This is my take on the situation. I hope to hear from you about yours. Agree, disagree, whatever you add will be appreciated. Thanks.
* * *
Pinot 1.0 extended from approximately the Repeal of Prohibition (1933) through the 1950s. Growers knew they wanted to plant Pinot Noir because it was the great grape of Burgundy. But they had little or no concept of where it grew best, so they installed it in places they had already cultivated for varieties like Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc: Napa Valley and the eastern Russian River Valley around Santa Rosa. The climate wasn’t always right, growers didn’t have access to good clonal material, and they didn’t understand that Pinot Noir isn’t vinified the same way as Zinfandel. The result was wines that were not outstanding. As late as 1986, Friends of Wine magazine—then the leading consumer wine magazine in America—stated categorically, “California Pinot Noir has yet to achieve an acclaim parallel to that of Cabernet.”
This began to change with the advent of Pinot 2.0. It was an extraordinarily creative time. Beginning with tentative efforts in the late 1940s (Tchelistcheff going to Carneros, for example), growers gradually understood with more precision that Pinot Noir needs to be planted in cooler coastal areas. By the late 1960s, the race was on, towards places like western Santa Ynez Valley, the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Anderson Valley, Carneros and the central and westerly stretches of the Russian River Valley. The quality of the Pinot Noirs improved, especially with the importation of Dijon clones in the late 1980s-early 1990s and a more thorough understanding of winemaking technique. Critics began to sit up and take notice.
Pinot 3.0 was simply an extension of this trend. Growers began to discover specific terroirs within the cooler regions, and to further adapt their plant materials and techniques to those particular micro-climates and soils. For example, the greater Russian River Valley began to be understood in terms of smaller sub-regions within it: Laguna Ridges, the Middle Reach, the Santa Rosa Plain, and so on. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw a huge improvement in the quality of Pinot Noir: riper wines, more delicious and savory and balanced, that, in the view of many, gave Burgundy a run for its money. Then came Sideways, and the public eagerly hopped onboard.
But enough is never enough when it comes to fine wine. Pinot 4.0 began in the last several years, encouraged to some degree by the rise of organizations like In Pursuit of Balance, and spurred by a new generation of sommeliers. But this new phase of exploration seeks wines that go beyond mere hedonism and deliciousness to capture what the wine writer Richard Olney calls Pinot Noir’s “mysterious, sensuous, transcendental, ethereal” nature.
How does a winemaker capture such a will-of-the-wisp transcendence? Olney says it is only through “the genius of the terroir,” a concept the Burgundy expert, Allen Meadows, further elucidates in his analysis of La Romanée-Conti itself. Its terroir is such that it produces “subtle and reserved, even austere” wines that do not “shout or call attention to themselves, but require the connoisseur to come to it rather than it coming to the taster.”
This is a momentous step. It’s no longer enough for the greatest Pinot Noirs to appeal only to the senses. Pinot now must appeal to the intellect. It becomes a cerebral experience: more French New Wave film than Hollywood blockbuster. Wines, to paraphrase Meadows, that require us to sit back and think and talk about them.
Now that we have identified, in California as well as in Oregon, the cool-climate sites, we can take this journey to the next level: which is to explore individual vineyards of extreme interest and complexity. These generally are hilly. Their soils are austere, with no water-holding capacity. Weather conditions may be marginal, such that not every year will be a “vintage year.” The challenges to grapegrowing in such sites—from frosts to pests and steep slopes—are daunting: they require the most intensive viticulture. But the results, which will take winemakers many years to fine tune, are bound to be amazing. Pinot 4.0 represents, in California and Oregon, the most daring challenge to Burgundy that has ever been mounted.
These Pinot Noirs are marked less by distinctions of terroir than by a similarity of winemaking style. All are quite ripe (and the 2014 drought vintage gave exceptionally concentrated fruit). Such qualitative differences as there are amongst them are more a matter of personal preference. Having said that, all are very good: my scores range between 92-96 points, except for one, as you’ll see. These are quintessential New World or Californian Pinot Noirs, lush, broad and delicious. I do wish that Brian Loring had held the wines back for another 12 months before releasing them: they all are extremely young and somewhat grapey. But you can age them yourself. All will be better by late 2017, and all the wines, by the way, are closed with screwtops. As a P.S., I will add that the official alcohol on all the wines is 14.3%, which I find bizarre. Draw your own conclusions.
