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Some Pinot Noirs I liked in 2012

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My love affair with Pinot Noir continued in 2012. When it comes to that variety, my tastes are all-embracing: as Eminem sings in Just Lose It, “Black girls, White girls, Skinny girls, Fat girls, Tall girls, Small girls, I’m calling all girls,” I like all Pinot Noirs, as long as they’re good.

Not for me ideological rigidities for or against yields, yeasts, alcohol level, whole clusters, degree of color saturation, toast levels, ageable or not, “Burgundian” or “New World” in style.  Just bring on what Charlie Olken years ago called Pinot’s “richness, complexity and velvety texture” and I’m a happy camper.

Charlie wrote that (along with Earl Singer and Norm Roby) in their classic The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines, but in 1980, they had also to include this inconvenient truth: “California Pinot Noirs have too often been thin-flavored and simple.” Yes, back then, they were. But the decade of the 1980s and in particular that of the 1990s showed growers the best places to plant (cooler coastal regions), and they often planted with closer spacing, and the Dijon clones came in, and winemakers changed their fermentation techniques, and all sorts of other improvements were implemented, and voila, we saw the greatest changes to impact any variety in California’s modern history.

I tasted about 880 Pinots last year. About half scored more than 90 points. Score inflation? Or better wines? Most were from the 2009 and 2010 vintages, two excellent years for Pinot in California. Both were mild to cool, particularly the latter. But there was enough heat in both vintages to bring physiological ripeness. Alcohol levels tended to be moderate—say, from the high 13s through the mid-14s, although some areas that are prone to higher alcohol, like the Santa Lucia Highlands, as well as some individual wineries with higher-alcohol styles, like Sea Smoke, were exceptions.

By far most of my top-scoring Pinots bore a Russian River Valley appellation, but that’s undoubtedly because that valley has so many more wineries than any of the other top Pinot regions. Certainly, there were a slew of top-scoring Pinots from the Sonoma Coast, and by that I mean the true Coast, way out by the sea. The Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills also did well. They had some early heavy rain in mid-October, but most of the Pinot was picked by then. The Santa Maria Valley also produced some luscious Pinot Noirs, as did Carneros and Anderson Valley.

My top Pinots of the year were a monumental pair of Williams Selyem 2010s, Hirsch ($75) and Precious Mountain ($94), both nearly perfect. (I can’t tell you the scores until they’re published, in the March 1 issue of Wine Enthusiast). Just below those stellar achievements were Flowers 2010 Sea View Ridge (98, $70), Merry Edwards 2009 Klopp Ranch (98, $57, and how lucky I am that Merry asked me to introduce her at her Vintners Hall of Fame induction next month), Donum 2009 West Slope (97, $100, the best Carneros Pinot in years), Failla 2010 Occidental Ridge (97, $60), Foxen 2010 Sea Smoke Vineyard (96, $57), Marimar Estate 2008 La Masia Don Miguel Vineyard (96, $39), Rochioli 2010 West Block (96, $100), De Loach 2009 Pennacchio Vineyard (96, $45, and how nice it is to see a resurrected De Loach under Jean-Charles Boisset’s stewardship), Talley 2010 Rosemary’s Vineyard (96, $70) and another Carneros, La Rochelle 2009 Donum Estate Vineyard (95, $75). Since the Donum vineyard occurs twice in this listing, it bears mentioning that it is adjacent to Buena Vista’s large estate Ramal Road vineyard, on the Sonoma side of the Carneros AVA. Just to close the loop, it will be exciting to see how Jean-Charles Boisset does with these estate grapes since buying Buena Vista in 2011.

Pinot Noir of all varieties least lends itself to bargains. Below $30 or so, you can’t expect that “richness, complexity and velvety texture.” Nonetheless, there are a few that give good value for the price. Among them in 2012 were Fort Ross 2010 Sea Slopes (95, $32), Joseph Swan 2009 Great Oak Vineyard (93, $35), Gallo Signature Series 2010 from the Santa Lucia Highlands (93, $35), Au Bon Climat 2009 Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido (92, $30), Reata 2010 from the Sonoma Coast (92, $30) and Bratcher, from the La Encantada Vineyard down in the Sta. Rita Hills (92, $35).

Speaking of La Encantada, it was planted by Richard Sanford in 2000, close to the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard he also planted (decades earlier), on the Santa Rosa Road corridor, the less famous (after Highway 246) of the Sta. Rita Hills’ two wine roads. Richard has had a harder time on the business end of things than he deserved. First, he lost his vineyard and even ownership of the Sanford brand. Then he started up Alma Rosa Winery, which did a great job, but last summer had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This is sad, and raises profound questions of why bad things happen to good people and good brands.

