California Pinot Noir Page 1
CALIFORNIA PINOT NOIRS
Having its home in both Burgundy and Champagne, Pinot Noir
has been in California for many years, probably since the late 1800s. It is a fussy
and finicky grape variety, prone to genetic changes which means there are many
"clones" of Pinot Noir.
The grape tends to produce wines which have much less color than Cabernet or Zinfandel,
for example. I have seen, in many tastings, wines which are color-poor, but,
curiously, have the most intense fragrance. Tasters are frequently swayed by
the color and appearance of a wine and cannot credit a weakly colored wine with having
more intensity to its "nose" than deeper colored/less fragrant wines.
ago, it was not uncommon for California winemakers to "fortify" their Pinot
Noirs with something such as Petite Sirah. The wines had great color and, perhaps, a
bit more body and tannin, but the peppery Petite Sirah detracted or overwhelmed the subtle
and delicate cherry-like Pinot Noir fruit.
Curiously, in France's Burgundy, it was
said vintners or negociants routinely beefed up their wines with some deeper red from the
south of France (or Algeria, which was a major wine-exporting region
once-upon-a-time!). A Burgundy house was recently
discovered to have been selling wines illegally blended with stronger red wine
from outside the appellation. (Quel surprise!)
The temptation is great to make beefier wines, as critics and their audiences,
often find "bigger is better."
I am certain some local vintners still adulterate (or "enhance," depending upon
one's perspective) their Pinot Noirs with darker, stronger varieties. One prominent
winery owner chided me for even asking such a question, though he would not declare
that his wines were 100% Pinot Noir!
It seems that Pinot Noir varies according to clone, soil, exposure, climate and
we haven't even discussed vinification. Many Burgundy winemakers will tell
you their wine does not reflect the Pinot Noir grape, but instead the grape
reflects the terroir.
Some producers will tell you the juice
should be kept at a cold temperature (which inhibits fermentation) and macerated on the
skins for a week before fermentation is initiated. Other winemakers say this is a
recipe for disaster. Some winemakers claim to ferment with the stems, while others
say this is not the way to make good Pinot Noir.
As you can understand, controversy abounds!
aromas of Pinot Noir vary as a result of so many of the factors enumerated above. We
prefer to find bright fruit aromas, reminiscent of cherry or strawberry. We like a
bit of vanillin from the oak.
Some Pinots have a gamey quality to them. In his
book entitled "BURGUNDY" by Anthony Hanson, this expert writes "Great
Burgundy smells of shit. It is most surprising, but something the French recognized
long ago, a sent la merde and a sent le purin being common
expressions on the C˘te. Not always, of course; but frequently there is a
smell of decaying matter, vegetable or animal, about them. This is nothing
Uh, well, we prefer the cherry and berry notes, thank you!
Years ago, there was a school of thought which felt that California was too hot for Pinot Noir. Oregon enjoyed
some notoriety as experts wrangled over which area was producing the best West Coast
Pinots. An east coast tasting, written about in the New York Times (some years ago,
now) said the favored wines were Oregon and Burgundy when tasted with the labels exposed.
When the wines were poured for a blind-tasting, California won.
Today's wine critics are having an impact on Pinot Noir production. Since
the dynamics of most blind tastings (and tastings that are not
"blind") is to find the biggest and most intense wines, Pinot Noirs of
elegance and refinement are marked down as thin and light, while wines with
Syrah colors and Cabernet tannins are now often garnering the highest scores.
Pinot Noir winemakers are, it seems, interested in picking Pinot Noir as ripe as
possible. One vintner told me the trend is to harvest the fruit when it's
close to 16 to 18 percent "potential alcohol." Then water is
added to the juice and the fermentation ensues. I am not sure what
benefits are obtained by picking at this high level of sugar, but it seems to be
popular amongst the young winemaking crowd.
The high ratings encourages consumers to buy these sorts of wines and it encourages
winemakers to produce this style of Pinot.
We have noticed the
alcohol levels of Pinot Noir are often pushing 14% to 15%, sometimes even
more! It's not about the alcohol, though. It's about
"balance." Some wines can still be balanced and delicious at a
high octane level, while others can be totally out of whack.
We have had some Pinots which were made from such over-ripe fruit,
the wines resemble late-picked Zinfandel. One even has scored in the
mid-90s from a prominent critic despite the wine having little in common with
There's an awful Pinot that receives high praise from various
publications. We've had four vintages in tastings and the wine routinely
finishes in last place. All we can figure is the winery sends in samples
of someone else's wine (probably French Burgundy, since it is often described as
being reminiscent of Grand Cru level wines) and they bottle plonk. If the
wine they send to critics is the same as what they sell, this calls into
question the expertise of those writing about wine.
