True luxe & flagellation at the 2012 World of Pinot Noir

What became crystal clear after two days of immersion in the grape at The 12th Annual World of Pinot Noir in Shell Beach, CA. this past March 2-3:  American Pinot Noir has definitely grown up.

But have Pinot Noir lovers matured?  The Pinot Noirs shown – generally from the 2009 and 2010 vintages – were impressive enough, despite more than a few hints and allegations heard amongst the crowd about concerns like “balance,” which I still think is a load of expletive (re Why this whole “balance” issue is a crock).  I stood next to one enthusiastic pinotphile – bless his heart – congratulating a vintner because, and I quote, “I like the way you believe in picking early and making wine less than 14% alcohol.”  As if most winemakers – who have blown their wads or sold their soul to the devil to birth a gratifying pinot – are so clueless, they don’t know alcohol or balance from nothing.  The irony, of course, is that it’s neither a vigneron nor pinotphile who has the last word on such matters.  It’s Mother Nature.

Case in point:  in the press room I tasted the 2010 Clos Pepe Sta. Rita Hills Estate Pinot Noir and immediately thought, wow... the best Clos Pepes I’ve tasted in years (at least since the inaugural World of Pinot Noir in 2000).  Knowing owner/winemaker Wes Hagen’s almost religious devotion to restraint, vineyard over varietal fruit expression, and (hang on, here comes that word again) balance, I felt quite pleased with the maturity of my taste.  Until I picked the bottle up and looked at the alcohol content:  whoops, 14.5%.  Maybe my pinot consciousness hasn’t progressed after all.

So I wrote Mr. Hagen a few days later, and he promptly responded, saying that his 2010 was a product of “a long, very cool year that was punctuated by a heat spike in October.”  Grapes benefitted from “insane hang time,” but the heat wave “dehydrated the berries and added a layer of rich, sexy fruit not seen since 2002.”  Although Hagen admits that “Oregon haters might suggest Syrah additions” in this richly pigmented, ultra-intense vintage, spreading across the palate like “blueberry and boysenberry jam, cherry compote, intense spice and insane depth and concentration of aromatics... plush, luxe, sexy, ultra-seductive."

In other words, good stuff; and no matter how you spin it, as pure, sharply etched, and refined as any Pinot Noir, damned the torpedoes.  So even if only for this one time, 14.5% alcohol is good enough for Hagen, maybe we can’t define a wine by its numbers after all.  Duh.

Then again, the love and self-flagellation concerning American Pinot Noir goes back some time.  In typical deference to the enduring, mystical superiority of red Burgundy, in 1896 (not a typo) a respected U.C. Davis professor submitted:  "in some localities (of California) it is doubtless possible to make Pinot Noir wine of high quality and to age it, but only with a minute attention to detail and an elaborate care, which no price that is likely to be obtained at present would justify" (Muscatine, Amerine & Thompson, Book of California Wine).  

In the late 1960s the late, great André Tchelistcheff was famously quoted to say, "Pinot Noir is scrawny and broods about the slightest offense... all the challenge is getting the surly child to smile."

I started my own search for America's elusive vinous love child even before taking my first official sommelier job, back in 1978; when anything resembling real Burgundy was considered a freak of nature.  Those days, we could count the number of consistently successful pinot specialists on literally one hand:  let me see... Joseph Swan, Sanford & Benedict, Chalone... but not much more, since it was only occasionally that producers like Beaulieu, Mondavi, Hanzell or Eyrie produced something that wasn’t amusingly naïve in its presumptuous domesticity.

Ah, but how the list of its dedicated, thoroughly accomplished practitioners has swelled.  Producers who – standing on the storied shoulders of Tchelistcheff, Swan, Lett, and going even further back, Paul Masson and Martin Ray – seldom produce a discouraging pinot.  That is why, personally, I am as appreciative of big, voluminous, even richly oaked styles as I am of lighter, prickly, more comely or demure styles of Pinot Noir:  I vividly recall the days when you were happy to get anything that tasted decently of the grape.

Those that know me know that I abhor ratings (how can you put numbers on matters of aesthetics that change with the moment and circumstances?), but I do have a list of favorites tasted at the 2012 World of Pinot Noir.  

