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California Pinot Noir: A followup consideration



A question arose on my blog late last week, after my March 27 post, What about those reports that “weaker wines are better than stronger ones”?

When the comments turned to a discussion about soils, the topic of limestone arose. Now, as any historian of Burgundy (including Chablis), the Loire and Champagne is well aware, limestone (or chalk) has been considered the “bedrock” (pun intended) of those regions’ terroir. Hugh Johnson, in his “World Atlas,” praises the limestone of Nuits-St-Georges (to use a single instance) for causing “the inimitable sappy richness of the Pinot Noir.” James E. Wilson, in his book, “Terroir,” titles his chapter on Champagne “Chalk Country” and reminds us that it took centuries for “the significance of the relationship of this lifeless-looking white rock and the soils of Champagne” to be recognized.

A few California Pinot pioneers with experience in the vineyards of Burgundy recognized it. They sought chalky soil when they developed their properties. Foremost among them was perhaps Josh Jensen, at Calera, who once described to me how he had scoured the state of California, armed with geology maps and a little vial of acid, in search of limestone, which he eventually found on Mount Harlan. (“Calera” itself is the old Spanish word for “lime kiln.”)

When I began visiting the Santa Rita Hills, local vintners made a big deal of pointing out the white-stone outcroppings that burst through the soil along the shoulders of Santa Rosa Road—limestone, uplifted or exposed from the now-retreated sea bed. In western Paso Robles, too, one can see these eroded white rocks, evidence not only of the California coast’s birth deep below a long-gone ocean, but of the fact that there is more limestone in our state than anyone had previously thought.

The comments on my blog concerning limestone underscored its importance for Pinot Noir at such wineries as Calera and Chalone. This may well be true, although in the case of Calera the terroir is dominated by the warm summers, which in my judgment trump soil there. As for Chalone, its changes of ownership over the years have resulted in some inconsistency of the wines, which makes them difficult to appraise. If we view the broader Santa Rita Hills (and Santa Maria Valley, as well), with its fossilized seashells, it’s easy to apprehend that these old chalky deposits lend a certain something to the wines (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay especially), but precisely what that “something” is, is hard to say, beyond the intriguing but amorphous word “minerality,” which almost everyone in California claims to find in their wines, whether it be Zinfandels from the Sierra Foothills or Cabernets from Oakville. I will not at this time venture any further into the tall weeds of minerality.

So I see limestone, if a Pinot vineyard is lucky enough to have it, as a good thing. But so are the Gold Ridge soils of the Sonoma Coast, the barren, austere dirts of the Mayacamas stretch of Alexander Valley, the volcanic soils of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and indeed the clays and pebbles of Carneros. This is the puzzle of Pinot Noir in California: that so vast and turbulent an array of soils can consistently produce so fine a wine.

Which leaves us, then, with the only thing these regions have in common to explain wine quality: climate. (Obviously, all the different soils are well-drained, no matter their chemical composition. Well-drained soil is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the production of fine wine.) These regions all are within the Region I-Region II spectrum of the old U.C. Davis scale. I look to the warmer parts among them, such as the Middle Reach of the Russian River Valley, to give dense, textured and frankly flamboyant Pinot Noirs. The cooler areas yield silkier, more delicate and perhaps more complex Pinots, with the most complex of all coming from those places so impacted by the coast that, in a chilly year like 2011, the grapes might not get fully ripe. But in a more moderate year, like 2012, look out.

There’s no point in pitting these styles one against the other. It’s petulant to do so. Which is why I hold that, when it comes to Pinot Noir, California has achieved—finally—a degree of variation, based on terroir, that we long envied among the French. We need envy France no more—what we need is further exploration, fueled and paid for by consumers willing to pay the bottle price, because they know that California coastal Pinot Noir needs to offer no apologies, to anyone, for being what it is.

I do think that the lower the alcohol is on Pinot Noir, the more it will reflect its particular soil conditions; there is an inverse relationship between ripeness and the soil part of terroir. In this respect, it’s important to keep in mind that the soil part of terroir is to some extent at odds with the grape itself. Which will dominate? I see this as a pitched battle between two sides. There is a school of thought that roots for terroir, another school that roots for the fruit itself. (One might almost conclude that this is the essence of the difference between “old world” and “new world” palates.) Ideally, Pinot Noir, and all wines actually, is the result of an exquisite balancing act between terroir and grape, the sort of equilibrium sometimes referred to as “tension” or “nerve,’ which is more than just piquant acidity. It’s rarely achieved; one hopes that any wine that gets a high score from a reputable critic comes close. This touches upon the ripeness conversation we’ve all been having, but does not resolve it because, in truth, there is no resolution.

