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My “sensational list” of California Pinot Noir

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Some years ago, at a blind tasting of California Pinot Noirs we did for a big story in Wine Enthusiast, Laetitia took highest honors in my scores.

The vintages 2003-2007 were fantastic ones for Laetitia, and while quality seems to have leveled off lately (could it be the cool summers in an already cool region, Arroyo Grande Valley, so that the wine aren’t as voluptuous?), the wines remain compelling. So I was not surprised to read this article, in The Drinks Business, which describes a tasting of California Pinot Noir, hosted by Karen MacNeil at the Rudd Center in St. Helena, in which Laetitia outclassed everyone else.

Karen’s panel tasted 126 Pinots; of these, 18 wineries made the final cut, and they certainly represent the pick of the litter in California: Brewer-Clifton, Au Bon Climat, Samsara, Martinelli, Joseph Swan, Williams Selyem, Kosta Browne, Failla, Littorai, Foursight, Peay, Scribe, Pisoni, ROAR, Siduri, Sanford and Paul Lato, in addition to top-ranked Laetitia. (Doesn’t this list make your mouth water?) Karen is certainly correct when she observes, “In the last 10 years, the quality [of Pinot Noir] has skyrocketed faster than any other variety.”

Karen also is correct in noting the vast geographic spectrum in California in which great Pinot Noir is produced: a stretch of 500 miles, from Anderson Valley all the way down the coast to the Santa Rita Hills. That’s pretty remarkable, in a world where most wine regions are maybe 20 or 30 miles across. You can attribute California’s success to the fact that the entire coast, despite being chopped up into the political subdivisions of counties, is essentially one vast terroir in which similarities of climate (always more important than soil in California) are far greater than differences.

I’d like to add some wineries to Karen’s list of “sensational” producers: Flowers, W.H. Smith, Bonaccorsi, Merry Edwards, Golden Eye, Talley, Tantara, Lynmar, Marimar Estate, Bjornstad, Hartford Court, Foxen, Longoria, Ojai, Sea Smoke, Babcock, Morgan, Testarossa, Rochioli, De Loach, Dutton-Goldfield, Paul Hobbs, Byron, Cambria, MacPhail, Gary Farrell for starters. The problem with trying to come up with a classification of great Pinot Noir wineries in California is that every month there seem to be a few more.

As for regions, I couldn’t pick any of California’s Pinot Noir appellations as being better than the others. They’re different. Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots are big, tannic and juicy; Carneros is more delicate. Santa Rita Hills Pinots are fabulously delicious and spicy, while the far Sonoma Coast’s brim with fresh acidity and wildland ferality.

Speaking of Pinot Noir, the schedule is out for 2014’s Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, at 32 years the nation’s oldest. It runs from June 12-15, at the beautiful Ritz-Carlton, on Maui. You may recall I headed up last year’s panel on Pritchard Hill. This year, we have something just as exciting: top wineries and wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Tickets go on sale starting Feb. 15. This is not an inexpensive festival to go to, but believe me, if you haven’t been, it’s worth every penny. And not just for the wine: those late nights by the pool are memorable.


2012 vintage: a report card

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I’ve tasted only about 700 wine for Wine Enthusiast  from the 2012 vintage (the number should eventually rise to several thousand), but based on what’s come in so far, this is going to be a hugely successful year for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Most of the better red wines have yet to be released. But a few early Pinots show the vast promise of the vintage. Santa Arcangeli made a 2012 Split Rail Vineyard, from the Santa Cruz Mountains, that knocked my sox off, while early ‘12s from Siduri, Reaper, Orfila, The Gardener and Patz & Hall all scored above 90 points. I would expect that, in two years or so when we’ll have the lion’s share of top coastal Pinots in, there will be lots of 95-and-above scores, and maybe–who knows?–some perfect 100s.

Very little 2012 Cabernet has come my way yet, mostly under-$20 stuff, but even this grouping, which can be so mediocre, has lots of scores in the 86-88 point range, with wines showing plenty of vigor and good fruit. Cabernet in tnis price range is frequently disappointing, with thin flavors, so when you get a bunch of nice ones, it bodes well for what’s yet to come. So 2012 could really be a blockbuster Cabernet year.

