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2012 California Pinot Noir: A Struggle for Ripeness

After tasting more than 400 California Pinot Noirs from the 2012 vintage, a profile takes shape
Pinot Noir Vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands, such as Rosella's, fared well in 2012.
Pinot Noir Vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands, such as Rosella's, fared well in 2012.

Posted: Jun 16, 2014 4:00pm ET

The 2011 and 2012 Pinot Noir harvests in California could hardly have been more different.

In 2011, a cool, damp year ended with soggy harvest rains. Grapes picked before the rains were mixed, some adequately ripe, others underripe. Those picked after the rain were most problematic. But overall, 2011 ended up being a more successful vintage than vintners predicted; credit farming and thinning. You can taste the successes in the ripeness of the wines and fleshier textures.

In 2012, the weather was ideal from start to finish, but that's only part of the story. Despite superior weather, the wines are not head-and-shoulders above 2011, and the reason has much to do with yields.

 "I think most winemakers went into the 2012 vintage a bit worried about the potential size of the harvest and the effect that might have on quality," winemaker Merry Edwards explained in a memo this week. Edwards, based in Sonoma's Russian River Valley, is among the most seasoned of California vintners, dating to her days at Mount Eden in the 1970s. Here's what else she had to say:  "The resulting wines were well above my early season expectation. That being said, the vintage was not 'the best' of the past decade, with 2009 and 2010 producing bigger wines in general. Personally, I sighed with relief that the vintage was very good and a lot of it." But shy of great.

Adam Lee of Siduri, also in Sonoma, but a producer of Pinots from throughout California, provided a statistical analysis based on the state grape crush report. "Yields were the story in 2012," he said. "They were big. Certainly they were big coming off the tiny 2010 and 2011 vintages, but they were just big, period. 2012 was especially big in the North Coast while not as huge in the Central Coast; 2013 is just the opposite."

Tons per acre tell part of the story, but there's also the matter of juice-to-skin ratios, and in 2012 there was far more juice to skin than in the prior few vintages, said Lee.

Having tasted more than 400 California Pinot Noirs from the 2012 vintage, I can say the wines have a moderately ripe profile and are more tannic and austere than those of 2009 and 2010. It's apparent that many vintners picked at lower sugar levels, as reflected by stated alcohol levels. More wines came in under 14.2 percent alcohol and down into the 13s than has been the case in years. Whether that's by design or a function of a big crop struggling to ripen is unclear, although it's likely a result of both.

At this point, 2012 isn't all that superior to the best 2011s in terms of exceptional wines. The big question is how will the 2012 wines evolve. They're tough and tannic now; whether they flesh out and become more charming remains to be seen.

Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  June 17, 2014 1:16am ET
From what I had read about the 2012 vintage I was expecting great wines. Your early scores of the 2012 Pinot's had not met those expectations. This article explains why. Thanks for the current information regarding the 2012 vintage. Jay
Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  June 17, 2014 9:04am ET

Thanks for letting me comment about the vintage and for using some of those comments here.

I tend to be one of those that believes (guesses?) that a good number of the 2012s will develop positively. I am betting on that because of two things that I think went on with 2012:

1) For some reason a number of 2012s were very late in finishing malolactic fermentation. That is often considered to be a positive sign for wine quality....but it does somewhat delay the development of the wines. In other words, I think that many of the 2012s are simply younger at this same stage of development than other vintages.

2) I think a lot of the 2012s were bled off to help deal with the large crop and high juice to skin ratio. This technique (like many winemaking techniques) can definitely be positive but can also be overdone. Given that the scores are generally very good thus far (but not incredibly high) leads me to think it wasn't generally taken too far....but that this, combined with the late MLS, has simply led to more backward wines.

Obviously, only time will tell. I do hope, Jim, that you have the chance to go back and taste some of these with a few years in the bottle and report back to us.

Thanks again,

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Chris Rauber
San Jose, CA —  June 17, 2014 11:38am ET
Thanks James.

When will you post the 2012 Kosta Browne Pinot notes and scores?
Bruce Sanderson
New York, NY —  June 17, 2014 2:05pm ET
Jim, Adam, Thanks for your comments on the 2012s. Going back to the 2011s for a moment, Jim you credit the success of the difficult year and harvest to "farming and thinning." Are sorting tables the norm at grape reception, or more of a novelty for Pinot Noir producers in California?
James Laube
Napa —  June 17, 2014 2:24pm ET
Bruce, I'd say the norm for most if not all. Most of the sorting takes place in the vineyard, that is, grapes are either picked or left based on quality. Sorting tables are a last resort. Winemakers can share more insights into their techniques.
Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  June 17, 2014 2:49pm ET

I'd be hard pressed to come up with a Pinot Noir producer that I know of that doesn't have a sorting table. Definitely the norm, as Jim says. In a year like 2012, very little sorting was needed on the line....but even then we find it useful as it gives a very even input to the destemmer which helps reduce jacks.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA, US —  June 17, 2014 3:45pm ET
As Jim mentions, a lot gets done in the vineyard. And the growers we work with do a great job. But there's always a few clusters that get through, especially ones where mold is in the interior of the cluster, so sorting in the winery is necessary.

