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The historic phases of Pinot Noir in California: 4.0…and counting



I blogged the other day about a tasting in which we tried four different versions of Clone 777 Pinot Noir from four Jackson Family wineries in four regions: Anderson Valley (Champ de Reves), Willamette Valley (Gran Moraine), Santa Lucia Highlands (Siduri-Sierra Mar Vineyard) and Annapolis (Wild Ridge, on the far Sonoma Coast). This was an attempt to see if we could detect the signature of the vineyards (terroir) in each case—which we could. The 777’s intense color, strong, aromatic profile and sturdy tannins always came through, but each barrel sample was different, which can only have been due to their differing origins.

But that was only half the story. That tasting was an in-house rehearsal at Jackson Family Wines for our full-scale public event yesterday, held at The Battery, which by the way is a fabulous place to have a tasting as well as a terrific bar and restaurant. (Segue: I walked there from Montgomery Street BART, which took me past the old Square One restaurant where I spent so many pleasurable hours in the 1980s and 1990s. Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” chimed nostalgic-happy in my mind.)

For this tasting, which attracted about 40 industry pros, we repeated the Clone 777 tasting, and we also had each of the winemakers present to talk about his/her wines. For the icing on the cake we had each of the winery’s 2013 final bottled blends of Pinot Noir, which contained varying amounts of 777. The idea wasn’t so much as to see if we could detect the presence of the 777 in the final blend as it was to see if we could discern the terroir in both the Clone 777s and the final blended wines.

All of us on the panel—the winemakers, myself, our moderator Gilian Handleman and Julia Jackson, the youngest daughter of Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke—of course weighed in with our own impressions. For my part, and being the “senior” on the panel (as well as, pretty much, in the room), I shared my perspective on where we are concerning Pinot Noir here on the West Coast of America. Here’s my take on that, historically-speaking.

Pinot Noir 1.0 followed the Repeal of Prohibition. It occurred primarily in the 1930s and early 1940s. This was the “Plant Pinot Noir anywhere” era. It was put into central Napa Valley, into Sonoma County east of the 101 highway, and other warmish places better suited for Zinfandel; it took a while, but it was discovered those places were too hot for this variety.

Pinot Noir 2.0 followed a single imperative: “Go towards the water.” This was in the later 1940s. Pioneers like Andre Tchelistchef and Louis Martini went south, to Carneros. They understood that Pinot needs the cooling influence of (in this case) San Pablo-San Francisco Bay.

This water-seeking was a long period and lasted through the 1980s. Pinot also looked westward, towards the Pacific Ocean. Vineyards went onto the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, into western San Luis Obispo County, the Anderson Valley, the western part of Santa Ynez Valley we now call Santa Rita Hills, and of course the Russian River Valley, as well as the far Sonoma Coast.

Pinot Noir 3.0 was the mighty effort to improve plant material. Now that we knew the best places to plant it, the next step was to improve the vines themselves: virus-free clones and selections. This phase occurred in the 1990s.

Pinot Noir 4.0 is where we find ourselves now: the focus is on the vineyard. Where are the best sites in the best regions? What are the best soils? The best viticultural practices? Volcanic-basalt soils are different from marine-sedimentary ones. How do you match clones to sites? What is the best oak treatment for your wines? This is the most intensive effort today in California.

I see this phase occupying our attentions for the next twenty years, at least. But it won’t be the final one.

Pinot Noir 5.0 has barely begun. It will consist of an understanding of the individual vineyards so thorough that we will be able to identify individual blocks within them for site specificity. After all, the vineyard now owned by the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was planted as far back as the twelfth century: it was not for additional centuries that the individualities of La Tache, Echezeaux, etc. were understood and appreciated. Hundreds of years to understand roughly 198 acres of vineyard (including Montrachet)! I hope it will not take us that long. Many of our vineyards are of considerable size; we need to break them down into block bottlings. We’re just scratching the surface—I love Josh Jensen’s exploration of his terroir at Calera, and the way the Rochiolis have put their Westside Road vineyard under the microscope and blocked it out. I told our audience yesterday (and most of them seemed to be in their twenties and thirties), “You guys are lucky. You will spend the rest of your lives understanding and writing about Pinot Noir phase 5.0” when we delve into the most exquisitely detailed comprehension of the micro-terroir of our vineyards. What a glorious epoch that will be.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Steve is championing an approach — micro-terroir (block) viniculture — pioneered by David Hirsch in his vineyard.

