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 Côte. 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 folks.
Sanford now has 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.
Currently in stock: 2012 ALMA ROSA "Santa Rita
2011 ALMA ROSA Santa Rita Hills "La
Encantada" PINOT NOIR Sale $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 2012 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 character of many California Pinots.
Currently in stock: AU BON CLIMAT 2012 Santa
Barbara County PINOT NOIR $21.99
- 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
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.
The early releases were okay, but seemed to lack a bit of polish and
brightness. The wines seem to have gotten better over the past few
vintages, so the learning curve was a relatively speedy one.
have the 2012 Las Alturas bottling in stock. This comes from
Monterey's Santa Lucia Highlands, an area some people seem to over-estimate
as a site for great Pinot Noir. Having recently tasted through a few
dozen wines from the S-L-H area, I can say this wine is amongst the top
Pinots of the region.
The wine is beautifully fruity and shows lots of black cherry-like Pinot
fruit. There's a nice level of oak in this wine and the relatively
mild level of tannins makes it very drinkable in its youth.
There's also the 2012 Clark & Telephone Pinot Noir which comes from a
vineyard at the intersection of Clark Avenue and Telephone Road in Santa
This shows nice red berry fruit notes and a touch of brown spice. It's
a medium+-bodied Pinot Noir...and like its Monterey County cousin, drinking
this in its youth is probably a good idea.
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 a showy little wine, being nicely 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.
- Currently in stock: 2012 Belle Glos Santa Maria Valley, Santa
Barbara County "Clark & Telephone" Pinot
Noir SALE $39.99
2012 Belle Glos Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County Pinot Noir SALE
MEIOMI 2013 Pinot Noir $21.99
young fellow is named Kent (Eric) Humphrey and his brand name is Eric
Kent studied French during his time at UC Berkeley and went on to work in
the advertising business before being seriously bitten by the wine
He doesn't have his own winery, but produces some terrific (so far) wines
(Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Noir) at a custom crush facility.
Each vintage of each bottling comes adorned with some rather interesting art
work. Kent's wife is an artist and she manages to convince her art
world colleagues to let their artistry adorn bottles of Kent's vinous
artistry. We've found the various wines we've had in the shop to be of
interest, both to the eye and palate.
The winemaking has been "vineyard based." Like so many
winemakers, the mantra here is "great wine is made in the
vineyard." Kent's philosophy is to simply vinify the wine and
guide it to bottle with a minimum of fuss.
We currently have a 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir which is a blend of six
clones of Pinot Noir. Winemakers like to rattle off the clone numbers,
as though consumers really care. Most fall asleep as the vintner
prattles on about "Clone 667" or "Clone 777" (is
that a Boeing aircraft, or what?). The fruit comes from 4 different
vineyard sites and six different clones of Pinot Noir.
- The wine highlights lots of red fruit notes...cherry and raspberry are
evident right from the start. There's a suggestion of oak, but it's
nicely intertwined with the fruit. We think this might age nicely,
too, but it's so charming now...how can we resist!?!
As with most Eric Kent wines, production is small. I think they made
350 cases of this wine. Pricing remains quite reasonable given the
Currently in stock: 2012 ERIC KENT Russian River Valley PINOT NOIR
- You know Bryan Harrington is a fanatic! The guy has been working in
a San Francisco watering hole and/or a restaurant as his "day"
job. But the guy also has a viticulture "project" in The
City. He's got something like five dozen Pinot Noir vines he tends in
two different sites. One is Bernal Heights and the other on Potrero
I don't know if he makes any wine from these vines, but we do have a couple
of delicious Pinots that he made in a small facility in
Berkeley. Bryan and Sasha Verhage (Eno Wines) bought the old Grape Leaf
- What we've liked of this fellow's wines is that they taste like Pinot Noir
and they nicely reflect the vineyards from which they come. We've now
had close to a handful of vintages of Harrington's wines and we're thrilled
to taste such elegant and refined wines. So many winemakers seek
numerical point scores and so they work to make beefy, big
Harrington's typically have finesse, something many California Pinots
- Our current pick is a wine from Mendocino's Anderson Valley. It
comes from the Wiley Vineyard, a property owned by a fellow whose family has
been involved in the world of book publishing.
If you've ever bought a "For Dummies" book...that's in the empire
of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Anyway, we really enjoy the Harrington Pinot from the Wiley vineyard...it
has a touch of wild strawberry fruit and a mildly floral tone. This is
a smooth, supple wine on the palate with a hint of wood. Thoroughly
delicious, it's drinkable now and should remain in good shape for a handful
Currently in stock:
HARRINGTON 2009 Anderson Valley "Wiley Vineyard" Pinot Noir $37.99
PATZ & HALL
Patz & Hall story began in the mid-1980s when Donald Patz was a
marketing guy at Flora Springs and James Hall was assistant winemaker
there. The two eventually went their separate ways, but were pals who
decided a collaborative effort would be a challenge.
Add to the mix, Anne Moses (she turns water into wine) and Heather Patz (the
glue that holds the place together) and you have a couple of dynamic duos.
