Getting down to seeds and stems at 2018 World of Pinot Noir
|Adelaida's original HMR Pinot noir block planted in 1964 (now part of Adelaida District-Paso Robles)|
It was not surprising to find, at the 2018 World of Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara this past March 2-3, that American Pinot noirs are more impressive than ever. 15, 20 years ago, I would attend a 2-day event like this (such as the IPNC in McMinnville, OR), taste about 100 wines (about as much as I can before my tongue goes numb), and find maybe a dozen Pinot noirs that would knock my sox off. This year I found over 40 of them.
Although it’s never fair to compare wines that now exist in memory (it would be like asking how a prime-time Oscar Robertson would stack up against a Michael Jordan or Steph Curry in a game), I would still venture to say that, by today’s standards, those mid-‘70s Chalones, Sanford & Benedicts and HMRs – however phenomenal they may have been at the time – would probably come across as relatively coarse and overly oaked if compared to the plethora of our finer Pinot noirs today (although I distinctly remember most Burgundian grand and premier crus as also being over-oaked during the ‘70s – clearly a fashion of the times).
|From the author's late '70s label collection|
These days, we are long past the late, great Andre Tchelistcheff’s conjecture, during the early ‘70s, that “Pinot noir is scrawny and broods about the slightest offense... all the challenge is getting the surly child to smile." I was just rereading, for the nth time, the chapter in Robert Benson’s 1977 book, Great Winemakers of California, where Tchelistcheff is quoted to say that California possesses the climate but probably not the requisite soil to grow “great” Pinot noir.
|The author in 1982 with mentor Andre Tchelistcheff|
Frankly, 40 to 50 years ago even the most prescient American vignerons could not conceive of Pinot noir grown in more extreme terroirs; such as the Sebastopol Hills, Fort Ross-Seaview or the Petaluma Gap, let alone McMinnville, the Deep End of Anderson Valley, Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Maria Valley’s Solomon Hills, or in clearings carved out of forests in Mendocino Ridge or Santa Cruz Mountains – although there was definitely pioneering work going on in these areas between the mid-‘70s and mid-‘80s.
|Pinot Noir during veraison in Garys' Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands|
Stems and Stylistic Juncture
How much of this is related to vintage factors (mostly 2015s shown at the 2018 WOPN, although some wineries were showing 2016s or vintages as far back as 2013) and how much to winemaker or grower choices, I don’t know. For perspective, I asked a few vintners – beginning with Merry Edwards, for the obvious reason that her Pinots tend to be markedly deeper in color (although few winemakers achieve as much round tannin qualities as Edwards) than the vast majority of wines shown at recent WOPNs.
|Merry Edwards (photo courtesy of Merry Edwards Winery)|
According to Edwards:
|Garys' Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands|
Yet Edwards seems to be among a shrinking minority in her willingness to push the envelope with high percentages of whole cluster fermentation and new French oak. I asked Jeff Pisoni, for instance, about his 2015 Lucia Garys’ Vineyard – which seemed so deep, concentrated, and compact in its black cherry profile, it could have almost passed for a more feminine style of Merlot (an analogy, not an insult) – and he responded:
|Thomas Fogarty Winery's Nathan Kandler|
Ancien Wines winemaker/owner Ken Bernards has been known to produce some of the state’s more deeply extracted Pinot noirs; although his 2014 Red Dog Vineyard, beautifully articulate of Sonoma Mountain, was definitely on the leaner, lighter, acid driven style. According to Bernards:
|Pinot noir clusters in Tondre Grapefield, Santa Lucia Highlands|
To Gerbac’s point, relating the trend towards stem inclusion to earlier picking in order to achieve more transparency and fewer winery adjustments: According to Big Basin Vineyards owner/winemaker Bradley Brown – producing some of the more structurally lower key Pinots in the state – this is definitely a favorable movement. As Brown sees it:
|Big Basin Vineyards' Bradley Brown|
For the same reason that Bradley gives, Fiddlehead Cellars’ Kathy Joseph – certainly one of our contemporary icons – has gone the opposite direction; telling us:
But without sounding pedestrian or like an ass, it really is all about balance.
