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California Pinot Noir: A followup consideration



A question arose on my blog late last week, after my March 27 post, What about those reports that “weaker wines are better than stronger ones”?

When the comments turned to a discussion about soils, the topic of limestone arose. Now, as any historian of Burgundy (including Chablis), the Loire and Champagne is well aware, limestone (or chalk) has been considered the “bedrock” (pun intended) of those regions’ terroir. Hugh Johnson, in his “World Atlas,” praises the limestone of Nuits-St-Georges (to use a single instance) for causing “the inimitable sappy richness of the Pinot Noir.” James E. Wilson, in his book, “Terroir,” titles his chapter on Champagne “Chalk Country” and reminds us that it took centuries for “the significance of the relationship of this lifeless-looking white rock and the soils of Champagne” to be recognized.

A few California Pinot pioneers with experience in the vineyards of Burgundy recognized it. They sought chalky soil when they developed their properties. Foremost among them was perhaps Josh Jensen, at Calera, who once described to me how he had scoured the state of California, armed with geology maps and a little vial of acid, in search of limestone, which he eventually found on Mount Harlan. (“Calera” itself is the old Spanish word for “lime kiln.”)

When I began visiting the Santa Rita Hills, local vintners made a big deal of pointing out the white-stone outcroppings that burst through the soil along the shoulders of Santa Rosa Road—limestone, uplifted or exposed from the now-retreated sea bed. In western Paso Robles, too, one can see these eroded white rocks, evidence not only of the California coast’s birth deep below a long-gone ocean, but of the fact that there is more limestone in our state than anyone had previously thought.

The comments on my blog concerning limestone underscored its importance for Pinot Noir at such wineries as Calera and Chalone. This may well be true, although in the case of Calera the terroir is dominated by the warm summers, which in my judgment trump soil there. As for Chalone, its changes of ownership over the years have resulted in some inconsistency of the wines, which makes them difficult to appraise. If we view the broader Santa Rita Hills (and Santa Maria Valley, as well), with its fossilized seashells, it’s easy to apprehend that these old chalky deposits lend a certain something to the wines (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay especially), but precisely what that “something” is, is hard to say, beyond the intriguing but amorphous word “minerality,” which almost everyone in California claims to find in their wines, whether it be Zinfandels from the Sierra Foothills or Cabernets from Oakville. I will not at this time venture any further into the tall weeds of minerality.

So I see limestone, if a Pinot vineyard is lucky enough to have it, as a good thing. But so are the Gold Ridge soils of the Sonoma Coast, the barren, austere dirts of the Mayacamas stretch of Alexander Valley, the volcanic soils of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and indeed the clays and pebbles of Carneros. This is the puzzle of Pinot Noir in California: that so vast and turbulent an array of soils can consistently produce so fine a wine.

Which leaves us, then, with the only thing these regions have in common to explain wine quality: climate. (Obviously, all the different soils are well-drained, no matter their chemical composition. Well-drained soil is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the production of fine wine.) These regions all are within the Region I-Region II spectrum of the old U.C. Davis scale. I look to the warmer parts among them, such as the Middle Reach of the Russian River Valley, to give dense, textured and frankly flamboyant Pinot Noirs. The cooler areas yield silkier, more delicate and perhaps more complex Pinots, with the most complex of all coming from those places so impacted by the coast that, in a chilly year like 2011, the grapes might not get fully ripe. But in a more moderate year, like 2012, look out.

There’s no point in pitting these styles one against the other. It’s petulant to do so. Which is why I hold that, when it comes to Pinot Noir, California has achieved—finally—a degree of variation, based on terroir, that we long envied among the French. We need envy France no more—what we need is further exploration, fueled and paid for by consumers willing to pay the bottle price, because they know that California coastal Pinot Noir needs to offer no apologies, to anyone, for being what it is.

I do think that the lower the alcohol is on Pinot Noir, the more it will reflect its particular soil conditions; there is an inverse relationship between ripeness and the soil part of terroir. In this respect, it’s important to keep in mind that the soil part of terroir is to some extent at odds with the grape itself. Which will dominate? I see this as a pitched battle between two sides. There is a school of thought that roots for terroir, another school that roots for the fruit itself. (One might almost conclude that this is the essence of the difference between “old world” and “new world” palates.) Ideally, Pinot Noir, and all wines actually, is the result of an exquisite balancing act between terroir and grape, the sort of equilibrium sometimes referred to as “tension” or “nerve,’ which is more than just piquant acidity. It’s rarely achieved; one hopes that any wine that gets a high score from a reputable critic comes close. This touches upon the ripeness conversation we’ve all been having, but does not resolve it because, in truth, there is no resolution.

  1. David Rossi says:

    Good discussion, but Chalone as an area shouldn’t be equated to the winery. While they are inextricably linked, there are other properties that have been producing for years and in some cases decades- Brosseau, Michaud, Antle.

    So while ownership at Chalone Winery may have some impact on their wines, it doesn’t on the AVA as a whole. Just as changes at Stags Leap Winery doesn’t mean the appellation soil type cannot be viewed over time.

