How many Pinot Noirs can one winemaker successfully make?
I got a bunch of single vineyard Pinot Noirs for review yesterday from Sojourn Cellars, a fine producer whose Pinots, Cabernets and other wines I’ve liked over the years. I haven’t reviewed the new batch yet, so this post isn’t about them. It’s about the phenomenon of wineries producing multiple vineyard-designated Pinots (in Sojourn’s case, six).
Lots of wineries practice this business model. Among those who come to mind are Siduri, Testorossa, Williams Selyem, Loring, Failla, Merry Edwards, MacPhail. Some of these also produce estate wines from their own vineyards; others own no vineyards, but buy their grapes, usually under longterm contracts, from vineyards up and down the coast.
(Some Pinot houses–Marimar Torres, Flowers, Rochioli, Lynmar, Calera, Joseph Swan, among others–of course bottle multiple Pinots in every vintage, but they own their vineyards exclusively.)
It’s an odd model, bottling multiple Pinot Noirs from vineyards often scattered hundreds of miles apart, from Santa Rita Hills to Anderson Valley. I don’t think you’d find that in Pinot Noir’s natural home, Burgundy. There, producers make such a big deal about their terroir (mainly soils) that it would be scandalous for them to secure grapes from someone else’s vineyard. That would go against the whole grain of what it has historically meant to produce grand vin in France.
But California isn’t France. We’ve always been an entrepreneurial state, from the Gold Rush days to Silicon Valley, and there is indeed something entrepreneurial about a producer crafting multiple Pinot Noirs, from as many great vineyards as he can get his hands on. And certainly, we have no shortage of great Pinot vineyards: just as someone like Adam Lee’s business model is crafting a dozen or so Pinots, so too there are vineyard owners whose model is to grow and sell grapes, rather than make their own wine. That too is an unlikely scenario in Burgundy. Then there are vineyards that bottle their own wine and also sell some: Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe, Hirsch and Pisoni come to mind.
Here’s what I wonder about. It’s kind of an intellectual question, but I think it bears on wine quality. Is it possible for a vintner to produce great Pinot Noir from multiple, scattered vineyards? Logic tells you that the vintner’s attention must surely be divided: he’s having to maintain relationships with multiple growers, from up and down the state. He has to arrange delivery of the grapes to his crush place, which may be hundreds of miles away from the vineyards. Above all, he has to try and capture the essential personality of the vineyard (or, expressed another way, he has to do nothing that would impede the grapes from expressing that personality). And he has to do all of this during the busiest time of the year, crush, with a million other things competing for his attention, not the least of which often includes making wines other than Pinot Noir.
There’s another potential danger: The wines may lose something of their terroir when made as a part of multiple batches by a vintner who cannot be intimately familiar with the vineyards, and whose winemaking technique may be the exact same with all the wines.
A final challenge is that every vineyard, no matter how famous, has bad grapes–bad in the sense they may be too young, or a moldy lot that somehow escaped scrutiny, or was overcropped or otherwise compromised. So just because a wine bears an esteemed vineyard designation doesn’t mean anything.
I guess the lesson is, buyer beware. Not every famous Pinot Noir vineyard will compromise its reputation by selling crappy fruit, but some will. And not every winery will compromise its integrity by buying crappy fruit, but some will. The consumer has to learn to tell the difference.
That’s a tall order. You might think it can’t be done–but it can. I routinely give high scores to many of these multiple Pinot houses, vintage after vintage. In fact, combing through my reviews over the years, I can detect no preference on my part to wineries that own vineyards versus wineries that buy grapes. So this California model seems to be working, at least, in the case of Pinot Noir. It reflects technical progress, in transportation, fruit preservation and communications, of a type that didn’t exist not that long ago; it’s impossible to think that a vintner like Adam Lee could have made this work in the 1980s.