|Playful sign in Pisoni Vineyard|
Notes from 2018 World of Pinot Noir
|Alma Rosa's Rancho el Jabali in Sta. Rita Hills|
2015 Alma Rosa, El Jabali – Mt. Eden Clone, Sta. Rita Hills – I cannot even remember the specialty wine shop in California where I found my first bottles of Alma Rosa founder Richard Sanford’s earliest vintages of Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noirs (a ’76 and ’77), but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t totally appreciative of my dumb luck. Three years ago I tasted a ’77 at a party in Napa, and was amazed by its freshness. Yet sentiment has nothing to do with the plain fact that Sanford can still bring it – his single clone 2015 bottling caressing the nose and palate with beautifully pure, sweet red berry perfume, fine, zesty and lacy on the palate. Sanford told me, “Remember, this is the clone (Mt. Eden) Theckla (Sanford) and I planted at the El Jabali Ranch in 1983 from my original plantings at Sanford & Benedict” – first planted, as another reminder, in 1971, a good chunk of time before the appellations of Santa Ynez Valley (1983) and Sta. Rita Hills (2001) were established. The “Rosa” in the winery’s names refers to the gravelly clay based loam of the south side of the AVA. Adds Sanford, “In its youth, the vineyard provided a ‘cherry-like’ brightness and flavor, and with age it has become more savory and brambly... In the early years the vineyard was the source of our Vin Gris, but has since developed has bigger ‘shoulders’... The long persistence of the wine shows an elegant velvety structure rather than the angular structure of the younger wine.”
2014 Angela Estate, Angela Vineyard, Yamhill-Carlton – Since all wine evaluation is contextual, Oregon Pinot noirs are invariably most impressive when tasted in Oregon, and California Pinot noirs when tasted in California; yet the ringing, penetratingly flowery and fragrant qualities of this wine seemed to assert itself in as dominant a fashion as any of the California wines tasted over the weekend. Not that it tasted “Californian” (who’d want that?) – the wine’s fine, zesty, sleek, demure yet persistent structuring is decidedly Oregonian, as are the whiffs of evergreen laced with a dried leafiness suggesting rose hip tea (at least to me). There is also pedigree to this wine – the winemaker of note is Ken Wright, and the estate plantings are farmed by Wright’s vineyard manager Mark Gould. I asked Angela’s GM Jessica Endsworth what contributes to the wine’s saturation of flowery fruit, and she responded, “Shallow, 30 to 36-inch marine sedimentary soil (Wellsdale series), and lots of Wadenswil (clone), which seems to add most of the floral aromas, whereas the Dijon 777 and 115 lend blacker fruit and pepper spice.”
|Balletto's Anthony Beckman in Sexton Hill Vineyard, Russian River Valley's Sebastopol Hills|
2015 Big Basin Vineyards, Coastview Vineyard, Monterey – Big Basin’s Bradley Brown deserves full credit for convincing Coastview owner John Allen in 2008 to bud over existing Syrah to just over an acre of Pinot noir in his 2,200-ft. elevation property, located in the Gabilan Mountains on the east side of Salinas Valley. The fruit is extravagantly expressive of this fully exposed ridgetop, growing in thin limestone/decomposed granite soils: like fields of strawberry, wild leafy herbs, a faint feel of leather and sense of mineral and restraint (13.7% alcohol) in its perky, vibrant, tightly woven length.
