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California Pinot Noirs
By Ed McCarthy
Oct 5, 2022
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Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo are my favorite red grape varieties.  Both varieties have something in common—they are very particular about the terroirs in which they do well.  For Nebbiolo, this variety is at its best in the southwest part of Piedmont, Italy, where it produces the great Barolo and Barbaresco wines.  Pinot Noir, a very old grape variety (it was around at least 2,000 years ago), is at its best in the Burgundy region of central France—although it does reasonably well in certain places within Chile, New Zealand, Oregon, and California.  As you might expect, good French Burgundies are quite expensive—but so are fine Pinot Noirs from anywhere else.

California was a real learning experience for Pinot Noir wine growers and winemakers.  Early attempts at growing decent Pinot Noir–back in the 1960s and 1970s—were mainly unsuccessful, and most of the wines were of poor quality.  Growers learned that Pinot Noir demands much cooler climate than Cabernet Sauvignon, and soil that is not that fertile (Pinot Noir grapes require low yields to excel).

One of first really successful wineries producing fine California Pinot Noirs was Calera.  Josh Jensen, the founder of Calera Winery In 1974, found what he was looking for on the steep slopes of Mount Harlan, a 3,278-foot peak in the Gavilan Mountains that divides Monterey and San Benito counties.  The following year, while living in a trailer on the remote property with his wife and small child, Josh founded Calera, the Spanish world for “limekiln.”  There, with no paved road, electricity or phone, he began planting his first three estate vineyards: Jensen, Reed and Selleck.  Jensen’s wines really led the way making great Pinot Noirs in California.

A short time later, Williams Selyem in Sonoma County was established.  Burt Williams, the winemaker and co-owner, had a touch for knowing how to grow and purchase great Pinot Noir grapes and make brilliant wines, mainly in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley.  The first Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs from the early 1980s were among the first really great California Pinot Noirs. Success came quickly; It got to the point that if you were not on Williams Selyem’s mailing list, it was impossible to obtain the wines.  Williams Selyem wines were not that similar to French Burgundies—but they were excellent Pinot Noir wines.

Burt Williams and Ed Selyem sold their winery to John Dyson in 1998; Bob Cabral, an experienced winemaker, took over the winemaking.  Today, Williams Selyem remains one of the leading California wineries for Pinot Noir wines.

After Williams Selyem’s pioneering efforts to establish fine California Pinot Noirs in Sonoma, three other great Sonoma wineries made their mark with their excellent Pinot Noirs in the last 20+ years:  Cobb Wines, Littorai, and Dutton-Goldfield.  David Cobb founded his winery in a cool, remote Sonoma Coast area.  The winery is making several wines that excel in cool climates, but its specialty is Pinot Noir; the winery is now run by David’s son, Ross Cobb.  Ross makes several different Pinot Noirs from various vineyards; my favorite Cobb wine is his outstanding Pinot Noir from Emmaline Ann Vineyard.  A fairly small winery, Cobb’s Pinot Noirs might be difficult to find in wine shops:  The best way to obtain the wines is to buy them directly from the winery.

Ted Lemon, owner of Littorai Winery, also in the Sonoma Coast, has actually worked in Burgundy, producing Pinot Noirs.  His wines are a local favorite in California and sell out quickly.  I am a big fan.  Visiting Ted Lemon in California was an eye-opening experience for me.  He is a man who is totally committed to making great Pinot Noirs.

Dutton-Goldfield was founded in 1998 in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley; fifth generation grape grower Steve Dutton teamed up with his friend, winemaker Dan Goldfield.  They started small, but now Dutton-Goldfield is one of the largest wineries making great Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.  And the good news is that you can buy their fine Pinot Noirs for $40 retail, with their single-vineyard Pinots at higher prices.

 The great Pinot Noirs from Cobb and Littorai don’t come cheaply.  They start at $80, retail.  Williams Selyem, somewhat larger than Cobb and Littorai, might be easier to find today, but its wines start at $75 retail, and go well over $100 for its best single-vineyard Pinot Noirs.  Another Sonoma Coast winery that I recommend is the relatively small Peay Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast (about $45 and up).   Also, Hartford Court in Sonoma is making somewhat less expensive Pinot Noirs (starting at $40).

A winemaker to watch is Theresa Heredia, who spent a decade making wines at Freestone Vineyards in Sonoma County, and is now the winemaker at Gary Farrell Vineyards.  Heredia has always made excellent Pinot Noirs, and Gary Farrell Winery is fortunate to have her talents at its winery.  Gary Farrell Pinot Noirs start at $40 or less retail; its two single-vineyard Pinot Noirs retail for $60 to $65.  Other great wineries making good Pinot Noir are Rochioli Vineyards (starting at $90 retail), Dehlinger Winery (starting at $50) and two relatively new wineries, Racines in Santa Barbara County (French-owned, retailing at $90 and up) and Raen Winery in Sonoma County ($60 and up), owned by two grandsons of the late Robert Mondavi.

Are there any California Pinot Noirs that are inexpensive?  Of course.  You might find some decent CA Pinot Noirs retailing in the $16 to $25 range.  I personally would not recommend ANY CA Pinot Noirs under $15, because they are most likely large-production, rather generic wines.  

Let’s face it. The best Pinot Noirs, whether from Burgundy, France, or the U.S., are not inexpensive, everyday wines.  Good Pinot Noir wines are special, and deserve special consideration.

For those of you who live in the New York City or San Francisco areas, Flatiron Wines has one of the better selections of California Pinot Noirs.  

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