Also, there are some years (like 2011 and a few cases in 2012) when even though the fruit looked ripe (color-wise) there were lots of unripe clusters. In cases like that, we sort by feel. Basically if the fruit is rock hard, it gets tossed. That's something pickers aren't able to do in the vineyard.
Jim Gallagher
San Francisco, CA USA —  June 17, 2014 7:18pm ET
A very nice discussion, much appreciated. Thanks James, Adam and Brian.
Thomas Rees
Napa —  June 17, 2014 7:53pm ET

Regarding your comment: "grapes are picked or left behind, based on quality."
I'm afraid you have it backwards. Grapes are almost never left behind. Harvest crews work very quickly, often under low light, and it is generally assumed that they will pick every cluster in the fruit zone. Undesired fruit has to be thinned by experienced vineyard workers prior to harvest.
Mike Officer
Santa Rosa, CA —  June 17, 2014 9:00pm ET
Not exactly the case Thomas. In difficult years with Botrytis (like 2011), crews often will start later when there's better light. They will also be switched to needle nose clippers as opposed to knives. They will pick a cluster, inspect it, and using the needle nose clippers, remove any parts affected by Botrytis. If a cluster is predominantly rotten or there is so little good fruit as to not make "surgery" worthwhile, the cluster is discarded. This is how we picked many vineyards in 2011 after the rain.

Also, in many vineyards we actually brought out sorting tables. Each bandeja of fruit was dumped on a sorting table and sorted by 3 to 4 people before going into the bin. And then the fruit was sorted again at the winery. At this point, I'm not even sure I know of a vintner without a sorting table. In fact, for many wineries, the fruit has to pass over a sorting table regardless to get to the crusher/destemmer.
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  June 18, 2014 11:44am ET
We choose not to saignée our 12 Pinot Noirs but instead to leave the various lots in barrel longer that we thought needed more concentration, and we ended up waiting up to 19 months on some of them before they seemed to gather the weight they needed. (especially ones like Green Valley)
Of course this route presents other possible issues that require a lot more attention, but overall I think it was the right course, and while not inky, they are packed with flavor.
Time will tell.

Roadhouse Winery
Thomas T Thomas
Philo, CA, Mendocino —  June 18, 2014 8:10pm ET
For my vineyard in Anderson Valley, the weather was perfect in 2012 with the exception of a nasty heat spike in early October which drove sugar levels a little higher than I prefer. I sell my fruit to Bink Wines and I am very happy with the results. The wines are bigger than 2011 and they are rich and spicy. Time will tell how they will age, but I am having a hard time waiting for them to settle in the bottle.

Thomas at Thomas T Thomas Vineyard
Wayland Irby
Elk Grove, CA USA —  June 19, 2014 2:45am ET
Thus far I've found the results to be mixed. Some beautiful wines, and some that I'm sorry that I've purchased.

Wine Spectator rated the 2012 vintage As "superior", and "excellent across the board". But some producers (who have commented here) using fruit from recognized vineyards have produced wines which lack the richness one would have expected from a vintage given such favorable press. In a year where there was "to much of a good thing", some wines taste green and herbal.

Winemakers are human too, and prone to mistakes. But for all of the anticipation that was given to the 2012 vintage thru print by those that we trust, some of the wines simply don't measure up to quality we have grown to expect from recognized California pinot noirs.

It just goes to prove, taste before you decide to "buy into" any wine. Regardless of the vintage, or winery.
Mitch Frank
New Orleans, LA —  June 19, 2014 4:59pm ET

The story you're referring to was our report on the 2012 harvest, which we published in November 2012. We compile those reports by asking vintners for their assessment of the growing season. But as we always say, "As for final quality in the bottle—it's too early to know." All of the 2012 wines were still in tanks or barrels at that point.

Our vintage ratings are only assigned after tasters like James can review a substantial number of finished wines from that year. The jury is still out on 2012 Pinot Noir.

