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My Pinot Noir event in Los Angeles



I did my first big event for Jackson Family Wines yesterday, and I think it went pretty well. Despite a downpour, we had a full house. It was on the wines of the Santa Maria Valley, especially Pinot. I didn’t want it to be a JFW thing, so I asked my dear friends Dieter Cronje, from Presqu’ile, Chris Hammell, from Bien Nacido, Dick Dore, from Foxen, and James Ontiveros, from Native9 and Alta Maria, to participate, along with Denise Shurtleff (Cambria) and Jonathan Nagy (Byron).

Everybody did such a great job; I’m so proud of them. The idea was to give gatekeepers—somms, bloggers, writers, restaurateurs, merchants—a better idea of what the Santa Maria Valley is because, frankly, in my opinion, people don’t fully understand it. That’s because it’s fairly isolated and hard to get to, without great restaurants or hotels, and the valley floor is more about row crops than winegrapes. But, oh, the terroir is perfect on the benches and hillsides for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and other cool-climate varieties, as our tasting amply demonstrated.

The temperature warms up a degree or two with every mile you go inland in this west-east-running valley (courtesy of the transverse deforming action of the San Andreas Fault), so it was fascinating to taste the Pinot from the westernmost area, Presqu’ile, compared to the Pinot from the easternmost area, Byron, and everything inbetween. Sometimes, data actually verify hunches, and in this case, the data beautifully illustrate this temperature gradient. Check it out, from west [cool] to east [warmer]:

Presqu’ile [westernmost]: alc. 13.2%

Fermentation: 100% whole cluster


Native9 [very western]: alc. 13.5%

Fermentation; 100% whole cluster


Bien Nacido (central): alc. 13.7%

Fermentation: partial whole cluster


Foxen Julia’s Vineyard (toward the east): alc. 14.2%

Fermentation: 100% destemmed


Cambria (toward the east): alc. 14.6%

Fermentation: 100% destemmed


Byron (easternmost, warmest): alc. 14.4%

Fermentation: 100% destemmed


Alcohols go up as you travel to warmer inland areas. As for the fermentation, the Presqu’ile and Native9 winemakers felt the wines could benefit from the added tannins and body of stems, whereas the inland winemakers felt their wines were full-bodied and tannic enough to not need stems. Right in the middle is Bien Nacido, where you get partial whole cluster.

Isn’t that pretty? Such a sweet illustration of the way climate impacts winemaking decisions. And yet all the wines, in my opinion, showed a distinct Santa Maria Valley character: Spicy. Silky tannins. Great fruit, running towards the red: pomegranates, cherries. Great balance and complexity, as well as dryness. And great ageability. Afterwards, we had a library tasting, and the oldest bottlings, dating to 1997, were superb, among the best California Pinot Noirs I’ve ever had.

I ran into a few diehard somms who would never sell anything in their restaurants besides Burgundy, and that’s just fine, it’s a free world. But really, this was a sensational tasting, one of the best I ever went to. I wish you could have been there. We had it at Republique restaurant, on La Brea in L.A., which is on the site of the old Campanile, a restaurant I enjoyed ages ago. Chef Walter Manzke prepared some small plates to enjoy with the older wines, and that food was uncannily good. I’m still thinking about it.

Afterwards a group of somms and I hung out in the front of the restaurant, talking about cocktails. I do like a good vodka gimlet. But I have to say, in all sincerity, these Santa Maria Valley Pinots are awesome, from a cru as great as any in California, even if it doesn’t get the love of Santa Rita Hills or Russian River Valley. Maybe it will now start to.

See you tomorrow!


  1. Wish I could have been there, Steve. Sounds like a great event, and I totally agree with you about the Santa Maria Valley. One of my favorite appellations of all time. The terroir there, including the people, can be exceptional.

  2. Steve, did the winemakers discuss the role of whole bunch fermentation as it affects alcohol levels? Stem inclusion generally results in a slightly lower alcohol wine. Having all the wines made the same way would really illustrate the role of site on alcohol levels. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the differences in production throw a kink into your conclusions.

  3. Kyle, they didn’t really get into that.

  4. Bob Henry says:


    As an attendee, I can tell you that Dieter Cronje of Presqu’ile and James Ontiveros of Native9 are partisans for whole cluster fermentation.

    And Dieter is a partisan for “field blends” of disparate Pinot clones — with some grapes coming in slightly underripe, others properly ripe, and still others slightly overripe.

    See this Napa Valley Register article on clones:

    “A Passion for the Perverse Pinot Noir”


    ~~ Bob

  5. Bob Henry says:

    And then there is this: the lovable “mad scientist” of California winemakers Randall Grahm forgoing physically grafting a desirable clone onto an existing root (which creates a monoculture same clone of the same grape).

    Instead, at his new vineyard in San Juan Bautista “Grahm will plant a special castrati-to-be group of Rhône varieties, including grenache, mourvedre, cinsaut, syrah, and possibly others that he believes are suited to his new vineyard. ‘The vines already have an affinity for each other,’ Grahm said, because they are frequently grown together in the Rhône valley, and their fruit is often blended.

    “Then vineyard workers will rip their stamens off and enclose the vines in plastic bags. They will also collect pollen from other, non-emasculated vines and throw it in the bags. These vines will thus be pollinated by other vine types and produce seeds. Grahm (or his God-sent interns) will plant the seeds.

    “Just as with humans, every grapevine grown from seeds is unique, with half the DNA from each parent. If a syrah vine fertilizes another syrah vine, you get syrah — a new clone perhaps, but syrah just the same.

    . . .

    “‘The assumption is that every individual vine would be less than the original syrah, but between the whole of it, we’ll have a synergy,’ Grahm said. ‘Somewhere in your vineyard is a genius grape, but you won’t know where it is. This is enriching the genetic repository.'”


    As the saying goes: “Hey buddy, good luck with that!”

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Just came across this on Slate:

    “Pinot Noir Is Wine’s Polar Bear;
    The opportunities and challenges that climate change presents to vintners.”


    A call-out to Brian Loring and Adam Lee:

    Please assure us of your future ambitions.

    Hate to see you be the Last of the Mohicans.

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