    Excerpts from the San Francisco Chronicle “Food and Wine” Section
    (March 8, 2009, Page Unknown):

    “Vintner [David Hirsch] Creates Pinot Gold from Sonoma Coast’s Mysterious Mother Lode”

    By Jon Bonné
    Chronicle Wine Editor

    For all the acclaim, the secrets of [David] Hirsch’s success remain a bit of a mystery, at least on the surface. For most of 30 years he has been trying to decode a wild jumble of subsoils that include rocks of all types mixed with everything from porous sandstone to impenetrable clay. It led him to divide his 71 vineyard acres into 60 DIFFERENT BLOCKS, EACH WITH ITS OWN SOIL SIGNATURE, EACH FARMED ON ITS OWN. “If you’re focused on the site,” he says, “you’re looking for what’s happening underground.”

    Such lack of consistency is extremely rare among vineyards, which makes the site defy easy comprehension. As his winemaker Mark Doherty puts it: “There’s no elevator story.” The best comparison, inevitably, might be to the Burgundy’s endlessly divided lieux-dits, where quality has been divined row by row, but only after centuries.

    . . .

    But for Hirsch, working to decode one’s own land is very much a vintner’s prerogative. As inspiration, he cites none other than Aubert de Villaine of Burgundy’s immortal Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, who continually revises vineyard practices “like he’s someone with a real problem in the market,” Hirsch says.

    . . .

  2. Bob Henry says:

    I invite readers of Steve’s blog to use the proffered link below and read the two-part comment I left regarding the UC Davis Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science’s Spring 2006 international conference titled “Terroir 2006.”

    Warren Moran, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Auckland (New Zealand), gave the keynote address titled “You Said Terroir? Approaches, Sciences, and Explanations.”

    (Stonestreet was a corporate sponsor. Steve should cajole his employer/client to make available for viewing online Moran’s presentation. The link at UC Davis has been taken down.)

  3. There is no such thing as “virus-free clones and selections,” despite the claim at FPS – one example is the finding in 2012 of red blotch virus in many vinifera varieties which is now of great concern in California and Oregon. Learning how to farm vines to keep viruses at bay will be an important part of Pinot Noir 5.0. I quote Ted Lemon, who told me, “From a viticulture point of view, most of our leading researchers and government agencies take the approach of somehow trying to ‘guarantee’ that plant material will be virus free. They have been singing this siren song for decades. Our plant material has never been virus free. It is clearer than ever that most of the nursery sources and FPS are full of virus. Our goal for people and plants ought not to try to make them virus and disease free, but to create vibrant, healthy ecosystems where balance prevents disease associated with virus expression.”

  4. Bob Henry says:

    I am not a viniculturist. So forgive me if my following non-rhetorical question is a LOL gaffe.

    Disease suppresses the vigor/yield of vines.

    It has been suggested that is one reason “why” Napa and Sonoma vineyards before the phylloxera-replanting did so well. (Self-evidently old vines also helps surpress vigor/yield.)

    Can a “low/manageable level” of disease be a “good thing”?

  5. Douglas Fletcher says:

    Several comments:
    1. Martin Ray (the man not the current company) went through all 5 of Steve’s stages by the early 1960’s. By 1960, his plan was to established Mt Eden as a premiere wine estate using Domaine de la Romanee-Conti as a model. He developed 5 seperate vineyards which were going to be vineyard designated under the Mt Eden umbrella. Jack Davies who later went on to start Schramsberg was an early investor. Unfortunately, he was 30 years ahead of his time. Americans weren’t prepared to pay European wine prices for California wine at the time.
    2. No one who has ever tasted wines from clean vs virus infected vines from the same site would ever say that virus is a good thing. Maybe GVLRV2 would be the only exception and even there it doesn’t improve things, its just not worse.
    3. A Sonoma grape grower recently told about a vineyard he pulled years ago because the wine was no good. He now would guess it had Red Blotch. The leaves would turn red in August but tested negitve for Leaf Roll virus and didn’t respond to nutrient additions.

  6. David Bruce considered Martin Ray’s Pinot Noirs better than those of DRC, but the truth is his wines were uneven in quality varying from greatness to ordinary or worse. Ray’s estate bottled wines were sold at astronomical prices for the time even compared to European wine prices. That said, as Douglas pointed out, he was way ahead of his time, using small oak cooperage, bottling his wines in heavy glass bottles, pushing for appellations of origin, and was the first to produce varietal-labeled Pinot Noir in California.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Throughout the course of this calendar day, facilitated by my initiating a private email last night to selective members of the wine trade (vineyard managers, winemakers, wine press), a discourse has commenced over wine grape disease contributing to “devigorate vines,” and the post-phylloxera vineyard replanting phenomena of “rapid sugar accumulations and the trend to high alcohol concentrations.”

    The players can elect to keep their circulated comments private, or disseminate them more widely via Steve’s blog.

    A clarification.