Larry Hyde's outstanding new vineyard in Cuttings Wharf, Carneros

In rough order of personal preference, as circumstances would have it at that point in time:

2010 Larry Hyde & Sons, Carneros – It’s been a long time since I was as thoroughly impressed by a Carneros grown Pinot Noir as I was with this bottling; compelling in its brilliant violet-red color, ultra-rich strawberry perfume, and full, concentrated, richly knit, voluptuous, even sluttishly rounded, fruit focused qualities.  Mr. Hyde, of course, has long been known for his viticultural prowess, supplying impeccable material (mostly Chardonnay) for the likes of Kistler, David Ramey, Patz & Hall, DuMOL, and his own HdV (in partinership with Aubert and Pamela de Villaine) for years.  But here’s the kicker:  the grapes for this spectacular pinot come from Hyde's most recent planting near Cuttings Wharf, south of Carneros Hwy. from Boon Fly Café, representing a massal selection (i.e. clonal mix) that went into the ground only in 2006.  When I followed up with Mr. Hyde about this freakazoid of a pinot, he said:  “yes, this is the case of young vines often producing superior wine... the problem will come up when the vines reach adolescence, and all our work will go into devigorating to recapture that quality” – adding, facetiously, “the ideal thing may be to sell the grapes to someone else when they reach that stage, and take them back when they are old and finally find their own balance.”

2010 Clos Pepe, Sta. Rita Hills Estate – I really was quite taken by this wine, as indicated by notes that read “puristic, sharply defined, velvety, tightly wound yet resplendent (yeah, that word actually popped up) with popping cherries and strawberry preserves.”  Question might be, does this particular pinot reflect more of a vintage and the grape itself, or, as the winery’s mission statement reads, “the complex and transparent character of the climate and soil here in Sta. Rita Hills?”  Here’s a thought:  who cares?  I say, just enjoy...

VML's Virginia Lambrix

2010 VML Boudreaux, Russian River Valley – VML (by winemaker Virginia Marie Lambrix, a Biodynamic® specialist who also makes the Truett-Hurst wines) also showed a 2010 VML Winemaker’s Select from Russian River Valley, and damned if I can tell you what I like better.  The Boudreaux positively quivers with pliant, fleshy, black and red berry fruit, sheathed in silk with wisps of smoky tobacco; whereas the Winemaker’s Select puts out even more sumptuous, broader, more densely textured fruit with a sensual, almost primal wild berry fruit quality (think gorging yourself from thorny roadside bushes while biking through a wine country in a summer sweat).  In a conversation with Ms. Lambrix the month before, she likened her Select to “Tchlistcheff’s fur coat... that animal smell combined with the perfumed scent of a woman,” but either VML will satisfy the most primitive longings of pinot lovers, pining for that base, licentious experience in finely laced garb.
2010 Kosta Browne, Gap’s Crown Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – This is more like one of those “whoa” pinots – somewhat full scaled, with as much muscle as flesh, or masculine, if you will – but its rich black cherry intensity seeps deep into the mouth, with that “Elvis on black velvet” quality that you just can’t keep your eyes off.  And for all you protest kids, there is very much a terroirist wine, as you find pinots of pretty much the same ilk made by others (notably MacPhail, Patz & Hall, Sojourn, Wind Gap and Anaba) who source from this 800-850 ft. elevation hillside vineyard on the western flanks of Sonoma Mountain, bathed in the sun while belted by moderating, rambunctious winds whipping in through the Petaluma Gap.

2011 Chamisal, Stainless Steel/Unoaked, Edna Valley – My enthusiasm for this pinot may very well be a plaintive cry for help:  I’m such a wuss when it comes to shamelessly fruity styles, and this fruit driven cuvée is like plasticine rock to a crack addict.  But I can say this because I’m just as confident in my street creds; and because even terroirists enjoy a good quaff like this purplish ruby red, emanating floral, super-fresh raspberry aromas, becoming like drippy cherries in the mouth, contained in a fine, zesty, medium body unperturbed by mild tannin.  

