Since I’m in a Pinot Noir state of mind lately, here goes:
Of 173 Pinot Noirs I’ve scored at 90 points or higher since Sept. 1, 2012 (i.e. nearly six months ago), only 8 are from Carneros.
That’s a pretty dismal showing. As an appellation, I think Carneros has slipped in reputation compared to California’s other Pinot-growing regions.
It may be the weather, which is cool and foggy, or the wind, or it could be older plant material that’s not really suitable for the terroir. But I think it’s mostly the soils. Matt Kramer calls Carneros “a massive slab of clay and silt”; Jonathan Swinchatt and David G. Howell, in “The Winemakers Dance,” describe Lee Hudson’s Carneros soils as “heavy with clays, gummy sediment that holds together pretty well until it becomes saturated with water”; and even André Tchelistcheff, generally credited with being among the first if not the first to plant Pinot Noir in Carneros, admitted (in “Great Winemakers of California”), that, while he thought the Carneros climate was ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, “we do not have in this region the soils I would love to have there.”
I’ve always found Carneros Pinot Noir a little lacking in richness, body and finesse. Acidity can be high. They can be sleek, elegant wines, but when you compare them to a profound Russian River Valley or Sonoma Coast, they come off as lightweights.
To be sure, Carneros is a big appellation, and some areas are better than others. The sprawling flatlands, between where the Mayacamas foothills trail off and San Pablo Bay begins, are where most of the vineyards are, and it’s there that the soils are clayey and gummy. At higher elevations in the north, the soils become better drained, and the air is warmer. Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot can thrive there, but there are sweet spots for Pinot noir also.
Once upon a time, 20 years ago and more, Carneros was the great, bright hope for Pinot Noir. Some called it “California’s [or America’s] Burgundy.” It seemed all that, and more. But then, reality gathered its forces and overtook fantasy. No region can be more than it is, no matter how much writers [or locals] hype it. The hard work of achieving excellence takes generations–as the Europeans have been telling us all along.
My top Carneros Pinots over the last six months, all scoring 90 points or higher, have been La Rochelle 2009 Donum Estate, Mira 2010 Stanly Ranch, Truchard 2010, Domaine Carneros 2009 The Famous Gate, Domaine Carneros 2009 Clonal Series Dijon 777, Carol Shelton 2011 Larson Vineyard, Kazmer & Blaize 2010 Primo’s Hill and Domaine Chandon 2010. All have managed to rise above Carneros ordinariness to produce wines of distinction and, in all likelihood, some ageworthiness.
My head should be filled with thoughts of Cabernet Sauvignon, after spending a large part of last week at Premiere Napa Valley and its associated events. Most of the more than two hundred barrel lots were from the 2011 vintage. Despite much chatter among winemakers about the season’s difficulties, I found the wines I tasted concentrated, balanced and delicious, and not too high in alcohol. Ageworthy, too. But then, two things have to be pointed out: Napa Valley has the best grape sorting regimes in the world, and these Premiere Napa Valley lots are the best wines the winemakers can produce. They may or may not be indicative of the commercial releases, which should start appearing in 2014. But I strongly suspect we’re going to see a solid vintage.
However, it’s Pinot Noir I’m thinking about, because I’m leaving this Wednesday for the the 13th annual World of Pinot Noir, one of my must-attend events of the year. I’ve been going since the very first one. It started off as a modest little thing, sponsored by Central Coast wineries. But over the years, WOPN has expanded its reach, attracting winemakers from around the world, and is now the premier Pinot Noir event in California.
I remember being so impressed by that first WOPN that I told Wine Enthusiast they ought to figure out some way to co-sponsor it. They did. Keep in mind, WOPN was launched well before Sideways, at a time when California Pinot Noir wasn’t exactly a household name.
Historians will someday pinpoint just when California Pinot took center stage. For me, I felt it coming before it actually arrived, which is why I went to WOPN in the first place. It was in Shell Beach, a pit stop on the drive between S.F. and L.A., and that first year attracted only a handful of wineries. But something told me both that Pinot was about to erupt, and that WOPN had the potential to be important.