The 2012 Chardonnays, however, are now pouring in. I would characterize them overall as elegant, well-structured wines. What they may lack in opulence they more than make up for in balance and class. I have a feeling, though I can’t prove it, that vintners are dialing back on ripeness and/or oakiness, in favor of acidity and freshness. A Foxen 2012 Chardonnay, from the Tinaquaic Vineyard of the Santa Maria Valley, typifies this lively style, combining richness with minerality and tartness and alcohol well under 14%. Even unoaked Chardonnays, such as Marimar Torres’ Acero bottling, are so delicious that they don’t really need any oak. So, again, 2012 should prove to be a fantastic Chardonnay year.

It’s not just the Big Three–Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot Noir–that show such promise in 2012. A handful of Sauvignon Blancs that have come in (Ehlers Estate, Atalon, Matanzas Creek, Cosa Obra, Capture, Rochioli, B Cellars, El Roy, Longmeadow Ranch) show the ripeness and acidity that variety needs, without any of that annoyingly unripe, cat pee pyrazine junk. And Viognier, which is probably the most difficult white variety of all to get right in California (not too green, not too flabby and sweet), shows real promise, as indicated by bottlings from Pride Mountain, Qupe, Kobler and Nagy. The wines are racy and balanced. I could say the same thing about rarer whites, such as Bailiwick’s Vermentino, Birichino’s Malvasia Bianca, Grüners from Zocker and Von Strasser, white blends such as Vina Robles’ White4, Roussanne (Truchard), Albariño (Longoria, La Marea and Tangent), and dry Gewurztraminers (Gundlach Bundschu, Claiborne & Chruchill)–all these are 90 points or higher, exciting to drink, mouthwatering, ultra-versatile with food. And finally, rosé. Up to now, it’s never been my favorite California wine (too flabby and sweet)–but 2012 could change my mind. The few I’ve had so far (Lynmar, Chiarello Family, Ousterhout, Gary Farrell, Demetria)–wow. Dry, crisp, delicate and fruity, just what a rosé should be.

So here’s to many more magnificent 2012s to come. It will be the best vintage in many years, at least since 2007–and all the early signs are that 2013 could exceed it.


A Brief Appraisal of California Pinot Noir

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I was reading excerpts from Jon Bonné’s new book, The New California Wine, that were published in the S.F. Chronicle earlier this week. (I haven’t seen a copy of the book itself, yet.) In it, Jon deals with California Pinot Noir, largely fairly. He has associated himself with the anti-high alcohol movement in recent years, which is fair enough; to each, his own. But I do want to talk about this issue of what Jon calls “brawn” in Pinot Noir.

Certainly, Pinot Noir can be made in a variety of styles, as can any wine. One does, however, expect a proper Pinot to be dry, silky in the mouth, bracing with acidity and (here in California, anyway), fruity. But within those parameters, Pinot can display a wide spectrum of weight.

Jon mentions Loring Wine Company’s Pinots as examples of “irrational exuberance.” Consider their 2006 Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir, a wine I reviewed five years ago, and gave 94 points. The official alcohol level on the label was 14.7%, which I suppose is highish (from the point of view of an In Pursuit of Balance aficienado), and I suppose it might have been slightly higher even that that, given the government’s tolerance of alcohol ranges, rather than specifics. But it was an awfully good wine, one I’d love to try today.

Jon included the Pinots of Kosta-Browne in his “irrational exuberance” category. I must say that I have not been a fan on those wines, either. They’re too big for me–“brawny.” Although the official alcohol levels are in the 14.5% range, they do seem over the top–there’s something exaggeratedly Caifornian about them, like that suntan George Hamilton always had, even in the dead of winter: or maybe the late, great Tammy Faye Bakker’s over-cosmetized face is the better comparison.

What makes Loring’s Pinots balanced and Kosta-Browne’s less so for me? Who’s to say? It’s a matter of taste. The greatest, most consistent Pinot Noirs in California, IMHO, are produced by Williams Selyem. Their alcohol levels are reliably moderate–usually in the low 14s. Yet I also love Brewer-Clifton’s Pinots, which can run a point higher; their 2004 Cargasacchi (such a noble vineyard) was 15.1%, yet that wine was so far from “brawny”, I can’t even tell you. I had to give it 97 points. Was it better than Siduri’s magnificent 2007 Hirsch, which I gave 96 points, and whose alcohol was 13.5%? No. Both wines rocked, in their own universes. It would be patently unfair to force them into some kind of mixed martial arts slapdown. Apples and oranges, as it were, but both distinctively Pinot Noir.