  1. Steve: I appreciate that you give many fine CA Pinot Noirs their due in terms of ratings on a scale that approximates your scale for Cabernets (even if you do give more 95+ scores to Cabs). I think this is a hard thing to do for critics who review both CA Cab and Pinot, and especially ones who have a taste (and likely a preference) for very rich CA Cab. You do the job considerably better than some prominent others I can think of. Regarding “bargains,” while it is undoubtedly true that it is harder to find a great CA Pinot under $30 than it is with some other varieties, I think CA Pinot provides superb “value” when you consider the full QPR. Consider that your top rated wines above are $100 and average maybe $60-70. Compare that to the prices of your highly-rated Cabs. It’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about California Pinot.

  2. Mike, thanks for your comment.

  3. Steve, while your palate is different than mine, I agree that the 2 William Selyems, the Failla, and Rochioli are superb bottles of wine. I have not had the Foxen 2010 Sea Smoke, but I have enjoyed Foxen’s other pinots.

    I have not had Donum, Marimar, De lach, Talley, or La Rochelle but will be seeking them out to give them a try. I may disagree with you on the Merry Edwards but that’s no reason not to give them a try.

    Thanks for this series of ’2012 wines I liked’. Interesting and informative.

  4. To add onto Merry Edwards, her 2009 Flax Vineyard offering was quite superb. A great nod to Joseph Swan as well, they put out great wine and very reasonable prices. I’m looking forward to picking up a Failla 2010 Occidental Ridge here this week at my local retailer, those coastal wines from Failla are delicious.

    Steve – Have you reviewed any Zepaltas wines recently?

  5. Great choices. I really enjoyed:
    2009 Williams-Selyem Bucher
    2009 C Donatello Hervy
    2009 Dutton-Goldfield Freestone Hill
    2009 Radio Coteau Savoy

    Nick C – Yes, Joseph Swan always reliable.

  6. Norm Gary says:

    I wonder if you have had a chance to taste any of the Windy Oaks pinots? The WOs are at the top of my list. They are in Corralitos–800-900 ft elevation with the Pacific just over the hill.

  7. Steve,

    I wanted to elaborate on the consistent richness certain wineries always achieve in their wines. Without this concentration “California pinots can too often (be) thin-flavored and simple.” Surely the right site and clonal selection can have a drastic impact on the velvety structure of a relatively low anthocyanin varietal. It is a great feat of nature when pinots are so inherently complex. However the truth is that many producers of this noble grape pull the wool over our eyes. Syrah is secretly blended in to add tannic structure. Thin-flavored wines are concentrated with “sweet spotters” removing water and alcohol while concentrating flavors. Can the consumer say with confidence that their wine is un adulterated and labeled truthfully? I dont want to feel like Jose Canseco but there is a strong correlation for so many “home runs” these days.

  8. I have always thought of 1990 as the watershed vintage for CA Pinots. Up to that point, we were not seeing what I would call a broadly convincing collection of CA Pinots. The 1990 vintage was fruit-driven and thus allowed lots of Pinot makers to emerge with nicely made wines.

    Of course, the change in Pinot did not really happen overnight. It was part of a long, ofttimes too slow progression. Like so much of CA vinous history, it picked up steam in the 1970s as winery after winery emerged with quality wines. People like Acacia, Mount Eden, Calera, Carneros Creek, Saintsbury led the way.

    But, I wonder Steve, if you would agree with me that the emergence of the Russian River Valley as a home for Pinot (Delinger, Scherrer, Rochioli, Gary Farrell) was not perhaps the single greatest change-maker in the Pinot story during our writing lifetimes?

    Btw, thanks for the kind comments about the “Connoisseurs’ Handbook” (now Guidebook) that has managed to stay in print in various forms for almost thirty-five years now.

  9. Charlie, I agree with you about RRV. For a good read, check out my “A Wine Journey along the Russian River” which explains all this in detail.

  10. Dear Adrien H, the word “adulterated” implies that there’s something nefarious about putting a little Syrah into Pinot. There’s nothing wrong with it, if the winemaker feels it makes a better wine. After all, winemakers in Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley determined centuries ago that judicious blending of varieties results in better wines. I don’t hear fans of Cote Rotie, for example, complaining that the Syrah has been “adulterated” with Viognier. Bordeaux lovers don’t complain that the Cabernet Sauvignon has been “adulterated” with Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot. So why is Pinot Noir held to this ideal of virginity?

