2009 Zotovich Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Sta. Rita Hills
Expert Rating
ST 91+ points
(Read the full review below)
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Steve and Ryan Zotovich and Zotovich Vineyards The Field of Dreams

In 1998, an ex-Olympian purchased 35 acres of sandy clay slopes in what many believed to be the Sta. Rita Hills' best answer to Burgundy's Cote de Beaune. But, by all accounts, the guy who could throw a javelin, hurl a discus, pole vault, and run the steeplechase better than all but a few on the planet, had finally met a challenge tougher than the Decathlon.

Six years after the sale, the Olympian's vineyard was hopelessly overgrown. Each time we passed by on the way to see Bryan Babcock or Ron Melville's place, the vineyard seemed even more untethered. In 2003, we gave the patch a name. We called it the "Field of Dreams."

When we returned to the Santa Barbara coast in 2004, we learned that the "Field" had been sold. Then we heard about the new proprietor's 21-year-old nephew, a kid with what the winegrowing neighbors described as manic resolve, and how, shortly after the purchase, he'd driven a John Deere right up Route 247, applying the brakes in front of his uncle's overgrown rows. Then, after looking left, then right, he gunned it, plowing straight into the patch and disappearing in a tangled sea of Pinot Noir plants.

The 21-year-old was Ryan Zotovich. If world class coastal Pinot Noir is in your sweet spot, REMEMBER that name.

When you ask Ryan how he accounts for the meteoric success of this now-manicured Pinot Noir property, he seems to credit everyone but himself. "I got three big breaks. First, my uncle bought at the perfect time. Less than a year later, Sideways came out. It was as if every Mercedes from Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades had suddenly discovered Route 247. Most were headed to Foley, Melville and Babcock, or coming back down from Sea Smoke. We just happened to be in the way."

Then, it got better. Just after completing his degree at Cal Poly, Ryan managed to land an assistant winemaking job with legendary winemaker Steve Clifton. For a decade, Clifton and his partner, Greg Brewer, have been fashioning some of the highest-rated Pinot Noirs in California. While Steve was impressed by the intensity and resolve of his young assistant, he was equally enchanted by Ryan's Zotovich Vineyard turnaround.

Brewer-Clifton is like E.F. Hutton. When the duo purchased their first few tons of Zotovich Pinot Noir, word traveled like wildfire. It wouldn't be long before the Pinot Noir elite of the southern coastline followed suit -- Tyler, Paul Lato, and Dragonette. Ryan's second break came in the form of a bevy of 92-93 point scores -- from both Parker's Wine Advocate and Tanzer's International Wine Cellar -- raining down on the "Field of Dreams."

By 2006, most down here figured Ryan Zotovich had learned all he needed to know, that he'd soon set up shop with his uncle, pulling back grape contracts, hoarding most of their $4500/ton Pinot Noir for estate production. But Ryan had other ideas. "I was like a sponge. Steve had taught me tons, but I just always needed more. When the Sea Smoke cellar master position opened up in 2008, I figured I'd shoot for the trifecta."

For two years, Ryan Zotovich had his cellar hands all over Santa Barbara's greatest cult brand. While the Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noirs leaned more towards Burgundy and the whole cluster protocol of Jacques Seysses at Domaine Dujac, Sea Smoke was the perfect counterpoint. "Steve and Greg were all about aromatic elegance and length. Sea Smoke emphasized leaf pulling and concentration. They were like chocolate and vanilla. I guess I came away favoring a bit of each."

The 2009 Pinot Noir vintage, with its mild, dry days and stretched-out growing season has been called the finest of that decade. For good reason. Temperatures barely flirted with 80 degrees on the warmest summer days. Sugars climbed incrementally, always tempered by the cool maritime breezes off the Pacific. At harvest, the tiny-berry clusters were sweet. The seeds were brown and mature. The acids riveting. There would be back-to-back-to-back Pinot Noir homers coming off star-studded bats at the Field of Dreams.

The 2009 Brewer Clifton Pinot Noir "Zotovich Vineyards" earned matching 92-point raves from Parker and Tanzer, disappearing in a flash at $50/bottle. Paul Lato upped the ante, garnering 93 points from The Wine Advocate. You can pick up a bottle on the auction market if you want to find out what you missed. As to Ryan Zotovich's own 2009 -- a bottle that seems to split the difference between Brewer-Clifton sophistication and Sea Smoke opulence -- the most resolute 29-year-old winegrower in Santa Barbara County came in at 91+ -- just a hair behind his mentor.

The 2009 Zotovich Vineyard Estate-Grown Pinot Noir is brilliant ruby in color. The aromas are of ripe raspberries and black cherry, laced with sweet herbs, gently touched by French cooperage. The attack is rich, high-toned and juicy -- taking a page out of a very good Sea Smoke book -- but the mid-palate is all high energy Cote de Beaune fireworks, surely putting a broad smile on the face of the brilliant Steve Clifton.

Patience will pay handsome dividends here. Just one problem. Ryan's 2009 is almost too luscious out of the gate. Few will practice discipline.

Tasting Notes

2009 Zotovich Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Sta. Rita Hills
"Light, bright red. Musky redcurrant and dried cherry on the nose and palate. Taut, sharply focused red berry flavors show a refreshingly bitter quality and gain smokiness with air. Picks up weight and sweetness on the finish, displaying notes of peppery spice and candied rose. I like this wine's cut and clarity but would let it rest for a couple more years."
91+ points -- Stephen Tanzer, International Wine Cellar

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