2010 Failla, Keefer Ranch, Russian River Valley – Because Failla is a poster child for what is often associated with contemporary “natural” wine – cold climate viticulture, wild fermentation, minimalist élevage, etc. – the assumption even among those who should know better is that a Failla Pinot Noir will also be minimalist in structure and fruit expression.  Of all their cuvées, Failla’s Keefer Ranch regularly defies such pigeonholing:  the 2010, a violet toned, lusciously fruity wine teeming with extravagant perfumes of strawberry, peppermint and baking spices, flowing out from a velvety, voluptuous body of almost unreal lushness.  Winemaker/owner Ehren Jordan would tell you that fruit from Keefer Ranch is what it is – he doesn't fool with it - and so if you are looking for something taut, tart and taciturn, like a nice little pinot should be, you should probably look elsewhere, my friend.  Just as exotic in its pinot sauciness - but in a tad more flowery, bony, Angelina Jolie sort of way - is the 2010 Failla Sonoma Coast Pearlessence.

2010 Freeman, Keefer Ranch, Russian River Valley – This vineyard – sitting pretty much dead-center in the Green Valley sub-AVA, sloping down to Green Valley Creek – invariably produces meaty yet fluid pinots for its prestigious clientele (besides Failla, Kosta Browne, Siduri, and the Keefers themselves).  Freeman always seems to emphasize the foresty spice, enhanced by subtle smoky oak, of the terroir; and in 2010, couching that in black cherry and earth tones, its plush, fullsome body fluffed up by mild acidity.  With even more emphasis on earthy, sweet pepper tinged spice, the 2010 Freeman Sonoma Coast Akiko’s Cuvée coalesces with similar, plush qualities, battened down by a slightly edgier, mouth watering acidity.

James MacPhail

2010 MacPhail, Pratt Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – You gotta love James MacPhail’s aggressive style:  you might notice his use of oak, but nearly always just to the point where varietal fruit qualities distinguishing his stable of top flight vineyard sources become all the more exhilarating.  In the 2010 Pratt, a woodsy/spiced black cherry fruit concentration hits you with almost relentless, juicy intensity, supple and fleshy in the mouth, yet coiled and springy in the feel.  After a brief hiatus, Mr. MacPhail’s return to this growth, farmed by Jim Pratt at the north end of Sebastopol Hills (as such, also falling within the Russian River Valley AVA), is something to write home about.

2009 Talley, Rosemary’s Vineyard, Arroyo Grande Valley – It’s the immediate east-west proximity to the Pacific that has always given Talley’s Arroyo Grande Valley plantings their sturdy, steely, often dark, savory, scrubby, almost iron-like, downright masculine qualities – confoundingly stingy in some years, generously sleek in others.  Of all their single vineyard bottlings, Rosemary’s probably personifies that taut tension of sinew and berry jam concentration; in 2009, taunting you further with exotic notes of berry infused black tea spice, before knocking you to the floor with curvaceous, fleshed out, acid and stony sensations.

2009 Bergström, The Bergström Vineyard, Dundee Hills - Among the latest releases from Bergström Wines, there are three estate (also DEMETER certified Biodynamic©) grown bottlings from three different Willamette Valley AVAs, representing two vintages that owner/winemaker Josh Bergström says “could not be more different.” Bergström describes 2009 as a “warm, ripe year, producing wines of opulence, density, plush textures, and alcohols over 14%.”  Hence, the meaty, almost explosive qualities of the ’09 Bergström Vineyard, couched in what Bergström describes as an "old world palate... meaning more earth, mineral and a complexity that does not revolve solely around fruit,” which he attributes to his signature estate’s rocky red soil, consistently giving “a ferrous-driven minerality reminiscent of blood or Breseola.”

On the other hand, Mr. Bergström describes 2010 as more of a “classic Oregon vintage... very late ripening into November, flavors developing before sugars, interplay of acid and tannin, and alcohols around 12.9%-13.2%.”  Though still calling them “babies,” the 2010 Bergström de Lancellotti Vineyard Chehalem Mountains Pinot Noir ($60) is already flowery and perfumed, and the 2010 Bergström Gregory Ranch Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir ($60) is silky, bright and effusive, despite the young, meaty tannin in both.  Bergström notes that Gregory, the family’s newest site, is on one of Yamhill-Carlton’s cooler slopes, describing its emerging character as “urgent cherry and Marionberry, and a sweet earth character more akin to truffle than loam, on top of the classic sweet spice/potpourri of Willakenzie soil.”

Some briefer remarks on other noteworthy Pinot Noirs:

2008 Solomon Hills, Santa Maria Valley – One of the few ‘08s being shown during the weekend; red berry perfume tinged with smoky, peaty notes; slender, lean, but nicely filigreed qualities, energized by snappy acidity and harmonious tannin.