Loring 2014 Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands). A very fine Rosella’s, which is to say, a very fine Pinot Noir! Great structure, with a mouthwatering hit of acidity highlighting deliciously complex flavors of raspberries, red cherries and persimmons. At the same time, there’s a grounding earthiness that reminds me of Portobello mushrooms, oiled and grilled: a savory umami thing. There’s a leatheriness that comes through the tannins but also a beef jerky note that brings additional umani-ness. The more I taste this wine, the more impressive it gets. Wildly tasty. As with the rest of Loring’s ‘14s, it’s super-young, but one of the few that is absolutely compelling now, although if I had a case, I’d drink a bottle or two a year through the early 2020s. Score: 96.
Loring 2014 Rasi / Three Barrels (Santa Rita Hills); $42. This wine was included in the samples Loring sent me, but I’m not sure if they mean for the brand to be Rasi or Loring; the labels don’t make it clear, so I’m calling it a Loring wine with a proprietary Rasi name. The winemaker is Rachel Silkowski, Loring’s assistant winemaker [Ra-Si: a contraction of her first and last names, pronounced “racy”]. At any rate, the wine is a small-production blend of the Kessler-Haak, Clos Pepe and Rancho La Viña vineyards. It is more powerful than Loring’s vineyard-designated bottlings, with concentrated raspberry preserve, chocolate and ultraripe plum flavors, and a caramelly, toasty coating of French oak. A big, intense wine, yet it remains delicate, pure and lilting. Scores high on the deliciousness scale, and benefits from real complexity. Score: 95.
Loring 2014 Rancho La Viña Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills). The vineyard is located on the far western edge of the appellation, on the south side, which is an exceptionally chilly area. Despite some intense raspberry and persimmon flavors, there’s a cut of Heirloom tomato, wild mushroom and leather, giving the wine an animal and earthy herbaceousness that is by no means unpleasant. There’s also a firm electric wire of acidity that brightens and heightens the flavors. With a jacket of smoky oak and firm but ultra-refined tannins, it’s a silky, beautifully complex wine for drinking now, and should develop bottle complexity over the next six years. Score: 94.
Loring 2014 Graham Family Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley). The vineyard is in the Green Valley, north of Graton, a center of cool-climate Pinot Noir. It’s a young vineyard planted to Dijon clones and the Swan and Calera selections, and the wine tastes primary-fruity and juicy. Raspberries, cherries, pomegranates, you get the idea, with crisp, Lifesaver candy acidity and a gentle scour of tannins. There’s oak in there, not too much, and the alcohol is moderate. The result is a savory, delicious wine for drinking now and over the next five years. The smokiness suggests lamb chops, and you can throw in some roasted new potatoes with butter and rosemary. Score: 94.
Loring 2014 Aubaine Vineyard Pinot Noir (San Luis Obispo County). For those who drive along the 101 Freeway in this part of the Central Coast, the vineyard is south of flag-draped Laetitia, in the area of Arroyo Grande Valley. It is planted to the Dijon clones 667 and 777. The wine is exceptionally fruity, brimming with ripe raspberries, plums, cranberries and pomegranates, and is finished with a stimulating spiciness. The acidity is just fine. There is also a welcome animal-earthiness suggesting wild mushrooms and blood-rare steak. Like Loring’s other ’14s, it will benefit from additional time in the bottle. Drink after 2017. Score: 94.
Loring 2014 Keefer Ranch Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley). This long has been a coveted source of grapes for wineries lucky enough to buy them. The vineyard is in Sebastopol, in the Green Valley. It’s a cool region where the grapes don’t reliably ripen, subject to the chilling winds off the Petaluma Gap, but in a successful vintage, which 2014 was, the wines can be quite good. It was the earliest harvest ever due to warmth and the drought, yet the wine feels crisp and balanced. It’s juicy in cranberry, strawberry and persimmon fruit, with a nice coating of smoky oak and a long, dry, spicy finish. Drinks well now, and should hold in the bottle over the next six years. Score: 93.
Loring 2014 Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands). An impressive Pinot Noir, clearly New World in style, showing its California roots in sunshiny ripeness, yet with a crisp bite of acidity. Is it particularly Santa Lucia-ey? Not really, but it is definitely coastal. You’ll find upfront sour red cherry candy and bitter cranberry flavors, but also a tannic edge of black tea. The finish is wonderful: dry, long, rich and spicy. It’s a wine that grows more complex as it breathes and warms in the glass, offering ever more earthiness, mushroominess, minerality. I wish Loring had held it back from release for another one or two years, but it does show the pedigree of this fine vineyard, located in the tenderloin of the appellation. Score: 93.
