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The multiple-vineyard Pinot Noir game: gaining ground

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Testarossa, Siduri, Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards, Failla, Bonaccorsi, La Follette, De Loach, Bjornstad, MacPhail–what do they (and many other California wineries) have in common?

Yes, they’re all Pinot Noir houses (in addition to whatever else they make), but they also play the interesting game of buying Pinot Noir fruit from multiple vineyards and bottling them with vineyard designations. For the wine taster, this presents unique opportunities, as well as challenges.

I suppose the allure of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was such that it was only to be expected serious Pinot winemakers would want to try their hands at expressing the terroir of different vineyards. (I don’t mean wineries who own estate vineyards and produce different designations, like Lynmar, Donum, Rochioli or Talley, I mean wineries that buy their fruit. And yes, I know that some of them, like Williams Selyem, own their own vineyards.)

I don’t know who was first to play the multiple vineyard game in California. Williams Selyem certainly was an early adapter. Testarossa seems to have followed their model in the 1990s. The entrepreneurial aspect of the template is perhaps most perfectly expressed by Siduri. But over the last 2-3 years, more and more wineries are getting into the act.

The opportunity for the taster in these cases is twofold: (1) to see if you can detect the winemaker’s signature across multiple terroirs, and (2) to see if you can detect the vineyard’s terroir across multiple winemakers. This latter opportunity is true only of those vineyards large enough to sell fruit to multiple winemakers; among them would be Bien Nacido (among the largest) and smaller ones like Rosella’s, Precious Mountain, Olivet Lane and Fiddlestix. This isn’t as easy as it seems, though, because winemaker techniques can differ widely (some pick earlier than others) and because of micro-terroir differences in vineyard rows and blocks.

There also is the challenge of precisely how best to taste the Pinot Noirs of these multiple producers when they all arrive in one box. There is no one best way of tasting; each approach has its pros and cons. When Bob Cabral sends me 15 vineyard-designated Pinots, should I taste them in a single flight, or should I segregate them out by appellation and taste them against other Pinot Noirs from those appellations? I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule for this. My own preference is to taste them all together–to take a long, leisurely swim in the essence of Williams Selyem, as it were–but I can see where an argument could be made to taste Russian River against Russian River, Sonoma Coast against Sonoma Coast, and so on. It also would be instructive to do flights from the same vineyard from multiple producers, although tactically, this is more difficult for me to set up, as wines from the same vintage may arrive at widely different times across a calendar year or even two, depending on the winery’s release schedule.

I will say that tasting these multiple Pinots from the same producer is one of my most enjoyable tasks. Not every wine in the world is bursting with joy. Some, maybe most, are made grindingly, to pay the bills and fill the bellies of the masses. But when a California producer makes a range of Pinots from different vineyards, it’s because he wants to and loves to and can. This is the Happy Hunting Ground for the intrepid Pinot producer, and with each pop of the cork, I get to share in his joy.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that few wineries play the multiple Cabernet game. Duckhorn and Nickel & Nickel do, Paul Hobbs a little, Chimney Rock’s getting into it as is a new player, PerryMoore, and there are others I could mention. But the multiple Cabernet thing is nowhere near as advanced as the multiple Pinot thing. I’m not sure why that is, but I don’t think it’s because “Pinot shows terroir more transparently than Cabernet Sauvignon,” which is the usual trope (and one moreover I’m not convinced of, not to end a sentence with a preposition). I think it has more to do with the availability of good Pinot fruit versus good Cabernet fruit. While there’s more than twice as much Cab planted than Pinot, there’s more Pinot going in by a long shot, which increases the availability of fruit. Great Cabernet for sale is restricted pretty much to some well-known Napa Valley vineyards, like Beckstoffer To Kalon and Stagecoach.

  1. Steve, would your predisposition to enjoy Williams Seylem be reason enough to not taste them together in a flight? As you set the flights up yourself, you know what you are tasting. The anticipation you show towards tasting WS pinots, to me, makes your high scores of WS wines a bit suspect. Honest question (especially in light of Laube’s and Steiman’s recent Spectator blog posts about blind tasting), how can you be sure your bias is not inflating those scores?

  2. STEVE!
    I’m sure someone will correct me on this, but the California winery I remember being one of the first, if not THE first, to have a bunch of vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs was Acacia, back in the late ’70’s, with Iund, Lee, St. Clair, and a few other vineyards on board. Those releases were all the rage every vintage–I remember the local wine shop having an Acacia release party every year that a hundred people, or more, would attend.

