2009 New York Wine Experience: California’s Top-Rated Pinot Noirs

Great wines and good fun abound as winemakers explore the state’s regional diversity
Oct 27, 2009

Knowing the Saturday morning crowd contained plenty of Burgundy-loving skeptics, Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken asked fans of California Pinot Noir to raise their hands. While the response was modest, he was unequivocal: “I love California Pinot Noir.”

The eight wines poured for the California Pinot tasting were certainly evidence enough to convince any audience, and with such a lively and amusing lineup of producers on hand to tell their stories, the task became even easier.

Tracing the history of Pinot in the state back 50 years or more, moderator and senior editor James Laube said, “California has had moments of success, but it’s often been one step forward, two steps back.” In the past 25 years, he explained, winemakers and growers have sought out cooler regions and the best locations, and experimented with clones, rootstocks, grape yields and ripeness levels. To demonstrate the recent successes, Laube selected wines from diverse regions in California, ranging from Santa Barbara to Mendocino County, all from the highly regarded 2007 vintage.

As Laube began, two panelists were absent, but the stragglers—winemakers Adam Lee of Siduri and Brian Loring of Loring Wine Co.—made a grand entrance wearing bib overalls and straw hats, then handed out hats to each of the participants. The joke, a surprise to Laube, was an homage to panelist Mac McDonald, owner of Vision Cellars, who never appears at the Wine Experience without his trademark overalls and hat.

“You look good in that hat,” McDonald told Laube, who was so tickled he was momentarily speechless.

Loring led off the session with his Loring Wine Company Sta. Rita Hills Clos Pepe Vineyard (94 points, $50). Located in northern Santa Barbara County, Clos Pepe is influenced by cool breezes from the Pacific, he explained, and produces small, intensely flavored grapes. The 2007 was ripe and lush but still bright and crisp. “This is kind of the bigger side of Pinot Noir, but it has such natural acidity that it doesn’t taste like cough syrup,” said Loring.

Introducing David Graves of Saintsbury, Laube said, “David is the dean of our Pinot producers today. He pioneered Carneros Pinot.” Graves and his partner, Dick Ward, launched the winery in 1981; one of the first vineyards they worked with was Ira Lee’s in Carneros. The Saintsbury Carneros Lee Vineyard (93, $45) he poured was rich and plush. “Hats off to Ira,” Graves said.

Lily Oliver Berlin of El Molino reflected on the history of her family-owned winery (its roots date to 1871); her father, Reg Oliver, who resurrected the winery in 1981; and the estate’s unique location, in the heart of Napa Cabernet country. Working in a warm climate like Rutherford, they preserve the freshness and acidity of the grapes by harvesting in August, “before the California Indian summer and the long hot days,” Berlin said. The El Molino Rutherford was generous, with plum and rose petal notes.

McDonald entertained the crowd with animated stories about his life (his father was a Texas moonshiner) and the detailed soil tests done before planting his Sonoma County vineyard (his wife once found him and their hired soil expert in a deep hole “eating dirt”). But he grew serious as he discussed the Vision Cellars Santa Lucia Highlands Rosella’s Vineyard (92, $50), describing the site’s sandy loam soils, warm days and cool nights. The wine offered a burst of fresh fruit wrapped around a well-structured, crisp backbone. “We have a lot of fun doing this thing,” McDonald said.

Jeff Gaffner, winemaker for Black Kite Cellars in Mendocino County, described his first long and arduous trip to the winery’s remote vineyards. “Grapes are the second-biggest crop in Anderson Valley,” Gaffner said, referring the area’s popularity with well-armed marijuana growers. “I was wondering if anyone would ever find my body.” Upon seeing the vineyard, Gaffner said, he knew immediately it was a special spot. Indeed, the Black Kite Anderson Valley River Turn (93, $52) offered harmony and finesse, with impressive structure and balance. Laube added, “I’ve come to think of Anderson Valley as the most promising place in California for Pinot Noir.”

Pinot producers continue to push the envelope, Laube said, experimenting with vineyards in increasingly cooler regions. A prime example was the Failla Sonoma Coast Occidental Ridge Vineyard 88, $60), from a site only 7 miles from the Pacific and sitting at just 600 feet above sea level. “The vineyard is sort of walking the line for what you can get ripe,” said Anne-Marie Failla, who co-owns the brand with her husband, winemaker Ehren Jordan. The wine was light on its feet yet dense and rich.

“Kosta Browne in some ways has come to define the modern California Pinot Noir style,” Laube told the audience. Winemaker Michael Browne related how he and partner Dan Kosta started only with the tips they could save while working in a Sonoma County restaurant. Today, the Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast Kanzler Vineyard (95, $72) is one of the most sought-after wines in the state. The 2007 was bold and forward yet had a layered crisp structure and a long finish.

By Laube's calculation, Adam and Dianna Lee of Siduri have made 174 different bottlings since 1994. “One case each,” Lee said, joking at the couple’s proclivity for making small-batch wines. Most California Pinot vineyards are so relatively young, Lee said, that he’s constantly looking for new locales that express something unique. Pouring his Siduri Russian River Valley Parsons’ Vineyard (93, $45), Lee said he originally targeted the vineyard, planted in the flatlands west of Santa Rosa, for use in his general Russian River blend, but he was impressed as the vineyard matured. “It’s a great area for Pinot, but we haven’t figured out why,” he admitted.

Pointing out a trend he noticed in every panelist’s story, Lee said that winemakers owe a great deal to dedicated growers. “Sometimes the people are as important as the place. We have growers who are willing to try different things.”

And that is one of the reasons, Laube said, that “in the future, there will only be more and better California Pinot Noirs.”

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