Loring 2014 Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills). The vineyard is, of course, one of the best known in the appellation, originally planted in the 1990s, only the ninth vineyard in that area. It’s in the northern part, just west of Babcock and Melville, in other words a cooler section in the tenderloin of Pinot country. In addition to wines from the Clos Pepe brand, many wineries, including Siduri and Loring, have sourced its grapes. The vineyard was bought last year by Napa Valley’s Hall; we’ll have to wait and see what happens. This ’14 is young, for sure. It’s all about primary fruits: cherries, cranberries and plums, and firm tannins, as well as mouthwatering acidity. The finish is thoroughly dry, and shows a spiceiness of nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, anise and black pepper. It’s very good, but, as with the rest of Loring’s ‘14s, rather young. Give it a few years in your cellar, then twist that screwtop off. Score: 93.
Loring 2014 Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast). This famous vineyard is located a few miles southwest of the town of Sonoma, in the flatlands on the border of Carneros, yet within the greater Sonoma Coast appellation. The wine is young and grapey-sappy, almost like grape juice. It would have benefited from more time in the bottle, but you can age it yourself. It’s a fine wine. Bone dry, with adequate acidity and a scour of tannins, it has layers of sour cherry candy, persimmons and orange rind, just enough to satisfy fans of overt fruit. The wine is complexed with an earthiness suggesting tannic black tea and mushrooms. The overall impression is impressive, but too young. If you drink it now, give it a decanting of several hours. Score: 92.
Loring 2014 Russell Family Vineyard (Paso Robles). Your first impression is of power. The fruit kicks in, all baked cherry pie and chocolate-covered raisins, with a nice coating of oak. There’s something candied about it, with soft, just-in-time acidity and broad, furry tannins. The vineyard is in the Willow Creek District, on the cooler western side of the gigantic Paso Robles appellation. Tasty, but it’s the least of Loring’s 2014s. Score: 88.
Someone who’s a wine professional and knows a lot about wine recently told me that Oregonians believe that soil and rocks play the dominant role in Pinot Noir while Californians think it’s weather and climate.
I guess by that standard you can call me a Californian.
By that I don’t mean that the stuff in which the vine and its roots grow is irrelevant. But in my thirty years of studying this stuff I just haven’t seen enough evidence to convince me that, so long as certain minimal soil conditions are met, the precise chemical makeup of the soil matters insofar as the wine’s quality is concerned–as long as the grapes are grown in a cool climate.
What are those minimal soil conditions? Good drainage and sparse nutrients. The former means that the vine’s feet aren’t “wet.” The latter means that the vine is not growing in overly-fertile conditions that produce giant clusters whose grapes are weak in flavor. Obviously, both conditions are closely related.
In California we have great Pinot Noir growing in almost every type of soil you can name: the sand and marine sediments of Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills, the pebbles of the Middle Reach, the Goldridge series of certain parts of the Russian River Valley, the clays and loams of Carneros, sands and loams of Santa Lucia Highlands, the decomposed sandstone of Anderson Valley, the volcanic basalt of the Far Coast and Santa Cruz Mountains, and so on. Heck, the Rochioli Vineyard alone contains almost all those different soil types, from riverside to hillside, but somehow they produce distinctive Pinot Noirs that all somehow seem “Rochiolian.”
The wine writer Dave McIntyre wrote the other day in the Washington Post an article about this that interviews a vintner who believes strongly in the impact of soil. Dave did a good job of letting the vintner speak for himself. He didn’t blindly and blandly accept his premise, or impose his (Dave’s) point of view, but simply presented the quotes to allow us readers to make up our own minds. That’s proper journalism, all too rare in this day of “I’ll believe whatever the winemaker tells me.” Dave did describe two Cabernet Francs he tasted, made with identical techniques but grown in different soils; one “was noticeably better” than the other, he wrote; but I think Dave would be the first to acknowledge that this was according to his palate on that occasion and that somebody else, equally qualified, might disagree; and that even the notion of “better” is slippery, as the “less better” wine might be “better” when paired with certain foods.
It is true that, in the recent history of the past few decades, Californians have tended to minimize the impact of soil in favor of climate. After all, our climate is so spectacular that it’s hard not to be awestruck by it, especially when compared to Old Europe, which was the inevitable comparison in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when California was building its reputation on the world stage. The message of Cali vintners then was “Europe has one or two good vintages every decade and one or two horrible ones and the rest are inbetween. We never have horrible vintages; every year is a vintage year!”