In Pursuit of Balance tasting, San Francisco



A lovely tasting today at In Pursuit of Balance, really the best they’ve ever had. The venue was new: City View, in the Metreon Center, instead of RN74 like it was the last time I went. And what a crowd! This was clearly the buzziest place to be today if you were anywhere near San Francisco.

It’s impossible to taste everything, but I did get to quite a few Pinot Noirs, mostly 2012s. In general, you can say that this is a generous vintage, yielding balanced, supple and frankly delicious wines of great structure, although in a few cases, the acids were too fierce. The best of them need age. Here are a few standouts:

Domaine de la Cote. I have not been a fan of the 2011s which were green, but 2012 was a great success. The Bloom’s Field (12.5%) is sleek and streamlined, with a core of raspberries. It needs time.

Sandhi. Their ’12 Sanford & Benedict (13.5%) is a real beauty, charming and supple.

Knez. This was a new winery for me, out of Anderson Valley. The ’12 Demuth (13.3%) and ’12 Cerise (about 13.3%) both are gorgeous, the former tight, the latter more generous. Both need time.

Hirsch. First, it was good to hear that David is back at work! The ’12 East Ridge (13%) is powerful but delicate, with awesome structure. The ’12 Reserve (13.1%) is a wine I’d describe as Burgundian, with mushroom and tea notes to the raspberry core. Both wines need time.

Au Bon Climat. The 2011 Knox Alexander (13.1%) is huge in flavor, explosive in raspberry essence, yet gorgeously structured and dry. It certainly needs 5-6 years in the bottle.

Wenzlau. Another new winery for me. The Estate Santa Rita Hills (13.0%) is very acidic, almost lemony, with with solid raspberry-cherry fruit. I would give it six years.

Kutch. A pair of 2013s, the Sonoma Coast (12.3%) and the Rohan Vineyard (12.3%), from the Bohan-Dillon area of Fort Ross-Seaview. Two great wines. The former is delicate, the latter more potent and dramatic. I would cellar the Rohan for six years.

Native9 2011 Rancho Ontiveros (13.4%). A great success for the vintage, pale in color, lots of acidity, plenty of finesse. Drinking beautifully now.

Here are a few pictures of some old friends.

SashiSashi Moorman pouring. Raj Parr in background.

ClendenenJim Clendenen, one of the immortals

StevieStevie Stacionis, of Bay Grape in Oakland

CarloCarlo Mondavi. Sorry you have to crane your neck!

 JamesJames Ontiveros, Native9 and Rancho Ontiveros

EhrenEhren Jordan, of Failla

Alcohol level in Pinot Noir: a question of shifting fashion



Writer David Darlington makes the case, perhaps unwittingly, for how hard it is to explain why alcohol levels are higher in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir than they used to be, in his article, “Accounting for Taste,” in the April issue of Wine & Spirits. (Sorry, I can’t find a link online.)

After first positing that today’s wines are, in fact, higher in alcohol than, say, twenty years ago—an unarguable statement—David makes his position immediately known, calling “so many so monstrous.” At one point, he even calls them “dangerous.”

Now these are awfully harsh words: surprisingly so, coming from the guy who wrote what is possibly the best book on Zinfandel ever, “Angels’ Visits.” But let us grant that Pinot Noir is not Zinfandel.

After having slammed so many Pinots, David at least has the reportorial curiosity to ask why alcohol levels have risen. He phrases his question thusly: “Are the winemakers responsible, or is it attributable to something beyond their control?”

