The state of American Pinot Noir is better than ever (but not for reasons you may expect)

Pinot Noir on virused vines in Arroyo Grande Valley's  Laetitia Vineyards

It was very easy to be impressed by the overall quality level of Pinot Noirs at the 17th annual World of Pinot Noir, taking place at Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara this past March 3-4, 2017.

As in previous years, I took detailed notes on some 50 wines on each of the two days (I know I’m maxed out when the inside of my lips start to go numb), out of the ridiculous number you actually have the opportunity to taste (40 producers, pouring an estimated 700 different bottlings). I apologize for all the ones I missed; but when I accepted the post of “god of wine” some 39 years ago (my first sommelier job), they didn’t tell me that my actual powers would be that of a somewhat mortal semi-demigod, and a minor one at that. Still, if anyone claims they have perfectly good notes on more than 100 wines tasted at World of Pinot Noir, I suspect they’re lying.
- Michael Maslin, The New Yorker 

I know what I thought of the Pinot Noirs. Since I don’t have to convince myself, after the proceedings I queried a few winemakers (those producing my “favorites”) that I saw there to see if their impressions jibed with mine. For the most part, they did. Perhaps that’s why I preferred their wines over that of others. Hardly an unbiased poll, but still...

Nathan Kandler – the winemaker who’s been doing such an outstanding job at Thomas Fogarty Winery these past 10, 12 years – probably said the most interesting thing over sushi on the final night of WOPN. What Kandler noticed: “Greater appreciation for what makes Pinot Noir regions great – unlike 10, 15 years ago, when everyone was trying to make some kind of wine emulating a Platonic ideal of ‘Pinot Noir.’”

In other words, less obsession with a single varietal definition of Pinot Noir, less fidelity to house styles, and sharpened focus on sense of place. This industry-wide movement (at least in the category of premium bottlings), of course, has been gradual; but in 2017, we may have reached a critical juncture – at least one that is more noticeable than what we saw just a year or two ago.

Nathan Kandler in Thomas Fogarty's Rapley Trail Vineyard (Santa Cruz Mountains) 

I do not take it as a complete coincidence that Kevin Law, owner/winemaker of Côtiére Wines in Santa Maria, happened to mention in passing Rhys Vineyards – one of Thomas Fogarty’s Skyline Drive neighbors in Santa Cruz Mountains – in a discussion of more informed use of whole cluster, new oak and extreme (i.e. low yielding/hillside) viticulture. To begin with, Law told me, “American Pinot Noirs are in their infancy compared to France... yet I am incredibly impressed and happy to see the direction of the wines just over the past few years. As a winemaker, in my humble opinion, it is best to not stylize or interfere – rather, to protect and encourage vineyard expression. We’re starting to go beyond ripeness levels and winemaking styles, where boundaries have recently been pushed. Trends and winemaking decisions are starting to harmonize, allowing sites and terroir to become more expressive.”

Alma Rosa Winery’s Richard Sanford – who labored (at his Sanford & Benedict Vineyard) as the only winegrower in Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills for over 10 years, starting in 1970 – used almost the same terminology as Mr. Law; saying, “I am delighted that, after my 45 years growing the grape, we are now witnessing California Pinot Noir evolving into definable regional characteristics.” Sanford cites “pioneering of new sites,” “new clones,” “inquisitive young winemakers,” and “maturation of older plantings” (the “rustic, youthful edges” of these vineyards being “rounded out by age”) as some of the major factors in this recent breakthrough.

The legendary Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa Wines

Steven Gerbac – who has definitely instituted a new regime at Ballard Canyon’s Rusack Vineyards over the past two, three years – spoke frankly about the “old concept” of vineyard-designate wines: “In the past it was easy for some of us to make and sell 15 different single vineyard bottlings; but honestly, I think the only ones who could truly tell the difference in the wines were the winemakers. The wines were, more often than not, very similar expressions of cola and ripe fruit, rather than unique expressions of individual vineyards.”

