Wine Tip: 4 Rising Stars of California Pinot Noir

The popular red grape is thriving in the state's cooler climates and diverse terroirs
Wine Tip: 4 Rising Stars of California Pinot Noir
Blair Pence of Pence Ranch with his horse and dogs (Rocco Ceselin)
Apr 23, 2018

Note: This tip originally appeared in the Oct. 15, 2018, issue of Wine Spectator, "California Pinot Noir."

California is often seen as Cabernet and Chardonnay country, but Pinot Noir thrives in the state's cooler climates. These four vintners' projects are relatively new to the scene, and they farm in distinctive terroirs of California where the grape does well. They share their stories of how they got into winemaking, what their vision is, and more.


From a Chicago suburb to the heights of Sonoma

Courtesy of Argot
Justin Harmon of Argot winery

The only glimpse Justin Harmon, founder of Sonoma-based Argot, had of wine while growing up in a suburb of Chicago was at church. Harmon's first real taste was shared with a girlfriend in his early 20s. "I fell for everything that wine was about in that single moment," says Harmon. "That it tasted good, and that it was nice to share it with someone."

From there Harmon began collecting and reading as much as he could about wine. A former chemical engineering major, Harmon learned quickly from winemaking books and soon purchased some Cabernet juice from concentrate to make his first wine, which he produced in the basement of his parent's house. "And man, was that terrible!" laughs Harmon.

Next he tried making wine from flash-frozen grapes. After defrosting the fruit, he fermented it in 35-gallon garbage cans. Post-fermentation, he pressed the wine through nylon bags and hand-bottled his creation. "It actually turned out pretty good, but then I started thinking about [getting] out to California to work in a winery," he says.

Harmon scoured online wine bulletin boards looking for work and found a posting for an upstart label by Sonoma County–based winemaker Russell Bevan. In the summer of 2005, Harmon flew out for one day of work and was immediately smitten. For the 2006 harvest, he reached out to Bevan and offered free labor. "I wanted to learn with boots on the ground and see process from vine to barrel," says Harmon.

At the post-harvest party Harmon asked Bevan about the following year. Bevan suggested Harmon start his own label. "[Bevan] said he was moving into a new winery and I could make my wine there, and that he had access to grapes," recalls Harmon. In 2007, Harmon made his first wine from 1 ton of Syrah, and in 2009, he and business partner Karissa Kruse collaborated on developing a parcel her family owned on Sonoma Mountain into an estate vineyard for Argot.

For his Pinot Noirs, Harmon aims for texture and intensity, and the Sonoma Mountain site is ideal for his fruit-driven style. The 5.5-acre vineyard has 2.5 acres of Pinot planted on a northwest slope, at 1,000-foot elevation.

"It's all about the push-pull that California weather offers vines," says Harmon, noting that the abundant sunshine combined with winds from the Petaluma Gap yield small, concentrated berries. His 2015 Pinot Noir Sonoma Mountain Estate Vineyard (93, $70) is pleasantly chewy, with a rich fruit core and spice and earth nuances that add dimension. "I want freshness and structure to balance the robustness," explains Harmon.

Harmon produces 2,400 cases of Argot and also consults for three clients. He seizes every opportunity to pay it forward, such as giving other budding winemakers the chance to work a harvest. "Looking back, it all began by responding to a post from some guy I've never heard about," ponders Harmon. "It seemed small in the moment, but it was the fulcrum point in my life, and it means the world to me to see folks parlay their exposure into something more."

Wine to try: Argot Pinot Noir Sonoma Mountain Estate Vineyard 2015 (93 points, $70)


Staking a claim in the Santa Lucia Highlands

Courtesy of Hahn Family Wines
Paul Clifton, director of winemaking at Hahn

The Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County is still largely undiscovered winemaking terrain. Perched on a mesa and planted on terraces above the row crops of the Salinas Valley to the east, it's a remote and wild setting backed by the 5,000 foot peaks of the Santa Lucia Range. On the other side is Big Sur.