Why did I think Pinot Noir was on the verge of fame in 2001? Because I’d been following it for a long time. It’s like anything else that has to do with intuition or hunches; you have a feeling of growing momentum. During the 1990s there had been interest in Pinot among the people who mattered: writers, critics, educators, somms, even some forward-thinking collectors (the words “forward-thinking” and “collectors” do not often unite in comfort). The California wine community was a very small town back then (in some respects, it still is), and information passed quickly. I heard about Williams Selyem and Rochioli by 1990, had begun visiting, and of course had known about Richard Sanford in Santa Barbara County, even though I didn’t get down there for a few more years. It was the excitement of the older professionals I knew, my mentors, that infected me and informed me that Pinot Noir was the coming variety.
Even though I began writing for Wine Enthusiast by 1993, for various internal reasons I didn’t start reviewing wines for them until the mid- 1990s. I just looked up my earliest Pinot reviews and they make for interesting reading. My top names from that era remain some of the best Pinot houses around today: Testarossa, Fess Parker, Hanzell, Iron Horse, MacRostie, Acacia, Robert Mondavi, Talley, Marimar Torres. When I look at the prices for vintages from the 1990s, they were high for back then, but have remained relatively stable ($35-$50) over the years, showing that Pinot Noir has not experienced the same price inflation as Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps Pinot producers remember the bad old days, when everybody said California was patently too hot for Pinot Noir; maybe they think they lucked out, and that to raise prices to triple digits would kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Whatever the reason, consumers are the beneficiaries. Compared to dozens of Cabernet Sauvignons that cost in excess of $100 (often far more), Pinot Noir is a bargain.
Starting this Thursday, I’ll be blogging live from WOPN, including throughout the weekend; I am, it seems, the Official World of Pinot Noir Blogger! I’ll be talking about the best wines, the most interesting winemakers, the food, the personalities and whatever nuggets of news and information I can gather. Twitter too.
We’re in the middle of winter now, and even though the rest of the country laughs at Californians when we complain about 40 degrees, to us, it feels really cold. When I have my first drink of the day, around 5 p.m., I might start with a sip of white wine, just to get myself comfortable. But these chilly nights call for red.
Red wine is warming, to the blood, the mind, the soul. There’s something about it that’s like a soft blanket you wrap yourself in that keeps you cozy. I suppose the relatively higher alcohol of red wine also helps with this warming process. I don’t like to put the heat on, even when my home is chilly, so I’ll often be wearing a sweatshirt and even a woolen cap to keep myself warm. But I always notice, after a glass or two of red wine, that my body temperature rises enough that I can take off the sweatshirt and cap and feel comfortable, even though the actual room temperature hasn’t changed. I like that feeling. It’s as though red wine boosts my body’s ability to balance itself to external conditions.
I love a good Pinot Noir, but on these really cold nights I want something with more body. Zinfandel is a full-bodied wine, but I find that even a good one palls on me after a glass. It’s too strong, too spicy, too briary, often overripe and hot. Even the best Zin doesn’t contain mysteries, which is what makes me want a second or third glass of wine–it contains subtleties that require repeated examination. I might dwell on a Merlot for a few glasses, but it would have to be a very good one: La Jota, Shafer, Rutherford Hill, Turnbull, Hunnicutt, all from Napa Valley. A new Napa winery that’s impressed me is Crosby Roamann; they have a Merlot from Oak Knoll that’s really good. There’s not much Merlot out there in California to challenge Napa Valley, although I recently enjoyed a Happy Canyon Vineyard 2007 “Barrack Brand” Merlot. That new Happy Canyon AVA is one to watch.
Syrah, for me, often has the same limitation as Zinfandel. That first sip can be deliriously delicious. But does it keep you coming back for more? A few do. Syrah, though, is one variety that Napa Valley doesn’t dominate. Since winter began, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Syrahs from Donelan (Cuvee Keltie), MacLaren (Judge Family Vineyard) and Del Dotto (Cinghiale Vineyard), all from Sonoma County. But it’s Santa Barbara County Syrah that’s really surprised me. Among the best are Andrew Murray, Brander, Rusack, Whitcraft, Larner, Margerum and La Fenetre. What is it about Santa Barbara that’s so hospitable to Syrah? Food for thought.
