Some Pinot Noirs I liked in 2012
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.