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The multiple-vineyard Pinot Noir game: gaining ground

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Testarossa, Siduri, Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards, Failla, Bonaccorsi, La Follette, De Loach, Bjornstad, MacPhail–what do they (and many other California wineries) have in common?

Yes, they’re all Pinot Noir houses (in addition to whatever else they make), but they also play the interesting game of buying Pinot Noir fruit from multiple vineyards and bottling them with vineyard designations. For the wine taster, this presents unique opportunities, as well as challenges.

I suppose the allure of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was such that it was only to be expected serious Pinot winemakers would want to try their hands at expressing the terroir of different vineyards. (I don’t mean wineries who own estate vineyards and produce different designations, like Lynmar, Donum, Rochioli or Talley, I mean wineries that buy their fruit. And yes, I know that some of them, like Williams Selyem, own their own vineyards.)

I don’t know who was first to play the multiple vineyard game in California. Williams Selyem certainly was an early adapter. Testarossa seems to have followed their model in the 1990s. The entrepreneurial aspect of the template is perhaps most perfectly expressed by Siduri. But over the last 2-3 years, more and more wineries are getting into the act.

The opportunity for the taster in these cases is twofold: (1) to see if you can detect the winemaker’s signature across multiple terroirs, and (2) to see if you can detect the vineyard’s terroir across multiple winemakers. This latter opportunity is true only of those vineyards large enough to sell fruit to multiple winemakers; among them would be Bien Nacido (among the largest) and smaller ones like Rosella’s, Precious Mountain, Olivet Lane and Fiddlestix. This isn’t as easy as it seems, though, because winemaker techniques can differ widely (some pick earlier than others) and because of micro-terroir differences in vineyard rows and blocks.

There also is the challenge of precisely how best to taste the Pinot Noirs of these multiple producers when they all arrive in one box. There is no one best way of tasting; each approach has its pros and cons. When Bob Cabral sends me 15 vineyard-designated Pinots, should I taste them in a single flight, or should I segregate them out by appellation and taste them against other Pinot Noirs from those appellations? I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule for this. My own preference is to taste them all together–to take a long, leisurely swim in the essence of Williams Selyem, as it were–but I can see where an argument could be made to taste Russian River against Russian River, Sonoma Coast against Sonoma Coast, and so on. It also would be instructive to do flights from the same vineyard from multiple producers, although tactically, this is more difficult for me to set up, as wines from the same vintage may arrive at widely different times across a calendar year or even two, depending on the winery’s release schedule.

I will say that tasting these multiple Pinots from the same producer is one of my most enjoyable tasks. Not every wine in the world is bursting with joy. Some, maybe most, are made grindingly, to pay the bills and fill the bellies of the masses. But when a California producer makes a range of Pinots from different vineyards, it’s because he wants to and loves to and can. This is the Happy Hunting Ground for the intrepid Pinot producer, and with each pop of the cork, I get to share in his joy.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that few wineries play the multiple Cabernet game. Duckhorn and Nickel & Nickel do, Paul Hobbs a little, Chimney Rock’s getting into it as is a new player, PerryMoore, and there are others I could mention. But the multiple Cabernet thing is nowhere near as advanced as the multiple Pinot thing. I’m not sure why that is, but I don’t think it’s because “Pinot shows terroir more transparently than Cabernet Sauvignon,” which is the usual trope (and one moreover I’m not convinced of, not to end a sentence with a preposition). I think it has more to do with the availability of good Pinot fruit versus good Cabernet fruit. While there’s more than twice as much Cab planted than Pinot, there’s more Pinot going in by a long shot, which increases the availability of fruit. Great Cabernet for sale is restricted pretty much to some well-known Napa Valley vineyards, like Beckstoffer To Kalon and Stagecoach.


Retrospective: World of Pinot Noir

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Last Saturday morning’s seminar on “Terroir: The Soul of La Côte d’Or” was an absolute delight. It’s no easy thing to rouse an audience of several hundred at 9 a.m. in the morning of the second day of a major wine and food event, after a night in which most of them partied hard and went to bed late. But Don Kinnan did it.

John Haeger, who wrote North American Pinot Noir, used to have this time slot for his “Pinot Noir 101” seminar, which we always enjoyed (“we” meaning myself and all the other attendees; I haven’t adapted use of the Papal “We,” yet). But Mr. Kinnan, who appears to be of a certain age, was new to most of us, and we didn’t know quite what to expect.

