It’s Oscar season, and the term “auteur” will undoubtedly be used to describe the likes of directors Jordan Peele and Guillermo Del Toro, who have, with total artistic control, used film to spread their vision and message globally. Kenneth Juhasz, co-owner of Auteur in Sonoma, is a winemaker who approaches each aspect of his craft with the same precision and control, bent on creating the Burgundian-style wines that changed his life as a young man. Along his journey that took him to the Willamette Valley, New Zealand and Donum Estate in Sonoma County, he met his wife Laura and, in 2003, they moved to Sonoma and co-founded Auteur. Today, they produce about 2,000 cases of cool-climate chardonnay and pinot noir annually.
The Auteur tasting room is housed in yet another quaint bungalow off the Sonoma Plaza, on First Street, next to the Girl & the Fig restaurant. The welcoming interior offers privacy, big comfortable leather chairs and the enthusiasm of Bobbi, the hospitality manager. On this quiet, off-season day, our tasting of Auteur wines lasted for three relaxing hours, with four chardonnay, six pinot noir releases and a rosé on the menu.
Achieving the right color is key to our opening wine, the 2016 Auteur Rosé of Pinot Noir ($25), in its sixth year of production. A handsome light coral tint with aromatic bouquet, this rosé is dry and light on the palate with a refreshing acidity. Not all pinot rosé work for me, but this release is in a higher percentile.
Varied terroir and Kenneth’s skill produce diverse chardonnay releases that all have one thing in common: Not wanting to disguise the natural elements of the soil, he does not apply malolactic fermentation to any.
Auteur offers another Sonoma chardonnay release from the Durrell Vineyard that transcends the Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast and Carneros AVA’s offering unique terroir with volcanic soils, afternoon breezes, marine influences and heat. The 2015 Auteur Durrell Vineyard Chardonnay ($50) expressed typical mineral elements, but the 45 percent new French oak added a roundness and complexity to the flavor profile.
In contrast, the 2015 Auteur Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($40), combing grapes from the Durrell and Greens Acres Vineyard in Carneros is whole cluster pressed and aged sur lie in new and neutral oak. The result is a fresh and easy wine with herbal elements and a crisp acidity.
From a well-known organic vineyard in Carneros, the 2015 Auteur Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay ($50) is sourced from 100 percent Musque clone stock. Expressing more tropical fruit qualities, the Hyde has a vibrant acidity on the finish.
Like their neighbor, Walt Winery, Auteur sources grapes from the classic Shea Vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Comparing the 2013 and 2105 vintages, the 2015 Auteur Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir ($65), aged in 60 percent new French oak, was fruit-forward with concentrated spice elements (cinnamon, anise) and an evident minerality on the finish.
The Manchester Ridge Vineyard sits above the fog line at 2,000 feet elevation with a normal inversion layer that creates warmer nights. I would describe the 2015 Auteur Manchester Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir ($65) as a marriage of earth and dark fruit flavors. Inklings of forest floor, mineral notes and rich mouthfeel follow concentrated black cherry aromas.
After tasting pinot noir from the Savoy Vineyard in the Anderson Valley, Roberts Road Vineyard in east Sebastopol and the intense Sonoma Coast (Roberts Road and Labyrinth Vineyards), we finished with the 2105 Auteur Labyrinth Vineyard Pinot Noir ($65), the most complex and alluringly layered wine of the day. Two acres of organically farmed Pommard stock, this Russian River area vineyard is cooler and foggier than most. Expressive flavors of red currants, tart cranberries, herbs, spice and doughy tannins fashion my favorite pinot of the day.
Auteur gives us permission to explore the distinction and diversity in pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay while providing an ideal environment for the experience. The wines are not in competition, but celebrate Juhasz’s artistic approach that enhances what Mother Nature gives us. Auteur wines are like an independent film with limited release, not always easy to find but worth the effort.