    We love the Chalone AVA and the soil type is just one of the factors that make it special. And you can pick up those characteristics(dark fruit, minerality, firm tannin and acid)in wines from many producers. Pinot, Chard and Syrah.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    “Which leaves us, then, with the only thing these regions have in common to explain wine quality: climate.”

    In science and engineering (and in my profession of marketing), one looks for the “delta”: the difference.

    Hypothetically, anyone can plant his/her vineyard to DRC “suit case clone” Pinot Noir. Plant to the same sun-facing orientation. Plant to the same vine density. Trellis the same configuration. Farm organically or biodynamically the same way. Drip irrigate or dry farm the same way.

    In essence, have a “cookie cutter” template for each and every acre.

    But what is the difference — the point of differentiation?

    The soil.

    More specifically, limestone.

    All of the above (excepting the soil) a rich person can easily buy with sufficient funds.

    (Think about the purported “spare no expense” $100 million that Kenzo Tsujimoto expended on his winery:

    More challenging is finding limestone-based land that is hospitable to Pinot Noir grape growing — and available for acquisition. (Impediments: Environmental concerns. NIMBY concerns.)

    It is the “delta” of limestone soil to many California Pinot-philes’ that establishes its competitive quality advantage.

    As for the subject of “minerality” . . .

  3. Bob Henry says:

    From 2011: “MINERALITY: Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?”


    From 2013: “Nutrients not the cause of minerality”


    From 2013: “The mystery of soils and wines, part 2”


  4. Bob Henry says:

    Other articles . . .

    From 2007: “Talk Dirt to Me”


    From 2014: “Rescuing minerality; Jamie Goode discusses the concept of minerality in wine, and its relationship to terroir”


  5. “the lower the alcohol is on Pinot Noir, the more it will reflect its particular soil conditions; there is an inverse relationship between ripeness and the soil part of terroir.”

    I agree wholeheartedly – and the same is true for varietal character. I’ve found that some of the uber-ripe Cali Pinots are indistinguishable from Merlot or Grenache.

  6. Bob Henry says:


    Once again citing this Dan Berger wine column in the Napa Valley Register:

    [Link to directory:

    HEADLINE: “Character study”


    “There are aspects of wine character that seem not to have as great an impact on wine lovers as they did decades ago. One is varietal character. The other is regional character.

    “Varietal character is the aroma and taste of a wine as it relates directly to the grape that is dominant in its makeup. . . .

    “. . .

    “The riper a grape is picked, the more likely it will be to stop resembling its varietal or its region. That’s because very late-harvested fruit tastes more like raisins; the varietal and regional elements are masked by such ultraripeness.”

    ~~ Bob

  7. Kevin,

    Merlot, really? I’ve done a number of blind tastings amongst grape types and Merlot is not one that I’ve ever found myself confusing with Pinot Noir. Grenache, on the other hand, I can confuse with Pinot Noir. That, however, is not a new phenomenon, nor is it a California one. Remington Norman, in his seminal work on CdP, writes that cellar records show that over half the Grenache was sold to producers in Burgundy as late as the 1960s for blending into Pinot Noir (Burgundy).

    As to Bob’s hypothetical, it is just that…hypothetical. Take, for example, the idea of farming the same way in different areas. So, do you leaf pull on the same date in the different areas or do you leaf pull when the shoots have the same length in the different areas? On the same date and the plants will have different amounts of vigor and may or may not put out more leaves or grow more to compensate. If you do it when the length is the same then the weather will differ and the vines will react differently. — We all too often forget that it isn’t just what is done in a vineyard (and in a winery) but when it is done.

    Finally, Steve, help me understand your comment about ripeness and the soil part of vineyard. Take,for instance, Clos Pepe Vineyard (or Bien Nacido or some other vineyard with multiple producers). What producers have picked less ripe (or have less alcohol — I assume you mean picking less ripe as less alcohol doesn’t always mean picking less ripe) that show the soil more? What’s the soil taste like? With time in the bottle, and the fruit fading, will that soil re-emerge?

    Thanks all,

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  8. Adam, I mean that in some way the higher the alcohol (or riper the fruit), the more the wine tastes of the grape, and not of the terroir. Maybe this is unscientific, but I’m not a winemaker, but a wine enthusiast who tastes a lot. Perhaps the terroir is in there regardless of alcohol level, but it’s hidden or masked under all that extraction and fruity flavor. As for what the soil tastes like, well, you know it’s hard to put these things into words. Minerality – stoniness – tang – waxiness – earthiness – trace elements – dried herbs – these seem to be the non-grape things in the taste and texture of wine.

  9. Bob Henry says:


    Let me clarify a point that might have been underplayed in my comment.

    An arriviste can buy his/her way into the California wine scene with sufficient “bigger fool” funds.

    Create a vineyard that replicates as near as possible some fabled vineyard: clone, sun orientation, vine density, trellising, organic/biodynamic farming practices, irrigation or no irrigation, et cetera.