Still, when all is said and done, on those cold nights when I want to snuggle in with a red wine, it’s invariably Cabernet Sauvignon. It has the rich body I want, also the intrigue and complexity that make it so interesting as it breathes and changes. I suppose this is why they call Cabernet a “noble” variety, a word that’s hard to define, except to imply that it has layers you keep discovering, one by one, like the experience of great music or literature or painting.
Here are some great Cabs I’ve been drinking this winter: Goldschmidt, World’s End, Venge, Trefethen, Turnbull, B Cellars, Patland, PerryMoore, Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Arger-Martucci, Altvs [the “v” is not a typo, it’s the way Bill Foley wants it), Antonio Patric, Tudal and Napa Angel by Montes. These are all from Napa Valley and its various sub-appellations, and most of them are single vineyard wines. Two vineyards show up repeatedly: Stagecoach and Beckstoffer To Kalon. When people say great wine is made in the vineyard, they’re talking about wines like these.
Regarding “bargains,” while it is undoubtedly true that it is harder to find a great CA Pinot under $30 than it is with some other varieties, I think CA Pinot provides superb “value” when you consider the full QPR. Consider that your top rated wines above are $100 and average maybe $60-70. Compare that to the prices of your highly-rated Cabs. It’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about California Pinot Noir.
This is certainly true, but begs the question, Why? It’s not because there’s an inherent difference in quality between top Cabs and Pinots. A Janzen 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (97 points) is not a better wine than Failla’s 2010 Occidental Ridge Pinot Noir (also 97 points), even though the former retails for $135 while the latter is a “mere” $60. So what gives?
Here are some factors that could raise the price on the Napa Cabernet: buying grapes from Beckstoffer, who charges a lot, price of new barrels, cost of consultants, cost of bottles (Napa Cabernet generally is in heavier and presumably more expensive bottles), cost of corks. Without knowing the details, I will assume that all these costs were higher for the Janzen than for the Failla. Still, that can’t account for a difference in price of $75!
So we have to go to factors that are unrelated to the cost of production. One that’s obvious right off the bat is the influence of peer pricing. In Napa Valley, you can’t price a wine below the price of your perceived competitors (or so the argument goes). If your wine costs significantly less than the “neighborhood” you want to live in, then buyers—consumers, somms, retailers, even, alas, some “critics”—will perceive you as “lesser” and conclude that your wine cannot be as good, even if it is. This is why, when Screaming Eagle raised its list price some years ago, you saw a kneejerk reaction up and down Napa Valley: everybody who perceived himself as in the same elite category as Screaming Eagle felt it necessary to jack up their prices accordingly.
So that’s one reason, but there’s another, more related to history: California mimics Europe in its approach to the pricing aspects of wine, and Bordeaux in general always has been more expensive than Burgundy. While there are obvious exceptions, this statement is true. It’s curious, because the average Bordeaux chateau has a higher production than the average Burgundy domaine, so you’d think it would be the other way around. But no. For some reason, going back hundreds of years, consumers (wealthy white western Europeans and, a little later, Americans like Thomas Jefferson) were willing to pay astronomical prices for top Bordeaux wines like Lafite and Latour. That tradition is larded through our wine culture and remains in force today.
What’s changing, of course, is that an entire younger generation of Americans couldn’t care less about Bordeaux. Report after report proves this. As Eric Asimov wrote, for a greater number of Americans, especially younger ones, Bordeaux “is now largely irrelevant.” Pressure on the Bordelais to ease up on prices has been neutered only by the false and thus unsustainable popularity of these wines in Asia. But the marketplace eventually rationalizes everything (if Adam Smith is correct), and so we should see an equalizing of Bordeaux and Burgundy prices internationally sooner or later.