2015 Brewer-Clifton, Sta. Rita Hills – I love the consistency in which this winery has been able to harness the ultra-fragrant perfume, blasting off from the glass, found in the best of Sta. Rita Hills grown Pinots. The strawberry/cherry fruit is pure, zesty, and electric with acidity, feeling light and lacy despite generous alcohol (14%) and savory tannin.
|Jason Drew in his Mendocino Ridge home estate|
2015 Drew Wines, Fog Eater, Anderson Valley – Beautiful fragrance of high toned cherry/cranberry fruit filtered through a veil of dewy wildwood-ish scents (owner/winemaker Jason Drew talks about “petrichor” – the first forest rain after a dry spell); razor-sharp, medium weight body channeling penetrating, perky fruit and foresty sensations. To achieve this tight harmony of elements, Mr. Drew blends fruit from five vineyards (Valenti, Balo, Fashauer, Perli and Joshua’s) from the higher elevation Mendocino Ridge, and from benchland and hillside sites in the middle and Deep End of Anderson Valley – all producing wines “that are complex at lower sugars as well as transparent with mineral driven, savory, persistent flavors... (suggesting) classic red fruits, forest mushroom, red floral tones and wild herbs.” Restrained oak, native fermentations, and organic or sustainable farming, in Drew’s opinion, also help to “not blur the lines of this fruit expression... which I believe helps orchestrate a sense of native terroir.”
|Kathy Joseph's Fiddlestix Vineyard, on the south end of Sta. Rita Hills|
2015 Freeman Vineyard & Winery, Gloria Estate, Green Valley of Russian River Valley – Lavish varietal rendering of red cherry, almost sweet in it intensity; tucked into a fine yet firm, zippy palate-feel. Gloria is Ken and Akiko Freeman’s 8-acre vineyard at their winery site, just outside Sebastopol at the westernmost edge of the appellation, just 10 miles from the Pacific. Say Mr. Freeman, “Clearly the sandy loam soil (Goldridge series), and the fog which results in 50-degree temperature swings on a daily basis, combine to give Gloria’s acidity and complexity, and our five clones – especially the Swan and Calera selections –help emphasize a very floral quality.“
|Larry Hyde in his acclaimed Carneros estate|
2016 Lingua Franca, Eola-Amity Hills – While a spare, lanky, nearly skeletal expression of the grape, there is a lot to be said for a wine that achieves exactly what it set out to achieve: a more spare, skeletal, decidedly lankier expression of Willamette Valley Pinot noir. For all its restraint, it still compels with a pretty, flowery/rose petal/cherry fragrance enhanced by a mildly herby, rose petal leafiness; and the lively acidity tugs and nudges the gentle fruit sensations along. I am reminded of the rosé-like scrawniness of The Eyrie Pinots from the ‘70s, although the Lingua Franca is more nuanced than what I remember The Eyries ever having. Says co-owner/grower Larry Stone MS, “Choosing this spot in Eola-Amity Hills was based on personal preference for the fruit from these eastern-oriented slopes near Hopewell... the wines have a savory, mineral quality with the brilliant red fruits and spices that I prefer over the fruitier and richer flavored sites of Willamette Valley.” The way I see it: Lingua Franca (2016 is its first estate bottling) has the bones, and probably the room, to grow – particularly given the promise already fulfilled by the neighboring Seven Springs Vineyard, couched in similar terroir. Undoubtedly, the guidance of partner Dominque Lafon, plus the talent of French-born winemaker Thomas Savre, will also give this estate a leg up in the future.
2015 Merry Edwards, Meredith Estate, Russian River Valley – While Merry Edwards’ top cuvées get seemingly more “powerful” each year, they also seem to grow in sheer depth and craftiness. That is, they clearly aren’t meant to just blow you away. For instance, the way a woodsy, faintly decomposed, mushroomy scent seems to waft through the concentrated dark berry/black cherry aroma of the 2015 Meredith, and the succulent, cushiony, velvet textured fruit sensations that finish with a lip smacking, savory edginess on the palate: This wild, almost unbridled feel to this wine is pretty much the same sense you feel as you drive up the winding, narrow roads of Sebastopol Hills – particularly during winter when vines and dwindling apple orchards, and surrounding thickets of woods are shrouded like a London fog – to this estate planting; and that edginess is a reflection of the acidity natural to this neighborhood, the coldest in Russian River Valley. If this has become a Merry Edwards “style,” there are tangible reasons why.