Gerbac elaborates further on the steady movement away from domineering brand or “house” styles: “I see a shift away from that program, where site is becoming more important and is starting to drive stylistic choices in the winery. In looking to accentuate individual vineyard characteristics, it has become acceptable to have one Pinot that is, maybe, earthy and herbal, and another that falls more in the fruit spectrum. I think this is definitely driven by consumers who want to taste and embrace the diversity. They no longer expect, nor desire, wines that taste the same.”
Rusack Vineyards' Steven Gerbac

“Hands-off” winemaking has played a major part. For instance, one of the most intense, even showiest, Pinot Noirs of the weekend was 2014 Brewer-Clifton Hapgood from Sta. Rita Hills. Says Brewer-Clifton founding partner Greg Brewer, “Our approach, after 20 years, has gone to an extreme, and use of Merry Edwards’ clone 37 in our Hapgood Road planting is a perfect vehicle for our aesthetic of 100% whole cluster fermentation, and raising of the wine in all-neutral cooperage without racking.”

What Brewer and his winemaking team have formulated over time is an approach to Pinot Noir that optimizes qualities of one particular site, which may differ from the way other sites are handled. Côtérie’s Kevin Law has also been minimizing the influence of first-year barrels to accentuate site; but says: “This does not mean I don’t use new oak. We may ask, how much does new oak takes away and how much does new oak enhance a wine? But really, it’s the wine that makes those decisions. The same with whole cluster fermentation – whole cluster can help add longevity, complex aromatics and tannin, but knowing your vineyard is key to knowing how much is too much or too little.”

Cotiere Wines winemaker/owner Kevin Law

Counter-intuitively, larger percentages of new oak do not necessarily make Pinot Noirs from a numero uno vineyards taste oakier, and increased whole cluster does not automatically equate to increased tannin and aroma contributing phenolics. In fact, the result can be the opposte. Rhys Vineyards has been demonstrating this with their single vineyard bottlings for years; where certain sites (like their Skyline Vineyard) tend to be softer and more opulent than other sites, despite 100% whole cluster fermentation and larger percentages of new oak (which Rhys winemaker Jeff Brinkman says can have an effect of polymerizing skin tannins, thus ameliorating sensations of tannin while amplifying terroir related nuances).

More than ever, individual sites are informing the methodology of today’s better (in my humble opinion) producers. A lot of this is because they have a better understanding of their sites; and a lot of this is because they are (at long last) allowing sites to impose their will, even at the expense of brand consistency, winemaking artistry, and the fading vestiges of varietal tyranny. Hallelujah, and pass the beef bourguignon!

McIntyre Pinot Noir in McIntyre Vineyard

That said, my “Top 20” wines (in alphabetical order) from the 2017 World of Pinot Noir weekend:

2015 Alma Rosa Wines, Rancho La Viña, Sta. Rita Hills – Very contemporary in its silken fine, light-medium body, with upfront acidity mobilizing a palpable sense of purity and delicacy from the flowery, peppermint spiced cherry qualities in the nose to the vibrant feel on the palate.

2014 Alta Maria Vineyards, Bien Nacido Vineyard Block G, Santa Maria Valley – If I had to choose a single favorite from the weekend (personal preference, mind you), this would probably be it. It was the electrical acidity and savory sensations that got me – the wine just sticks like Elvis’ glue – beneath billowing, nostril tingling, flowery fragrances. According Alta Maria owner/grower James Ontiveros, this comes from a 44-year-old block of own-rooted Pommard selection, which he and winemaker/partner Paul Wilkens optimized through 100% whole cluster fermentation and just 8 months barrel age.
2014 Brewer-Clifton, Hapgood, Sta. Rita Hills – This is as vivid and electrifying as a Pinot Noir can be, while exemplifying the cooler climate, hillside environment of Santa Barbara's Sta. Rita Hills; cherry liqueur-like perfumes beaming up from the glass, and linear yet silken textured, zesty, precisely balanced flavors lighting up the palate. Exhilarating.