And then cannot answer the question. Which is, of course, beyond his own control, for the fact of the matter is, there is no one answer why alcohol levels have increased. David certainly did his homework, interviewing multiple winemakers in an effort to find out why. Here are ten causes they suggested to him:

  1. vertical shoot positioning, as opposed to the California sprawl of old
  2. the market
  3. ratings
  4. consumer preferences
  5. climate change/global warming
  6. Dijon clones
  7. longer hangtime
  8. super strains of yeast
  9. younger vines
  10. warmer fermentations

Well, that’s pretty much the whole nine yards! By article’s end, the reader’s impression can only be confusion. Why are alcohol levels higher now than they used to be? Who knows? Pick a reason—pick any reason—pick them all! But what does any of it have to do with Russian River Pinot Noir being “monstrous”? Well, with that remark, David at least is honest, if hyperbolic, about his bias.

The winery that David holds up for particular praise is Small Vines. I personally can attest to the quality of their Pinot Noirs: I gave them eight 90-points-or-higher scores over the years, and since I left, Virginie Boone has given them another four. With all this talk of low alcohol, I was curious to know what Small Vines’ levels have been. Google brought me to The Prince of Pinot; this article shows that alcohol levels in Small Vines Pinot Noirs varied between 13.2% and 14.5%, with seven of the 15 wines The Prince reviewed above 14%. This is not particularly low, and is in league with most of the Pinot Noirs I reviewed from coastal California, which were anywhere between 13.8% and 14.5%.

I’m glad David quoted the great Merry Edwards, who reduced the low-alcohol movement in Pinot Noir to incoherence. “The fashion norm is shifting now,” she told him; “people are listening to Raj Parr (the In Pursuit of Balance ringleader), and French marketing has convinced people that you should pay a lot of money for wines that are light and watery. I’m on the opposite side—we’re not in France, we’re in California”

Light and watery! You go grrl! When one has been in the arena as long as Merry (she’s been making wine since 1974), one sees “fashion” come and go with merry-go-round (excuse the pun) regularity—and one learns not to succumb to it.

It can be hard to resist fashion, if all you want to do is appeal to the latest trend. But winemakers who are dedicated to their art are not slaves to fashion. They stay the course; they know that style goes in and out, but that true quality in winemaking, as exemplified by Merry Edwards, remains undeterred by these perturbations in the critical aether.

Is liking IPAs really as uncool as liking California Cabernet?



I like beer, but didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy it when I was tasting and reviewing wine. Popping the corks on at least 15 different bottles a day, and then sitting there thinking and writing about them, took so much effort that I had little time or energy left over for any other kind of alcoholic beverage.

All that changed fairly dramatically a year ago, when I took my new job at Jackson Family Wines. Suddenly, I didn’t have to taste a gazillion wines anymore. (Not that I’d minded it—I loved, and still love, reviewing wine.) All the samples that had flooded my doorstep for so many years abruptly ceased.

Well, not 100%. Although Wine Enthusiast, and I personally, did our best to notify California wineries that I wasn’t working there anymore, wine still comes to me with some regularity. I always send it back, of course, but if you’re a California winery, and reading this, please take note: I DON’T WORK AT WINE ENTHUSIAST ANYMORE!

Anyhow, shortly after I started the new gig, I decided to get back into beer. Nowadays, you’ll always find a few bottles chilling in my fridge. Starting at 5 p.m.—Happy Hour, yay!–I like to have some in a frosty mug I keep in the freezer.

What kind of beer? It can be anything, but it’s often an India Pale Ale. I don’t claim to know much about beer, except that I like it (hey, if all there is on a hot summer afternoon is Bud Lite, count me in!). But I do know that I like that big, hoppy IPA style, which I also recognize as the California Cabernet Sauvignon-equivalent of beer: full-bodied, rich and heady.

This article, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Inside Scoop online portal, gives a nice summary of where beer trends are at here in the Bay Area. The author is Jon Bonné, who recently announced that he’s stepping down from his fulltime gig as wine editor of the paper, although he’ll continue a monthly column of some sort. Now Jon, as we all know, made his bones by coming out against the prevailing style of California wine, which is ripe, sunshiney power. Jon favors the In Pursuit of Balance style of lower alcohol wines that many in the IPOB crowd consider more classic and elegant than your typical Napa Valley Cab or, for that matter, Pinots that are riper than—oh, I don’t know, let’s say 13.8%. So I didn’t find it surprising that, in his article, Jon came out against “the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers” as evidenced by “the style that defines most IPAs…”. In fact—just to make sure that we readers understand that hoppy IPAs and big Cabernets are crimes against their respective beverage groups—the craftsmen who produce them, according to Jon, are profiting from a “follow-the-money argument,” which means, presumably, that the producers Jon doesn’t care for are venal.

