requires passion. It’s fickle about soil and climate, doesn’t respond well to big, industrial-size wineries, and is easily subjugated by alcohol levels and excessive aging in new oak barrels. Pinot noir needs coddling from growers and winemakers, and gets it from Jake and Ben Fetzer at Masut Winery.
Fetzer is a familiar name to wine consumers who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s. Barney and Kathleen Fetzer raised their 11 children on a farm and vineyard estate in rural Mendocino County. Fetzer began making wine in 1968 and became one of the most successful wineries in California. In 1992, the beverage conglomerate Brown-Forman bought the brand and a portion of the estate.
Four years later, Bobby Fetzer purchased 1,500 acres next to Home Ranch, where he grew up. In 1997, Fetzer and his two teenage sons Jake and Ben began planting pinot noir. “We were teenagers planting vines with post hole diggers and building our future”, Jake recalls. (Note to parents: make this story required reading when your teenagers complain about their allowance.) The vineyard was certified organic, and Fetzer sold the grapes to various wineries.
In 2006, Fetzer died in a river rafting accident. Neither son attended enology school, but winemaking and viticulture were teenage tasks for Fetzers. With their mother’s encouragement, the brothers, then 25 and 27, converted a barn built by their father into a winery and made the first Masut Vineyard and Winery pinot noir in 2009.
Masut is a Native American word for rich, dark earth. Choosing to name their winery with a word for the soil and growing their grapes in an organic manner gives you the sense that making the best pinot noir is this family’s mission.
In December, I tasted the 2009 Masut Pinot Noir Mendocino County. I was immediately impressed with the enticing cherry and spicebox scents. Rolling the wine across my palate was a delightful ride of cherry and cranberry flavors with soft tannins and mild acidity. The absence of alcohol and vanilla aromas and flavors from excessive aging in new French oak barrels made the Masut pinot noir a wine I hoped would be in my future.
The future arrived two weeks ago in a bottle of 2011 Masut Pinot Noir Estate Vineyard Mendocino County. Like the Fetzers’ inaugural wine, this vintage has the same translucent red hue and harmonious structure of ripe fruit, tannins and acidity.
A third of the 2011 Masut Pinot Noir Estate Vineyard is made in new French oak barrels; the remainder is divided into barrels ranging from one to three-years old. Because the wine is younger, the new oak vanilla aroma is evident, but not dominant. A pungent cherry and beef-like aroma is matched by very savory black cherry and mild strawberry flavors. This vintage captures the essence of pinot noir, too.
The Fetzer sons are young and dedicated winemakers. Let’s hope that they continue to focus on the essence of pinot noir, and avoid the excessive winemaking techniques that too many Californian winemakers inflict on this delicate and seductive grape.
The 2011 Masut Pinot Noir Estate Vineyard Mendocino County retails for about $40.