A Symphony of Artistry: Cornerstone Oregon Pinot Noir

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Cornerstone Cellars Oregon Pinot Noir
I am sitting at my kitchen table looking out the window after a rainstorm. The blinds are half-mast, so I cannot see the gray sky. My view is just of the yard to the top of our wood fence and is filled with bright green framed by the slats of the fence, some still wet and some drying, so they remind me of weathered wine barrels. All I can hear is the plop, plop, plop of the last of the puddled rain dripping from the roof, and the tick, tick, ticking of the kitchen clock. They aren’t in sync, but are creating a soothing poly rhythmic cadence with my sleeping cat’s tiny snores — more like sighs of appreciative harmony. Then a dove in the distance creates another layer of almost ethereal descant.

It is a rare Sunday afternoon when there is no sound coming from the neighborhood, or the rooms upstairs. The rain has cooled it down enough that the air conditioner has cut off — with just the ceiling fan creating a gentle breeze. Listening closely I can hear the low hum of the refrigerator, and the higher pitched harmony of the wine chiller.

I catch movement in the corner of my eye, something bouncing through the green. A lone squirrel hops onto the giant oak and runs to the other side. It is almost surreal, given that I am not wearing glasses or contacts. I can see colors, yet no detail. It is as if the cameraman has adjusted his lens just enough to keep all the beauty around him, and blurred things that I know are there. Or like a conductor who blends a stage of individual musicians, each exacting in her own performance, to create a synergy that is greater than the sum of its parts. So I can enjoy the overall feeling I can get seeing, yet not seeing, hearing the whole the symphony around me, without one single instrument, or performer standing out from the others.

It reminds me of the first time I tasted Cornerstone Cellars Oregon Pinot Noir.

"A brilliant ruby red, the Cornerstone Cellars Oregon Pinot Noir reflects light enticingly from the edges. Black cherry and mocha on the palate: The tasted is slightly earthy, very rich, but far from cloying." Joe Power on the 2008 Oregon Pinot Noir.
We were well acquainted with Cornerstone Cabernet Sauvignon, having tasted both library and new releases. Big, bold Napa cabs meant for ageing, to me it almost seems a sacrilege to open them young. But for those who are sent as samples for review, open them we must. These are wines for a man’s man, and one of Joe’s favorites.

“Powerful, and complex in exactly this way. Like the Cabs of the Right Bank in Bordeaux, once you have tasted an excellent example, there is a sense of place that exemplifies the best wine unique to that region. Cornerstone Cellars is one of the wineries that exemplifies that for Napa.” Joe said in his review of the 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon we tasted in October of 2009.

Cornerstone Cellars has a bit of a Houston connection, that I learned more about after we first met Craig Camp at his Yountville Tasting Room in late Summer of 2009. Just after a truly over-the-top Wine Bloggers Conference that included visits to fabulous wineries in both Sonoma and Napa (albeit the temporarily lost voyage of Bus #4, consumption of absinthe, and singing about Beer and songs from the 1970s, much to the chagrin of the guys from Mutineer magazine). The trip had even included a seminar at Greystone, the fabulous home to California’s branch of The Culinary Institute of America. As if that were not enough, we were headed to La Residence Luxury Inn in Napa for a two-day visit with Kathryn Hall and Hall Wineries.

Our friend Lisa M. De Bruin, at the time with Hahn Family Wineries, had just treated us to a trade tasting for Santa Lucia Highlands wineries and we invited her to join us for dinner. Already booked for dinner, Lisa told us to come join the crowd, but first she needed to make a stop at a new tasting room in town.

At the brand new tasting room on Washington Street in downtown Yountville, we found our new friends Ashley (The Beer Wench), Megan (Wannabe Wino), and Thea (Luscious Lushes) already well into a private tasting with Craig Camp at the helm. Little did we know at the time, we had wandered into the crashing of a dinner that would forever change my feelings about oysters, champagne and raw quail egg on steak tar-tar. That it would be the start of great friendships with other wine bloggers and our great respect for Craig Camp, and his way with wines that continue the success of Cornerstone Cellars Napa, Stepping Stone and Cornerstone Oregon.