Anyone who claims to be a Pinot aficionado and who tastes California wines such as
Etude, Patz & Hall, Harrington, En Route and Dehlinger, and who puts down these wines, simply doesn't understand
the subject. I think you might even add the Siduri and Au Bon Climat and
The Ojai Vineyard labels
to this list.
SOME PINOTS WE LIKE:
- ALMA ROSA
Sanford is one of the pioneers in Santa Barbara County wine history.
He teamed with a fellow named Michael Benedict back in the 1970s and planted
vineyards in the region that's today known as "Santa Rita
Hills." The pair started a winery called Sanford & Benedict,
which later morphed into the Sanford Winery. I don't know what became
of Benedict, but Sanford ran his own place for many years. In
2005 he and his wife were fired by the import and wine distribution company
which invested in the Sanford Winery.
We understand there were major disagreements concerning Sanford's insistence
upon organic farming. His steadfastness to this ideal did not,
apparently, sit well with the Terlato/Paterno folk who had bailed him out of
some financial distress.
Once they owned shares of Sanford's wine business, the devil was in the
front door, so-to-speak.
Sanford then launched a new brand called Alma Rosa. We had their
first two Pinot Noirs in a blind-tasting and the wines finished 1st and
2nd! I especially liked the La Encantada Vineyard bottling and we
continue to be pleased by this wine.
We currently have some bottles of Alma Rosa's entry level bottling in the
shop...it's a tip of the cap to Richard Sanford and his pioneering efforts
in the Santa Rita Hills. It's not a big, flashy, fruit-bomb Pinot
Noir. Sanford doesn't use much in the way of oak to season his Pinot
Noirs. He uses maybe 10% new barrels.
We tasted a 2006 vintage La Encantada Pinot (in 2016). The wine was
bottled with a screw-cap closure, one of the earliest "fine wines"
to be offered in this format. The wine was a delight. Very good
fragrances and still youthful, but developed. This was a pleasant
Currently in stock: 2015 ALMA ROSA "Santa Rita
2011 ALMA ROSA Santa Rita Hills "La
Encantada" PINOT NOIR Sale $39.99
- Three fellows who studied at the University of Williams-Selyem in Sonoma
started a collaborative project which carries the curious name of Anthill
The curious name stems from someone observing these guys
resembling ants scurrying around as they were working in the cellar.
There's also the notion that ants are incredibly strong and each of these
fellows has a day job as well as their Anthill project.
The first vintage was 2004 and they made wine on a shoestring. Starting
with a couple of hundred cases, they now make close to 2000 cases annually,
we're told. They were initially able to make wine at one of the fellow's
"day job" wineries, but these days the work out of a facility where a
dozen brands share a winemaking outpost in Healdsburg.
We currently have a 2015 vintage Anderson Valley Pinot Noir in
These guys seem to have a good philosophy with respect to making Pinot
Noir...good grapes...no spoofulation...a pre-fermentation cold soak, minimal
cellar treatments...let the wine make itself...the usual patter and the wine
comes out nicely. Wood is used judiciously and it's not the focus of their
various bottlings of Pinot Noir. Anthill seeks to highlight the vineyards
and not put much of a fingerprint on their wines.
The Anderson Valley bottling may be too subtle for some people. The
alcohol is listed as 13.1%, a rarity these days in California. The color
is lighter than most, as well. We like the fragrance of Pinot Noir in this
wine...it's easily recognizable on the nose and palate and the wine seems to
evolve nicely in the glass as it airs and warms (we like to start with the wine
at cool cellar temp).
The tannin level is modest, but it's typically the acidity which allows such a
wine to age well. So if you forget a bottle in your stash of wine bottles,
it will probably be a pleasant surprise in 2020 or 2022.
Currently in stock: 2015 ANTHILL FARMS Anderson
Valley PINOT NOIR $39.99
AU BON CLIMAT
can only imagine the impact on California's legal system had Jim Clendenen
graduated from law school!
Instead, he'd had a visit in France and thought he might prefer the world
of Pinot Noir & Chardonnay to that of tortes, contracts and people
suing the crap out of each other.
The winery was initially the work of partners Adam Tolmach and
Jim Clendenen. Adam eventually left to make his own wines under the Ojai
Vineyard banner and and Jim continued making ABC wines.
Clendenen was always a strong personality and this helped his efforts to sell
the Au Bon Climat wines. The \various offerings reflected the personality
of Mr. Clendenen, being wines which were not universally-appealing, but bottles
which had character and complexity.
