This is the first in a series of occasional columns about Sonoma's small producers -- the people, appellations, tasting rooms and wines.

I have a soft spot for assistant winemakers. They are king of the cellar rats, but often miss the glory reserved for winemakers. Unless, of course, they have a little glory fermenting on the side.

Take Ryan Zepaltas. He's part of a stellar team at Siduri in Santa Rosa. Together with owners and winemakers Adam and Dianna Lee, they've long led the Pinot Noiriste pack, producing seductive, terroir-driven wines from top vineyards in California and Oregon. The Lees buy premium grapes by the acre, not by the ton, and churn out pure, unfiltered Pinot Noirs of great diversity. The stuff rocks.

That sort of focus has served Zepaltas well. I'd heard about his solo label -- he makes Pinot Noir, Syrah, and a bit of Chardonnay -- and played one round of phone tag with him last year before losing touch. So I was delighted when I ran into him at Siduri's warehouse winery earlier this month.

I had braved a five-hour drive from Berkeley -- the result of that brutal storm -- and after tasting through barrel after barrel of what will clearly be some of the upcoming vintage's best expressions, my companion Aaron and I were invited "backstage" to taste with Ryan, Adam and a half-dozen other small, superstar producers. We were totally geeking out with joy.

I started with the Zepaltas 2005 Suacci Vineyard Pinot Noir. The 6.


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5-acre hillside vineyard is located between Sebastopol and Bloomfield in western Sonoma county. It benefits from cool, afternoon ocean breezes and the round-the-clock love of John D. Suacci, a retired "Renaissance man," according to Zepaltas, who spends his days nursing the vineyard's low-yielding, tiny clusters.

In 2005, the yields were only .25 tons per acre. Zepaltas says he remembers berries were as small as BBs, making it impossible to get an accurate sample. But he let the fruit hang until the leaves fell off, picked, pressed and hoped for the best.

He got it. The concentrated flavors leap out of the glass: subtle French oak, think more pomegranate than plum or cherry, with herbal and mineral undertones and a whopping acidity that will serve it well for at least five years.

The 2005 La Cruz Vineyard Pinot Noir packs an even bigger punch. This is the estate vineyard of the Keller Estate winery, located in Petaluma and facing mostly westward to soak up the coastal fog that creeps inland as well as the backwaters influence of San Pablo Bay. I got a lot of deep blackberry flavors from this wine, in addition to earth and wet stones. James Laube of the Wine Spectator gave it 95 points.

These Pinot Noirs are true Sonoma Coast darlings, products of that signature forest floor flavor and of Zepaltas' heart. He says he fell in love with western Sonoma when he relocated to Sebastopol from Wisconsin in 1998. He'd come to pursue a career in skateboarding. Broke within weeks, he landed a job at La Crema Winery and found Pinot Noir instead.

Taking advantage of a long-yet-cool growing season without through-the-roof sugars, the area yields less of what I call sweet-and-sour Pinots (or Pinot Noir on steroids, as others say) and more of a nuanced wine: Imagine a tower of dried herbs layered between juicy, dark fruits. As Zepaltas puts it, less jolly, more deep.

His case production is 700 (the 2006 vintage will be out by the spring), and he says he plans to keep it that way -- "small and cute." Despite the learning curve, he believes winemaking is simple. "You take the fruit and you don't screw it up," Zepaltas says. "You baby-sit it."

He bought his first fruit in 2004. It was Syrah, from Gary Franscioni and his famed Rosella's Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Zepaltas says he was scared to ask him. Franscioni was wondering why he hadn't asked sooner. With the prized grapes, Zepaltas made 40 cases of viscous and velvety chocolate-covered Syrah. He didn't intend to release it. It just sort of happened.

Calling Zepaltas unassuming is a given. He is 32 but looks 22 and still identifies as a skateboarder. Growing up in Orange County, I know the mantra of anyone who rides a board. It's one of individualistic expression, so the fact that Zepaltas came into single vineyard wines -- or they came to him -- is really quite lovely.

Boarders are also anti-establishment. So it's even more fitting that the next wine Zepaltas hopes to make is Gruner Veltliner. Yes, in California. How punk rock is that?

Try Zepaltas' wines at Prima in Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill Wine Merchants, Mirepoix in Windsor, Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg or the California Wine Merchant in San Francisco. Join his mailing list at http://www.zepaltaswines.com.

Check out my blog for more on Siduri wines.

Reach Jessica Yadegaran at jyadegaran@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read her blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/corkheads.