Hahn Family Winery founder Nicky Hahn purchased his first vineyard here in 1979, pioneering the area well before it was established as an AVA in 1991. Like others of that era, Hahn planted Cabernet, but he quickly concluded that the variety was not well-suited for the cool and windy region. However he was also farming around 30 or 40 acres of Pinot with good results. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he added 300 additional acres of Pinot Noir.

Today, the Hahn Family owns and farms 10 percent of the 6,100 vineyard acres in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Nicky died earlier this year; his son Philip runs the family business, which now comprises six brands, including Lucienne, a Pinot Noir label that showcases four different estate vineyards.

Director of winemaking Paul Clifton, who has been with the winery since 2003, recalls Hahn approaching him in 2005 about producing a top-tier Pinot Noir. Since replanting, Clifton had already started identifying the "gem blocks" in each vineyard, calling the exercise "a great educational tool to figure out what each site was doing." The first wines were experimental and were sold exclusively direct-to-consumer, but with 2007 they decided to roll out the Lucienne brand with four single-vineyard bottlings.

"The soils are pretty consistent, and we are making the wines in exactly the same way; it really comes down to how fog, sun and wind play a role depending on where you are in the appellation," says Clifton.

Lone Oak is the farthest north and closest to the coast and yields an elegant style. Smith and Hook vineyards are the farthest south, where elevations are higher and winds are stronger, contributing to deeper structured and colored wines. Doctor's is more in the middle of the appellation. "Doctor's sits on a plateau and just gets blasted by wind," says Clifton. Because of this, the bottling is the lineup's most robust. Of the 2016s, the rich, layered Doctor's rated highest among the quartet.

Wine to try: Lucienne Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Doctor's Vineyard 2016 (93 points, $50)

Pence Ranch

Pursuing Burgundy in the Sta. Rita Hills

Two driving passions in Blair Pence's life are the wines of Burgundy and western cutting horses. Pence, a commercial real estate developer based in the Los Angeles area, combined the two in 2005 when he purchased a ranch in the Sta. Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County; his label has since become one of the rising stars in the appellation.

Pence Vineyards is modeled after a California rancho of the Spanish era, when diversification was key to survival. Along with 38 acres of vineyards, the 200-acre property holds 10 different varieties of olives and vegetable plots that supply Italian restaurants in the L.A. basin. Grain is also grown on the ranch, to feed Pence's 40 head of cattle and five cutting horses.

Pence, who grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, is proud to point out that the ranch's farm hands are salaried, in contrast to the contract labor practices prevalent in California, and that three families of workers live on the property. "It gives people a sense of commitment to the land, and we are very self-sufficient," says Pence.

He has visited Burgundy about 15 times over the past 20 years, he estimates, mostly with the Chevaliers du Tastevin, the international fraternal organization of Burgundy wine lovers. "I did my requisite Napa thing, but the Burgundy bug bit me hard and it really got me impassioned," he says.

In 2006, Pence began planting grapes at the 2-mile-long ranch, which trends north-south. "I was attracted to the property because of the many climats," explains Pence, using the French term for vineyard microclimates. Despite the reputation of Southern California as balmy, the climate of Sta. Rita Hills is one of the coolest in the state, with breezes blowing in cool ocean fogs from the nearby Pacific Ocean.

The Pinot Noir vines are rooted in clay-based soils, with southern and western exposures, in order to absorb the warming rays of the sun. "I love growing in clay because you can build the soils," Pence says. To that end he employs a nutritionist to add trace elements and minerals to aid vineyard fertility. Besides Pinot Noir, other grapes grown include Chardonnay, Syrah and Gamay. Almost all of the wines are made with organically grown estate fruit; total production is about 6,000 cases.

Currently the wines are made at a facility in nearby Lompoc, with groundbreaking for an estate winery scheduled for next year. Pence says he will slowly add more vineyards to the property, which may top out at 100 acres.

The first releases came in 2010, and since the 2013 vintage, Sashi Moorman, who with partner Rajat Paar also makes the wines of Sandhi from the Sta. Rita Hills, has acted as consultant. Head winemaker is John Faulkner, who has worked with Moorman for nine years. The highest-rated current release Pinot Noir is the 2016 Fugio, which features densely packed red fruit flavors and a minerally finish, with the structure for short-term aging.