Hirsch Vineyards' East Ridge block in Sonoma Coast's Fort Ross-Seaview AVA

2014 Côtiére Wines, Laetitia Vineyard, Arroyo Grande Valley – This bottling, alas, is the last of this particular vineyard, as Laetitia ripped out almost all the blocks utilized by Côtiére (which were virused) after the 2014 vintage. 30% whole cluster, 30% new oak, and bottling at just 11 months all amounted to billowing, bright red fruit perfumes (drippy cherry/strawberry) tinged with spice; couched in firm, meaty yet zesty, high toned sensations, with a real feel of delicacy, finesse, femininity.

2013 Fiddlehead Cellars, Oldsville Reserve, Oregon – Oregon is always underrepresented at WOPN, which is a shame because small numbers obfuscate the comparisons with California Pinot Noirs (when you attend the International Pinot Noir Conference in McMinnville, on the other hand, the smaller number of California Pinot Noirs often seem clumsy or heavy handed in comparison to Oregonians). While she leaves the info off the front label, owner/winemaker Kathy Joseph says this is a single-vineyard bottling from Willamette Valley’s Chehalem Mountains AVA. There were both pre-rain and post-rain fruit in the 2013 picking, which probably accounts for the layering of meaty and upbeat, dancing sensations that I like in the wine, as well as the combination of wild berry and slightly damp forest floor aromatics; all packaged in the medium bodied style, with that classic sense of restraint, which give the best of Willamette Valley wines such an inviting, yet enigmatic, quality.
McIntyre Vineyards owner/grower Steve McIntyre in his Santa Lucia Highlands planting

2013 Hirsch Vineyards, East Ridge, Sonoma Coast – According to Jasmine Hirsch, this bottling comes from the warmest of her family’s Fort Ross-Seaview/Sonoma Coast ridge-top sites, describing it as more “masculine” than other Hirsch bottlings. Well, for a masculine wine, this sure is a refined and composed Pinot – sleek, silky, bright, and strikingly light on its feet (12.8% alcohol), while floral with rose petal, black cherry, and the faintest woodsiness.

2015 Kosta Browne Winery, Keefer Ranch, Green Valley of Russian River Valley – In a promising vintage like 2015, Kosta Browne will kill; as it does in this laser focused rendering of this site, located in one of the cooler climate pockets of the Sonoma Coast. The cherry perfume is spicy, generous, make that extravagant, with a real sense of power and concentration; yet on the palate, the wine takes a significant turn towards a refined, silky, even delicate composure, remaining bright and perky, rather than beefy or blustery.

2015 Lombardi Wines, Sonoma Coast – Here’s a crystallization of what I’ve come to love about Petaluma Gap Pinot Noir: the lavish, high toned fragrances that suggest unabashed sweetness and ripeness (in this wine, manifested as dried cherry, floral rose petal and spiced potpourri-like perfumes), yet a tautly wound balance, palate zinging acidity, and pervasive sense of restraint on the palate. Kudos to owners Tony and Christine Lombardi for their commitment to their homegrown grape sources.
In Santa Lucia Highlands' Garys' Vineyard: Gary Franscioni with Gary and Mark Pisoni

2015 Lucia Vineyards, Soberanes Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – Intellectually, I often find myself wondering why Santa Lucia Highlands wins me over. This is a wind-whipped appellation, where in most vintages optimal ripeness doesn’t usually arrive until grapes are fairly high in sugar, and alcohols threaten to soar out of control. Yet proof is always in the pudding: the wines have undeniable intensity, but rarely at the expense of finesse and balance. Wines like the Pisoni family’s Soberanes Pinot invariably come up smelling like a rose (pun intended). The cherry/strawberry fruit is pure and pungent, tinged by intriguing whiffs of resiny wild brush. There is flesh and body on the bone, forged by savory phenolics and racy acidity. You can almost smell the slopes, and feel the wind, of the appellation in the glass. It’s like, "why must I always be Mango?"