Mitch Frank
News Editor, WineSpectator.com

Dragonette Cellars
Los Olivos, CA —  June 19, 2014 5:08pm ET

Thanks for sharing your observations. Your article, and the comments here, are interesting and thought provoking.

I agree that the character found in many 2012 Pinots was influenced by a combination of higher yields and stylistic choice, and in many cases, a synergistic effect of the two. While I, in some cases, applaud the current interest in “balance,” lower brix (and thus alcohol) alone does not necessarily mean that a wine will be more balanced. Physiological maturity is paramount, especially when it comes to tannins, and the high yields had an obvious influence on that.

We aim for low yields across the board, usually around 2 tons/acre, and in 2012 we had to work hard to get in that ballpark. In some vineyards we dropped over 60% of the potential crop in multiple passes between flowering and veraison and still ended up above our targets (though not by much). It was obvious by looking at other vineyards—up and down the state-that many people were not concerned with high yields.

That said, in terms of weather and harvest conditions, 2012 was an absolutely glorious year in Santa Barbara County (and throughout much of the state). I believe that many of the best 2012’s have not yet been released, in some cases due to the factors Adam mentioned, so hopefully there is more to look forward to.

Brandon Sparks-Gillis
Paul Clifton
Soledad, CA  —  June 19, 2014 5:37pm ET
I agree with Adam on the larger overall berry size/higher juice to skin ratio in 2012. We experienced the same down in Santa Lucia Highlands. I was suspecting lower wine quality going in to harvest, but the wines exceeded my expectations.

In many past vintages in the SLH, we have seen intensely ripe fruit. 2012 is in really good balance in terms of concentration. This balance, in large part, is due to the the slightly larger berry size not being as susceptible to Indian summer conditions/dehydration.

It is good to hear what is happening in other parts of the state. Thanks for the insights.

Justin Harmon
Santa Rosa, CA —  June 19, 2014 8:11pm ET
For all the ink that has been spilled thus far regarding 2012 in California, this article has the most in common with my experiences in both vineyard and winery regarding the vintage.

In each of the 7 vineyards Argot sourced or grew Pinot Noir grapes in 2012, we spent significantly more time in the vineyard working to balance the vines and ensure their ability to properly ripen the crop. Even with these extra efforts, our harvest dates were either equal to or later than in 2011. Veraison took longer than expected, then the wait for flavors as the fruit ripened on the vine seemed like it was never going to end. In my experience, this was the story for all varietals in 2012, not just Pinot Noir. 2012 took patience.

This narrative continued in the winery. While primary ferments seemed average in length, MLs were pokey getting going, and slow in completing. Evolution in barrel also moved at a GLACIAL pace. Each of our 4 vineyard designates did 17 months in barrel, and our late release cuvee was just bottled last week after 20 months. Even so, I am certain these wines' will benefit greatly from time in bottle.

Kudos to James for hitting the nail on the head regarding where we stand at the moment, and kudos to Adam Lee for pointing out that this is a vintage where development in bottle will be of significant interest.

Thank you,
Justin Harmon
Argot Wines
Wayland Irby
Elk Grove, CA USA —  June 20, 2014 9:37pm ET

I agree with you when you say "the single most important factor in the quality of any wine is its producer, and their track record".

I've grown in my appreciation of wines, to wait and buy into years when the great vintages come along. Perhaps it is capacity over load in the cellar, but I'd rather wait for the quality opportunities.

I have always given first place for respected guidance in wine reviews to Wine Spectator, and still do. If another critic has a similiar opinion as Spectator's staff, then all the better. Armed with the critic(s) recommendation, considering the harvest report, knowing the wineries reputation, and looking at the historical track record for the specific vineyard; leads me to the decisions of whether to purchase or not.

Perhaps the overall pleasure and experiences over the last 5 to 6 years with this grape, have conditioned us for the most part to expect that California pinot noir is only going to get better every year. But as with any effort, the line (or graph) to the top is never straight.

Perhaps this fickle varietal has lessons to teach some of us, that patience in the bottle may be rewarded. But I'm still concerned about some of my educated decisions. Time will tell.
John Trever
Albuquerque —  June 21, 2014 1:21pm ET
Thanks for your article and this discussion, James, as I've had the same concerns as Jay.
This week we had the opportunity to attend a wine dinner featuring four of Adam's Siduri appellation pinots, two from 2011 and two from 2012. To this novice consumer the differences were obvious. The 2011 Sonoma Coast and Chehalem Mts.(Oregon) were more austere and tart, though still good with the food, while the 2012 SRH and SLH were fuller, more aromatic and had richer flavors. We look forward to more 2012s, but with caveats discussed here kept well in mind.

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