Myles Lawrence-Briggs, Christopher Lloyd Strieter, and Max Thieriot grew up playing in the vineyards they now cultivate for their Sonoma County-based Senses Wines. Strieter oversees all aspects of the business; Thieriot manages vineyard acquisitions, operations, brand development, and wholesale sales, and Lawrence-Briggs manages production from grape to bottle. The trio’s sought-after Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays embody the natural and distinct characteristics of their coastal vineyard provenance. Grapes are hand sampled and harvested, cold-soaked, and fermented with indigenous yeasts, pressed, and barreled in French oak. With a production of just 3,000 cases, the majority is sold direct to a loyal mailing list; some bottles can be found at top California restaurants.
We spoke with Strieter about terroir, California, and the glories of Pinot noir.
What are the characteristics of a Sonoma County Pinot Noir?
Sonoma County is HUGE, about the size of Rhode Island, so it’s no easy task to describe all of the county one way or another. The West Sonoma Coast stays cool thanks to a maritime influence, constant breeze and fog, while it can be significantly warmer as you go into the Russian River Valley, Carneros, and Chalk Hill, which all produce great Pinot noir. In aggregate, Sonoma Pinots tend to be a bit more food-friendly and slightly lower in alcohol. The Russian River Valley really shows that classic black cherry, sometimes strawberry, character and will often age into earthy-mushroom character while the Coast produces darker red fruit flavors from bing cherry to raspberry, even cranberry and pomegranate in some areas.
How does a Senses Pinot stand out from the crowd?
Texture and depth. It feels cliché saying it but our wines are made in the vineyard. I always like to say we’re farmers first because these wines wouldn’t be what they are without world-class growing conditions. It’s the only reason we started Senses, actually. Growing up in Occidental and on these vineyard sites that we now farm, you gain an appreciation for Mother Nature; the constant fog rolling in, the maritime climate, the cool wind on a sunny day, the soils, limited water, the redwoods, and ultimately the people and communities that are stewards of this land. It is our goal to capture all of that in our wines and we achieve it by doing as little as possible—i.e. working with the vines to help but not change them. Site is everything but a strong farming team is integral and we’re proud to work with Ulises Valdez & Sons at our three estates. Harvest is called based on flavor to capture what we see as the best reflection of that vineyard in the specific vintage. Then, once grapes arrive at the winery, it’s a do-as-little-as-possible philosophy to truly capture what the vintage produced at that. Combine that with native yeast, unfined, unfiltered, and French oak for balance. So when you finally taste our wines you are tasting the journey those grapes took during that specific growing year.
How many Pinots does Senses make?
Five and soon to be seven with our newest estate, Thieriot-Bodega, and Kanzler vineyard in the Russian River Valley. That makes five single vineyard wines and two appellations, a blend of sites. It’s all about the vineyard. For example, our flagship Pinot noir, Day One, sourced from Myles’ family’s Hillcrest estate is everything you want in a California Pinot: velvety texture, bright fruit, excellent spice, integrated tannins, and awesome acidity. Our MCM88, sourced from the site formerly known as Keefer Ranch a few miles down the road from Hillcrest, is completely different: bold, rich, and intense. They’re both from the Green Valley of Russian River Valley, which is one of my favorite growing areas, but are completely different expressions because of the site. It’s hard not to say that the differences are simply due to place—and that includes everything from climate, soil, vine age and orientation, farming, neighboring trees, and so much more. That’s a small part of what makes our work so much fun.
What is it about Sonoma County that contributes to the region’s Pinots?
Sonoma County has it all: beaches at the coastline, mountains further inland, and lush green valleys. Many vineyards on the coast are planted along ridgelines on primarily marine-based sedimentary rock. Imagine 400 to 1,800 feet elevation, miles from the ocean, and in relatively small plantings given the rugged landscape. Marine sediment and volcanic material make up a significant portion of soils in the county. Vineyards inland are planted larger and access more rich soil in the valleys. While the coastal influence keeps things relatively cool throughout Sonoma when compared to Napa, it can create challenging growing conditions at times with slower ripening and heavy fog.