In California, the distorting effects of this historical imbalance between Bordeaux and Burgundy struck early, but are now in an interesting state of flux. We saw the Great Recession pose a threat to triple-digit Napa Cabernets. Now that we’re in recovery, we see a consumer who’s no longer willing to blindly plonk down whatever it takes to buy the Cabernet of the moment. And to the extent this consumer exists, he probably has gray hair.
This is Pinot Noir’s moment to shine, and it can happen, if—and it’s a big if—the top producers manage to resist their hubris and keep prices moderate. And by “moderate” I mean less than $100.
My love affair with Pinot Noir continued in 2012. When it comes to that variety, my tastes are all-embracing: as Eminem sings in Just Lose It, “Black girls, White girls, Skinny girls, Fat girls, Tall girls, Small girls, I’m calling all girls,” I like all Pinot Noirs, as long as they’re good.
Not for me ideological rigidities for or against yields, yeasts, alcohol level, whole clusters, degree of color saturation, toast levels, ageable or not, “Burgundian” or “New World” in style. Just bring on what Charlie Olken years ago called Pinot’s “richness, complexity and velvety texture” and I’m a happy camper.
Charlie wrote that (along with Earl Singer and Norm Roby) in their classic The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines, but in 1980, they had also to include this inconvenient truth: “California Pinot Noirs have too often been thin-flavored and simple.” Yes, back then, they were. But the decade of the 1980s and in particular that of the 1990s showed growers the best places to plant (cooler coastal regions), and they often planted with closer spacing, and the Dijon clones came in, and winemakers changed their fermentation techniques, and all sorts of other improvements were implemented, and voila, we saw the greatest changes to impact any variety in California’s modern history.
I tasted about 880 Pinots last year. About half scored more than 90 points. Score inflation? Or better wines? Most were from the 2009 and 2010 vintages, two excellent years for Pinot in California. Both were mild to cool, particularly the latter. But there was enough heat in both vintages to bring physiological ripeness. Alcohol levels tended to be moderate—say, from the high 13s through the mid-14s, although some areas that are prone to higher alcohol, like the Santa Lucia Highlands, as well as some individual wineries with higher-alcohol styles, like Sea Smoke, were exceptions.
By far most of my top-scoring Pinots bore a Russian River Valley appellation, but that’s undoubtedly because that valley has so many more wineries than any of the other top Pinot regions. Certainly, there were a slew of top-scoring Pinots from the Sonoma Coast, and by that I mean the true Coast, way out by the sea. The Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills also did well. They had some early heavy rain in mid-October, but most of the Pinot was picked by then. The Santa Maria Valley also produced some luscious Pinot Noirs, as did Carneros and Anderson Valley.
My top Pinots of the year were a monumental pair of Williams Selyem 2010s, Hirsch ($75) and Precious Mountain ($94), both nearly perfect. (I can’t tell you the scores until they’re published, in the March 1 issue of Wine Enthusiast). Just below those stellar achievements were Flowers 2010 Sea View Ridge (98, $70), Merry Edwards 2009 Klopp Ranch (98, $57, and how lucky I am that Merry asked me to introduce her at her Vintners Hall of Fame induction next month), Donum 2009 West Slope (97, $100, the best Carneros Pinot in years), Failla 2010 Occidental Ridge (97, $60), Foxen 2010 Sea Smoke Vineyard (96, $57), Marimar Estate 2008 La Masia Don Miguel Vineyard (96, $39), Rochioli 2010 West Block (96, $100), De Loach 2009 Pennacchio Vineyard (96, $45, and how nice it is to see a resurrected De Loach under Jean-Charles Boisset’s stewardship), Talley 2010 Rosemary’s Vineyard (96, $70) and another Carneros, La Rochelle 2009 Donum Estate Vineyard (95, $75). Since the Donum vineyard occurs twice in this listing, it bears mentioning that it is adjacent to Buena Vista’s large estate Ramal Road vineyard, on the Sonoma side of the Carneros AVA. Just to close the loop, it will be exciting to see how Jean-Charles Boisset does with these estate grapes since buying Buena Vista in 2011.
