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Tasting eight Carneros Pinot Noirs



My tasting yesterday of eight Carneros Pinot Noirs was enormously instructive to me, even after all these years. Afterwards, we tried to put together four attributes that linked all the wines, and they were:

  1. acidity
  2. a “Burgundian” earthy, mushroomy thing
  3. spices
  4. nice, ripe California fruit

Of course, identifying regional typicity is possible only in high-end wines, preferably single vineyards but not necessarily. As it turned out, there were two fabulous wines that really captured Carneros: one on the Napa side, the other on the Sonoma side. But these boundaries are political fantasies: true terroir doesn’t follow county lines, which is why Carneros was properly recognized by the Feds as the first AVA that crossed counties, because it was defined by climate and soil.

Here are my notes, somewhat abbreviated.

Donum 2012 West Slope, $90. The first wine in the flight. It blew me away so much that I decided to return to it after the last wine. Sometimes the first wine of a flight (and of the day) can seem better than it inherently is. It showed the most wonderfully ripe, pure raspberries and cherries, with plenty of exotic Asian spices, smoky oak, great acidity and polished tannins. After an hour in the glass the oak emerged as a stronger force. There also was a rich, mulchy mushroominess. This is a fabulous wine with a future. Score: 94 points.

La Rochelle 2011 Donum Estate, $80. A real disappointment. It was bretty but also thin. Well, it’s 2011, after all. Score: 84 points.

Carneros Hills 2013 Estate, $36. I work for Jackson Family Wines, which owns this winery. The wine was okay. Nothing wrong with it, in fact a pretty good wine, but the best I could do was 87 points. I know that Carneros Hills is a work in progress and I expect better things from it in the future.

Hartford Court 2012 Sevens Bench Vineyard, $65. Another Jackson Family Wines wine, and another disappointment. It was too hot in alcohol—officially 15% but I think higher than that. I scored it at 87 points.

Cattleya 2012 Donum Vineyard, $85. This was one of the better wines in the flight: rich, fruity and young, but a little soft. I thought it might improve in 3-4 years and scored it at 90 points.

Paul Hobbs 2013 Hyde Vineyard, $75. A fabulous wine. Savory, rich, complex, complete. Raspberries, plums, cherries, great savoir faire. Right up there with the Donum West Slope. Score: 93 points.

Saintsbury 2012 Lee Vineyard, $54. We all frankly found this wine a little unassertive. Nothing particularly wrong with it, just lacking that extra oomph. Score: 87 points.

Stemmler 2012 Estate, $44. It was better than the Saintsbury but not even close to the Donum or Paul Hobbs. A good, sound, well-made Carneros Pinot Noir. Score: 89 points.

Some critics have claimed to find minerality in Carneros Pinot Noir. I did not—at least, not as much as you find in Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir.

The question arose as to whether we can assume that the Napa side of Carneros is warmer than the Sonoma side. I do think that’s true, overall: Sonoma Carneros is that much more open to the Petaluma Gap. But it differs with individual wineries: when they want to pick, how ripe they want the brix or flavors to get before they pick. And there are differences in climate even within Napa, which is why the question of Haut Carneros—approaching the Mayacamas foothills—and Bas Carneros—the muddy, sandy, silty flats along San Pablo Bay—continues to be a fascinating one. I don’t know about the Frenchisms, but I do think this process of further distinguishing Carneros’s terroirs would be further along if they’d allowed more small, creative wineries to do business there.

Carneros has lost much of its luster over the last twenty years. But the potential is there for Carneros to re-gain the reputation it once had, and again be a contender.


  1. Matt Mauldin says:

    Steve, I agree with you on the earthy, mushroom notes present in many Carneros wines. That’s been a distinguishing characteristic for me in the past.

    Your premise at the end has always interested me. The quality and potential is there, so it’s interesting that there’s such a lack of romance to the AVA when compared with other Burgundian varietally focused AVA’s in CA. Why do you think that is? And what are the factors at play that are keeping smaller more creative wineries away from Carneros?

  2. Bob Henry says:

    I concur with the comments above about a mushroom-y aspect found in many Carneros Pinot Noirs. I would also describe them as exhibiting tart Bing cherry and herbal aromas and flavors, and course grain texture tannins.

    Within the last six months, I sampled many of the current release Saintsbury Pinot Noirs at a trade tasting.

    They left me indifferent, with their elevated levels of alcohol evident in the bouquet and on the palate. (That never seemed to be a hallmark of the wines in the past. Has the winemaking team pivoted toward extraction over restrained grape variety expression?)

    Historically, I have admired the Brown Ranch bottling:

    Steve rated the 2010 vintage 92 points and accorded it an “Editor’s Choice” designation (Wine Enthusiast, 6/2013).

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Save the date: this Saturday, July 25th, 2015:

    “30th Anniversary Carneros Wine Alliance Birthday Bash”

    Featured wineries:

    Bouchaine Vineyards
    Ceja Vineyards
    Ca’ Momi Winery
    Carneros Hills Winery
    Clos du Val
    Cuvaison Estate Wines
    Domaine Carneros
    Hyde Vineyards
    Nicholson Ranch
    Poseidon’s Vineyard
    Ram’s Gate
    Carneros Estate
    The Donum Estate
    ZD Wines

  4. Bob Henry says:


    Sorry — TWO Saturdays from now (July 25th).

  5. Bob Henry says:


    In conducting a comparison tasting to define the character and nuances of an AVA’s grape variety, do you endorse (when possible) keeping the vintage year a “constant”?

    You have written about the

    “’musty’ and ‘moldy’ aromas and accompanying bad flavors are exactly what plagues so many 2011s. That, and a generalized unripeness across the board.”

    “An Inconvenient Truth about Pinot Noir”


    Including the La Rochelle 2011 Donum Estate (“A real disappointment. It was bretty but also thin. Well, it’s 2011, after all. Score: 84 points.) in the tasting line-up took away the opportunity to sample a more meritorious 2012 or 2013 submission.

    ~~ Bob –

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