When it comes to top Pinot Noir, terroir trumps varietal valuation

I was contemplating a 2013 Failla Pinot Noir from Occidental Ridge Vineyard (Sonoma Coast) at the most recent World of Pinot Noir – a yearly two-day event that took place in Santa Barbara this past March 2015.  The Failla’s color was a deep, vivid, almost blue-tinged red, and the nose was gushy with strawberry-like varietal fruit, infused with whiffs of woodsy forest floor.  Tannin and flavors seem appropriately aggressive, considering the nose and the wine’s youth, but seemed to plop like a dead weight on the palate, like an over-floured gnocchi kneaded by a clumsy novice cook.

As Dylan once sang, I’ve been through this movie before... with this particular wine tasted right out of the gate, which can come across as gawky, one-dimensional, or slutty to an uncomfortable point of artificiality  – like a pretty girl in unnecessary makeup.  The question was:  Why can’t Failla’s Occidental be a little finer, limber, more lifted and delineated in its woodsy, strawberry perfumed intensity – qualities I found abundant in, for example, the 2012 Baxter Pinot Noir from Mendocino Ridge’s Valenti Vineyard that I had tasted moments before?

The answer struck me – not then and there, but hours later after tasting nearly 100 more Pinot Noirs, as I was organizing my thoughts on the “best” wines tasted that day.  A young Failla Occidental Ridge can’t be as “fine” as a Baxter Valenti because it’s grown in a deep, foggy pocket of Sonoma encircled by lush stand of evergreens; whereas the Valenti is high up on a Mendocino ridgetop, also surrounded by woods but well above the clouds.  Different strokes, different Pinots.

No matter what, a young Failla Occidental Ridge naturally comes out rambunctious, whereas a Baxter Valenti is well heeled from the get-go.  Heck, it’s not even so much a question of age – it’s fundamentally ingrained, like DNA, in the wines themselves.

Of course, we could, and should, trot out the T word – terroir – to explain this simple concept of Nature-compelled differentiation.  So let’s just say it:  terroir should always trump varietal character (or, for that matter, elusive notions like “balance,” which many confuse with scale these days) when evaluating top-flight Pinot Noir.

For many of us in the wine trade, the overwhelming compulsion, when tasting dozens or over 100 wines in a day, is to evaluate wines in terms of varietal character rather than terroir or origin.  This Pinot Noir tastes fat, fruity and clumsy, whereas that Pinot Noir is zestier, more delicate, and less obviously fruited.  We don’t do this so much when we compare Burgundies or Bordeaux; because the French make it easier for us by reminding us from the get-go that we’re tasting regions and vineyards, not varietal categories, by putting place names (not "Pinot Noir") on their labels. 

I, for one, still find myself wrestling with that compulsion, as cognizant as I am of it.  On the first day of this year’s World of Pinot Noir I actually “marked down” (although I don’t do scores) a 2012 Merry Edwards Meredith Estate, thinking its strawberry/raspberry concentration too blatant, ripe and preponderant; until I reminded myself that I’m tasting Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, not one from McMinnville, Central Otago or Mendocino Ridge.

I found that forcing an open mind even allowed me to better appreciate wines that I previously found weak or wanting – like the 2012 Adelaida from Paso Robles.  On paper, the thought of Paso Robles Pinot Noir seems ludicrous – it’s too darned hot there.  But when you consider the fact that Adelaida’s Pinot Noir is crafted from historic 50-year old vines (some of the oldest in the state, originally part of the old Hoffman Mountain Ranch, where Andre Tchelistcheff famously consulted) on limestone slopes at about a 1,700-ft. elevation, then the wine’s dull, faded nose suddenly turns into a gentle, subtle, intoxicating bucket of wild cherries, and its scrawny frame suddenly tastes sleek, zesty, sexy.  It may be all in the mind, but then again, pleasure is always a perception.

No doubt, an Adelaida Pinot Noir, or even an unevolved Failla Occidental Ridge, might get “destroyed” in a competitive double-blind tasting (the whole idea of wine "competitions" suddenly sounds stupid), when we line them all up and let the chips fall.  What a shame.  Because when you taste terroir driven wines within their own context – like we do, in fact, when we taste French crus or châteaux – then it’s amazing how bright and diverse the wine world turns out to be.