Here are the “crimes” California Pinot Noir can commit: residual sugar. Thinness. Simplicity. I don’t care for Pinots with too much oak, especially on an over-cropped wine. Unripeness (some critics love the 2011s. Not me. Too much mushroomy, veggie herbaceousness and mint, even some mold). Or, the opposite, overripeness: Loring’s 2007 Russell Family Vineyard, from Paso Robles, was raisiny, even though the alcohol was a relatively modest 14.4%. Sometimes, in warmer years, Pinot ages prematurely–why, it’s hard to tell, so that even at four years, it can be tired. A Steele 2000 Bien Nacido, tasted in May, 2004, was like that.

Have a good weekend!


The California style is better with our modern, rich foods

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For some reason I bookmarked this Decanter “tease” for an article two years ago (the full article requires a subscription), then forgot all about it until this past weekend, when I was cleaning out my old bookmarks and happened to read it. In the afterlight of what we know since then, it makes interesting reading.

We’ll start with Oz Clarke’s statement that “There is no style revolution in California: low acid, velvet tannins and high alcohol is [sic] what Americans want from their wine and California winemakers will continue to feed that need.”

Well, Oz made this remark before it was clear there is a “style revolution”, so we’ll give it an accuracy rating of 87 points. While it’s true that Americans do like the big, fat, rich, ripe California style, it’s equally true that increasing numbers of winemakers are consciously attempting to make their wines leaner. Which does not mean “lean.” We see this most certainly in a wide swathe of Pinot Noirs that are below 14%, and sometimes nearer to 13%, as evidenced by Jasmine Hirsch’s and Raj Parr’s “In Pursuit of Balance” movement.

We see it also in other varieties (including Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon). So Oz said something that was mostly true, but not entirely; and cooler vintages may also be tipping the scale toward leaner wines.

However much Oz was or wasn’t correct, the larger issue centers around an inherent assumption: that there’s something fundamentally suspect about “low acid, velvet tannins and high alcohol” in table wines. For, if you think about it, that assumption is the context of the conversation: Just as the statement “Americans drink too many sugary sodas” implies the context of widespread obesity. “Too many sugary sodas” wouldn’t be a problem if so many people (including kids) weren’t so fat. We can all agree on that. But what is the negative implication of “low acid, velvet tannins and high alcohol”? There is, in fact, none (unless you say that higher alcohol wines get people drunker faster than do low alcohol wines; but this isn’t a qualitative critique of the former, just one of degrees, since low alcohol wines [and beer] can get you drunk too).

In fact, isn’t it possible that, if winemaking had originated in the New World instead of the Old, the standard for wine would be a 15.2% alcohol, low acid, velvety Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? In which case we might just find the upstart German and Italian wine too acidic and lean. One can envision, under such a scenario, a group of vintners and somms, perhaps located in Geisenheim or Florence, calling themselves “In Pursuit of Balance” and promoting wines of higher alcohol, greater ripeness and softness and increased youthful appeal. Stranger things are imaginable.

And what of food? Much has been said and written that our California style of wine is undrinkable with food; the conceit there is that the wines are so strong, they fight with the food, whereas wine traditionally is supposed to take a back seat to food.

Is this really true in your experience? It isn’t in mine. I suppose if you ate the kinds of bland, plain things Englishmen ate in the 1800s, a Shafer Hillside Select might not be the ideal accompaniment. When George Saintsbury relished “boiled Turkey” at a dinner partly held at an unnamed date, but probably in the early twentieth century, with it he drank “1878 Lêoville”, whose alcohol level cannot have been much higher than 12%, and which must by then have been a dry, somewhat light and earthy wine. But we don’t eat “boiled Turkey” today. Instead, we gorge on “Niman Ranch Hangar Steak with San Marzano Tomatoes, Garlic, Arugula and Parmigiano-Reggiano,” to take but one item off the menu from Oenotri, the Napa restaurant; with it I might order a 2008 Staglin (alcohol 14.9%) or Anakota “Helena Dakota” (14.8%) off the list and be perfectly happy. In fact, something lacking in body might falter and be wiped out beside that dish’s mouth-filling richness. So, once again, you have to take these things in context.