If you were a fan of French Burgundies, there was a good chance you might find
the Au Bon Climat wines to have some appeal.
The winery made a lot of Chardonnay in the early days, but today their
production of Pinot Noir is said to be roughly equivalent to their Chardonnay.
ABC offers a number of single vineyard Pinots.
We're fans of the entry level bottling with the Santa Barbara County
appellation. The 2014 is in stock presently. It usually is blended
with a small addition of Mondeuse, a variety which likely contributes a bit of
color and body to the wine. We like the dark berry fruit notes in this
wine...it's a shade fuller in body than most Pinots, but still has a measure of
charm to it. Think blackberry/blueberry as the sort of fruit character rather
than the cherry/vanilla sort of tones you will find in many California Pinots.
Currently in stock: AU BON CLIMAT 2014 Santa
Barbara County PINOT NOIR Sold Out
- BELLE GLOS
you're a fan of Caymus Cabernets and have wondered what Caymus Pinot
Noir would taste like.
Well, I can tell you Caymus used to make Pinot Noir from Rutherford-grown
fruit many years ago. They even made a Pinot Noir Blanc called
"Eye of the Partridge." What fruit they didn't use
themselves was sold off to Inglenook.
Nobody paid much attention to
Pinot back then. Pinot Noir grown in Rutherford! Never mind that
the fruit had short hang time and ripened quickly...all people paid
attention to was "Brix" (a measure of the sugar content of the
grapes) as though that was some indication of quality.
((Producers who continue to value sugar without regard to flavors,
physiological development of the grapes and acidity are missing the boat, in
Chuck Wagner must have never gotten rid of the "bug" to make Pinot
Noir. He has about 150 acres in Santa Maria, just north of Santa
Barbara. He's also working on a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
The Pinot Noir appears not under his Caymus or Mer Soleil labels, but as
"Belle Glos." This is named after Chuck's Mom, Lorna Belle
Glos-Wagner. One of her grandfathers was a grape grower who had a
vineyard on Howell Mountain, while the other was a winemaker at Inglenook in
the early 1900's! She's still living on the Caymus property.
Belle Glos Pinots certainly have a following, though we wonder what
enhancements they've made to produce wines which have uncharacteristically
(And you know, to label the wine as Pinot Noir, winemakers have a 25%
fudge-factor in place, so fortifying the wine with something darker and more
potent is allowed.)
An Italian friend has a term for this sort of winemaking :
Having seen the direction of this wine and the Wagner's other bottlings, we
no longer have Belle Glos and other Wagner family wines.
They are available by special order, if you like, but we prefer to devote
shelf space to brands which we find to have more classic elements of Pinot
had introduced an entry-level bottling and this wears the brand name "Meiomi."
The name is said to be a Wappo and/or Yuki word referring to the
"coast." And the grapes are sourced from coastal vineyards
ranging from Santa Barbara, Monterey and north in Sonoma.
It's an appealing little wine for neophytes, being fruity with cherry cola sorts of
aromas and flavors...best served at cool cellar temp...not a wine for aging,
as it's best consumed in its youth. It doesn't exactly taste like
Pinot Noir, though.
The Meiomi brand was sold off during the summer of 2015, as the
Constellation company acquired the label for a cool $315 Million.
Just the brand name and the label.
Wow...good luck to Constellation and congrats to Joe Wagner for hitting the
We wonder how Constellation will make this work.
- Currently in stock:
BELL GLOS PINOT NOIRS Available by Special Order
MEIOMI Pinot Noir Available by Special Order
owners of the Saintsbury winery in Napa's Carneros region started making
an entry-level bottling of Pinot Noir they dubbed "Garnet."
It was a great bottle of well-priced wine but the tremendous
success it had took the spotlight away from their normal bottling of Carneros
Pinot, as well as the various single-vineyard wines they made.
Sales of Garnet grew to such a level that they ended up building an entirely
separate winemaking facility for it and then, one day in late 2010 or early
2011, they sold the Garnet brand as well as the winery where it was being
The buyer of the brand is the vineyard company which had been supplying
Saintsbury with the Pinot Noir grapes, Silverado Winegrowers. The
Silverado bunch owns something like 11,000 acres of vineyards, with holdings for
the Garnet brand being situated in Monterey County, Carneros and the Sonoma
We currently have their 2015 Monterey bottling of Garnet Pinot Noir. It
smells and tastes like good Pinot Noir, is below 14% alcohol and sells for
$14.99 a bottle. This is a remarkably classy wine at what is today's
"entry-level" price-point for California wines.
Currently in stock: 2015 GARNET Monterey County
Pinot Noir Sale $14.99
2012 GARNET Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Sold Out
- MORE PINOT