Our first Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon remains one of Joe’s favorite experiences.

“While there have been so many other mind-blowing wines that have followed, one that really stands out was a 1997 Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Black Sears Cabernet Sauvignon that was graciously shared at a fantastic bistro in Napa with us and some of those evil women bloggers that Amy saved me from,” says Joe.

Lucky for you, that wine is still available as a Library Selection, for those who dare. Now priced at $250 per bottle, we can vouch for its worthiness.

But back to Houston…

Two Memphis Doctors

The well-known story about Cornerstone Cellars, is that it started with a couple of Memphis doctors visiting Randy Dunn, who had five extra tons of Cabernet Sauvignon, and offered it to said doctors, Michael Dragutsky and David Sloas. What I learned since, was that Dr. Dragutsky grew up in Houston and went to high school with my non-wine related friend Mark Lee. We discovered it when Mark chaired a Houston CPA Foundation scholarship dinner, and Cornerstone generously donated wine for our wine pull (it’s such a small world!)

Enter Craig Camp, and Stepping Stone

Stepping Stone 2010 Spring ReleasesBefore Craig Camp joined the team Cornerstone Cellars produced two signature wines, a Howell Mountain and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. While these two powerful Cabs remain the Cornerstone flagships, Camp has expanded production to include Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, the first ever Cornerstone white. He continued with a new line called Stepping Stone by Cornerstone, which he introduced in late 2009, with a 2007 Carneros Cabernet Franc, and 2007 Stone Red Hills – Lake County Grenache.

“When I first seriously started to study and taste wine more than thirty years ago France was king of the hill. Everyone else was an afterthought,” said Camp, when he introduced the Stepping Stone line. “Because of this, my early education and palate development centered around the classic winemaking styles of France in the 1970’s.

“When I conceived our Stepping Stone program my inspiration may have come from the wines of France that I love so much, but my goal was not to recreate them, but to craft wines that honored their tradition, while showing the distinctive personality of the California vineyards in which they were born. So while the inspiration for our Stepping Stone releases may have come from the Loire and Rhone Valleys, their spirit is pure California.”

In Spring of 2010, Camp released five new wines into the Stepping Stone line: a Napa Valley Syrah, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, all 2008, and 2009 Coralinna Syrah Rosé and 2009 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Cuveé Musque.

“I brought a new winemaker to Cornerstone with this project in mind,” said Camp, when the new wines were released. “Jeff Keene is from New Zealand so he shares my passion for wine with acidity as the defining factor. We are moving forward across the entire Stepping Stone and Cornerstone line to produce wines that are balanced, more moderate in alcohol and most importantly, wines with a sense of place.”

Cornerstone Cellars heads to the Oregon Trail

In the summer of 2010, just prior to the 2010 Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla, Washington, Craig wrote of us his newest project, a 2008 Willamette Valley Oregon Pinot Noir. With only 50 cases produced, this new offering was already getting rave reviews, starting with the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC). A world famous event that garners $1000 a ticket, IPNC launched the 2008 Cornerstone Cellars Willamette Valley Pinot Noir as one of the best wines at the event.

I love the Cornerstone Oregon Pinot Noir especially because it is such an artistic expression of the grape.
“We believed so deeply in the quality of our inaugural release of Cornerstone Oregon Pinot Noir that we could think of no better venue to introduce our new wine,” said Camp, in response to the high praise. “Needless to say we are honored and flattered that the esteemed pinot noir connoisseur and critic Rusty Gaffney, long-time publisher of PinotFile, which means to American pinot noir lovers what Inside Baseball means to lovers of America’s pastime, has singled out our new release as one of the best wines to be shown at this distinguished event.”

We just managed to snag a bottle from Craig, and were likewise impressed.

“Brilliant ruby red. Reflects light enticingly from the edges. Black cherry and mocha on the palate. Slightly earthy, very rich but far from cloying.” Wrote Joe, in his notes about the 2008 Cornerstone Cellars Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.

With Camp’s background in more subtle Old World wines, the Oregon Pinot seems like a natural. We asked him to talk more about the decision to add this to the Cornerstone portfolio; the successes and challenges of the first release, and what he anticipated for the next vintage.