I got so infatuated with the thought of food and wine pairing that I Googled “Boulevard,” one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, to find additional main courses that call for rich, opulent wines. With “California lamb T-bone, wood oven roasted, served off the bone with grilled Monterey artichoke, olive panzanella, pancetta-mixed faro, lamb juice, mint and orange (a dish that would have blown Professor Saintsbury’s mind) I could easily see myself drinking a Patz & Hall 2010 Chenowith Ranch Pinot Noir (14.8%) and smiling all the way. An old, dry, 13% Bordeaux or Burgundy? No, thanks.


An inconvenient truth about Pinot Noir

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Critical attitudes toward California Pinot Noir have varied over the decades. When I first started paying attention to wine, the belief was just becoming entrenched that warmer regions, especially Napa Valley, were unsuitable for the great grape of Burgundy, because (it was said), the grapes got too ripe, and thus lacked the silky elegance, or one might say the dynamic tension you want in a great Pinot Noir.

I accepted that argument, because all I was, was a lowly newbie, so who was I to disagree with the experts? This was despite my having had a Napa Valley Pinot Noir, from the now defunct Louis K. Mihaly Winery, which I liked so much, I bought a half case, my first multiple-bottle purchase ever.

So everyone tore out their Pinot Noir vines from Napa (and few dared to plant the variety in warmer places like Paso Robles), and the rush was on for cool regions: starting with Carneros (which, briefly, was heralded as “California’s Burgundy” in the 1980s), then the Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast and broad stretches of the Central Coast, most famously in the western Santa Ynez Valley we now call the Santa Rita Hills.

That was all well and good. I would say the first nine or ten years of the 21st century were the Golden Era of California Pinot Noir. Wines of majestic distinction arrived, differing in their particulars depending on where and how grown and made, but asserting their right to sit beside Cabernet Sauvignon as co-bearers of the title, “California’s Greatest Red Wine.”

Well, that was before the 2010 vintage, as stubbornly cold as anything we’d witnessed in many years. Followed by 2011, even colder, shockingly so–the year summer never came. The market now is receiving the Pinot Noirs of these two vintages (a few 2012s are trickling out, but not the important ones, which should begin arriving in the Winter-Spring of 2014). And we are learning, the hard way, one of the oldest lessons in wine: When you grow a variety at the limit of its ability to ripen, you will get great wines in a warm vintage, and mediocre wines in a cool one.

The problems I’ve encountered with rot, mold, green tannins and flavors and vegetal notes in Pinot Noirs from 2010 and 2011 are worse than anything in my previous experience. It’s been truly shocking. Erratic, too: wineries that bottle numerous vineyard-designated Pinots (as so many do nowadays) will have one that’s ripe, and another that’s green and moldy–often from the same appellation. There are some famous brands that, in my opinion, should have declassified their wines, especially the 2011s; but declassification is rare in California.

The numbers express it interestingly:

2011 Pinots I scored over 90 points: 127

2009 Pinots I score over 90 points: 489

Granted, there are some more 2011s yet to come, but the ultimate number of over-90s is not going to approach 250, much less 489. So what we gave up when we tore out that Napa Pinot was, at least, consistency of ripeness. What we gained, I suppose, is the same situation as in Burgundy: not every year is a “vintage” year.

What of 2012? As I wrote on Sept. 18 of that year, “2012 is the year nothing happened. No rain, no frosts, no damaging heat waves, no chilly temperatures, no smoke taint from wildfires, no mold, no spring shatter.” A week and a half later, something happened: we had a bigtime heat wave. I noted, “If you gathered in your Pinot Noir before the heat struck, you’re fine. If not, high alcohol will be a problem.” There were even reports of sunburn, especially in the Russian River Valley. When the harvest was over, Bob Cabral, at Williams Selyem, favorably compared the quality of his 2012 Pinots to the 1997s, when he’d been at Hartford Court. Yet, in the same conversation, he alluded to “a little bit of botrytis in some Pinot blocks,” which I took to be caused by rain that moved in after Oct. 21. So you can see that 2012 also was not a perfect vintage. But we’ll just have to see what the bottles offer.


What is “nobility” in wine?

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Why are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay “noble” varieties? Why isn’t Zinfandel? Can Syrah be “noble”? Is sparkling wine “noble”?