|Patz & Hall's James Hall|
2015 Papapietro Perry, Pommard Clones, Russian River Valley – This wine, blended from three different Russian River Valley vineyards (Peters in a colder climate region south of Sebastopol, Leras Family in the more moderate Laguna Ridge area, and Bucher in the warmer Middle Reach neighborhood) is Papapietro Perry’s ode to Pommard Clone 4, which co-owner/winemaker Ben Papapietro describes as “the oldest clone grown in the Russian River Valley... truly the ‘work horse’ of the Russian River Valley.” Mr. Papapietro favors Pommard’s “great color... depth, complexity, spiciness to the mid-palate, and velvety character often described by the French as “iron fist in a velvet glove.” Accordingly, this is a lush yet poised, silky wine with a rich entry, snappy middle and long, gentle finish; accentuated by a nostril tingling, exotic fragrance enhanced by smoky/toasty spice.
2015 Siduri Wines, John Sebastiano Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills – Pungent Pinot perfume with earthy underpinnings; sense of “opulence” and weight on the palate – densely textured, meaty with tannin, yet zesty in its high flying fruit qualities. According to Siduri’s Adam Lee, the wine’s aggressive yet scented personality is totally in keeping with the site, which he describes as “impossibly steep hills facing into the wind on the eastern (and climatically warmest) edge of Sta. Rita Hills... this leads to small clusters and tiny berries with thicker skins... (and) darker fruit flavors and more tannin than many of our Pinot noirs.”
|James Ontiveros in his Native 9 Rancho Ontiveros, on the west end of Santa Maria Valley|
2015 Stephen Ross Wine Cellars, Stone Corral Vineyard, Edna Valley – Sitting in essentially “a sand box,” as winemaker/owner/vineyard co-owner Steve Ross Dooley puts it, Stone Corral has always been distinct from other Edna Valley sites, which are more clay influenced. The vineyard’s signature, true to form in 2015, is rich, plush, lavish Pinot fruit: finely wrought, singing cherry/strawberry qualities; with gentle, pliant mouth-feels typical of Edna Valley, yet a little more delineated in the case of Stone Corral. It is the sand, adds Dooley, that grows “smaller vines, not particularly vigorous, and fairly open canopies allowing for good sunlight exposure on the clusters, resulting in high pigment development and polymerized tannins – finer tannins... Another consequence of our not-so-fertile sandy site is lower yields, translating to small berries and concentrated wines (the 2015 vintage, for instance, yielded 1.9 tons per acre).”
2014 Wayfarer, Wayfarer Vineyard, Fort Ross-Seaview – One of the more lavish, or ravishing, Pinot noirs of the weekend; enthralling the senses with a billowing, multifaceted nose (violet perfume/rose petal/kitchen spice/forest floor); these sensations coming together with a rich, silky, juicy, almost ethereal sense of lightness. That remarkable combination of intensity and balance is all about this remote site; as owner Cleo Pahlmeyer summarizes it: “Less than 5 miles from the ocean, still protected by two ridge lines... We get cool, wet fog descending in the evening and lasting through mid-morning, cool ocean breezes throughout the day, yet all the vines are situated above 1,100 feet... influenced by the hot California sun... It is a warm spot in an otherwise cool area.”
2015 Wrath Wines, San Saba Vineyards, Monterey – Like Wrath’s 2015 Boekenoogen, fresh and lively sensations, with a sense of airiness and unerring balance; only, the nose is more of exuberant, nostril tingling fruit (a little less of the flowery varietal quality), with the lightest touch of kitchen herb spice. While Wrath’s estate owned San Saba is located on the lower slopes, just below the bench defining Santa Lucia Highlands (hence the Monterey appellation), the vineyard shares a similar rocky/sandy soil with that of most of Santa Lucia Highlands, and the increased wind stress of the lower slopes tends to give “bigger” fruit flavors than the higher elevation sites.
|Wrath's Sabrine Rodems|