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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.

More on Pinot Noir and terroir: the concept of Cru



I went to a most interesting tasting yesterday, quite unlike anything I’ve been to before. We selected a clone of Pinot Noir (in this case, 777). We tasted it made from four different vineyards, in entirely different West Coast regions (Oregon and California), made more or less identically, but by different winemakers. Theoretically, then, the main difference between the wines would be the impact of the terroir. Then we tasted four completed Pinots from those wineries, of which the clone was an integral part of the blend, to see if we could discern the taste and qualities of the clone in the finished wines.

Cool, yes? You have to put on your sleuth’s hat.

This sort of tasting is really so interesting because you get to see, in an undeniable way, the influence of terroir, but not only that, you get to see how, or whether, a single clone Pinot Noir can make a complete wine, or whether a blend of various clones/selections is superior.

Before I go any further, let me say that there are no obvious answers. In my years of tasting, interviewing winemakers and drawing my own conclusions, I’ve decided that the minute somebody gives you a simplistic, black-and-white declaration about this or that terroir or clone, you should ask some serious questions.

For instance, let’s say that we identify the terroir of the Pisoni Vineyard, in the southeastern part of the Santa Lucia Highlands and thus warmer, but a high elevation, where you lose temperature with altitude. The soils are decomposed granite and gravelly. So far, so good. But Pisoni sells to a lot of different wineries. Some pick quite a bit earlier than others; the wines are totally different from the late pickers, and as I told our group at the tasting, I’d hate to have to blind-taste wines picked two weeks apart and claim that I could find something Pisoni-esque about them. I could say the same about any vineyard, such as Beckstoffer-Tokalon, that sells grapes to multiple buyers. Of course, any well-made wine from a great vineyard will show its structure, but the particulars—what fruits? What minerals? What spices?—will be irretrievably obscured with all those winemaker decisions, everything from picking time to barrel regimen and even the choice of yeast.

This is why I’ve come around to adopting Emile Peynaud’s view. Terroir, by itself, explains only part of the wine. To understand it completely, you have to know all about the winemaker, her techniques, and not only that, but the appellation in general, its reputation, and even the way the wines are and have been marketed. Peynaud calls this combination of terroir + everything else Cru.

Sure, terroir is important. Tremendously so: but as soon as you consider wines made by different winemakers, with entirely different house styles, that come from the same vineyard, you realize that terroir can never fully explain everything. We long for some Unified Field Theory, as it were, that would sum everything up in a single neat, tidy package. It’s only human to want simplistic explanations, but Reality abhors such reductionism.

On the other hand, I also call discussions about terroir “The wine writers’ full employment act.” As long as we talk about such unsolvable ambiguities (“how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”), wine writers will feel free to write about them (and, hopefully, get paid). And that’s good: If you’re a true wine geek (and I assume if you’re reading this, you are), then you love talking about such esoterica.

Ultimately, your view of terroir and such things depends on your mindset. Some winemakers take a very romantic, mystical attitude towards it. Others are a little more pragmatic. Reporters—and that is my background—are fact-based, and hard-nosed. We know the influence of terroir is real. It has to be: all growing things, from tomatoes to Redwood trees, are the products of their immediate environment. But no growing thing, no agricultural product, is as intensely intertwined with its farmer, and the person who takes the fruit and then interprets it according to his vision, as the wine grape. That is why the concept of terroir, however interesting and important, has to be viewed through the larger lens of Cru. Terroir is nature: human intervention is nurture.The concept of Cru, it seems to me, comes as close to anything we’ve devised to explain the totality of the wine. As my personal DNA is not enough to explain me, but you have to add my experiences since birth especially in the early years, so it is with wine.

Can a single clone Pinot Noir be a complete wine? In theory, no, because it will always have divots that other clones (or vineyards) can fill in. In reality? Absolutely. Like I said, Reality abhors such reductionism.”

Pinot Noir 4.0: An exploration of extreme terroir in California and Oregon



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.

A tasting of 2014 Loring Pinot Noirs




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.

Soil versus climate: The old Pinot Noir question



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!

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