First, we have to define “noble.” It’s an oldish word when applied to wine. From Wikipedia: “Noble grapes are any grapes traditionally associated with the highest quality wines. This concept is not as common today, partly because of the proliferation of hybrid grape varieties, and partly because some critics feel that it unfairly prioritizes varieties grown within France. Historically speaking, the noble grapes comprised only six varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.”

It’s tempting for me to side with the democrats [small “d”] in this argument–the ones who feel that de-nobleizing certain varieties because they’re not French is unfair and patronizing. But there are sound reasons for preserving our current understanding of varietal nobility.

The most important of these reasons is that, in California as in France, a handful of varieties clearly makes the best wines, and has for pretty much as long as the state’s wine industry has existed. All I need do is go to Wine Enthusiast’s database to confirm this. Since the first of this year, all 30 of my highest-scoring wines have been either Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, with the single exception of a Nickel & Nickel 2010 Merlot, from the Harris Vineyard, in Oakville. (And I, personally, would not include Merlot among the nobles, at least in California.)

Why do these wines score higher than other varieties? Ahh, here we get into the fuzzy details, which are impossible of proof. But let me try. First and foremost, there is structure, a word that seems comprehensible at first. Structure is architecture: just as you can have the most beautiful stuff (paintings, carpets, furniture, vases) in the world, but it’s only a mere pile if it doesn’t have a room or home in which to reside, so too wine needs walls, a floor, a ceiling, a sense of stolidity and solidity, else it become simple flavor. And flavor, in and of itself, has never been the primary attribute of great wine.

California, of course, has no problem developing flavor, in any variety. That’s due to our climate: grapes ripen dependably. To the extent California wines are the target of criticism, it is because Europhiles find a dreary sameness to too many of them. Even I, as staunch a defender of California wine as there is, find this to be true. Too often, the flavors of red wines suggest blackberries and cherries and chocolate, whether it’s Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet, Merlot, Tempranillo. It’s easy for such wines to score 87 points, or 89 points, or even 91 points: these are good scores, but not great ones, limited by the wines’ lack of structure.

Structure, of course, is composed primarily of acidity and tannins, the latter of which may come from both the grapes and the oak treatment. (I won’t get into the mysteries of minerality.) Yet there are elements of structure that are more difficult to define. Texture is an element of structure, just as the way a room feels is an element of its architecture. Imagine a room with soaring roof and large windows that let in the sunlight, as opposed to a cramped, pinched room, a closet or storage area. The former feels more satisfactory to our senses and esthetics. So too does a wine with great texture feel superior. It can be the hardest thing in the world to put into words, but even amateurs will appreciate the difference between a beautifully-structured wine and its opposite. (I have proven this many times, with my wine-drinking friends who have but limited understanding of it.)

So why don’t we allow Zinfandel into the ranks of noble wines? I suppose an argument could be made that we should, for at its highest expressions–Williams Selyem, De Loach, Elyse, Ravenswood, Bella, Turley–Zinfandel does fulfill the structural and textural prerequisites of a noble wine. But too often, it does not: a Zinfandel can be classic Zin for its style (Dry Creek Valley, Amador County) and yet be a little rustic, in a shabby-chic way. Sometimes this is due to excessive alcohol, sometimes to overripened fruit, but no matter the cause, and no matter how much fun that Zin is to drink with barbecue, the last thing I’d call most Zins is noble. Zinfandel is Conan the Barbarian, ready to chop your head off and stick it on the tip of a spear.

Can sparkling wine be said to be noble? It is most often, of course, a blend of two noble varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so why not? The answer is as simple as this: We call varieties “noble,” not wine types. Perhaps we should expand the definition of “noble” to include types, not just sparkling blends but Sherry and Port. Certainly these are great wines, if underappreciated nowadays. I keep my eye, also, on some of the surprisingly eccentric red blends being produced lately, mainly by younger winemakers (often in Paso Robles), who are mixing varieties in unprecedented and triumphant ways, proving that a wine doesn’t have to be varietal (as defined by the TTB) in order to be great.

But I’m comfortable for the time being restricting nobility to just a handful of varieties in California: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Not Riesling, not yet, in our state. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not yet, in our state. Not Syrah, not yet, in our state. And not, as I have said, Merlot. Any one of these latter varieties can produce great wine, but it will be the exception.


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