Soaring Expectations

One of the great pleasures of writing about wine is opening a bottle without expectation, with no real advance understanding of the winery, and being knocked out. I had that experience the other night with a bottle of the 2006 Freeman Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. This is not a cheap wine—$44 a bottle—and I got it as a sample, or I wouldn’t have popped it for an impromptu family meal with my wife and kids. But I did, interested in checking it out, figuring it might go nicely with a simple chicken dish I’d made. I was so thrilled by what was in my glass that I got way too drunk. That’s what great wine does to me: makes me drink and drink and drink, with every sip taking me further into elation about the flavors, and then I’m hammered. (Yeah, right, the wine made me do it …)

Anyway, I got a chance to have dinner last night with Ken Freeman himself. We met at Delfina, a San Francisco restaurant that makes me happy for two reasons: First, it’s terrific; and second, my wife and I met and fell in love in that neighborhood, at about the time Delfina opened. So it’s a sentimental thing.

Ken is a kind, reserved fellow; I very much enjoyed his company and his story, about how he and his wife had worked international business jobs, started drinking and enjoying Burgundy, relocated to the Bay Area, discovered Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and its beautiful, restrained elegance, and set out to buy a small winery of their own.

While we talked, he opened their Sonoma Coast bottling from their very first vintage, 2002—the one called Akiko’s Cuvée, after his wife, who helps with the winemaking. (“I think these wines embody my wife; it’s a woman’s touch,” he said.) She must be something, because the wine was astonishingly beautiful, with the most soft and pure fruit, and delicate tannins integrated perfectly. These are such good food wines it’s ridiculous.

Good wine, of course, warms up a conversation. Ken told me about how his wife hailed from 20 generations of Japanese women who have never worked, making her 80-hour weeks at the winery a big change. Their property, when they bought it, had a run-down house, six acres, and an old defunct winery with a 2,000-case permit. They were able to rent out part of their winery—and therefore part of their permit—to Kosta Browne, maker of another beautiful Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. The Freemans didn’t have any vines at the time, so they sourced from tiny vineyards around the town of Occidental, which is awfully close to my vision of paradise (and looks not at all like wine country, by the way). I remember one detail in particular: The Freemans have finally bought their own vineyard land and are planting 14 acres of it and putting the other 16—which are all redwood forest—into the Sonoma Land Trust. As Ken told me about this, he mentioned that anywhere you’ve got redwoods, you can grow good wine—redwood terroir, in essence, is Pinot Noir terroir. I love that notion, and I love it in a sentimental way.

What I remember most, of course, is the wine itself, both the bottle I opened at home (described below) and the one that kept broadening and opening as our meal went on.

2006 Freeman Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
Grapes: 100 percent Pinot Noir
Wood: 10 months in 100 percent French oak—34 percent new, 25 percent one year old, 41 percent two- and three-year-old barrels
Alcohol: 14.2 percent
Price: $44
My Tasting Notes: These wines are such an unusual experience, as California wines go. They’re not at all big, and they don’t hit your mouth hard at the start. This one in particular opens like a cool flower on the tongue, revealing blue and red fruit so clear and balanced it’s hypnotic.

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