Cotiere winemaker Kevin Law

That said, my favorite Pinot Noirs at the 2015 World of Pinot Noir were varied, in the spirit of terroir-cracy; and as always, personal – anyone who can’t acknowledge that whim, time of month or time of season, mood, atmospheric pressure or even BD calendaring (whether we’re aware of it or not) has an effect on choices is just kidding him- or herself.

I was especially impressed by the latest set of wines by winemaker Kevin Law under the Cotiere Winery label (formerly called Luminesce – same outfit, just a name change for legal purposes).  I’ve never had a problem coming up with descriptors for any wine, but all I could think of was “exquisite” to describe the seamless, silky texturing and brilliant, fragrant perfumes emanating from the 2012 Cotiere Pinot Noirs from Presqui’le Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley) and Laetitia Vineyard (Arroyo Grande Valley).  I don’t know which I like better – although coming from two different regions, both are fashioned in a more petite, feminine, finesseful style that I’ve always been sucker for.

Another stand-out for me was the 2012 MacPhail Family Mardikian Estate; from a vineyard planted in one of the coldest corners of Sonoma Coast by owner/winemaker James MacPhail with the help of crack viticulturists Jim Pratt and Sander Scheer.  The Mardikian Pinot Noir is deep, meaty and full-structured in the MacPhail signature style, but amazingly fine, balanced, baby-bright and exuberant at the same time.  This winemaker/vineyard interaction reminds me of when Lennon met McCartney – a brazen edginess collides with melodic sweetness, resulting in some phenomenal music. 

MacPhail Family's Mardikian Estate

Incidentally, the 2012 MacPhail Family Pinot Noirs from Sangiacomo Vineyard (Sonoma Coast; powerful organic earth qualities underlying exuberant, strawberryish varietal purity) and Gap’s Crown (also Sonoma Coast; fleshy, sonorous sensations) – always a fascinating comparison of Petaluma Gap plantings, one perched on the west facing slope of Sonoma Mountain, and the other on a cobbled, ancient riverbed at the bottom of that same slope – were also tasting as great as ever.

It was also gratifying to find the 2013 Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards (Sonoma Coast) tasting so fantastic (how’s that for a descriptor... too plebeian?... see if I care).  But when you taste a 100 Pinot Noirs in a row, and find one in the middle that just seems to leap from the glass with an hallelujah chorus of fragrances, and then caress you with perky, prickly, silky, intoxicating sensations, what can you say?

I felt similar vinous unholiness when I tasted the 2012 Wayfarer Vineyard (Fort Ross-Seaview).  Unlike all the other growths mentioned so far, I have never visited Wayfarer, and so I’m not prejudiced by that personal familiarity – this is simply a fine, penetrating, gracefully layered and elongated Pinot Noir, epitomizing what we used to call the “true Sonoma Coast” style.

Phil Baxter at 2015 World of Pinot Noir

From Santa Barbara, I found two more epiphanies in the 2011 Flying Goat Cellars Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard (Sta. Rita Hills) and 2013 Gypsy Canyon (Sta. Rita Hills).  Again, I’m compelled by Pinots that exhibit longer-than-average length carried by pincushion acidity and meaty flavor/tannin phenolics – effusive varietal aroma really isn’t an issue with the majority of top Pinot Noirs these days – and these two bottlings had “it.”

You don’t really go to World of Pinot Noir to catch up on all the latest Willamette Valley bottlings, but there was some representation.  Out of those, I was most impressed by the gentle yet snappy, brightly scented 2011 Ann Amie Vineyards (Yamhill-Carlton).  In a similar vein, the 2012 Witching Stick Dowser's Cuvé(Anderson Valley) blends two vineyards in Anderson Valley and two in Mendocino Ridge; turning out lighter weight, acid driven, full of the upbeat, floral raspberry/cherry character I've always associated more with Willamette Valley than anywhere in California.  Not that a California Pinot should ever taste Oregonian, but to me it's a positive, and not entirely inappropriate for cooler climate pockets of Mendocino.

I could go on – every year Pinot Noir just seems to get better and better – but I won’t.  Suffice to say, it was a good weekend; not so much because of the plethora of fabulous wines as the joy of seeing more and more of them tasting less like “winemaker’s art” and more like the places from where they come.  American Pinot Noir may finally be growing up!

MacPhail Family's James and Kerry MacPhail


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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.