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My “sensational list” of California Pinot Noir

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Some years ago, at a blind tasting of California Pinot Noirs we did for a big story in Wine Enthusiast, Laetitia took highest honors in my scores.

The vintages 2003-2007 were fantastic ones for Laetitia, and while quality seems to have leveled off lately (could it be the cool summers in an already cool region, Arroyo Grande Valley, so that the wine aren’t as voluptuous?), the wines remain compelling. So I was not surprised to read this article, in The Drinks Business, which describes a tasting of California Pinot Noir, hosted by Karen MacNeil at the Rudd Center in St. Helena, in which Laetitia outclassed everyone else.

Karen’s panel tasted 126 Pinots; of these, 18 wineries made the final cut, and they certainly represent the pick of the litter in California: Brewer-Clifton, Au Bon Climat, Samsara, Martinelli, Joseph Swan, Williams Selyem, Kosta Browne, Failla, Littorai, Foursight, Peay, Scribe, Pisoni, ROAR, Siduri, Sanford and Paul Lato, in addition to top-ranked Laetitia. (Doesn’t this list make your mouth water?) Karen is certainly correct when she observes, “In the last 10 years, the quality [of Pinot Noir] has skyrocketed faster than any other variety.”

Karen also is correct in noting the vast geographic spectrum in California in which great Pinot Noir is produced: a stretch of 500 miles, from Anderson Valley all the way down the coast to the Santa Rita Hills. That’s pretty remarkable, in a world where most wine regions are maybe 20 or 30 miles across. You can attribute California’s success to the fact that the entire coast, despite being chopped up into the political subdivisions of counties, is essentially one vast terroir in which similarities of climate (always more important than soil in California) are far greater than differences.

I’d like to add some wineries to Karen’s list of “sensational” producers: Flowers, W.H. Smith, Bonaccorsi, Merry Edwards, Golden Eye, Talley, Tantara, Lynmar, Marimar Estate, Bjornstad, Hartford Court, Foxen, Longoria, Ojai, Sea Smoke, Babcock, Morgan, Testarossa, Rochioli, De Loach, Dutton-Goldfield, Paul Hobbs, Byron, Cambria, MacPhail, Gary Farrell for starters. The problem with trying to come up with a classification of great Pinot Noir wineries in California is that every month there seem to be a few more.

As for regions, I couldn’t pick any of California’s Pinot Noir appellations as being better than the others. They’re different. Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots are big, tannic and juicy; Carneros is more delicate. Santa Rita Hills Pinots are fabulously delicious and spicy, while the far Sonoma Coast’s brim with fresh acidity and wildland ferality.

Speaking of Pinot Noir, the schedule is out for 2014’s Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, at 32 years the nation’s oldest. It runs from June 12-15, at the beautiful Ritz-Carlton, on Maui. You may recall I headed up last year’s panel on Pritchard Hill. This year, we have something just as exciting: top wineries and wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Tickets go on sale starting Feb. 15. This is not an inexpensive festival to go to, but believe me, if you haven’t been, it’s worth every penny. And not just for the wine: those late nights by the pool are memorable.

  1. Gail Summars says:

    Hey what about Lynmar???

  2. “wildland ferality”

    what the heck is that? sounds just like the kind of descriptor I was taught to NEVER use when discussing wine. I mean, I can see using minerality to describe the characteristic of minerals, but ferality? Really?

    Sorry to be such a nitpicker but wildland ferality?

  3. John: I agree with you that we should avoid obscure or precious descriptors. But “feral” is a word I frequently use for Sonoma Coast Pinot, especially from Fort Ross-Seaview. It’s a perfectly good word: it means will, untamed. I get it in Banshee’s 2011 Marine Layer, Siduri’s ’11 Sonadera, 32 Winds’ 2010 Hirsch Vineyard. The smell on these wines reminds me of walking through the wilds of those mountains.

  4. Gail, for sure I’d add Lynmar to the list.

  5. “Feral” is a perfectly good word. But I don’t think either “wildland” or “ferality” are actually words.

    I’d include Arista and Dehlinger on my personal list of top California Pinot makers.

  6. Steve, my observation is while some of the critics restrict their higher ratings to particular wine styles, you recognize quality across a range of styles. We don’t bother to send our Cabernet to some critics, who only give high scores to “gladiator” wines, but we have done well in the WE with our somewhat restrained and balanced wine. In the some vein I am pleased to see Marimar Estate on your short list of Pinot producers. I have been Technical Director there for 18 vintages now (yikes!). Some critics seem to overlook this style of Pinot (which tends to benefit from a bit of cellaring), favoring only those that are out of the starting blocks immediately.

    And having walked many of the forested slopes on the Sonoma Coast looking for edible mushrooms, I think I know that wildland character, often finding “forest floor” notes in the Pinots from out that way.

  7. Thanks Bill. I don’t usually use “forest floor” because it’s a term invented by Europeans to describe Burgundy. I like “wild” and “feral” even though they’re not terribly precise.

  8. Scott Stone says:

    Schug Carneros Estate should not be forgotten. Schug has chosen balance over boldness for 30+ years. Even when the pendulum swayed one way or another, Schug stuck to it’s guns to produce elegant Pinot Noirs year after year. Further, with an ideology of continuous improvement over the years, the wines have reached great levels of outstanding quality today.

  9. Rhys vineyards makes some of the best Pinot out there

  10. ‘Wild” – “Feral” are designated for regions which illicit the terms with authenticity, Mendocino fits the descriptors you have choosen.

  11. “wild” “feral”, does this a brett character?

  12. Jason, no, my definition of wild and feral has nothing to do with brett.

  13. Will e attending !!!! Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, at 32 years the nation’s oldest. It runs from June 12-15, at the beautiful Ritz-Carlton, on Maui.

    Happy Holidays !!!!

    Keith Miller

  14. Steve, I recently had three wines from the “sensational” list of producers, and they were simply UN-drinkable. I question how so many people find over ripe and over oaked wines so enjoyable. What happened to the grape?

  15. Dear Jeff J: It’s subjective. You hate some wines; others like them.

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