Well, I’ll let those producers make their own rebuttals. Here’s Jon’s: “The arms race of oak, extraction and jammy flavors, which proved successful for a previous generation of Cabernet makers, is a direct parallel to the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers.” Both drinks are “flavor bombs”; neither is part of the “avant-garde” which Jon so assiduously courts.

I should think Jon might have modified his views following his recent visit to Paris—his beloved France, source of “balanced” wines, and original home of the avant-grade—where he discovered, evidently to his dismay, that “the French craft brewing renaissance is currently populated by hopheads, and obsessed with IPAs…”. I guess forty million Frenchmen can be wrong.

But the real point is that Jon has not served the California wine industry well. He dismissed a large part of its best wines, in many cases refusing even to review them in the Chronicle despite being sent tasting samples, and thus distorting reality to his readers. This has disturbed many California winemakers, who were afraid to criticize Jon publicly for fear of retribution. My own position has been consistent: It’s unprofessional for a wine critic to throw so many wines produced in his own home region under the bus by refusing to even taste them. It’s a fundamental axiom in wine criticism that you don’t have to like a wine in order to review it fairly. You review it within the context of what it purports to be. For example, I might not like Sherry (in fact, I do), but even if I didn’t, I’d feel honor-bound to recognize what a good sherry is, and then to give good sherries good scores.

Jon never gave so many California wines the chance to just be what they are, simply because of a number—alcohol percentage by volume. Instead, he trashed these wines with epithets like “fruit bombs” and “male swagger.” Such snarkiness may have made him a hero to IPOB, but not to many of our state’s winemakers, who might be forgiven for being happy now that he’s gone. Personally, maybe I can finally get into the cool kids’ avant-garde club even though I like Napa Cab and IPAs!

A Thursday afternoon Pinot Noir tasting



I did a small tasting session yesterday up at Jackson Family Wines for some folks and, as it was highly informative, I thought I’d share some of the findings here.


All the wines were 2012 Pinot Noirs. Here was the lineup:

Foxen Fe Ciega

Siduri Clos Pepe

Domaine de la Côte, Bloom’s Field

Foxen La Encantada

Cambria Julia’s

Loring Cargasacchi

Brewer-Clifton 3D

Lutum Sanford & Benedict

Brewer-Clifton Machado.

You’ll notice that all the wines were Santa Rita Hills except for the Cambria. I thought it would be nice if we included the Julia’s (a wine we at Jackson know well) to see if we could detect it and also if it showed a “Santa Maria Valley” character as opposed to a “Santa Rita Hills” character. After all, the two appellations have nearly identical climates, although the soils are different, and are separated only by the 101 Freeway and a little bit of latitude.

My top wines easily were the two Brewer-Cliftons, the two Foxens and the Loring. All showed what I think of as the fleshiness I want in a great California Pinot Noir: rich, ripe, almost flamboyant fruit, great tannins and acidity, enormous complexity, and deliciousness right out of the bottle yet with the capacity to age. Interestingly, all five were at least 14% alcohol by volume. By contrast, the wine with the least alcohol, the Domaine de la Côte, at 12.5%, was my least preferred wine.

The tasting was blind, and all of us thought the Bloom’s Field was dominated by oak. Even though the tech notes say there was zero percent new oak, still, the wine was aged in barrel for 20 months, and the vanilla and char were overwhelming. I think the problem was that the wine simply didn’t have the power to support the extracted wood. It’s fine to aim for a low alcohol wine, but not at the cost of trading away richness and ripeness. This is California, not Burgundy. If you take ripeness away from our Pinot Noirs, there’s not much else that remains.

The Lutum, which was made by Gavin Chanin, was an interesting wine, but even though the alcohol was offfically 13.7% I found it a bit hot and rustic. I think, concerning these lowish alcohol levels, that we really have to resolve this discussion about how to keep Pinot Noir “balanced” and yet retain its opulence. Balance for the sake of balance seems silly to me, if by “balance” you mean simply alcohol below 14%. I don’t think “balance” is determined by a number. Shouldn’t deliciousness and opulence be a part of the equation?

