California Pinot Noir: A Showcase of Regional Diversity

Four wines from the same vintage illustrate how well the grape expresses its site
California Pinot Noir: A Showcase of Regional Diversity
Left to right: Anne Moller-Racke, Scott McLeod, Gary Pisoni, Eva Dehlinger and Wine Spectator's James Laube (Deepix Studio)
Oct 27, 2015

Calling Pinot Noir “the breakfast of champions,” senior editor James Laube started off Saturday morning's Wine Experience tastings with four 2013 Pinot Noirs from four different regions in California. “Pinot Noir is the winemaker's wine,” said Laube. “Of all grapes, it is perhaps the most demanding to grow, and the one that requires the most intimate relationship between the grower and vine.”

The success of Pinot Noir in the Santa Lucia Highlands is largely due to Gary Pisoni, who grew up on his family’s vegetable farm in a remote area near Monterey Bay. At first, his father was skeptical about planting wine grapes, but Pisoni convinced him by asking, "Dad, have you ever been invited to a $250, black-tie lettuce tasting?" The animated Pisoni also amused the audience with a colorful story about stuffing illegal vine cuttings from France down his pants to sneak them past customs. The wine he poured, the firm and structured Pisoni Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands 2013 (93 points, $75), comes from grapes that are meticulously trellised so all the grapes are evenly "sun-kissed."

Eva Dehlinger, a second-generation winegrower, reflected on growing up on her family's property in Sonoma's Russian River Valley. She described what makes the Dehlinger Pinot Noir Altamont Russian River Valley 2013 (95, $60) so distinctive—the reddish Altamont soil for which the wine is named. “The lesson that we’ve learned from decades of winemaking at Dehlinger is that vines grown in Altamont soil hold a special intensity, structure and longevity,” she explained. Lessons in winemaking take time, Dehlinger noted, as vines grow slowly and winemakers only get one chance a year to make wine.

Donum Estate winemaker Anne Moller-Racke agreed with this sentiment. “We learn slowly … you plant a vineyard, and then make the wine, and easily 10 years have gone by. I always compare it to how dog years are seven—vineyard years are 10.” Then she quipped, “You are all actually very young still,” to the delight of the crowd. Carneros, which straddles Napa and Sonoma counties, is distinctive for its prevailing winds, which Moller-Racke considers the region’s “driving force.” She described 2013 as a warm, dry vintage with smaller berries, reflected in the gush of lingering fruit flavors in the Donum Pinot Noir Carneros West Slope 2013 (95, $90).

Also distinctive are both the region and the film-director proprietor of the Skywalker Pinot Noir Marin County 2013 (93, $70). "Marin is an interesting place, and George Lucas is a very interesting person, and these worlds connect in an interesting way," said Skywalker winemaker Scott McLeod. Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and bordering Sonoma County, Marin only has 190 acres of vineyards and was unfamiliar to most attendees; McLeod described the brutal, cold, foggy summers and fractured soil that makes much of the county unplantable. The Skywalker Pinot’s dried rose petal aroma, he believes, is specific to the region.

As each vintner explained what makes their wines and regions unique, they encouraged the audience to explore and, in some cases, visit. Ever enthusiastic, Pisoni offered to pour a "vertical, a horizontal, and I'll even throw in a diagonal—whatever that is!"

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