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To Learn, To Get Better



I spent the last couple of days in Carneros—the region that spans both Napa and Sonoma counties on their southern ends. The purpose of the visit was to explore the Pinot program of Etude, which has evolved from being the home project of a curious, dedicated and ambitious young winemaker named Tony Soter in 1980 to being the ambitious project of a large international wine corporation called Fosters. What's nice to see is that Etude, in its journey from being made in Soter's garage (or wherever he found space to ferment grapes) to now managing vast vineyards and having spacious new winery digs, hasn't lost a lot of its original spirit.

The credibility is maintained by: 1) Soter's continual involvement as a consultant, even though he sold the wine brand years ago and did quite well for himself; 2) The continuous excellence of the wines; and 3) the obvious quality of the winemaking team that runs the place today--John Priest and Franci Ashton. Tony Soter, who has an eponymous wine now in Oregon, became one of the first "superstar" consultants in the Napa Valley during the 80s and 90s, making wine and providing council to a ridiculous list of top estates. Along the way, though, he's never seemed to tire of sharing his acute knowledge and reasoned opinions about the intricacies of growing grapes and making wine with the likes of dilettantes such as myself.  Etude makes Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Gris, and Rosé, but we were there to focus on Pinot Noir, which was Soter's initial intent for the brand.

The name “Etude” implies study and practice—as one would practice an etude on the piano to learn, to get better. It's a nice metaphor for winemaking, since each year presents one more crack at it. For the 20 years that Soter owned the brand, he bought wines from various growers and assembled them into blends. Now, the team has their own Pinot vineyards to work with and the study and practice continues--this time on one large estate whose ins and outs they are still getting to know.

The results are more than encouraging, with the 2005 Carneros Estate Pinot Noir being a gorgeous wine that is rife with black plum and cherry fruit, a hint of earthiness and a graceful and elegant texture ($40 at K&L). Another of the wines Etude is famous for is the Heirloom, bottling (pictured here), which makes use of older so-called Heirloom clones that Soter has collected over the years. These vines are usually uneconomically low-yielding and difficult, which is why the wine costs twice as much (at K&L) as the Carneros estate--but the full-bodied 2004 has a suave texture with a lot of richness and some tannin that strongly suggest that it needs a few more years to come into its own.