I’ve heard so much about Copain over the years. Most of the people I’ve spoken to say it’s among the best wineries in Sonoma. But I have to admit, in Sonoma, I enjoy the freedom to explore and given that I had heard that Copain was appointment only (only partially true -- it's open on the weekends to all), I felt slightly constrained. I had never visited this property perched on a hill protected by old gnarled trees that provides a fantastic view the Russian River Valley. It is also the site of a gorgeous winery that is simple, tasteful, and elegant.
The story of Copain (which is french slang for "buddies") is kind of cool. Wells Guthrie, the winemaker, actually started his career as a journalist/taster at Wine Spectator in Napa. His job required that he taste between 4,000 - 5,000 wines in his tenure (obviously I love wine but that sounds like a job that could burn you out on the stuff and never allow you to savor anything for too long!). He developed a love for the Rhône Valley and its elegant, yet powerful Viogniers, Syrahs, and Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre blends.
Guthrie was a resourceful guy. Rather than attend the famed wine program at UC Davis like all the other aspiring winemakers in Napa and Sonoma, he decided to skip the formal education and learn from a real master - he secured a winemaking apprenticeship with Michel Chapoutier, one of the most famous modern producers in the Rhône Valley. For two years, he learned to farm and to make wine in the French tradition.
He came back to California and after stints at Turley and Marcassin he started Copain in 1999. He took the learnings from those places to heart (which make HUGE wines): his first wines were more like fruit bombs, but a few years ago Guthrie changed his style, getting back to his French roots and aiming for lower alcohol, more balanced wines that are full of subtlety and nuance. Since around 2006 his wines are leading a guard of new wines out of California that show restraint and feature more than just ripe fruit.
Guthrie makes a line that pays homage to Burgundy and the Rhône Valley -- featuring Pinot from the former and Syrah and Viognier from the latter. Most of the grapes come from the cool growing regions of Mendocino -- in this they remind me a bit of Failla. Failla is in the heart of Napa but sources grapes from the Sonoma Coast and Copain is in the heart of Pinot and Chardonnay California gold, the Russian River Valley but sells most of its estate grapes and instead purchases organically farmed grapes (if you want to know more about this, listen to the podcast or read this post) from Mendocino in the north.
Copain produces three tiers of wine. Their "Tous Ensemble," which is their everyday, very affordable (about $20 and amazing value for what you get) wines, the "Les Voisins" series (translates to "neighbors), which they call their "Friday night wine" - nicer and more sophisticated, and the Single Vineyard series, which is top of the line and is serious, serious stuff. I love that Copain does this. It's really democratic and accommodates all pocketbooks. And although there is a difference in the tiers, each one is amazing in its own right
On my visit, I was welcomed in their gorgeous Restoration Hardware-like tasting room by such warm staff. Wells Guthrie himself was in the back scrubbing out tanks. He had given everyone the day off because they had worked nonstop for about two weeks and he wanted them to spend some time with their families. You can never tell how someone really is with their staff, but he seemed like a nice dude and invited me to climb the ladders to look at the Pinot Noir that was fermenting. Very cool.
I wish I'd had more time with him, especially because the "guide" we got was a bit of a cold fish. I've heard from close friends that the hospitality experience at Copain is super hit or miss. It's hard to be unhappy when you taste awesome wines while looking out over the Russian River Valley on a beautiful day, but I will say the guy who was telling us about the wine made it kind of clear that hanging out with me was the LAST thing he wanted to be doing. He made very little eye contact and seemed bored with my questions and he was eager to be done with me.
It was the second experience I had like that in Sonoma that day, only this wasn't anywhere near as bad as the experience at Iron Horse. That said, be forewarned that although Copain has the wine and the view to die for, the hospitality experience is reputed to be lacking and my experience affirmed the spottiness of it. It is what it is and if any of the ladies in the tasting room had taken care of us, it would have been a completely ideal experience.
So to the wines. Not a bad one in the bunch. Wells Guthrie knows how to make wine, there's no doubt about it. If you're looking for what California can do when it's not overdone, here's another example of lower alcohol, cooler climate wines that are unbelievably delicious.
