Courtesy: Coeur Wine Co.

Gros Ventre: Keeping Cool in California

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Chris Pittenger of Gros Ventre was a gifted baseball player in a previous life; however, he took a viticulture course during his freshman year at Cal Poly - San Luis Obispo, and subsequently caught the wine bug. 

After college Chris worked in a couple of bottle shops before moving to Jackson Hole, WY to work in restaurants as a sommelier (while, not coincidentally, taking advantage of the local snowboarding). Yearning to find another way to connect with his customers through wine, he decided to pursue winemaking, working at various estates in the Napa  Valley (Robert Biale - 2003; Williams Selyem - 2004 and 2005), New Zealand (Kim Crawford and St. Clair - Spring 2004), Australia (Torbeck - 2005), returning to California (Marcassin - 2006), before being hired as the winemaker at Skinner Vineyards in the Sierra Foothills in 2007.

At his day job at Skinner, Chris works with mostly Rhône varieties. Looking for a side project to call his own, in 2009 he established Gros Ventre, which is devoted exclusively to Pinot Noir. Gros Ventre, which roughly translates to "large belly" in French, was so named in homage to the Gros Ventre River in Jackson Hole and also to his then-pregnant wife, Sarah. Pittenger sources his Pinot Noir from four distinct cool climate sources, two in Sonoma Coast (Campbell Ranch and Fort Ross-Seaview), and one each in Russian River (Baranoff Vineyard), and Anderson Valley (Cerise Vineyard). Each vineyard takes advantage of either high elevation or proximity to the coast. These relatively cool climate sites are conducive to slower ripening and lower yields, which result in more intense fruit flavors and higher natural acidity.

Chris Pittenger walks through one of the vineyards he sources grapes from. Courtesy: Coeur Wine Co.

Chris is close friends with most of the growers and vineyard managers he sources grapes from; this mutual respect and friendship, along with their meticulous attention to detail in the vineyard, further reinforces the wine's connection with site. All vineyards are sustainably farmed (Baranoff is farmed organically; Cerise biodynamically); the wines are fermented with native yeasts, spend time on the gross lees before racking, and are bottled unfined and unfiltered.

At the West Sonoma Coast Wines trade show in early February, Chris Pittenger's Gros Ventre Pinot Noirs were standouts among a field of precocious wines. Balanced and nuanced, fruit-forward yet savory, each of his wines were truly expressive of site, style, and vintage.  Chris Pittenger is definitely a winemaker in California to watch. Enjoy (and drink) the 2012s and 2013s now, since production of his wines is extremely limited! Jonas Mendoza

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Gros Ventre 2013 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

Gros Ventre is Chris Pittenger's ode to his formative restaurant in Jackson Hole, Wyoming before pursuing his career as a winemaker.  After working harvests in Napa Valley, Australia, and New Zealand, Chris returned to California to work for Skinner Vineyards in the Sierra Foothills, where he has been winemaker since 2007. Gros Ventre is his side project, sourcing Pinot Noir from distinct, cool-climate sites in Anderson Valley and Sonoma County. His 2013 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is a blend of three sites: Campbell Ranch in Annapolis, Baranoff Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, and an undisclosed vineyard in Fort Ross-Seaview. This wine displays remarkable density of fruit; raspberry jam aromatics combine with stewed strawberry, ripe cherry, clove, and nutmeg flavors. Less than 10% new oak; 11 months on lees (unracked). -Jonas Mendoza

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Gros Ventre 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Baranoff Vineyard

Chris Pittenger is best known for his outstanding work with Rhone varieties for Skinner Vineyards (Sierra Foothills). Gros Ventre is Pittenger's personal label with his wife, Sarah, under which they make Pinot Noir from some of the most interesting (and prestigious) sites in the Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley, and Russian River Valley appellations. Baranoff is a 3 acre vineyard overlooking the Laguna de Santa Rosa, planted to seven different Pinot Noir clones (a rarity in California) on red sandy clay loam soils in 2001. 2012 is complex and elegant, with warm aromas of roses, cinnamon sticks, funky purple plums and skins and a generous, exuberant palate of rich red berries and brambly black cherry, with earthy undertones of nettles, sage, sandalwood, licorice, and bright bolts of citrus oils. -Ariana Rolich

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Gros Ventre 2013 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Baranoff Vineyard

The 2013 Baranoff Vineyard Pinot Noir is bold and densely concentrated, clearly showing its Russian River Valley origins.  A blend of 7 clones (Calera, Swan, 113, 115, 459, 667, 777) from a 3-acre parcel in Sebastopol, this Pinot Noir smacks of ripe black fruit flavors (cherries, raspberries, cassis), along with very perfumed nutmeg, clove, and cherry liqueur notes. 18 months in French oak (20% new), unfined and unfiltered. A truly small-lot poduction with only 65 cases produced. -Jonas Mendoza

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Gros Ventre 2013 Anderson Valley Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir

Cerise is an organically farmed vineyard using biodynamic methods in Anderson Valley, where the high elevation (approximately 800-1,000 ft.), rocky soils, fogs, and winds produce highly prized Pinot Noir. With prominent high-toned red cherry and raspberry fruits and flowers on the nose, this Pinot Noir rounds out the palate with Bing cherry skin and tart raspberry flavors, with distinct savory, meaty, and peppery undertones. My favorite from Gros Ventre 2013 class, and a serious Pinot in its own right that highlights the brightness and structure of the 2013 vintage. Approximately 150 cases produced. Jonas Mendoza

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  • Organic