For years I have heard tales of the exquisite taste of Littorai wine, and on a few special occasions, I was actually able to taste a bottle at a wine dinner or tasting event. Known for pinot noir made in a very natural style with lower alcohol levels and a clear reflection of coastal vineyards, the wines are probably one of the closest expressions in California to a pinot noir from Burgundy.
Therefore, when the chance arose to visit the small by-appointment-winery, I jumped at the opportunity. Convincing two friends, Charlie and Lupe, to join me, wasn’t difficult, so we donned our COVID masks and drove in a convoy to this hard to find winery, located in the hills above the town of Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, California.
Arriving at Littorai Winery
After passing through a residential area, we turned up a dirt lane, and encountered a wire gate requiring an entry code. We entered the code and continued to drive for a short way on the dirt road until we saw a non-descript looking building covered with green ivy and surrounded by vineyards. The fact that there was no sign with the name of Littorai Winery was similar to other famous unmarked wineries in Burgundy.
We were greeted by Robin, Estate Educator, wearing a mask. He invited us to use the hand-sanitizer sitting on top of a wine barrel on the front porch, and then beckoned for us to follow him around the corner to a beautiful shaded patio overlooking the vineyard. A table with benches was set with wine bottles and glasses for our tasting. Once we were all comfortably seated 6-feet apart, Robin told us the story of Littorai.
Ted Lemon, Founder and Winemaker for Littorai – “The Coast”
Ted Lemon is a legendary winemaker in Sonoma, Mendocino, and Napa counties, whom I had met on several prior occasions. He was on vacation that week, but Robin did a great job of explaining how he had grown up in New York, studied French Literature at Brown University, but then got the wine bug and moved to France to study winemaking at University of Dijon. After graduating, he worked as an apprentice winemaker for several years at different domains in Burgundy, including the famous Roumier and Dujac.
Returning to the US in 1985, he worked in Napa Valley until 1992 when he and his wife Heidi decided to start their own winery, and craft Burgundian style pinot noir and chardonnay wines. After some research, they identified the cool coastal climate of the Sonoma and Mendocino coast as the perfect location to find the type of high-quality pinot noir vineyards he was seeking. Therefore, he named his wine brand, “Littorai,” which derives its meaning from “the Coast” in Latin.
Over the ensuring years, they, saved money to purchase these special coastal grapes to make their wines. In the beginning they did not have enough money to build a winery, so they made the wine in Napa Valley. However, as the reputation of Ted’s unique wines grew, they eventually saved enough money to build the small winery overlooking one of his favorite vineyards, called Pivot.
A Tasting of Six Littorai Wines
Robin invited us to pour a small taste of each wine into the set of six wine glasses placed in front of each of us. Due to COVID, he explained, it was better for us to pour the wine from the individual carafes placed in front of each of the six bottles. As we tasted through the wines, Robin explained Ted’s philosophy of biodynamic viticulture and winemaking, which focused on protecting the environment and making the wine in a very natural fashion with native yeast. In this way, the “taste of the land – terroir” could shine through in each wine. We tasted:
- 2018 Chenin Blanc, Haven Vineyard, Sonoma ($80) -notes of lemon drop, honey and crisp acidity with very long finish. Refreshing.
- 2018 Chardonnay, Theiriot Vineyard, Sonoma ($90)- classic apple and lemon nose with mouthwatering natural acidity. “Converts chardonnay skeptics.”
- 2017 Pinot Noir, Pivot Vineyard, Sonoma ($90) – nose of roses and raspberries followed through on palate with spice, toast and great texture – orgasmic wine.
- 2017 Pinot Noir, One Acre Vineyard, Mendocino ($95) – black cherry, pepper and graphite with more structured tannins – masculine pinot.
- 2017 Pinot Noir, Haven Vineyard , Sonoma ($95) – rich, raspberry and red plum, concentrated with velvety tannins – long, lovely and satisfying.
- 2013 Pinot Noir, Theiriot Vineyard, Sonoma ($140, avail only at winery) – complex notes of white pepper, anise and mint wrapped up in warm vanilla and red plum with furry velvety tannins – lots of personality
The whole tasting experience was delightful, and Charlie, who was from Napa Valley, exclaimed that he had never tasted such exquisite pinot noirs from California before. They were “brimming with personality and clear expression of terroir from special coast vineyards.” While Charlie was talking, the Littorai cat came to sit next to him, clearly entranced by his viewpoint.