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Napa Valley Pinot Noir: gone, but not forgotten



We were up at Freemark Abbey yesterday and some of the people who work there showed me some old bottles someone had found and brought to the winery. Among them was this bottle of Pinot Noir.



Despite the “Selected Vintage” designation, it didn’t have a vintage date. But the thinking was that it could have been from the 1940s. Note that it has a California appellation.

Who knows what it really was? My first thought was that it probably wasn’t real Pinot Noir as we know it. Maybe Gamay Beaujolais, but actually, it could have been anything. Back then, there were no laws regulating the use of varieties on labels, so wineries could do whatever they wanted. Many wineries called any red wine that was lighter and more delicate than Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon “Pinot Noir.” They could have called it “Burgundy”; many did.

Once upon a time, kids, Napa Valley produced quite a bit of Pinot Noir, or something called Pinot Noir, until the critics declared that Napa Valley Pinot Noir sucks, so they scared off anybody who had it or planned to try. I remembered a Pinot from the old Louis K. Mihaly Winery, a winery that has been almost completely eliminated from history. Frank Prial referred to it, in a 1988 New York Times column, as “also known as Silverado Cellars”; so did a 1989 LA Times article. Silverado Cellars, of course, is on the Silverado Trail, but in my memory, the Mihaly winery was on Highway 29, around St. Helena, in the early 1980s, when I liked their Napa Valley Pinot Noir so much, I bought half a case—a big purchase for a broke college student. But maybe my memory is playing tricks on me.

Years later, when I was writing A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Joe Rochioli, Jr., told me how he had gotten the cuttings for his first plantings of Pinot Noir, in 1968, for his Russian River Valley vineyard, from “this old grower in Napa Valley.” He couldn’t recall who it was; I’ve always wondered if it wasn’t Mihaly. But, seeing that Freemark Abbey bottle, maybe it was from Freemark, or whatever remained of the vineyards Freemark sourced .

Old bottles like that Freemark Pinot stir my imagination. So much history has been lost; so much is unrecoverable. It’s very sad. Most people don’t care about what happened before they were born. For some of us, a quirk in the brain, a peculiar wiring of our DNA, makes history irresistible. I love doing research, fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. Of course, not all the pieces can be found; but sometimes, enough of them can be gathered to being to paint a coherent picture.

Have a great weekend, and if you’re in California, stay dry! We’re in the throes of El Nino.

  1. “until the critics declared that Napa Valley Pinot Noir sucks”

    Hmmmmm….your memory of events doesn’t jive w/ mine, Steve. I cannot recall a single wine critic of the time (Olken/Finnegan/Mead/Chroman/Balzer/Seldon/etc) making a blanket condemnation of NapaVlly PinotNoir…nor questioning the varietal authenticity of those wines.
    I believe it was a PinotNoir wine that André Tchelistcheff (forget the vintage) felt to be the greatest wine he ever produced at Beaulieu. And one should not forget some of the SpecialBurgundy wines he made at Beaulieu that were, indeed, “special”…primarily because of the large component of Mondeuse they contained.
    And some of the Pinots from Carneros, made by folks like FrankMahoney/BillKnuttle/MikeRichmond and others, were not so shabby; though I presume you were referring primarily to up-Valley Pinots.

  2. TomHill, Aww, please don’t make me go through old wine books for hours! Can we agree that a consensus emerged in the 1980s-1990s if not earlier that Napa Valley, at least north of Carneros/Oak Knoll, is too hot for Pinot? The Tchelistcheff wines you refer to were the ’46, ’47 and ’68, which he grew in Carneros.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    On the subject of Napa Valley Pinot Noirs, let me proffer excerpts from Robert Benson’s interview with Andre Tchelistcheff (“Great Winemakers of California,” Capra Press, copyright 1977, pages 112-124) . . .

    Benson [B]: … Do you believe there’s a great difference in quality between grapes grown on the [Napa] valley floor and grapes grown in the hill regions?

    Tchelistcheff [T]: … As I see it, I divide Napa Valley into three belts … The first [southern] region starts at Carneros near San Pablo Bay … and north to Yountville … And I assign this section for the varietals of early maturity [e.g., Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay Beaujolais, “maybe” Gewurztraminer and Johannisberg Riesling], because the late maturing varieties [e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel] have always been a complete fiasco in this region. …

    B: You were one of the first to urge that Pinot Noir be grown in the Carneros region.

    T: That’s right. Louis Martini and I.

    . . .

    B: Is most of the quality difference in this region [Carneros to Yountville] explained by the temperature? What about your soil factor?