Why muddy a marketing message like that with ambiguities about soil?
The Oregonians, when they began to challenge California—and some of them had California backgrounds–quickly realized they couldn’t compete with us, if “gorgeous weather” was the criterion. Summers can be delightful in the Willamette Valley, but they can also be rainy, which is never the case in California; and the Pinot Noir harvest weather here is usually fine, which it decidedly isn’t in Oregon. So, strictly from a messaging perspective, the Oregonians hit upon “soil” as their selling point.
They also had a good argument about latitude and sunlight patterns, Oregon being closer to the latitude of Burgundy, the Mother Lode of Pinot Noir. But I think the notion that the Oregonians present themselves as soil-ists while the Californians present themselves as climate-ists is correct. Fortunately, the rest of us don’t have to take sides. We can enjoy the wines from both states!
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.
When I was a young man I didn’t care at all for wine, except for its obvious ability to make a college freshman (me) drunk. Years later, I learned to appreciate and eventually love wine. At first I sought out Cabernet Sauvignon because that was the wine all the critics at that time (the 1980s) said was the most important grape and wine, at least here in California.
At about that time I got my first wine writing job, at Wine Spectator, where they assigned me The Collecting Page, which appeared in every issue. My job was to write articles of interest to wine collectors. I got to know most of the top collectors in America (they all wanted to have their pictures and names in the magazine, so they returned my phone calls and in some cases they sought me out). One thing I learned about these wealthy, white, middle-aged men was that, almost to a person, they had started out with a preference for Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux, then graduated to Pinot Noir/Burgundy. That was my first intuition that our tastes in booze change over time.
Of course it’s well known that many people begin liking sweet wines and only gradually move onto dry table wines, so that’s another calibration in the booze evolutionary scale. With me, a love of Pinot Noir took some time, because there wasn’t very much decent Pinot in California, and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy good Burgundy. But by the mid-1990s there was enough good Pinot, from the likes of Williams Selyem, Rochioli and so on, that I learned to love it. However, I never loved it more than Cabernet. To me, they were separate, but equal.
However now my tastes are definitely changing. I’ve acquired, or I should say re-acquired, a taste for beer—good beer, craft beer, not the watery stuff produced by America’s gigantic brewers. I’m not sure why this has finally happened to me. Beer has an umami quality that I simply crave, especially for my first drink of the late afternoon. Maybe it’s the fizz.
I’ve also acquired a new-found appreciation for liquor, particularly vodka. Again, I can’t say why this is. My favorite is a gimlet: good vodka and freshly-squeezed limes. None of that sweet Rose’s, please, and if you happen to have a basil leaf, feel free to muddle it in, but not too much; the basil should be a subtle background taste.
This isn’t to say I don’t still appreciate wine. I certainly do. I continue to love a good, dry white wine, no matter where it’s from: California, Sancerre, Chablis. It’s in the matter of red wines that I find my bodily tastes changing the most. I can still appreciate a red wine, but it really has to be a very good wine. For me, red wines show their flaws more readily than any other wine; and the chief flaw is a certain heavy blandness that can come with an over-emphasis of fruit. Many, many California red wines suffer from this flaw; a little fruitiness goes a long way, and if the wine is out-of-balance in acids and tannins, the flaw is even more obvious. Another way of putting this is that I can appreciate a good beer, white wine or cocktail by itself, but most red wines are more difficult for me to enjoy unless they’re coupled with the proper food.
It’s funny, though, because I still find myself mentally rating wines, even though it’s going on two years (!!!) since I was a working wine critic. Old habits die hard. Take California Cabernet Sauvignon. There are lots of them I’ll score at 92, 93 points, even though they’re not particularly wines I care to drink, except, as I said, with the right foods. But there’s a twist: most of these big red wines call for beef, and I’m not much of a beef eater. (I think of lamb as a Pinot Noir food. Pigs and Pinot, as we say.) So even though my formal training is in rating and reviewing big red wines, and I’m pretty good at it, those same wines play less and less of a role in my private life.
I’ve also evolved to another more interesting point, at least for me. I’ve cellared wine since, like, forever! But I’m finally at the point where I’m starting to drink my older bottles. I figure, I’m not going to be here forever, and those special occasions I always fancied would justify popping the cork on a 15-year old wine seem to come a lot less frequently than they used to. So why wait? What’s the old saying, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
El Nino is starting to hit us here in California. One storm after another, with a biggie scheduled to roll in on Thursday. But the week beyond that is dry, and our state water officials are warning us, with some urgency, not to stop conserving just because the “monster” El Nino is coming. So we’ll just have to wait and see what January, February, March and April bring.
