I’m going to qualify this review by stating up-front that I’m a Navarro fanboy. It’s without a question my favorite winery in California, for a multitude of reasons. I love the physical location – off Route 128 in idyllic Philo, at the end of a long and gorgeous drive on the way to Mendocino. The tasting experience is managed by friendly, knowledgeable staff who will open pretty much anything on the release list and never charge a cent. They have a dizzying array of varietals and blends on their roster, but specialize in my two favorite grapes – Pinot Noir and Riesling. When it comes to Riesling and Gewurztraminer the talents of winemaker Jim Klein are really on display – he can excel at bone-dry, stony versions and also produce some of the most spectacular late-harvest wines in the world. I’ll never forget the ’99 “Cluster Select” Riesling – 43%(!) residual sugar yet crisp, balanced and completely unforgettable.
Navarro has used the name “Indian Creek” as a sort of second label for years. Now it finds itself used in a different context as Navarro – like all Mendocino County wineries – grapples with the aftermath of the massive wildfires that ravaged the area in 2008. Turns out all that smoke found its way into the wines that harvest produced, with a variety of results. Pinot being the most delicate of varietals and thus the most susceptible to taint, many wineries poured their entire 2008 output down the drain. Others forged ahead and met interesting results. Turns out smoke in Pinot Noir is a love-hate sort of affair – some tasters raved, others were horrified. Navarro entered their regular and reserve Pinots into several competitions and won multiple golds and offered a bottle to their club members to try for free before committing to purchase, but in the end decided that the wines simply didn’t represent the Navarro style. Rather than dump them, they released them under the Indian Creek label – and in the process created an opportunity to sample some Navarro Pinot at an unheard of price.
The “regular” 2008 Pinot is going for just under $10 a bottle through the winery (and you can get a package of that, the Reserve and the ’08 Zin for $30). I will say, for my part, that I don’t mind a little smoke in my reds, even Pinot. That said, I don’t honestly taste much smoke in this bottling – it’s a suggestion, not a command. Navarro’s Pinots are definitely crafted in the silky, elegant style – not the fruit bombs many California winemakers favor – and this wine is no exception. It’s 100% Anderson Valley fruit, most of it from Navarro’s on-site vineyard. As usual, Klein shows restraint when it comes to overripe flavors, with this wine coming in at a positively retro 13.6% alcohol. As a result, the wine has a lovely soft mouthfeel. For me the smoke shows itself more in the nose and at the finish – as a slight tang just below what I would call obvious levels. There’s fruit here – plum, dark berries – but in the old-world style it’s layered within the subtle hints of vanilla. This wine doesn’t have the pronounced earthy notes of some old-world style Pinot, but certainly has what I would consider a Navarro signature – lots of herbal notes. It makes for a very refined, subtle experience – and as you’d expect from the restrained alcohol levels, would make a fine food pairing with the usual Pinot suspects.
In the end, this vintage will probably go down as a novelty – there will certainly be an asterisk next to it in all the wine guides. Try it and decide for yourself – and the great thing about these Indian Creek bottlings is that you can do so at a fraction of what it would cost you to do so in a normal year. If you have a real aversion to smoke, there may be enough here to turn you off. For me, it worked – this is still Navarro and that fact comes through in the glass.