  11. Steve, I agree with your sentiments, but I think your comparison is wrong and the problem stems from varietal labeling in the US.. Cote-Rotie is not labelled as Syrah. Bordeaux is not labelled as Cabernet Sauvignon. When Pinot Noir is on the label, I think Americans expect only pn to be in the bottle. Going back to France, Pinot lovers were in an uproar when Laboure-Roi mixed together wines of different origins as a single appellation. The wine was still Pinot but what was on the label was untruthful. If winemakers that use Syrah in their Pinot were to put it on the label, I think it would eventually be embraced (if it were great wine).

  12. Matt Turpin says:

    For me the watershed moment was the 1982 vintage (I think). The Bacigalupi Family had Belvedere Winery on Westside Road bottle their Pinot Noir under a Bacigalupi label. I was in a Safeway and looking for a wine, never having tasted a Pinot at that point I took a chance on a very expensive ($8.99) pair of bottles of the Bacigalupi Pinot Noir. Since that day I have always favored the RRV Pinot Noir over everything else.

  13. Matt, interesting. Was that wine from the Bacigalupi Vineyard? It’s in the warmest part of RRV, up near the Dry Creek border, and to me is not illustrative of the greater RRV.

  14. Thanks Mark.
    I think after certain price point There is a level of purity that’s expected in the bottle. Anything under $20, fine I understand, keep it varietally correct and blend in whatever you need make it make it taste good but after $20 I start to expect much more purity in the wine.
    Obviously I’m a Pinot maker and admittedly a bit of a snob on the subject. It doesn’t bother me when Cabernet producers Blend in other varietals or use reverse osmosis on their wines, but blend in Sonoma Coast to Russian River, legal or not and it bothers me.
    Pinot is so much about terroir. Start blending things in and it gets hidden in a hurry.

  15. Matt Turpin says:

    Steve, in 1982 it was so very different from anything else I had ever tasted. Those 2 bottles of wine were that “AHA!” moment when I found my taste in wine. I honestly don’t know what else was available at that time and my taste in wine was dictated more by money than vintage. It took me a few more years to get to a point financially where I could afford to do more than buy a few bottles of wine here and there. But the upshot was those two bottles eventually led to places like Williams-Selyem & Rochioli.

    I only recently found out the story with regard to the Belvedere connection from a visit to the John Tyler winery.

  16. Matt Turpin says:

    Chris,
    I still say the best Pinot Noir I have ever tasted was your C. Donatiello 2008 Wind Horse. You and Web did a magnificent job with that wine.

  17. Steve
    I appreciate your response and maybe adulterated was a poor choice of word. However I dont feel that I am alone in expecting an expensive bottle of Pinot that I’ve purchased (especially single vineyard) to showcase terroir and honesty in its labeling. Do you care to comment on the use of sweet spotting?

  18. Mark – Just opened the Dutton-Golfield 2010 Freestone Hill on Sunday after picking it up from them, oh so good but back to price for $72 its hard to say yes, but hard to say no as a treat. I will be back to at least one more to save for a little ways down the road, we’re holding onto one more ’09 for later ;)

    Chris – Well said for the purity factor of Pinot. Will have a look at your wines here soon myself. Cheers!

  19. Adrien, if you don’t know the precise components of “an expensive bottle of Pinot that you purchased,” then does that mean you can’t make up your mind whether or not you like it? Given that you probably cannot know the precise components (any more than I can, or anyone else besides the winemaker!), that means we’re all left to our own palates to determine if the wine pleases us or not. For myself, I really don’t care what the winemaker does to produce a splendid bottle of wine. And the same goes for “sweet spotting” (if by that you mean de-alcing). If I like it, I like it.

  20. On the one hand, yes, if I like it, I like it; but on the other, I expect some authenticity.

    I was looking at new seats for my jeep recently. Its got 100k miles on, is, and continues to get beat up a little, but I love it. The seats I liked were vinyl, but i sure though they were leather. That’s fine for this, but if i was buying a new jaguar, I suspect I would only accecpt genuine calf skin. Authenticity.

    There’s a reason McDonalds has served BILLIONS, it tastes good. Doesn’t mean I’m choosing it over a Healdsburger (they’re great if you never had one).

    Yahuda diamonds look great, but I wouldn’t pay the same price as an unaltered diamond of the same cut, karat, clarity, & colour. Authenticity.

    Maybe some of it is my perspective. I want to know what that grape and place can do. Like taking a car out for a drive and really pushing it. Where can I go with it.

  21. Matt Turpin says:

    Chris,
    Would blending of the same clone from differing appellations harm that purity? I know Papapietro-Perry is doing blends of single clone (Pommard and 777) wines but are sourcing only from RRV. It just seems to extend that to multiple appellations would be virtually the same as blending different clones from different vineyards within an appellation. I can see from a marketing standpoint losing the single appellation might be problematic but from the standpoint of the consumer it might drink pretty nice.

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