They've been making really fine Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays for well more
than a decade. They bottle some regional wines, along with a number of
single vineyard offerings.
Impressively, the wines have been consistently good. I don't know if
they're attentive in the vineyard and cellar or if they sell off wine in
bulk which doesn't make the cut. But what they choose to put their
label on has been reliably fine.
Winemaker James Hall.
The 2012 Sonoma Coast is a delightful wine. It's from a number of
famous-named vineyards...Dutton, Martinelli, etc. Lots of nice cherry,
berry notes with some brown spice tones such as nutmeg, clove and
cinnamon. The wine is smooth, supple and easy to drink. It's
best at cool cellar temp, of course. Probably best in its youth, too.
There's a Hyde vineyard bottling of Pinot these days...we've long been fans
of the Hyde bottling of Chardonnay. From the Carneros region, the 2010
displays loads of strawberry fragrances and flavors. It's wonderfully perfumy,
The Pisoni bottling is one of the best Pisoni vineyard wines on the
market...deeply fruity, fairly full as Pinots go...nice now with duck or
lamb as there's even a little 'grippy' edge to this wine.
Currently in stock: 2012 PATZ & HALL Sonoma Coast PINOT
NOIR (Winery Price $45) SALE $39.99
- 2010 PATZ & HALL Carneros "HYDE" PINOT NOIR
SALE $59.99 (last bottles)
2010 PATZ & HALL Santa Lucia Highlands "PISONI VINEYARD" PINOT
known Jonathan Pey and his wife Susan for decades! He worked for a
major U.S. wine importer and marketing company. Susan has been affiliated with a restaurant group for
After years of promoting and selling wines for others, they soon scratched
the itch to make their own. It was time to follow their passion as
wine growers and winemakers.
And so, Scenic Root Winegrowers was born at the tail end of the last
In our younger days, they lived in The City and, with no kids, were able to
venture down the Peninsula and have some vittles and vino at my place. Jonathan
used to bring a "mystery" wine. The first time I think I
guessed the wine as "Loire Valley Chenin Blanc" in a
nanosecond. It was some sort of Monmousseau Vouvray, if I recall
This frustrated the heck out of Jonathan and the next visit he poured the
wine from a humungous grocery bag...and I took a sniff, mid-service, guessed
it to be a Cabernet Franc and returned to the kitchen to fetch more plates.
"Damn!" It was a Chinon or some other sort of Cab Franc red from the Loire.
Some years later the couple settled in Marin and they cultivate
(organically, we understand) a few acres in this cool climate and
currently have their modestly-priced Sonoma Coast Pinot in stock. It's
called The Forager and it's a 2012 vintage from the Sonoma Coast
appellation. It's from three vineyard sites and comprised of five
different clones of Pinot Noir...there's a nice touch of new French oak to
the wine, but just enough to add a few notes of complexity, but not so much
as to be oaky or woody.
They offer the wine at a very friendly price, too, so for a nice California
Pinot which would qualify for the designation of "good value,"
give this a try!
Ryan, known as "Peggy" to her friends, graduated from law school but
then enrolled in the University of Warren Winiarski.
Post-script: We recently
attended a trade showing of numerous Pinot Noir wines from various
West Coast producers. Some of the wineries are very prestigious,
if judging by the price tags on the bottles. The wines ranged
from $30-$120 a bottle. And, sorry to say, none was as charming
as The Forager and all were damned expensive, "worth" their
price simply because of the label on the bottle.
- Currently in stock: 2007 PEY-MARIN "Trois Filles" PINOT
NOIR Sold Out
2012 THE FORAGER "Sonoma Coast"
PINOT NOIR $21.99
- For an old,
well-established winery, we find Sinskey to be a name that's a little bit
below-the-radar of many wine drinkers.
Part of this lack of notoriety is due, in part, because Sinskey isn't a huge
public relations guy. In fact, he's a bit allergic to many wine
publications, not offering free samples of his wines so that some critic can
come up with a numerical score to describe and quantify the wine. When
you make wines which are intended for the dinner table and not for beauty
contests, this is a perfectly sensible philosophy.
In fact, Rob Sinskey proudly says he's not interested in making a wine
that's going to earn a 96 point rating from today's critics.
In fact he says "We don’t care what score
the wine didn’t get because we don’t want to drink what is currently
defined as a 96 point Pinot Noir. We prefer to work with nature, grow it
well and do the minimal to make
a classically proportioned Pinot Noir."
The Sinskey name has been around for more than two decades and we think they
make terrific Pinot Noir these days.
The story began with Rob Sinskey's father, who was a doctor and wine
aficionado. He bought some land in the Carneros region as the acreage
was economical in those days. Doc Sinskey was selling grapes, but then
when the big winery buying his fruit was sold, the new owners cancelled the
contract. And Sinskey ended up being "paid" for past sales
by, essentially, inheriting land in the Stags Leap District which had a
winery use permit. Soon the Sinksey name would be emblazoned on
bottles of wine.
