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The State of California Pinot Noir
By Ed McCarthy
Sep 16, 2008
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I happen to love the Pinot Noir grape variety, like so many wino friends of mine.  When I recall the greatest wines that I have ever tasted, about half of them have been red Burgundies.  When California Pinot Noir started becoming popular in the 1990s, I was thrilled.  But something has happened to too many California Pinot Noirs during the last decade or so.  For me, they've gone in the wrong direction.

I happen to be co-writing a book on California wine this year--California  Wine For Dummies with Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW--and I have just finished writing the chapter on Pinot Noir.  And so, in the process, I have tasted a lot of Pinot Noirs.  I wish I could say that it was an enjoyable experience.  Quite the contrary.  I couldn't finish a glass of most of them.

Many of the Pinot Noirs I tasted resemble jam juice:  So sweet, so over-ripe, and too low in the very necessary acidity to balance all the fruitiness.  Most of these wines were very dark in color, and very high in alcohol, usually more than 14.5%.  Often, winemakers boasted in their descriptions of these wines that they gave their grapes 'optimal hangtime, to achieve perfect ripeness.'  Perhaps this is a clue to one of the problems, since one person's notion of optimal hangtime may seem excessive to another--namely, me. 

Another reason?  Most of these very dark, ripe Pinot Noirs were made from Dijon clones, which have swept victoriously through California Pinot Noir vineyards since the 1990s.  What works in Burgundy does not necessarily work in California.  Burgundy has a marginal climate with its share of frost, rain, and hail; many vintages in Burgundy are mediocre because of its climate.  Burgundy needs productive, high-performing clones such as the Dijon group.  California  does not need the high-octane Dijon clones; its climate is invariably warmer and drier than Burgundy's--with the possible exception of parts of the Sonoma Coast.  Invariably, the California Pinot Noirs that I preferred  were made with the older Martini, Swan, and sometimes the Pommard clones.  When Dijon clones predominate, the resulting Pinot Noir looks and tastes as if it were on steroids.

Now you might be thinking, 'California Pinot producers wouldn't be making wines like this unless they could sell them.'  And you're right.  Much to my astonishment, these fruit bombs get high ratings from a few influential wine critics, 94 and higher.  And some consumers, especially those who religiously follow the ratings, do buy them.  True, many of these wines are made in small lots, and so it's quite a simple matter to sell them out.  But I ask myself, 'Is my palate so out of whack with that of the American wine drinker?' 

And yet, I speak to my wine writing and wine drinking colleagues, and most of them seem to agree with me.  From this, I conclude that a certain segment of wine drinkers in the U.S. still prefer Pinot Noirs that are balanced, with good acidity, that are not overly ripe and sweet, over-oaked, or too high in alcohol.  I'm looking for a structurally restrained style of Pinot Noir, usually light red or transparent in color, not an opaque, black-red color that looks more like Syrah; and a wine that is below 14% alcohol, although I have tasted a few Pinot Noirs over 14% that were balanced.

I have learned to translate winemakers' descriptions of their Pinot Noirs to know which wines will not be to my taste. When they describe their wines as having aromas and flavors of 'Luscious black cherries,' or 'ripe berries,' or that their wines are 'rich, intense, thick, opulent, opaque in color, and made with Dijon clones,'  I know that I want to avoid these Pinot Noirs.  Oh, and forget about the meaningfulness of the word 'complex.'  All winemakers use this term. 

Some Pinot Noir regions in California seem to be more prone to produce this newer style of Pinot Noir:  The Santa Lucia Highlands and Sta. Rita Hills come to mind.  Most regions--such as Russian River Valley, Carneros, Santa Maria Valley, and Anderson Valley--offer a mixed bag of styles, depending upon the producer.  I was most happy with the Pinot Noirs from the newest Pinot Noir region, the Sonoma Coast.  The climate on the Coast is truly marginal--not too many over-ripe wines will come from here.  And another new Pinot Noir region, Marin County, is also making exciting Pinot Noirs.

The good news is that my intense study of California Pinot Noirs enabled me to come up with a list of my favorites, wines that I can actually finish  a bottle of with dinner.  Even if I really only enjoy 15 to 20 percent of the current  group of well over 200 California Pinot Noir producers, that's still a lot of Pinots to drink.  If you like the big, jammy style of Pinot Noirs, you'll have no problem finding these wines.  They're out there.  If you think that your palate resembles mine, that you prefer lighter-styled, not overly fruity, herbal, restrained Pinot Noirs with good acidity, such as those of The Eyrie Vineyard in Oregon's Willamette Valley, you will probably enjoy my suggested wines.

Littorai Winery, in Sebastopol (Russian River Valley), in my mind makes perfect Pinot Noirs: extremely well-balanced, with great structure and the ability to age.  Owner-winemaker Ted Lemon, an American who actually was a Burgundian winemaker at one time, produces about 2,500 cases of Pinot Noir, and his best come from places like Hirsch Vineyard or Summa Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast.  Littorai is difficult to find in retail stores, but the good news is that if you go to its website, Littorai will provide you with a list of all the restaurants in the U.S. that serves its wine.

Willowbrook Cellars is a fairly new winery, also located In Sebastopol, whose Pinot Noirs are really exciting.  I really flipped over its 2006 Marin County Pinot--a cool-climate delight, lively and well-balanced.  Willowbrook also makes a single-vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and a couple of other Pinots.

Veteran winemaker  Adam Tolmach of Ojai Vineyard in Ventura County, south of Santa Barbara, is a recent convert to leaner Pinots, abandoning the thick, fruity style he once made.  Tolmach believes that the late-picked, ripe, overly fruity Pinots lose their wonderful perfumed aromas by being picked too ripe.  Look for Ojai's Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir from Sta. Rita Hills (an exception to most Pinots from this region) or Ojai's Solomon Hills Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley.

Some of the California Pinot Noirs I prefer are old friends who have been making great wines for years.  They include the superb Russian River Valley's Williams Selyem--especially its Sonoma Coast and Mendocino County Pinots; and J.Rochioli Vineyard (Russian River Valley); Saintsbury, especially its 'Carneros,' and also Truchard Vineyards in Carneros; Hartford Court, (the gem of Jackson Estate Wines), especially its Sonoma Coast  and Green Valley Pinots; Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs; and of course Au Bon Climat from Santa Maria Valley, still crazy (and great) after all these years.  And Josh Jensen's Calera single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, traditionally made, and made to last.

A few new discoveries for me: Alma Rosa (the new winery in Sta. Rita Hills, another exception from this region, from old friend and Pinot pioneer Richard Sanford); Russian River Valley's Mueller Winery, from a one-man operation, Robert Mueller, who makes  solid, well-balanced Pinots.  And one under-$20 special: Jacuzzi Family Vineyards  from Carneros, an $18 beauty from the same family that invented Jacuzzi whirlpools.

Vintages to look for: 2005 was a perfect year in most Pinot Noir regions, cool, with a long growing season.  But I've also tasted a number of good 2006 Pinots.  Happy hunting!