Incidentally, the four Foxen and B-C wines were fabulous, but aside from neither of them having an obsession with alcohol levels, they were separated by the fact that Greg Brewer loves whole cluster fermentation whereas Billy Wathan destemmed all his berries. And yet their wines were magnificent, stunning and, yes, balanced. This shows that the degree of whole cluster is irrelevant, provided, of course, that those stems are lignified if you do include them.

Did I identify the Julia’s? No. Mea culpa. It was right in the middle, score-wise.

Anyhow, I can think of worse ways to spend eternity than tasting Pinot Noir and talking about it! Salud, and have a great weekend.

Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir, and the loss of a pioneer, Daniel J. Gainey

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Santa Barbara County has been much on my mind lately. Last month, we at Jackson Family Wines did our “Sand & Fog” event in L.A. that focused on the Pinot Noirs of the Santa Maria Valley. I followed that up with a small private tasting of additional Santa Maria Pinots. Next week, I’ll do Santa Rita Hills Pinots, up at the company in Santa Rosa. Since Jackson Family Wines has no properties in the Santa Rita Hills, I’ve chosen the following eight wines, which I think give a good representation of the region:

Siduri 2012 Clos Pepe

Loring 2012 Cargasacchi

Brewer Clifton 2012 3-D

Brewer Clifton 2012 Machado

Domaine de la Cote 2012 Bloom’s Field

Lutum 2012 Sanford & Benedict

Foxen 2012 La Encantada

Foxen 2012 Fe Ciega

As you can see, the vineyard sourcing is from all over the appellation, north to south and west to east. There’s also a good spectrum of clonal material ranging from the Dijons to older selections like Pommard and Calera. Some of the wines were fermented without the clusters while others, notably Greg Brewer’s, were whole cluster fermentation. And alcohol levels—always of such interest—range from the Cote’s 12.5% to Siduri’s 15.6%. All of the wines are, of course, sourced from individual vineyards or from specific blocks within vineyards.

Does a blended wine give a better representation of regional terroir than a single-vineyard wine? This is a tough question to answer. A blended wine—say, a Pinot from La Encantada, Cargasacchi and Brewer-Clifton—is hard to imagine in the real world. But if you had no idea what the Santa Rita Hills was like for Pinot Noir, such a mythical beast would undoubtedly give you a good idea. On the other hand, it’s terrific fun to explore individual vineyards, especially provided that you’re able to do so over many vintages. Fortunately, I can always go into my database and see what I’ve said over the years about most of these vineyards. Encantada, Fe Ciega, S&B, Clos Pepe, Cargasacchi—I have a history with these wines, which are all very great expressions of their terroir.

For this Santa Rita Hills tasting, I think we’ll do it blind. It will be instructive to see if, for instance, we can tell the Domaine de la Cote and the Siduri because both are the outliers in terms of alcohol level. I, myself, am not always to detect highish alcohol in a California wine. I always try to, before peeking at the label, but I’d say my batting average is just that: average. I also want to see if we’ll be able to detect the whole cluster wines blind. I’d look for more body, more spiciness and a different feeling to the tannins. I don’t think Greg Brewer would whole-cluster his Pinots if the stems weren’t fully lignified. I’ll be looking for that architectural element that stems can give, which you can feel in the mouth.

* * *

Speaking of Santa Barbara County, just as I was writing this post, I got an email that Daniel J. Gainey, the founder of Gainey Vineyard, has passed away, at the age of 89. I had a great deal of respect for Mr. Gainey, although I was closer to his son, Dan H. I was a frequent visitor to their lovely winery, which was just down the road from Santa Ynez town, where I often stayed at the Santa Ynez Inn. Gainey made excellent wines, from cool-climate Pinots and Chards grown in their Santa Rita Hills vineyards to the Merlots, Syrahs and Sauvignon Blancs from warmer vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. As a matter of fact, before the advent of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, I used to write that Gainey made the best Merlot in the county. Over the years, I gave 48 Gainey wines scores of 90 points or higher. Not bad.

Mr. Gainey was a true pioneer, having founded his winery in 1984, when practically no one had heard of the Santa Ynez Valley, or of Santa Barbara County wine, for that matter. He was a true wine lover and a gentleman. My sympathies to Dan H. and the entire family.

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