2008 Bonaccorsi, Nielson Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Another ’08; this one, a charmer with dollops of cherry fruit and strawberry purée; soft, delicate feel on the palate, with silk and zippy acid interplay.

2009 Native9, Rancho Ontiveras Vineyards, Santa Maria Valley – Fragrant cherry pie, cola, and smoked meat qualities in the nose and dense texturing; acidic snap, plus raw, pithy sense of immediacy from front to back.

2009 Pali, Fiddlestix Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills - Bull’s eye in the middle of the seductive perfume (red berry and rose petal) and earth tinged aspects of the grape; slinky body, draped in velvet and smoky spice.

Greg La Follette with assistant winemaker Simone Sequeria

2009 La Follette, Du Nah Vineyard, Russian River Valley – Head spinning intersection of wild berries, dead leaves, smoky spice, and even a smack of leather (organic rather than Brett related); silken textured, earth toned flavors punctuated by sharp acidity; youthful tightness in the finish.

2010 ROAR, Sierra Mar, Santa Lucia Highlands – First release from Gary Franscioni’s newest vineyard atop a 1,000 ft. elevation slope; lush bing cherry, super-high toned, tangy and deep.

2010 Lucia, Gary’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – By Pisoni Vineyards; medium-full bodied wine saturated with black cherry fruitiness; firm tannin center, while lush and snappy on the palate.
2009 Benovia, La Pommeraie, Russian River Valley – Bright, broad, lavish Russian River Valley style; plump, juicy, velvet texturing.

2009 Flying Goat, Garey Ranch, Santa Maria Valley – Super-fragrant nose of strawberry and peppermint sprigs; bright, zesty, high toned, yet fine and delicate in the feel.

2010 Thomas Fogarty, Rapley Trail Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains Estate – Redolent of strawberries and underbrush, yet dense and youthfully bright, tart edged on the palate; finishing with a fluid feel of soft leather in its medium weight.

Winemaker Nathan Kandler in Thomas Fogarty's mountaintop estate

2009 Fiddlehead, Oldsville Reserve, Chehalem Mountains – Pale transluscent red color and fragrant perfume of dried flowers and berries; sense of delicacy in the nose and palate, finishing with a fine, zesty flourish.

2009 Sokol Blosser, Dundee Hills – Another Oregonian shown in almost stark contrast to the weightier California pinots:  a lithe, medium bodied pinot, throwing out attractively floral notes of Christmas spiced berries; some tightening tannin in the mouth, but flowing into a long, zesty finish.

2009 Freestone, Estate Grown, Sonoma Coast – Nose dripping with sour-suggestive morello cherry fruitiness, tinged with an airy woodsy spice and strawberry sweetness; fairly full on the palate, revved up by good acid and sweet woodsiness of the spice and oak.

2010 Luminesce, Presqu’ile Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Luscious, sweet red berry nose; the promiscuous fruit qualities tucked into a nicely rounded, velvety medium body.

2010 Belle Glos, Clark &Telephone Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley - Billowingly sweet scented, somewhat fat yet luxurious, satisfying; from an own-rooted, Martini clone vineyard now in its fortieth leaf.

ROAR's Gary Francscioni

2009 Lucienne, Doctor’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – Fairly lavish nose of red berries, smoke, and trail mix-like dried fruits and nuts; aggressive full body and tannin, but plumped up by lush flavors.

2010 Hilliard Bruce, Hahn Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – Luscious, almost liqueur-like strawberry/cherry aroma; velvety, broad feel, brimming with luscious fruit, in similar, gushy, bouncy style to the solidly crafted 2009 Hilliard Bruce Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir Moon.

2009 Silver Pines, Sonoma Mountain – Sweet berry and interestingly organic, forest floor aromatic notes; silky on the palate, finishing on the soft side.

2010 Puma Road, Vigna Monte Nero, Santa Lucia Highlands – By Ray Franscioni Wines (RFW); slightly sharp edged, almost lean in its classical structuring, yet teeming with strawberryish fruit.

2010 Bu, Wildcat Mt. Vineyard, Sonoma County – By Bruliam Wines; invitingly lush red berry perfumes; velvety entry leading to slightly fat but juicy, flavorful feel.
Native9's James Ontiveras


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"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.