    T: … It is very important in whites and Pinot Noir to preserve the malic acid. We are interested in producing a maximum amount of lactic acid in the Pinot Noir in the malo-lactic fermentation.

    B: And the middle region?

    T: … Yountville … almost touching Oakville … to Zinfandel Lane. … This is the greatest region for production of Cabernet Sauvignon in California. …

    [Other grape varieties that do well: Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, “decent” Chenin Blanc, Muscat Canelli. “Zinfandel is not suitable . . .” “But I definitively do not recommend planting any other varieties.”)

    B: What about in the hills just east of the Silverado Trail? Is that Zinfandel territory?

    T: Zinfandel, up, up, up we go! … Never put Zinfandel in the lower sections, except some very warm situations in the Calistoga region …

    B: What about the third [region] zone, up near Calistoga?

    T: Several people are sitting in that third belt with Cabernet and Merlot and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Riesling and Gewurztraminer. It’s wrong but that’s their own decision. …

    B: I wanted to ask you next about PINOT NOIR. Why is it so difficult to make in California?

    T: Because we have the variety, the climate, but not the soil. Accidentally. we occasionally get good PINOT NOIRS as a result of the other ecological factors: tonnage, seasonal climate or submicro-climate, humidity, early maturity. These factors give us, with the gravel, accidentally, this great complexity. This happened to me 1946 in the PINOT NOR of Beaulieu, and partially in the 1947 and in the 1968. But you see I spent 35 years working there [Beaulieu] and if I count three vintages of a high standard that’s all I accomplished with it in my life. So I am looking at new regions — to Paso Robles, and particularly to a subregion of Dry Creek of Sonoma, in gravelly, not productive soil. And particularly in the Forestville region of Sonoma, again in poor, gravelly slopes.

    In Paso Robles I have a very limey soil, to the extreme of gravelly lime. Thee I can make an individual Pinot Noir, different from Santa Ynez, which has another individuality. And the limey soil of Chalone Vineyards, where Dick Graff makes such a beautiful PINOT NOIR. . . .

    So I have these [three region] sections. And there is another section of Napa Valley for instance, the Schramsberg section with limey gravel, where Chardonnay and PINOT NOIR are planted for Champagne [i.e., sparkling wine] production. They can produce great still wines there too. But. again, this PINOT NOIR will give far superior quality in Champagne than any other PINOT NOIR grown in the Napa Valley. You see how spotty it is. This appellation of origin!


    Benson: My last question is, in your view, are the best California wines equal to the best European wines?

    Tchlelistcheff: Well, I must answer you exactly as [UC Davis enology professor] Dr. Amerine has answered. I never willingly compare European wines against California wines. . . . Every one of them should be classified individually, and never be compared. Genetically, we tend to compare since they come from the same genetic variety, but under absolutely different ecological regimes. As my son is a genetic type of Andre Tchelistcheff, I am a genetic type of Victor Tchelistcheff, Sr., but I am entirely different from my father, as my son is from me. So inherited genetic character is visible, but does not represent my personality. Physically, yes, but not spiritually or in the complex of my individuality. That’s the whole damn thing! In every tasting they compare the Bordeaux and California wines! They are ruining their reputation in Bordeaux and ruining their reputation in California. This may be attractive to the public, very good food for commercial advertising, but not for me.

  4. Great conversation and loved every word of the Andre T. interview. I lifted it and will integrate it into presentations.

    I want to ask if anyone has tasted the bottle in the pic. In a Coravin age, it would be tempting!

  5. Bob Henry says:


    In an e-mail to me today, Charlie Olken wrote:

    “In our interview with Andre in 1976, he said without hesitation, ‘someday California will be famous for Pinot Noir.’

    “You have to remember that there were not such large plantings of Pinot in Carneros at the time and almost none in the Russian River Valley. Santa Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Mountains were unheard of.”

    Charlie, can you offer a link to a transcript of that Tchelistcheff interview available for reading?

    An example of the elders assembling the tribe around the camp fire and reciting the “oral traditions.”

  6. Rick Steele says:

    Hi Steve,

    My love of history, especially that of California, shall never wane. Are their any definitive (I use the word loosely) histories of California winemaking out there?

    Referring to the interview with Mr. Tchlelistcheff, I wonder if the Pinot Noir grown in the Schramsberg area was successful in the sparkling wine because it would be harvested earlier than that grown for the still varietal. From what I gather, Pinot Noir is a tough grape to grow practically everywhere, yet the Sonoma appellations (and now Oregon) seem to be making a strong go of it. That’s another column altogether.

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