Turns out he’s an ex-Kobrand guy, where he was director of education, and also holds the Certified Wine Educator certificate from the Society of Wine Educators. Don not only “knows his stuff” when it comes to Burgundy, but also made one of the greatest presentations (complete with Power Point) I’ve ever seen. He had everybody captivated with his graceful, informed and easy approach.

We tasted 9 wines, from 9 villages, 8 producers and 4 vintages, in order to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of terroir. Don explained how Burgundy is comprised of 3,800 estates, not to mention 250 negociants, spread over 101 appellations, which makes it a terribly complicated place. “It takes faith to believe in [the reality of] terroir, which cannot be proven by the scientific method,” Don told us. Of course, I’ve grown up with conventional notions of Burgundian terroir: Volnay delicate, Vosne powerful, Beaune elegant, Chambolle feminine, but unless you really drink a lot of these wines, you don’t know these things first-hand. Don wanted to show us how the old notions of regional differences are true, and he largely succeeded.

First, he tackled an issue I’ve written much about on this blog: “terroir” is the soil and climate, but the human element has to be considered, in the form of vineyard management and the winemaking process. The combination of the two is what I have called “cru,” after Emile Peynaud, but of course, as Don said, in Burgundy the idea is for the human to stand back and let terroir star. (His most controversial statement may have been, “In the New World there’s more human influence than in the Old World,” which, if true, would minimize terroir.)

I won’t go through all nine of my tasting notes, except to say that Don had us taste blind, and, based on his superb and clear definitions of what to expect in the wines, I got all of them right. This surely is the highest performance a wine educator is capable of: To describe wines in such chiseled detail, in a way that makes so much sense, that you’re able to identify them blind. For me, the stars of the show were a Clos de Vougeot, Domaine Hudelot-Noellat 2004, and a spectacular Volnay, 2006 Taillepieds from Domaine de Montille, that was so good, it made my seatmate to the left, Dick Doré, from Foxen, smile ear to ear. I can only say that wine gave me a permanent Platonic idea of Volnay.

After that peak experience, it was hard to go back to California Pinot Noir. But I made a valiant effort, and have to say our state has no reason to hang its head. To fall ever so short of a world class masterpiece like that Volnay is not embarrassing. I tasted a lot of wine that Saturday, under the white tents on the bluffs above the Pacific beach as the fog rolled relentlessly in, but I took no notes. I never take notes at crowded venues like World of Pinot Noir. They’re not conducive to thoughtful tasting, and even logistically, you can’t hold your glass, your spit cup and your pad and pen in two hands! Not to mention a lack of level surfaces upon which to write.

But I do enjoy visiting the various wineries, trying new things, connecting with old friends, making new ones, and deepening my understanding of things in general. I will add only that, late Saturday afternoon, the WOPN people arranged for a final pair of seminars, including a Talley one to which I went, Talley being an old favorite and Brian Talley an old acquaintance. Brian brought along his winemaker, Eric Johnson, and together they made a formidable presentation, and the wines, of course, were great. However, by 5 p.m., several of the attendees were obviously drunk, and while some of us tried to get them to shut up by polite requests and tapping silverware on our crystal glasses, alas, it was to no avail. The silent, respectful majority of us were irritated, and I think Brian was, too (although he’s too much the gentlemen to reveal such things). It is really awful how thoughtless and rude some people can be. The WOPN organizers may want to rethink these 5 p.m. Saturday seminars.

But that was a minor cloud on an otherwise fabulous World of Pinot Noir. Check it out next year.


WOPN Day 1, Part 2

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We had our first two seminars at WOPN, and two more different sessions couldn’t be imagined–although both were based, of course, on Pinot Noir.

The first was called Not Pinot Blanc, Not Pinot Gris, it’s White Pinot Noir!? It was moderated by the inimitable Fred Dame, M.S., who reminded us that white Pinot has no real historical record in either California or Burgundy. He remembered Caymus’s Oeil de Perdrix from the old daze; I remembered Edmeades’ Opal, but these were outlier wines. The three wines we tasted, all called White Pinot Noir on the label, were Domaine Carneros 2011 (Carneros, $50), Erath 2011 Le Jour Magique (Dundee Hills, $55) and J.K. Carriere 2012 “Glass” (Willamette Valley, $22).