Some years ago (and I quoted her in New Classic Winemakers of California), Heidi Barrett told me that the success of Screaming Eagle surprised even her, the winemaker. It was like a “prairie fire,” she said: lightning struck ready ground, and the winery became a legend.
Recent developments and discussions have led to me inquire about the possibility of creating a new cult wine in California. A “cult wine,” of course, is one that is of relatively low production, that amasses, not jus good, but ecstatic reviews from the most influential critics, that has a “story,” and—bottom line—fetches the highest prices. The sanctum sanctorum of cult wines is a situation where the wine doesn’t even appear in retail contexts. In order to buy it, you must get on a waiting list for a mailing list.
Before analyzing how a cult wine might be created, let’s look at a few that already exist and see how they happened. I spoke of Screaming Eagle: before it became Screaming Eagle, it was just another Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Heidi Barrett was not then the ultra-famous consulting winemaker she has since become. Screaming Eagle’s location, off the Silverado Trail in east Oakville, was not considered the best. There was indeed a “lightning strikes” serendipity to the process that is very hard to explain.
Another cult winery is Saxum, which I also wrote about in New Classic Winemakers. Rhône blends from Paso Robles weren’t exactly cult darlings when young Justin Smith began his West Side project. It took some stellar reviews from top critics to launch him to the top. Ditto for Helen Turley at Marcassin, Williams Selyem and Rochioli, Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non, John Alban and, up in Washington State, Charles Smith and Cayuse. They would not be where they are today without the help of famous wine critics.
On the other hand, there are wineries that have spent tens of millions of dollars to produce quite respectable wines that, while very good, have not launched into cult status. They hired the most famous flying winemakers, the hardest-to-get viticulturalists and the most expensive P.R. firms, and still they remain on the almost-cult list. Napa Valley is replete with such examples. Could it be that the era of the cult winery is over—that it’s not possible to make a new one from scratch?
That is a plausible theory. The field is so crowded that it hardly seems to have room for yet another cult wine. A younger generation is not as interested in them as were their parents and grandparents. A meme has swept the country, along the lines of “Just because it’s expensive and gets high scores doesn’t make it better.” In fact, people, especially below the age of 30, understand that to some extent the system is rigged. They may not know the details, but their cynicism has been sharpened by exposure to a U.S. media that seems to advance people and things for its own purposes, rather than for the general well-being. In this sense, it would be very, very difficult if not impossible to make a new cult wine.
On the other hand are a couple of traits of human nature. One is that we seek novelty. Even cult wines gradually lose their appeal; I could name several that have over the last twenty years. Wine people are notoriously fickle. They are also are notoriously insecure, which is why wine critics are so easily able to influence them. Since we still have wine critics—and are likely to into the future—there is the distinct possibility that “the critics” (whoever they are) could anoint a new cult wine anytime they choose to do so. Yes, the Baby Boomer critics are leaving the scene but, as I have long predicted, they’re being replaced by a younger generation (Galloni is the prime example) that’s as influential as ever. Meanwhile, the most important wine magazines and newsletters maintain their critical power; even if their newer writers aren’t as well-known as Parker or Laube, they retain the power of the Score. So we still have the infrastructure in place to create new cult brands.
What varieties are most likely to be the new cult wines? Pinot Noir for sure. In my opinion, its future is unlimited; someone, somewhere, is going to make a single-vineyard Pinot Noir that rockets to the top. Cabernet and red Bordeaux blends are more problematic. There are so many; the market is so saturated. I suppose if a First Growth started a new Napa Valley winery (the way Petrus, or rather Christian Moueix, did at Dominus), the media at least would be waiting with baited breath for the first release, and if they universally praised it, it could soar to the top. But that’s unlikely. Nor is it likely that there will be a cult Chardonnay or Zinfandel. What about Syrah? It’s poised for a comeback. Growers are putting in new plantings in the best coastal locations, especially along the Central Coast. Prices for grapes are up. In selected locales, Syrah and red Rhône blends are doing very well, hand-sold by gatekeepers to audiences who don’t seem to be aware of, or care about, the conventional wisdom that red Rhônes are dead. So, of all the varieties, I think Syrah, or a Syrah-based Rhône blend, is in the best position to give birth to that rarest baby in the wine world, a cult wine.