Pinot Noir of all varieties least lends itself to bargains. Below $30 or so, you can’t expect that “richness, complexity and velvety texture.” Nonetheless, there are a few that give good value for the price. Among them in 2012 were Fort Ross 2010 Sea Slopes (95, $32), Joseph Swan 2009 Great Oak Vineyard (93, $35), Gallo Signature Series 2010 from the Santa Lucia Highlands (93, $35), Au Bon Climat 2009 Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido (92, $30), Reata 2010 from the Sonoma Coast (92, $30) and Bratcher, from the La Encantada Vineyard down in the Sta. Rita Hills (92, $35).
Speaking of La Encantada, it was planted by Richard Sanford in 2000, close to the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard he also planted (decades earlier), on the Santa Rosa Road corridor, the less famous (after Highway 246) of the Sta. Rita Hills’ two wine roads. Richard has had a harder time on the business end of things than he deserved. First, he lost his vineyard and even ownership of the Sanford brand. Then he started up Alma Rosa Winery, which did a great job, but last summer had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This is sad, and raises profound questions of why bad things happen to good people and good brands.
I was talking with a Russian River Valley winemaker the other day, and she told me that, of all the American critics she follows, I have the most “European palate.”
I was surprised, although I didn’t say anything, because I always think of myself as having a Californian palate. After all, I love our wines (at their best), even as others—mainly Europhiles and New Yawkahs—slam them for being too ripe/sweet/fruity/oaky/alcoholic/name your insult. I’m a sucker for a complex Chardonnay, captivated by Cabernet, sent into swoons by a great Syrah, tickled pink by Pinot Noir, and since I’m running out of alliterative steam, I’ll stop here.
But my fondness for California wine doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate wines from Old Europe. I’ve tasted a lot of Spanish, Italian, French and German wines in my time, and been knocked out by great bottles old and new. The winemaker who told me I have a “European palate” did so, I think, because I give her Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays high scores, even though they’re comparatively acidic and tannic compared to many of her California colleagues’ wines that are riper and more accessible. So she figures I must like a more austere wine, one that only shows its glories with some bottle age—in other words, that I have a European palate.
The truth is, I like to think I have a catholic [small “c”] palate, which is to say I appreciate quality no matter how it expresses itself. That’s why I can never understand these California bashers. After all, if I can find pleasure in a European wine, then why can’t they find pleasure in a California wine?
* * *
In another conversation I had, with a second Russian River Valley winemaker, we were talking about the 2012 vintage (which believe me is being hyped up and down the state like no other vintage in years), and he offered the only criticism I’ve heard so far. “At the very least it’s a very good year,” he began. “The easiest thing to tell early on [with a vintage] is when it’s a bad year!” Then he added, “If I have a worry, yields were too high, so we did a lot of bleed off, saignée. Like in 1997, some of the wines developed a bit of a hole in the middle, and that’s a concern this year.”
This concept of “a hole in the middle” refers to wines that may smell great and enter powerfully, but then something falls off in the concentration or intensity that lowers the score. I find this a lot, and it’s always disappointing; it can resemble the effects of overcropping. In any wine, you want concentration that’s consistent all the way through. That doesn’t mean sheer power. Power by itself is boring. Concentration means power + elegance. Clearly, the Russian River Valley winemaker’s concern is that the high yield will dilute concentration, especially in that middle palate which is so sensitive to the slightest variations of intensity. That is why the winemaker practiced saignée, which normally is used in the production of rosés. The juice is drained or “bled” off after limited contact with the skins, meaning that the remaining juice has greater time on the skins and presumably becomes fuller-bodied.
I’m not sure that’s the best way to restore concentration. After all, if it’s not there initially, then skin contact isn’t going to restore it. But a wine with a hole in the middle can be made to feel fuller through this method. However, I haven’t heard this concern from any other winemaker in the few months since the vintage ended. Indeed, last week in Santa Barbara they were practically turning cartwheels over 2012. Winemakers always fib about vintages, of course; even in a notoriously bad one they’ll tell you that their neighbors suffered from frost/smoke taint/mold/rain/whatever but they didn’t. But in the case of 2012 the hurrahs are so widespread I just have to assume there’s a “there” there. We’ll see.