“While my background is in old world wines, I love the energy and excitement of the new world,” said Camp. “The wines can show their terroir as distinctively as any old world wine if you let them. Adding pinot noir was really a creative decision to be able to work in a whole different genre of wine rather than just the Napa Valley experience.”

Camp said he loves pinot and could not resist the urge to make one when good friend Tony Rynders, who was winemaker at Domaine Serene for ten years, decided to go out on his own. “The possibility of working both with him and pinot noir was just too tempting,“ says Camp.

Expanding on the success of the 2008 Pinot Noir, Cornerstone Oregon produced 400 cases for 2009. Spreading their wings in the Northwest, Cornerstone increased their vineyard sources from two, in 2008, to five in 2009. From those five, Camp and Rynders selected the best barrels to create the 2009 Cornerstone Oregon Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.

“The synergy of these vineyards offers a more complex, layered Pinot Noir than any these fine sites would have on their own. Often the choice to offer a single vineyard wine is based more on romance than the ability of the site itself, said Camp. “Particularly in a new growing region such as Oregon where there is no such thing as established and proven Grand Cru vineyards the synergies of wines from multiple sites creates a wine whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

“Elegance with an edge” is the goal of Cornerstone Napa’s Craig Camp and famed Oregon winemaker Tony Rynders in crafting this blend. We couldn’t agree more.

2009 Cornerstone Willamette Valley Oregon Pinot Noir

Cornerstone Oregon 2009 Willamette Valley Pinot NoirAWB Tasting Notes: This dark ruby beauty boasts intense Bing cherry and strawberry cola on the nose, with a hint of orange zest. The taste is WOW! Big bold cherry and cola, with an almost coffee bite that adds a sophisticated complexity.

Pairing: Our bottle paired incredibly with roast duck accompanied by a mushroom risotto and cherry reduction. Craig also suggests grilled salmon and tuna, roast chicken and veal.

Winemaker Notes: 100% Pinot Noir, grown produced and bottled in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. AVA Breakdown: Eola Hills 37%, Yamhill-Carlton 21%,Chehalem Mountain 21%,Ribbon Ridge 13 %,Dundee Hills 8%.
Aging and Cooperage: 14 months in French oak barrels, 60% New.

Cornerstone Oregon Pinots are so incredibly good, as are their Napa wines. But I love this Pinot especially because it is such an artistic expression of the grape.

Priced at $50.00, there are still a few cases available. You can purchase via the website here.

We asked Craig his thoughts on the similarities and differences between Pinots from Burgundy, Oregon and Russian River Valley, and whether Cornerstone would focus only on Pinots from Oregon.

“The difference is what make them exciting,” says Camp. “There are some great Sonoma Coast pinots, which in general excite me more than the Russian River Valley where I think they make great Syrah.”

“What can you say about Burgundy, he added. “It is sublime.”

As for Cornerstone Cellars, they will focus all pinot efforts on Oregon.

We’re Headed to Portland!

This month we are headed to Oregon for the 2012 Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Portland, where Craig will be pouring his 2010 Cornerstone Willamette Valley Oregon Pinot Noir and his 2010 Oregon Chardonnay. While samples of these wines have been released, our hellish heat in Houston means ours will not be shipped until Fall. Craig tells us that Mother Nature blessed him with only 500 cases of the Pinot Noir and 187 of the Chardonnay. And our first taste is coming soon!

Watch for our tasting notes on Cornerstone Cellars live from Portland, Oregon, August 16-19. For now, check out this great video from Cornerstone on their 2011 Harvest.

Cheers!

The WineWonkette

About Amy Corron Power

A licensed attorney, Amy is a wine-lover, foodie, photographer, political junkie and award-winning author who writes about Wine, Food, Beer & Spirits. As Managing Editor & Tasting Director for Another Wine Blog, she travels all over the world's wine regions to share her experiences with her readers and nearly 10,000 twitter fans. She holds certifications from International Sommelier Guild, regularly attends Houston Sommelier Association events and is currently studying for her California Wine Appellation Specialist certification through the San Francisco Wine School.