    Through my comment last night, I was not suggesting that having diseased vines is a “good thing.” Rather, I was asking if there are any putative benefits — principally, reduced vine vigor and ostensibly higher quality fruit.

    And to remove any ambiguity, not a single vineyard manager/winemaker would willing take a diseased vineyard over a non-diseased vineyard if they had their druthers.

    (Aside: would any winemaker turn her/his back on accepting fruit from Martha’s Vineyard, even though it was common knowledge that the vineyard was heading towards a replanting? Likewise Screaming Eagle vineyard?

    Would any winery investor with sufficient funds have turned down an opportunity to purchase those properties, if given the opportunity?

    Self-evidently, financier Charles Banks and his sports empire/real estate developer business partner Stanley Kroenke weren’t dissuaded by that challenge — knowing that they would ultimately have to replant the Screaming Eagle vineyard. )

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Underscoring Douglas Fletcher’s [*] comment, let me proffer Rusty’s homage to Martin Ray and Mount Eden Vineyard:

    (A number of years ago, a member of my wine group assembled a 20-year vertical tasting of Mount Eden estate bottled Chardonnays. Allen “Burghound” Meadows, a fellow Angeleno, joined us for his own edification. I don’t know if his tasting notes became the basis for one of his articles.)

    [*An individual who speaks from first person experience, as he “began his career at Martin Ray in the mid-1970s…”, according to his Terlato Wines profile.]

  9. Douglas Fletcher says:

    I do remember looking at old Martin Ray records from 1950’s where Martin charged the same price for his Cabernet Sauvignon as Mouton Rothschild.

    Also, I think the same can be said for Burgundy, “… wines are uneven in quality varying from greatness to ordinary or worse.”

  10. Bob Henry says:

    Anyone who has a historical interest in California’s winemaker pioneers should read this book:

    “Vineyards in the Sky: The Life of Legendary Vintner Martin Ray”

    I learned about Martin Ray (and Mount Eden Vineyard) while a “starving student” at nearby Santa Clara University.

    Douglas’s observation is spot on: Martin Ray was an outlier who raced ahead of his California contemporaries in aspiring to craft wines that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with France’s best.

    His budwood comprised Louis Latour Corton Charlemagne clone Chardonnay (sourced from his Saratoga hillside neighbor Paul Masson), Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Pinot Noir, and Chateau Margaux clone Cabernet Sauvignon.

    (The urban legend — or fact: The DRC and Chateau Margaux budwood were “suitcase clones” expropriated from France following Martin Ray’s military service there during World War Two.)

    One other vintner of that era who priced his wines on a par with the paragons of France: Joe Heitz.

  11. Robert Weiler says:

    I think we have to keep in mind that a lot of it is just marketing. Pinot Noir from different terroirs is going to taste different, and that’s a good thing. However, the weather near the coast is nowhere near as consistent as the weather in Napa valley so anybody expecting consistent results from any particular Sonoma Pinot vineyard based on soil is likely to be disappointed.

  12. Robert Weller, what you say is true, but purists will say that they enjoy tasting pinots even from coastal vineyards in off-vintages (which we don’t have a lot of in California, especially with climate warming) because they still detect the signature of the terroir.

  13. Not a gaffe, in my opinion, Bob Henry. While we can debate if any clones/selections are entirely virus free, certainly some are cleaner than others. I think it is certainly true that post phylloxera plantings have generally been cleaner than the older material. And that somewhat explains rapid sugar accumulations and the trend to high alcohol concentrations. Flavor development and sugar accumulation are not on the same curve. It is not unusual to see grapes sugaring up before attaining “physiological maturity” to use one of the phrases thrown around. I work with a 30 year old block of Chardonnay in Sebastopol which is referred to as “Spring Mountain clone.” It is full of virus, and slow to gain sugar. But at 21 brix, the grapes are translucent, with brown seeds—i.e. all the signs of ripeness. It makes a wonderful, flavorful wine at relatively low sugar. In my own Cabernet, sugar accumulates slowly because the site tends to ripen grapes later in the season, when temperatures are cooler and days are shorter. Again, I feel we achieve ripeness at relatively low brix levels. In the end, it seems to me, relying on virus to slow down ripening is not something I would utilize in planting a new vineyard. Rather than rely on disease to slow down sugar accumulation, it seems like a better approach is to match the site with the appropriate variety, clone, rootstock, and other viticultural practices to encourage slow, steady ripening, utilizing the entire growing season. Yes, virus can counter excess vigor, but we have better tools today.


  1. Wine News: What I'm Reading the Week of 3/27/16 - Vinography: A Wine Blog - […] The historic phases of Pinot Noir in California: 4.0...and counting Steve lays out a theory of epochs. […]

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