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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. 

Another feature of Pinot Noir is it displays character according to its vineyard site.
The differences in Cabernet Sauvignon grown in fairly close proximities might not be detectable to the average consumer, but Pinot Noir grown in neighboring vineyard sites can be dramatically different.

 

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, we'd routinely hear how Pinot Noir was not well-suited to cultivation in California and the wines did not resemble French red Burgundy at all.

Yet it was not uncommon for California winemakers to "fortify" their Pinot Noirs with something such as Petite Sirah or Zinfandel.  The wines had great color and, perhaps, a bit more body and tannin, but the peppery Petite Sirah or spice notes of Zinfandel 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 discovered (a few years ago) 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!

FD00985_.wmf (4442 bytes)The 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 new."  

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 encourage 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 Pinot Noir. 

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 to sell to consumers.  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 The Ojai Vineyard, Dehlinger, Patz & Hall, Walter Hansel, Rochioli, Merry Edwards, Kistler (etc.) who says these are not good wines simply doesn't understand the subject.  

 

SOME PINOTS WE LIKE:

 

 

ALMA ROSA
Richard Sanford is one of the pioneers in Santa Barbara County wine history.

He teamed with a botanist friend, Michael Benedict,  back in the 1970s and planted vineyards in the region that's today known as "Santa Rita Hills" where vineyards were not part of the normal landscape.

Sanford had been introduced to a French Burgundy and on his return from military service following the Vietnam war, he poked around California in hopes of doing something agricultural.   The pair started a winery called Sanford & Benedict which lasted some years before the partnership was on the rocks.

Mr. Benedict is still around, but apparently the two are not on good terms.

The Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir from their first vintage, 1976, was exceptional and showed California could produce a wine of distinction and complexity.

Back in the 1970s we heard that E & J Gallo "Hearty Burgundy" was a more noteworthy wine than most Pinot Noirs of that era.  
Really?

After a number of vintages the Sanford & Benedict winery ceased to exist and Sanford had solely his name on the sign of a facility he designed himself.

But again he found himself in financial difficulties and he got financing from the Terlato family at what was then the Paterno Wine Company.  The details are sketchy thanks to some contractual constraints, but eventually Sanford was booted out of the winery that has his name on the building.    In fact, for years the website of the Sanford winery made no mention of the fellow for whom the place is named!  
(We noticed recently they do mention Richard Sanford!)

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.  He was passionate about environmentalism and farming responsibly.
 


Once the partners owned shares of Sanford's wine business, the devil was in the front door, so-to-speak.  
 

Richard Sanford, organic viticulturalist


Sanford, in 1985, 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.   The wines have been reasonably solid over the years, though they are not the most flashy wines in the market.  

Currently we have the 2020 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir in the shop.

This is a medium-bodied Pinot Noir displaying a mildly cherryish note with a suggestion of pomegranate-like fruit.  They used some new French oak to mature the wine and there's a whiff of wood in the background.  Nicely drinkable presently and it can likely be held a couple of years.




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 surprise.

 


Currently in stock:  2020 ALMA ROSA "Santa Rita Hills" SALE $34.99
2011 ALMA ROSA Santa Rita Hills "La Encantada" PINOT NOIR  Sold Out

 

 


 


BELLE GLOS
Maybe 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 our view.))


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 "project."

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!  

Belle Glos Pinots certainly have a following, though we wonder what enhancements they've made to produce wines which have uncharacteristically dark color.
(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 :  Siliconato.

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 Noir.




**********

 

They had introduced an entry-level bottling and this took 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.  
No acreage.  
No winery.  
Just the brand name and the label.  

Wow...good luck to Constellation and congrats to Joe Wagner for hitting the jackpot!  
We wonder how Constellation will make this work.
{And, now a few years later, we see the price of Meomi Pinot Noir is lower than when young Mr. Wagner owned the brand...Constellation has done a good job of devaluing the brand and running it into the ground.  The marketing is curious as consumers can find the brand in chain stores retailing for a lower price than retailers can purchase it at wholesale!  One chain store allows customers to post reviews and we read many negative evaluations of the wine.  This is not surprising.}



Currently in stock:  

BELLE GLOS PINOT NOIRS  Available by Special Order
MEIOMI Pinot Noir  Available by Special Order



 

RAMSAY

The Ramsay label comes to us from winemaker Kent Rasmussen, a fellow who seems to easily evade radar detection with wines of his eponymous label and those bearing the name of his wife, musician Cecilia Ramsay.  

We currently have a wonderful 2020 vintage Pinot Noir made of fruit from Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties.

This is listed at a mere 13.5% alcohol, a delight in this world of brain-busting fruit bomb California wines.  The aromas are clearly those of Pinot Noir fruit, with cherry and red berry fruit notes prominent.  Add to this there's a touch of forest floor earthiness.  It's a medium-bodied, easily chillable red wine.

Maybe this can be cellared a few years, but given its youthful charm and sensible price tag, we suspect bottles will come and go.

Currently in stock:  2020 RAMSAY North Coast  PINOT NOIR  $15.99

 

 

COCHON

This is a little enterprise called Odisea Wine Company owned by winemaker Adam Webb who started out his wine career in sales and marketing.

On a lark, with a friend, he made a Grenache wine from Amador County fruit and there's no turning back now!   The "focus" is on making wines with a tip of the cap to France's Alsace, Burgundy and the Rhône, as well as those from the Iberian Peninsula.  A broad focus, indeed.

We've often had a terrific Rhône-styled red blend in the shop but recently found the 2019 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir to be remarkably good and sensibly-priced.

The wine is from the Dutton family's "Perry Ranch" near the town of Occidental in the Green Valley area of Sonoma County.  The vineyard used to be called Keefer Ranch when it had been owned by Marcy Keefer some years ago.  Prior to that site having vineyards, it was carpeted with apple orchards.

Webb destemmed half of the fruit and left half as whole clusters, a popular technique with many Pinot Noir producers.  There was a 5 day pre-fermentation "cold soak" before warming it up to allow the indigenous yeast on the skins of those grapes to get busy and vinify the juice.

For two weeks they punched down the cap as the skins are pushed to the top of the fermentation by the CO2.  The punch-down regimen was twice daily.  Once the fermentation was finished, the wine was racked into French oak cooperage, with 40% of the barrels being brand new.

This is a remarkably pretty wine and the character of Pinot Noir is unmistakable.  You'll find lots of bright red cherry fruit and there's a mildly woodsy framing from the oak.  It's youthful and immediately drinkable. 
Best at cellar temperature.

What a wine for a modest price!
 

Currently in stock:  2019 COCHON Russian River "Dutton - Perry Ranch" PINOT NOIR  $29.99


Winemaker Adam Webb

 

 

 

 

 

 

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