2014 Mindego Ridge Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains – This young planting (est. 2009) seems to have all the ingredients: 8.5 acres of mixed Dijon clones on south facing, 30-degree slopes at a 700-950-ft. elevation, completely surrounded by old growth redwood, madrone and buckeye. I know this because I was so enthralled by this bottling – plus another from the same vineyard by Thomas Fogarty Winery – that I felt compelled stop by to take a gander the Sunday after WOPN. What I love is the airy, transparent qualities in the nose – lush red fruit with kitchen herb undertones, tinged with a wild, sweet woodsiness – that came packaged in fine, silky layers of the slinky, evocative fruit, neatly tied together by zesty acidity, while unobscured by evident oak.  Neither was I surprised to also learn that this bottling was produced by Failla Wines’ Ehren Jordan, another poster child for low intervention winemaking.
Mindego Ridge Vineyard owner/grower Dave Gollnick

2014 McIntyre Vineyards, Old Vine, Santa Lucia Highlands – This bottling – which owner/grower Steve McIntyre says comes from the oldest Pinot Noir block in the appellation (46-year-old own-rooted vines of unknown clonal origin) – cannot help but differentiate itself even from the proprietor’s adjoining blocks, all producing wines of pristine, penetrating fruit in 2014. Thanks to a hands-off approach to vinification, the old vines give earthy/woodsy/licorice notes (McIntyre suggests “sorel mushrooms and black pepper”) unlike anything else tasted over the weekend; underscoring a flowery perfume; coming across as refined, tightly grained and zesty/tart on the palate, the tannins furnishing a gentle grip.

2014 Merry Edwards Winery, Flax Vineyard, Russian River Valley – This winery submitted its usual stable of impeccable, preeminently North Coast style of single-vineyard Pinot Noirs. This year, if I had to choose one, I choose this Westside Rd. planting (located in Russian Rive Valley’s warmer Middle Reach sub-area) because, well, it is so darned Russian River-ish: lush and ripe (certain writers would say “opulent”), effusive, downright flashy, yet not over-the-top, in its black cherry fruit profile; meaty, dense, layered, supple and rich as get-out on the palate. I’m glad we’re reaching a point where we don’t expect all American Pinot Noirs to emulate this style; but am also glad that they’re still made, in accordance to their terroir.

Russian River Valley icon Merry Edwards

2013 Native9 Wines, Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – I may have lied about liking James Ontiveros’ 2014 Alta Mesa Bien Nacido Block G best at the 2017 WOPN. My notes show that I was “wowed” even more by this bottling, from his 8-acre estate block located closer to the coast and its moderating fog influence. The nose just leaps from the glass like liquid ninja, but it’s not just of cherry toned Pinot Noir perfume; it’s also crushed/brown-leafy, mushroomy, somewhat wild, organic; and the fleshy, earth toned fruit sensations wrap around your palate in almost mesmerizing fashion. Since I’ve experienced this before in previous (but not all) vintages of Rancho Ontiveros, I can only surmise a site related commonality in the experiences. As it were, 100% native yeast and whole cluster fermented (manifestations of such being neither here nor there for me).

