Carneros Pinot Noir: a study i
If you’ve only come upon the California wine scene in, say, the last 15 years, you’d never know that, once upon a time, Carneros was one of the hottest appellations in the state.
I don’t have copies of articles from the 1980s that were calling Carneros “California’s Burgundy,” but that was the meme of the time in magazines and newspapers. I do have some older wine books that get the point across. E. Frank Henriques was a wine-loving Episcopal priest who wrote an obscure but useful book, The Signet Encyclopedia of Wine (1975, reprinted 1984), in which he says Carneros Creek’s Pinot Noirs (the winery was bought by Michael Mondavi in 2006) have “the classic Burgundy aroma,” whatever that means! Harvey Steiman, writing then if I recall correctly for the old San Francisco Examiner, similarly called a 1980 Carneros Creek Pinot “Burgundian.” John Winthrop Haeger, writing in 2004 in his fine book, North American Pinot Noir, wrote that Carneros Creek’s founder, Francis Mahoney, was “reminded…of Burgundy” when he first saw Carneros’s “hilly terrain and rocky subsoils.”
Another obscure but useful and, at the time, highly controversial book, Roy Andries de Groot’s The Wines of California (1982), referred to André Tchelistcheff’s description of Carneros’s climate as “so close to that of the upper [i.e., better] slopes of Burgundy that this would be an ideal place to grow a typical Burgundian grape…”. The Maestro did indeed grow Pinot Noir in Carneros, and he himself always said his 1968 vintage was one of his best ever; but it does not appear to have been particularly “Burgundian,” for in 1974 Robert Gorman, an amateur who seemed to know everyone who was anyone in Napa wine circles at that time, tasted the 1968 Beaulieu Pinot Noir and, in his book, Gorman on California Premium Wines (another fascinating obscurity), found it “unmistakably a Napa Valley wine [that] looks more like a Pomerol than a Burgundy.” That referred to its dark color: I myself tasted that wine in 2001, when it was 33 years of age. It was largely dead, but it still was big, dark and somewhat tannic and certainly not Burgundian.
Anyway, this introduction is simply to give some idea of the promise that Carneros held for Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) from the 1970s into and through the 1980s. However, it’s fair to say that by the 1990s Carneros’s star began to fade. Other Pinot Noir regions—primarily the Russian River Valley, but also and increasingly, the westernmost part of the Santa Ynez Valley (now known as the Santa Rita Hills) were exciting critics, and Pinots from Anderson Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains, San Luis Obispo County and the Santa Lucia Highlands were coming on strong. The combination of them eclipsed Carneros, which may also have suffered due to zoning restrictions that made viticulture possible only for larger wine companies that could afford great acreage, thereby shutting out the garagistes (of course that term didn’t yet exist) who had been the ones pushing the California Pinot Noir envelope.
At some point the Carneros Quality Alliance, a marketing consortium of local growers, was born, to boost awareness of this sprawling appellation that crosses two counties, Napa and Sonoma. I remember being in the thick of things in the 1990s and early 2000s when, as a wine critic, I was on the receiving end of press releases, invitations to tastings, etc. I never had the sense that the CQA was particularly well-organized or that it did a very good job of promoting the region, which seemed to slip further and further into marginality. It’s not that the wines weren’t good, occasionally very good. It was just that Carneros lost its luster by 2000, and seemed always to have to fight to be included on the short list of great wine regions.
The CQA now has morphed into the Carneros Wine Alliance (CWA), and they’ve lately embarked on a revised marketing and promotional effort, described in the April issue of Wines and Vines as a “new focus” to “raise awareness” of Carneros. Even some of the CWA’s leaders, such as Garnet’s Allison Crowe, concede that the CWA and Carneros the appellation “lost its focus in recent years.” In all the years I reviewed wine for Wine Enthusiast, the number of Carneros Pinot Noirs that scored very highly was disappointingly small, compared to California’s other coastal regions. I did give a Donum 2009 West Slope 97 points, a couple of Etudes 95 points (the 2006 Heirloom and the 2007 Deer Camp), also 95 points to the La Rochelle 2009 (which was from Donum Estate); there was a 94 point wine, the 2010 Mira, from Stanly Ranch (which Louis M. Martini purchased in 1942 and planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, six years later), but these sadly were outliers. My chief gripe with Carneros Pinot Noir was that the wines could be overly acidic and a little earthy if not one-dimensional.
(I should add that Jackson Family’s La Crema brand produces a Carneros Pinot Noir that I’ve given generally good scores to for many years. They also have a Hartford Court “Seven Benches” Pinot, but I haven’t tasted it for a long time. Finally, the company bought the old Buena Vista Carneros production facility, and I’m highly looking forward to tasting those wines when they’re released at some point (not under the Buena Vista name, because Jean-Charles Boisset owns that). Historically, Buena Vista was capable of producing fine Pinot Noir from their Ramal Road vineyard.)
I do think that Carneros has not been at the forefront of Pinot Noir in California, but there’s no intrinsic reason why they couldn’t once again be there. After all, if André Tchelistcheff himself saw its promise, it must be there—and there are simply too many Carneros Pinots that more than hint at its potential. And so I eagerly welcome the CWA’s effort, which involves hiring a new P.R. firm for the appellation, which turns 30 years old next year. But success depends on more than public relations, obviously; the wines have got to be good to the point of compelling, in order for Carneros to regain the luster it showed twenty and more years ago.