  3. Dear Hosemaster, Once again you have revealed Truth to the rest of us! Yes, Acacia was the Hot New Winery back then.

  4. Good post Mr Steve, The Hosemaster is full of truthfulness today, Chalone did some as well I believe but perhaps they were following the high interest in Acacia…long live the single vineyard selections of Cali pinots!

  5. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that the first winery that Dianna visited after moving to CA was Acacia. The bottlings that Ron mentioned (plus a Madonna…which was a favorite)were inspiration to her.

    For me (being older), I remember barrel tasting different sections of the Rochioli Vineyard with Tom Rochioli….which was an incredible experience, and then Tom recommending that I go down the road to visit Burt & Ed at Williams Selyem.

    Those were our formative experiences with Pinot Noir…and led us to where we are today.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  6. doug wilder says:

    Patz & Hall first vintage was in 1988 but I don’t think they started their vineyard designated Pinot noir until the early ’90s. I recall those Acacia designates from that era as well (but somehow missed that they began in the ’70s)and of course Williams & Selyem (we used to paw over the release letter). Adam Lee makes a plentitude of desifnated Pinot Noir from California and Oregon (I recently tasted over a dozen and didn’t come close to trying all of them). Can’t forget Kosta Browne either.

  7. You guys all bring back fond memories of conceptualizing and implementing Acacia (1979).In the face of resounding skepticism about the feasibility of producing successful Pinots outside of Burgundy we strove to create a shameless boldfaced knockoff of the Burgundy model. The original package was a synthesis of 3 iconic labels. The vineyard designates honored the same time honored practice in Burgundy.Partly to distance ourselves from the California Stereotype, partly because we believed that the Burgundians knew something about the potential individuality of Pinot.In the late 70s Both Carneros Creek vineyards and ZD produced a St Clair Vineyard Pinot Noir. Those wines captured our imagination so we sought out other vineyards to test our beliefs.The predictable distinctiveness of each vineyard designate was undeniable.The diversity of labels became tedious in the market place so over the years the model changed. Also, viticulture changed with current practices enabling greater fruit ripeness which seems to make vineyard individuality more subtle. At Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros under the supervision of my associate winemaker Andrew Brooks we have partnered with Thomas Houseman at Anne Amie vineyards in Oregon and Leslie Renaud at Lincourt Vineyards in Santa Rita Hills to exchange fruit. Each of us harvests 6 tons and sends 2 tons to each of the other properties. 2012 was the 3rd year of what we call the cube project; 3 winemakers, 3 vineyards, 3 years. Preliminarily, and from my personal experience,it seems that the wines can be arranged in a 3D matrix and evaluated from 3 perspectives. For any given vintage the winemaker’s style can be recognized across vineyards; the vineyard character can be identified across winemakers; and I anticipate that vintage will also show recognizable flavor traits.
    All of this is to endorse any winemaker’s effort to make a unique wine from a specific site and recognize that Pinot Noir is incontrovertibly obliging.
    My Thanks to the Hosemaster for remembering.

    Michael Richmond
    Founder of Acacia

  8. Bruce Snyder says:

    Given how Cabrel and company vinify their Pinots, Williams Selyem calls for a tasting across all their vinyards. Cabral vilifies all his wines the same except for the grape source. This doesn’t hold true for most other wineries. For example, Kosta Browne varies it’s cooperage from wine to wine and year to year. Cabrel explained his process in detail when he was gracious enough to offer us a barrel tasting of all his 2009s (with the exception of Precious Mountain) just prior to bottling the wines. I’ve been on their mailing list for years. Vista Verde, Hirsch, Peay, etal, carry their characteristics year to year. This consistency offers an alternative in tasting; that is, if you’re lucky enough, taste the wines in flights of years.

  9. Michael Richmond, and thank you for weighing in.

  10. David Rossi says:

    Williams Selyem did it for us. We also took the idea of going with one “house” cooper from them. Although we use Remond versus their Francois Freres. We like the idea of letting the vineyard variation shine through rather than all the other components that we can impact. We also do blends of vineyards so we aren’t tied to the vineyard designate thing, but regional and property variation. I think that is what Burgundy started, Acacia and WS brought to the US and we just flat out stole.

    David Rossi
    Fulcrum Wines

  11. David Rossi, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

  12. Mike Richmond,
    That’s a great back story. I clearly remember the buzz surrounding your various Pinot Noirs, bought many myself, and it was quite a while before other wineries in California began following your lead–Hacienda del Rio, anyone?

    And for the HoseMaster to be thanked by Mike Richmond, well, that’s quite an honor.

  13. Steve

    As a humble cellar rat in a world of fantastic winemakers, I thank you for bringing so many amazing voices together

    – gabe

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