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!). A Burgundy house was recently
discovered to have been selling wines illegally blended with stronger red wine
from outside the appellation. The temptation is great to make beefier
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 it was 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.
This 2007 shows nice cherry fruit and a hint of tobacco. It's a
medium-bodied Pinot and identifiable as such. You won't mistake this
for a Syrah, for example. Sanford uses screw cap closures for his
wines, saying he's "tired" of corked bottles. This is a
lovely wine for drinking tonight.
Currently in stock: 2007 ALMA ROSA "Santa Rita
Hills" La Encantada Vineyard SALE
in the Dark Ages, Mike Richmond worked at a little winery in the Napa Valley
called Freemark Abbey. They made Riesling, Chardonnay, Petite Sirah
and Cabernet. Mike jumped ship and in the late 1970s launched a new
boat called "Acacia."
- This little enterprise featured Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the
Carneros region. Anybody who was "somebody" had to
have Acacia wines in their shop or on their wine list.
They made some good wines, producing basic bottlings as well as
single vineyard offerings. Less than ten years later, the winery was
purchased by the Chalone Wine Group and Mike was then shipped over to
another winery, a Sonoma Valley estate called Carmenet. Acacia, a few
years later, was swallowed up by the big drinks giant, Diageo. That's
where it remains today. Mike departed a long time ago, not fitting in
well with "corporate" bean counters who did not understand a
damned thing about wine. (He today manages Bouchaine winery, a
neighbor of Acacia.)
Though many brands in the Diageo empire seem to be made with an
eye on marketing-driven winemaking, the wines in the Acacia portfolio remain
good quality and capable of appealing to the seasoned wine-drinker.
They make a number of high-priced, single vineyard wines.
With the economic resources of Diageo, they can pay high prices for Pinot
Noir and play around with relatively small production bottlings. In
tasting these, I can't say I'd pay the hefty prices for these limited
bottlings. We can order them for you, but we stock only their basic
The 2010 Carneros Pinot Noir displays medium garnet color and a
lovely strawberry/cherry fragrance on the nose. The wine is dry,
fairly supple on the palate and an easy-to-drink red wine. It's a
nice, chillable red, showing a whiff of wood along with nice Pinot Noir
fruit. We expect this to be at its best in its youth, but it might be interesting
to stash a bottle of this to see how it tastes when it's 5 to 8 years old.
- Currently in stock: 2010 ACACIA Carneros PINOT NOIR (winery
Price $28) SALE PRICE $22.99
- 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 2011 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 2011 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.
- Currently in stock: 2011 Belle Glos Santa Maria Valley, Santa
Barbara County "Clark & Telephone" Pinot
Noir SALE $39.99
2011 Belle Glos Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County Pinot Noir SALE
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 2008 Russian River Valley appellation Pinot that's
primarily from the Windsor Oaks Vineyard (RRV and Chalk Hill areas), with a
drop of Pinot from two other sites. The wine is teeming with red fruit
notes and the Pinot Noir is in the spotlight, not oak.
We find this to be quite enjoyable presently and it ought to continue to
show well for another five years, or so, before changing into something less
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: 2008 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
Ryan, known as "Peggy" to her friends, graduated from law school but
then enrolled in the University of Warren Winiarski.
Currently in stock:
HARRINGTON 2009 Anderson Valley "Wiley Vineyard" Pinot Noir $36.99
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 2011 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 2007
displays loads of strawberry fragrances and flavors. It's wonderfully perfumy,
Currently in stock: 2011 PATZ & HALL Sonoma Coast PINOT
NOIR (Winery Price $45) SALE $39.99
- 2007 PATZ & HALL Carneros "HYDE" PINOT NOIR
SALE $49.99 (last bottles)
known Jonathan Pey and his wife Susan for decades! He worked for a
major U.S. wine importer and marketing company until they wore him
out. Susan has been affiliated with a restaurant group for many years.
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 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
They make a Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot, too, but we prefer the Marin County
bottling. The 2007 comes from three vineyard sites and is dubbed
"Trois Filles" (they have three daughters).
It's made in a reasonably low-tech manner and we appreciate its
"Burgundian-like" acidity. The wine shows a nice touch of
oak, but the wood is more in the background, allowing the cherryish Pinot
Noir to take center stage. It's delicious now and we suspect it will
develop a bit more with two to three years of bottle aging.
They only made 15 barrels' worth of this wine.
- Currently in stock: 2007 PEY-MARIN "Trois Filles" PINOT
NOIR Sold Out
- 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.
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 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir is a delight. The wine has beautiful
Pinot Noir fragrances with notes of cherry, strawberry and
pomegranate. Oak is note 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.
- Currently in stock: 2007 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 is a classic
Pinot with nice cherry aromas and the grape is in the spotlight, not the oak
barrel in which it was matured.
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: 2007 RYAN CELLARS "Monterey"
Silacci Vineyard Pinot Noir $45.99
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) SALE $29.99
2010 A COTE "North Coast" PINOT NOIR Special $19.99
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 2010 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: 2010 GARNET Monterey County
Pinot Noir Sale $14.99
- MORE PINOT