    At the winery, use the same destemmer. Use the same gentle Champaigne style press. Ferment in the same French forest oak barrels with the same toast level. Use the same strain of inoculation yeast. (That precludes replicating wild yeast fermentation — a missing component of terroir?) Pump over the same way. Stir the lees the same way. Go through malolactic the same way. Rack the same way, et cetera.

    A hypothetical carbon copy of how some renowned producer (say, DRC) does it.

    But that same arriviste can’t buy the same soil — particularly if it is something as scarce as limestone.

    That’s my salient point.

    (Not questioning value judgments on what to do when . . . in the vineyard or in the winery. That;s outside of my wheelhouse.)

    ~~ Bob

  10. Steve,

    Maybe those aren’t the flavors of the soil, but simply of under-ripe grapes?

    Bob, but you can largely buy the same soil. If you have enough “biggest fool fund you can buy La Grand Rue, directly next to La Tache….with much of the same limestone. And you can grow the grapes and make the wine the same as DRC….but it won’t taste like La Tache. IMO, limestone is fantastic, but its not what makes a wine great.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  11. Bob Henry says:


    Right now here in California, where could an aspiring vigneron buy undeveloped limestone-based land, overcome all of the environmental and NIMBY issues, and turn it into a Pinot Noir vineyard?


  12. Bob Henry says:


    At the risk of showing your “hole card” . . . is acquiring La Grand Rue the next stage in your empire building, flushed with funds from joining Jackson Family Wines?


  13. Bob,

    Definitely…..heading there now, once I am done showing my son colleges in Texas.

    I think SRH, with its calcareous soils, is the best bet.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  14. Bob Henry says:


    Allow me to explore more fully this subject with you.

    How “ample” is undeveloped calcareous-based land in Santa Rita Hills?

    What impediments to development (environmental; NIMBY) exist?



    “List of vineyard soil types”


    Click on links to “Calcareous” and “Chalk” and “Limestone” et cetera.

  15. Bob,

    Relatively ample….take a Google earth view of Sweeney Road in Lompoc or Santa Rosa Road east of Lompoc and you will see that there is unplanted land there. Jake and Frankie Lindley established their vineyard in the area not too long ago (and we now get fruit from it) as did others.

    NIMBY isn’t a major impediment there. However, water is a major concern. Labor is also an issue, and an increasing one throughout California.

    I do love the wines from this area, and they do (when healthy and farmed properly) retain acid quite well. I have no doubt that is, in part, soil related. But again, I’d say to you that I don’t believe that limestone is some sort of hallowed ground for Pinot Noir.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  16. Bob Henry says:


    My history teacher taught me not to subscribe to the philosophy of “mono-causality.”

    I believe there are many meritorious inputs to growing superior winemaking grapes.

    One being soil.

    And if you can plant on limestone (without diminishing the benefits bestowed by all other inputs), then it behooves you to take advantage of that luxury.


  17. Bob Henry says:


    From the San Francisco Chronicle “Food & Wine” Section
    (August 8, 2010, Page Unknown):

    “Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm Ready for Next Act”


    By Jon Bonné
    Chronicle Wine Editor


    “Randall Grahm can’t stop talking about his . . . new vineyard outside San Juan Bautista.

    “The 280-acre site, just 90 acres of which are suitable for grapes, will arguably offer the winemaker his last, greatest shot at glory: the creation of a ‘VIN DE TERROIR,’ a wine that will show off the unique qualities of the site rather than any winemaking wizardry.

    “What Grahm envisions is, in a way, the anti-California wine: a tribute to specific soil rather than any particular grape.

    “He believes in this so strongly that he intends to crossbreed his own vine hybrids and plant the resulting seeds, hoping to create, in essence, completely new grape varieties.

    “It’s an idea virtually unheard of in grape growing, in part because such breeding has a high rate of failure.

    “In March [2010], Grahm planted a mere half acre of PINOT NOIR, in part to help prove he can succeed with that difficult grape. But, he is hedging his bets.

    “There will be more traditional plantings of grapes, including Grenache, the backbone of Bonny Doon’s landmark Cigare Volant. Unlike his last estate site, he won’t fully commit to biodynamic practices, often seen as more rigorous than organic — but with a quasi-mystical component.

    “However, the whole vineyard will be dry-farmed and head-pruned (no wires, just a single stake per vine) — a style of farming more in tune with the 19th century. At least half the vines will be planted on their own roots, a move that invites disease but could also make more distinctive wine. If he is lucky, the vineyard will provide a modest 8,000 cases of wine to sell.

    “Then there is his desire to create completely new types of grapes. He wants to cross-pollinate vines (vines are typically self-pollinating) and plant the resulting seeds to create hybrids that would truly be unique to the site.”


    From The Wall Street Journal “Review” Section
    (April 18-19, 2015, Page C8):

    “Good Things in Small Packages”


    Book review by Richard Mabey

    “The Triumph of Seeds”
    By Thor Hanson
    (Basic, 277 pages, $26.99)

  18. Bob Henry says:

    Postscript on Calera:

    “Duckhorn Wine Company Acquires Central Coast Icon Calera Wine Company”


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