All were bone dry and fine in acidity, and made the case for white Pinot Noir. All are produced in small quantities, so even though the first two are expensive, their winemakers (Zack Miller and Gary Horner, respectively) argued that they had no trouble selling the wines–and they reminded us that, as they’re using their best grapes and the winemaking technique on these wines is elaborate, they actually lose money on them.

For me, the J.K. Carriere stole the show. Actually a rosé, its dry, crisp complexity (the wine did not undergo the malolactic fermentation, and was aged on Chardonnay lees), highlighted by subtle flavors of strawberries, white pepper, cream and tobacco, made it delightful. Winemaker Jim Prosser calls this a “back patio, sophisticated” wine, which means that it’s easy to drink on a summer evening, yet elegant and supple. I would gladly drink this wine all the time if I had any.

Fred Dame said, concerning the white Pinots, “These wines stretch the envelope.” Each was excellent in its own way, and if you couldn’t describe them collectively with any particular profile, each was savory and great in its way. Yet I doubt if White Pinot Noir will become a cult wine anytime soon. Consumers don’t understand what it is. As several people at the tasting remarked, people will think that a winemaker used her less successful grapes in a white Pinot Noir–even when, in the cases of these three wines, that is not true. They are true labors of love.

The second seminar, also moderated by Dame, could have been called the Fred-Dennis-Gary-Michael Show. That would be Fred Dame, Dennis Koplen, Gary Pisoni and Michael Brown. Dennis is proprietor of the Koplen Vineyard, in the Olivet Lane section of the Russian River Valley. Gary Pisoni is the well-known founder of his Pisoni Vineyard & Winery, in the southeastern part of the Santa Lucia Highlands. And Michael Browne is the co-owner of Kosta Brown Winery, which produced the six wines in the flight. It was a loud, boisterous session, filed with anecdotes and laughter, but also plenty of thoughtful information.

These Kosta Browne Pinots are, of course, cult favorites, very difficult to obtain–even for me. There were six: three appellation blends (Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands and Sonoma Coast) and three single vineyards (Pisoni, Gap’s Crown, Koplen). They all bear the same signature: big, rich, wines, dark in color, highish to overtly high in alcohol, and stuffed with ripe fruit. They typify a certain style, not to everyone’s liking, but vastly popular among a segment of the collector crowd. I do not regularly review the Kosta Browne wines, but if I’d done these six, I’d have scored them form the high 80s to the low 90s. The basic Russian River Valley blend showed especially well on this occasion.

At the end of the flight, Fred Dame posed a great question: “Are we coming to a cru system in California?” He meant that, 10 or 15 years ago, we would speak of a Russian River Valley or a Green Valley Pinot Noir. Now, we can zero in on a Sebastopol character, or a Petaluma Gap character, or a Fort Ross-Seaview character. And more: We can specifically reference a Gap’s Crown, or a Marimar Torres, or an Allen Vineyard, wines now with enough history to be able to credibly build a case for consistency of terroir and style.

An interesting concept, one worth developing at length in future posts.


World of Pinot Noir 1: Live from Shell Beach

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I made it down to Shell Beach on the 101 in an easy 4 hours, including a nice walk with Gus at the rest stop just north of Paso Robles. Beautiful drive: blue skies, warm temps, no traffic. The Salinas Valley was all green in row crops, but the Santa Lucias were ominously brown: the winter grass is already dying. It’s barely rained for two months and people are starting to worry. There’s some rain forecast for midweek, but I don’t know if it’s a big storm or just the kind of piddling ones that marked January and February.

I love it when the 101 makes that little grade and twist at Avila Beach and suddenlyl, Boing, the Pacific leaps into view. That’s my exit, Shell Beach, where World of Pinot Noir has been held for 13 years now. Gus and I checked into The Cliffs (76 degrees on my dashboard thermometer),  relaxed in the room  for a while, then I took him for a walk after dark, on a sultry, quiet evening. The tents were all set up on the bluff above the beach, looking white and fluffy and eerily empty in the darkness. Today and tomorrow, they’ll be rocking and rolling with Pinotphiles.

It’s still before 7 a.m. here, time to take the beast for a walk and then take the other beast (me) out to find some breakfast. I’ll be updating my blog frequently throughout the day, reporting on what’s happening at WOPN, sort of like a tweet, but longer. So check in from time to time.


Carneros: a reflection

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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.


Cabernet was so last week. Here comes World of Pinot Noir.

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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.

 


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