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Is California Pinot Noir turning lighter?


So Eric Asimov says over at the Times, a paper whose future is as unpredictable at this point as, well,  the San Francisco Chronicle’s. Eric, who previously has argued the case for a lighter-style California Pinot, nonetheless engages in a bit of hyperbole when he affirms that “a rebellion is brewing” among the state’s vintners who are turning to “finesse…instead of a rich, mouth-coating impression of sweetness…”.

Rebellion: a journalistic word editors love. I wouldn’t call what’s happening with California Pinot Noir a rebellion. Thomas Jefferson fomented a rebellion when he planted grapes in Virginia he supposed would lead to an American wine industry. (He failed.) I suppose you could even say Robert Mondavi led a rebellion of (mostly Napa) vintners who felt they could usurp Europe’s place in prestige. (They largely succeeded.) If there were Pinot Noir rebellionistas, they were pioneers like Joe Rochioli, Jr., Joe Swan and Richard Sanford who dared tackle the grape, 35 and more years ago. To call anyone today making Pinot Noir in California a rebel is looking for someone to lead a cause of the writer’s own imagination. People are tinkering with style, not looking to overthrow basic concepts.

But that’s not to forswear the conversation — not an argument — between fans of a lighter style and those who prefer a riper approach. I was reminded of this on Saturday when I tasted his Pinot Noirs with Jean Charles Boisset. I had given his 2006 JCB Pinots good scores — 88, 89 and 90 — but Boisset felt these did not adequately reflect the wines’ qualities, and being in a compliant mood and liking JC, I agreed to retaste with him. Aside from the fact that they were now 7 months older in bottle, which improved them as time often does, they still seemed to me as I found them last summer: wines of great elegance, but light, and missing the stuffing I prefer, and which I reward with scores in the higher 90s.

I explained to Jean Charles that there’s a sweet spot in Pinot Noir that’s hard to hit. It’s not underripe or over-cropped, which gives minty, green and thin flavors, and it’s not extracted and super-mature, where the wines have a heaviness more like a Rhône wine. Instead, it’s right in the middle. Wineries that consistently exhibit this balance include Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards, Goldeneye, Testarossa, Siduri, Breggo, Marimar Estate, Melville, Hartford Court and Bonaccorsi. What they have in common — hard to put into words — is a rich deliciousness, and yet an elegant structure.

Jean Charles, being a Burgundian (he grew up in the Clos de Vougeot and his family owns the largest winery in Burgundy, as well as DeLoach) feels too many California Pinot Noirs are too heavy (here, he agrees with Asimov). There are certainly heavy Pinots out there. But let me try to put “elegance” in context. As much as I like his JCB wines for their racy elegance and Yves-St.-Laurent classicism, for me they could use a dose of California audacity. It was Jean Charles himself who raised the YSL metaphor with respect to Pinot Noir. He was thinking, I believe, of a classic men’s tuxedo, or perhaps Deneuve in a pants suit with trenchcoat — linear, austere, minimalist.

But I had serendipitously just happened to have come from the big new YSL exhibit at the De Young Museum, in Golden Gate Park, where Yves’ outrageous hommages and over-the-top exclusives for Euro-trash were on exhibit in all their gaudy flamboyance. Believe me, the designer could be outrageous, in a drag queen way every San Franciscan understands. And that made me realize something. A truly great California Pinot Noir needs not only a classic nobility of line, but a touch — nothing too heavy — of the flashy decadence of drag.


Oh, uh, and another celebrity is making wine

Now it’s Sting, who joins Madonna, or was it Mother Theresa, with a new wine line.


The flood of Time Magazine cover people jumping on the wine bandwagon is tidal. Soon we’ll have to re-jigger Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame to “Some day, 15 percent of all the people in the world will have their own wine brand.” Jean Charles asked me if I thought about coming up with a brand. Oi. I have enough tsouris not to have to worry about that.

  1. stevenmirassou says:


    Taken together, the Asimov piece and your response to it underscore the personal nature of the wine drinking experience.

    One person’s fleshy but balanced Pinot is someone else’s Syrah.

    The winemaker has a fundamental responsibility only to his vineyard/fruit and winemaking philosophy. He can never really know what the “market” wants nor how the critic will respond to the wine.

    Make true wine the best way he knows how and if he succeeds, he’ll find the market.

    Steven Mirassou

  2. Tim Corliss says:


    I have been thing for a while that California is well positioned to have the “best of both worlds”. I had an ’05 Arcadian Sleepy Hollow this weekend and I think it makes my point well. The wine has all of the structure and elegance one might generalize of Burgundy, but the wonderful fruit of California.

    However, I think there is room and a time and place for all styles. I think the differences in wines should be celebrated, regardless of whether you like them or not.

  3. Steve H-

    I agree- There is no revolution here. Just a swing back of the pendulum.

    CA Pinot will never be Burgundy, and it shouldn’t be. But it should show the grace of the grape rather than being a “balanced” circus clown on a tightrope made of Zinfandel vines….

    Arcadian’s Pinot’s are a great example of what can be done in CA. If possible, give them some age, Joe’s 99’s and 01’s are just starting to come around (and are scary good).

  4. Steve;

    I’m finding the 2006 vintage in RRV to be a “lighter” one (my own included) –
    it was a difficult season due to Botrytis. Even though we have many tools available to deal with the mold in the winery, I picked a bit earlier than optimal for development of the big, rich flavors. Instead, I have a lower alcohol (13.9%), still a wonderful strawberry-cherry fruit, and an acidity bonus that makes the wine more elegant and more balanced. I had to take care not to over oak.

  5. Maybe we are finally seeing the best spots for Pinot Noir in Cal to come forward. It seems to me a lot of the vineyards during the explosion of Pinot were planted in to warm of spots to draw customers to the grape. Now that people understand the interesting elements of Pinot they are starting to look for more balanced wines.

  6. Boyd, that may be partly the reason, but if Pinots are being made lighter (debatable) it’s also because of cooler vintages (fewer heat spikes at harvest) and picking slightly earlier. There may also be individual cases of rootstocks and yeasts that allow for ripeness at lower brix levels.

  7. Is there just one sweet-spot for CA Pinot?

  8. Brad, there’s one “sweet spot” in the sense of a general balance, but there’s a wide range of individual qualities and notes within that sweet spot. Sort of like variations on a fugue. Good question, thanks for asking.

  9. In regards to a lighter style… what about Windward? They have always exhibitted a lighter, more Burgundian style. I think their wines have an unusual elegance rarely found in CA. This isn’t to say that there aren’t higher rating CA Pinot’s – just that not many (especially from Paso) represent the same level of elegance. Beautiful, sexy, smooth or (choose your adjective) – but not as elegant. Just my opinion.

  10. Scot, I have not tasted Windward since 2002 and didn’t really care for them then. Maybe they have improved, don’t know.

  11. In regards to the question “Is California Pinot Noir turning lighter?” I think, as it says in the NY Times article, California wine makers are realizing that the ultimate purpose of wine is to be paired with food. The more powerful, 17% alcohol Pinot Noirs don’t pair well with foods, but the more traditional, lighter Burgundy types do. So, it doesn’t seem like they are really suggesting a “rebellion”, but more of a step back to what works well.

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