Young (at the time) Rob Sinskey had received a degree in fine arts from a
school in New York and dad needed help. Sinskey's been helping ever
Over the years they'd purchased grapes from neighboring growers to augment
their production and finally they decided to just grow their own. And
in the early 1990s they embarked on a program of cultivating grapes
The 2010 Carneros Pinot Noir is a delight. The wine has beautiful
Pinot Noir fragrances with notes of cherry, strawberry and
pomegranate. Oak is not a main feature of this wine, as they work
diligently to showcase the grape in Sinskey wines. The tannins are
modest and it's delicious in its youth and should remain in good condition
for a number of years.
Sinskey notes the summer was fairly cool in 2010, but a heat wave caused
some of their grapes to become too high in sugar and, of course, they
produced a high-octane wine. He said this might make for a high
numerically-scoring wine, but he prefers to make a drinkable wine. As
a result, something close to 30% of the production was
"de-classified" and it did not make the cut!
- Currently in stock: 2010 ROBERT SINSKEY Carneros PINOT NOIR
MARGUERITE RYAN CELLARS
That "school" has many noteworthy graduates, including Paul Hobbs,
John Kongsgaard and Michael Silacci. Add Peggy Ryan to the
She came to California in the early 1990s and enrolled in some enology
classes. Ryan landed a job at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars doing lab
The Ryan Cellars label was born in 1996 and it's grown from a mere 70 cases of
wine to several hundred. Knowing she tries to make balanced and refined
wines, I suppose Mr. Winiarski influence has had a major impact on her
The Ryan Cellars label encompasses Pinot Noirs from several top, famed vineyard
sources. Peay Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast appellation is one.
Another is the famed Pisoni Vineyard, along with other Santa Lucia Highlands
sites. There's also been Pinot Noir from a vineyard in Napa's Wild Horse Valley
(where Winiarski used to source Riesling, once upon a time). And
there's been a Pisoni vineyard bottling, too.
Our favorite for the past few years has been from Monterey's Silacci Vineyard. This is a modest-sized property near the
town of Gonzales. We understand it's farmed organically and the budwood
for the Pinot Noir came from the Pisoni vineyard. The 2007 was a classic
Pinot with nice cherry aromas and the grape is in the spotlight, not the oak
barrel in which it was matured. It is now sold out...
We recently tasted a delightfully complex, yet young, Pinot from the Van der
Kamp vineyard. This is a marvelous site on Sonoma Mountain and they have
some rather mature vines on this property. ((We fondly recall being big
supporters of the Van der Kamp's foray into sparkling wine a decade, or two,
ago. Now we're still getting wine from those vines, but in a different
The 2010 has some dark cherry fruit with a plum note. There's a touch
of forest floor here, too. Quite charming and it's quite drinkable
now. Production, as always, is minuscule.
Currently in stock:
2010 RYAN CELLARS "Sonoma" Van Der Kamp Vineyard $48.99
caution out the window is winemaker and former sommelier Joshua
He's a young fellow who grew up on the East Coast and as a teenager, found
himself a job as a server at Cafe Boulud, a chi-chi New York restaurant.
Klapper was exposed to the world of wine and with a sniff and sip of a 1945
Chateau Latour, the kid was doomed.
He ended up at USC in business school in 2001 and the following year was
working in a new, fancy place in Los Angeles. Being closer in LA to
good wineries than he was in Manhattan, Klapper dreamed of making his own
wine and having his own brand. And so, La Fenetre was born in 2005.
I know we were amongst their earliest wine merchant accounts. I'd
tasted the wine at a trade event in Southern California (I go there to spy,
once in a while) and was impressed by their Syrah.
And Klapper still makes good Syrah, but we were recently enchanted by a
couple of really good Pinot Noirs.
Under the La Fenetre label we have a 2009 from the Sierra Madre
vineyard. This site was planted back in 1971 and the parcel Klapper
uses comprises an acre and a half and features four clonal selections of
The wine is light in color, intensely fragrant with nice Pinot Noir aromas
and a touch of an earthy note. We like the strawberry quality and the
hint of brown spices from the oak. It's a smooth red wine...medium to
The price is right, too. He had been asking fifty bucks for this, but
as the market is hugely competitive and a bit sluggish at the top end, we're
able to offer this for $29.99.
There's also a "second" label called A Cote...
The grapes came from a vineyard in Mendocino's Anderson Valley, but they
labeled it merely as "North Coast" since the grape grower didn't
want their name on a wine costing twenty bucks.
The vineyard is young and it's farmed organically according to
Klapper. He decided to leave 20% "whole clusters" in the
fermentation tank, wanting to capture as much berry fruit as possible.
And he did!
This is a lovely "everyday" Pinot...it shows handsomely at cool
Currently in stock: 2009 LA FENETRE Sierra Madre Pinot Noir (List
$50) Sold Out
2010 A COTE "North Coast" PINOT NOIR Special Sold Out
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 2012 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...
Currently in stock: 2012 GARNET Monterey County
Pinot Noir Sale $14.99
- MORE PINOT