Smell: This wine was so aromatic -- a perfect Viognier. It was like honey, orange sherbet, and peaches with a touch of lemon. It was nice to confirm the wine didn't sit in oak. I find when winemakers put Viognier in oak, it strips a lot of the fresh aromas.
Taste: What a great wine. It had the white jasmine flower, honeysuckle, and creamy notes to it, but the lemony acidity kept it very light and bright. It had a touch of bitterness, but the alcohol gave the wine some fullness that offset that green flavor. Apparently the grapes were picked a little early in the cooler area of Mendocino, McDowell Valley -- I wish they had left them on a tad longer to get rid of that stem flavor, but it was still a solid wine.
Wine #2: 2009 "Les Voisins" Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino, California
Smell: I totally would have mistaken this wine for a red Burgundy (Pinot Noir). It was like minerals and dirt and farm with a touch of raspberry and strawberry to it. It was what I like to call a "dirty wine," and I loved the smell of the earth and dirt. I liked that you could tell it grew in the ground, as opposed to a lot of other California Pinots, which seem like they were created in a winery.
Taste: The wine had a great raspberry twang -- that slight bit of tartness that's in the berry, with lots of mouthwatering acidity. There was a little bit of orange rind flavor to it and it tasted like soil. It had a very long finish, and lingered. It wasn't too complex or layered, but it tasted like Pinot Noir -- raspberries, earth, and acid were all hanging out together.
Smell: A little fruitier than I expected, this was packed with raspberry, and a combo of fresh red cherry and dried cherry aromas. It smelled like earth and fresh brewed coffee too. Yum.
Taste: Fresh raspberry, strawberry, and cherry flavors dominated but this wine was super complex. There were a lot of low notes -- earthy, mushroom-like flavors with smoke, tobacco, and baking spices like cinnamon. There was great mouth drying tannins and mouthwatering acidity that balanced the fruit.
Wine #4: 2009 "Les Voisins" Syrah, Yorkville Highlands, Mendocino, California
Smell: Perfect smell for a Syrah, this was like plums and black raspberries, leather, black pepper, cinnamon spice, and smelled a little like a horse stable -- earthy and rustic. There was a saltine cracker smell too -- a little salty and bready thing that was really interesting next to the plum aromas.
Taste: A lighter Syrah in style, this was fruity with a good hit of black pepper. There was a ripe plum taste and the wine had great tannin and acid.
Wine #5: 2007 Alder Springs Syrah, Mendocino, California
Color: Very dark, the color of blackberry or prune juice.
Smell: Wow! This was like crushed raspberries -- fresh but a little bit juicy and acidic. It smelled like blackberries and black plums and then a little bit of cinnamon. I left it for a second and when I went back for another whiff, I got the smell of a Catholic church -- it had this moody, incense and myrrh smell that was INSANE. I loved it.
Taste: A really unique wine. It had subtle raspberry and blackberry fruit flavors but what made it amazing was that incense or myrrh quality that came through on the taste. The wine was elegant, but still had great tannin and acid, and the exotic flavors reminded me of wines I've had from the Northern Rhône Valley, the home of Syrah.
Drink or Sink: Drink. You can really see Michel Chapoutier's influence in this wine. It's so French in style. There's such a balance -- fruit, acid, tannin, spice, alcohol -- it was like a choreographed dance on my palate (more like a ballet, less like the electric slide). Outstanding, especially for the price.
Before I left, we got a sip of the 2007 James Berry Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre blend (that's the blend in Chateauneuf-du-Pape from France). They aren't making it anymore, because Guthrie has fully transitioned away from the big fruit style wines, which is what you get when you buy fruit from Paso Robles in the Central Coast of California. It was good, but nothing like the delicate, restrained, and balanced wines I had tasted. I think Copain's new track is heading in the right direction.
Although the hospitality was a little like a wet noodle, at least they weren't rude, and the wines and winery were certainly enough to make up for it. Next time you're in Sonoma, this is a must visit.