The Pinot is fermented with native yeasts in open-top concrete fermentors. Whether stems are used or not depends on the quality from a given vineyard bloc , which average about 2 acres in size, according to Pence. The wine is then aged 20 to 25 percent in new French barrels, with assemblage and bottling after nine to 15 months in barrel. "I can't make Burgundy in California, but I can try to employ practices that have been successful [there] for 1,000 years," Pence says.

Wine to try: Pence Ranch Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2016 (88 points, $28)

Sarah's Vineyard

Pushing the envelope at the fringes of Silicon Valley

Courtesy of Sarah's Vineyard
Tim Slater of Sarah's Vineyard

Santa Clara County is home to Silicon Valley and the headquarters of Apple, Google and Facebook. But it also has a winemaking history that dates to the 18th century, as well as a new wave of modern winemaking that in the 2015 vintage yielded a pair of outstanding Pinot Noirs from Sarah's Vineyard.

Owner Tim Slater bought Sarah's in 2001 from Marilyn "Sarah" Otterman, who founded the winery in 1978, keeping the name to carry on her legacy. "She was trying to make Napa Valley–quality wines in the middle of what was then not a region known for winemaking," Slater points out.

Slater didn't start out in wine. "I'm a Silicon Valley guy, a scientist and inventor," he says. Slater, who grew up in the Los Angeles area, worked in the field of micro machining, developing optical micro components for telecommunications. He is the owner of dozens of patents.

For Slater, wine comes with a strong emotional component. "The wine industry kind of saved my life," he says solemnly. While a student at University of California, Santa Barbara, Slater had an undiagnosed eating disorder. "I didn't like food, I didn't like eating. I was 6 feet tall and weighed 120 pounds."

A wine class made him curious about pairing wine with food. "That got me finally interested in eating. I started appreciating food more. Before you know it, I was watching cooking shows, and later took a class at the Cordon Bleu in Paris."

His interest in food and wine was still just a hobby when he purchased Sarah's Vineyard. But he made the switch to full-time vintner in 2004, replanting the original vineyard and planting two additional blocks; 23 acres are now under cultivation, mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Sarah's is situated along Highway 152, west of the town of Gilroy in southern Santa Clara County, where agriculture is still an important part of the landscape. The property is located along a low mountain pass across the Santa Cruz Mountains known as Hecker Pass, in the foothills of Mt. Madonna. The pass fills with fog and howling winds from the nearby Pacific Ocean, regulating temperatures and extending the growing season. "We don't get rain until pretty late, like November," says Slater. "That means we can let the grapes hang late."

The vineyard has a few types of heavy clay, but Slater insists the terroir is driven by the climate-just a few miles north or south and there is no influence from the wind or fog, giving him a unique pocket of cool temperatures. "The fruit gets bold but the tannins are soft," says Slater of the style. "The [Pinot Noirs] are red fruit-driven," he adds.

The switch to full-time winemaking was an adjustment for Slater. "It was a tough battle getting used to the wine industry," says Slater. "I'm used to working under tight control and with precision. The wine industry has an ‘oh, this is pretty good,' very different attitude." Online classes from UC, Davis, helped with the fundamentals.

"I'm not doing anything outlandish," says Slater of his winemaking decisions. He starts with a wild yeast fermentation, then inoculates to avoid stuck fermentations. Punch-downs take place three times a day, and sometimes there's a touch of stem inclusion. He's starting to experiment with warmer fermentations.

"We're kind of isolated out here, I'm a bit of a hermit. Just recently there are enough wineries that it's taking on a collegial atmosphere. Many of these are Silicon Valley people who bought the land and are interested in making wine." He describes Santa Clara County as having a "renaissance." Says Slater, "My goal is to be the leader of quality wine in the area."

Wine to try: Sarah's Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Clara Valley 2015 (93 points, $45)

Education Red Wines United States California Pinot Noir

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