2014 Niner Wine Estates, Jespersen Ranch Reserve, Edna Valley – I suspect that Edna Valley doesn’t always get its just due because of a long-obsolete reputation for more monochromatic Pinots; when in fact, in our own blind tastings (where truth invariably wins out) a number of them consistently finish spectacularly. Not that it’s all about “winning.” I’m singling out this bottling because I was particularly taken by a pepper grinder spice livening up a pretty, cherry bomb perfume; while on the palate, tingly acidity adds a persistent quality to the berried tea-leafy fruit, with its spice perking up with a tinge of clove added to the pepper. These are unique qualities, directly attributable to the windswept location of this planting, located in far north-west corner of the appellation.
Dieter Cronje, winemaker of Santa Maria Valley's Presqu'ile Winery

2014 Presqu’ile Winery, Presqu’ile Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – This producer has demonstrated a laudably light touch (even with 50% new oak) in all its bottlings, although I’ve been partial to their estate grown cuvée for its particularly flowery character – raspberry/cherry fruit tinged with the slightest shake of sweet kitchen spice – and lithe, sleek, sheer and slender feel, bristling with palate freshening acidity.

2015 ROAR Wines, Garys’ Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – Pinots from this vineyard – a 50-acre collaborative project by Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni – rarely disappoint, and the 2015 ROAR is no different. The sheer intensity of Pinot-ness – wafting pefumes of strawberry glacé – are compelling enough, while a sense of completeness in the velvety, buoyant, fluid, generous and pinpointedly balanced sensations on the palate fulfill every promise.
Rocky hillside soil in Soberanes Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands

2014 Rusack Vineyards, Solomon Hills, Santa Barbara County – From a site that is now included within the far western boundaries of Santa Maria Valley. According to Steven Gerbac, “I like this vineyard because it is the closest to the ocean in the valley, but not overpowered by the usual Santa Maria spice.” Deep sandy loam soil also tends to consistently yield Pinot Noirs of high-toned, flowery character, and finely delineated, acid driven palate sensations. The feel is always edgy yet fine grained; vivid without being boisterous. Neither do I find the slightly herby, tomato-leafy quality (which, of course, has its own intrigue) so often associated with the appellation. My style of Pinot, so what of it?

2014 Thomas Fogarty, Rapley Trail, Santa Cruz Mountains – The nose in this estate vineyard bottling is lush, ripe, plummy, notably spicy (pepper veering towards sweet incense and, yes, peppermint), and even more interestingly, replete with a magnetic, foresty, almost greenish woodsiness. Winemaker Mike Martella says he is never surprised when he hears these descriptors, given the daily mountaintop winds that flow through the limbs and needles of the Douglas firs surrounding this sloping planting. The idea is that Martella and Thomas Fogarty's current head winemaker, Nathan Kandler, are also smart enough to leave well enough alone; allowing the wine to fill out itself with a rounded, meaty feel on the palate, with a dense yet savory, ultimately balanced sense of natural grape tannin phenols that, in other Pinot Noirs, might seem a little overwhelming, yet totally appropriate for this growth.
Pinot Noir tasting in Sonoma Coast's Sebastopol Hills

2013 Wayfarer, Golden Mean, Fort Ross-Seaview, Sonoma Coast – In the finest vein of this extreme coastal appellation, a characteristically gentle, velvety wine expanded to voluminous, almost grand, unblemished proportions; the nose floral and star-bright in cherry/cranberry red fruit tones, and the palate even-keeled and uncommonly svelte, fluid.

2013 Witching Stick Wines, Gianoli Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge – Owner/winemaker Van Williamson and his wife/partner Anne Williamson showed up with a foursome of impeccably sculpted, acid driven Pinots – just about the lightest (in terms of body) in the room, but also among the most nimble and compelling; with great clarity, especially in rose petal nuanced delineations. I was partial to the Gianoli for its woodsy/pine needle (veering towards forest floor) scent, mingling with the red berry/cherry perfume; fine, prickly and energetic on the palate. According to Williamson, Gianoli used to be just about the best Zinfandel site in Mendocino Ridge (at least according to the late, great George Zeni), but these days Pinot rules the roost. Mornings are warmer but overall day temperatures are cooler than nearby Andeson Valley; hence the characteristic earth, spice and moderate alcohol (13.8%).

Witching Stick's Van and Anne Williamson at 2017 World of Pinot Noir


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Randy Caparoso:
"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.