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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.

  1. I was put off of Carneros Pinot Noir for a while after making a couple of trips to Napa and tasting too many Carneros Pinots made by the Cab-focused wineries of the Napa Valley proper. They all seem to do it and few do it really well. I’ve found many of these wines to be thin and one dimentional as you describe. Recently, I had a value-priced Carneros Pinot served with a meal at a dinner party and was very impressed. It was lighter in weight and color compared to a typical RRV Pinot. It had sufficient mid-palate fruit to avoid being empty, and an attractive earthiness that worked with the meal. The combination of earthiness and lighter weight made the wine more reminiscent to me of an Oregon Pinot than your typical California Pinot. Made me think I need to re-evaluate Carneros.

  2. I must have a better view of Carneros than you or Mike because I have liked, very much, wines from MacRostie, Saintsbury, Domaine Carneros, Chandon, Beaulieu (particularly the Reserve) as well as Donum and Buena Vista’s Ramal Road just to name the ones that come to mind.

    That said, you are all too right that Carneros has been eclipsed by the Russian River Valley for top spot and struggles to hold its own against the other significant Pinot patches. But, I don’t think of it as having drifted into difficulty so much as I view the whole PN debate as one fraught with peril given that we do not make Burgundy here.

    Indeed, you and I pretty much agree when one considers Mike’s comments. How can anyone really think the reason to revisit Carneros PN is because one version of it tasted like it came from Oregon. This is California, and our wines do not and should not want to be Burgundian or Oregonian.

    They are what they are, and what they are, according to Jancis Robinson (speaking of the RRV) is second only to Burgundy in the world. If Ms. Robinson respects the difference, it is surprising that people more local cannot.

  3. Patrick says:

    The decline of Carneros, if there was one, coincided with the rise of the other regions (RRV, Sta. Lucia, Sta. Rita). But I wonder if the Carneros decline also coincided with the rise of Pinot clones new to California, some of which were well-suited to those new regions.

  4. Keasling says:

    Always been a fan of the food-friendliness off Molnar Family’s Poseidon Vineyard Pinot… And the price is also quite pleasing.

  5. Charlie: I think we agree about more than you think, perhaps because my comment was not perfectly clear. I admit — and thought I was confessing — that my view of Carneros Pinot may not have been well founded and likely was based on the fact that I wasn’t tasting the right examples. My view certainly wasn’t formed by tasting all the wines you mention. Also, I agree with you wholeheartedly that CA Pinot is what it is and shouldn’t strive to be something else. In reference to one Carneros wine I tasted, I intended the comparison to Oregon only to reflect that it had characteristics that — to me — seemed closer to Oregon than RRV. I didn’t intend to suggest that Carneros should seek to mimic Oregon. Also, although it may not have been apparent from my comment, I am a personal fan of RRV Pinot and a big buyer (Willams Selyem, Dehlinger, Joseph Swan, Dutton Goldfield, among others). Goodness knows I am not expecting this Pinot to taste like Burgundy. I appreciate it for what it is.

  6. Bob Henry says:


    Last week at the Napa Valley Vintner’s trade tasting in Beverly Hills, I tasted (in the company of Saintsbury winemaker Ms. Chris Kajani) their 2011 vintage “Brown Ranch” Pinot Noir.


    But not without a lot of hard work to avoid the deleterious effects of mold that Steve identified with too many 2011s:

    Chris said they produced only about half their normal number of bottles in 2011.

    ~~ Bob

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