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In Pursuit of Pinot Noir

For decades, American vintners have struggled to capture the essence of Burgundy's capricious grape; today, success is at hand

Harvey Steiman
Posted: September 23, 2003

Williams Selyem
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Santa Rita Hills is making its presence known with cool-climate Pinot Noirs

Out on the frontier of Pinot Noir, John Wetlaufer pulls a few early spring suckers off stubby, Burgundy-style vines in the 18-acre vineyard where he and his wife, renowned winemaker Helen Turley, grow the grapes for their Marcassin Pinot Noir.

The vineyard clings to a craggy hillside only 3.5 miles from the Pacific Ocean on the Sonoma Coast. A chill sea breeze makes the tiny leaves quiver on the young vines. Bird netting, wrapped into long rolls, hangs suspended over the trellises, ready to drape the vines when the grapes get ripe in September. Yields will be low, never more than 2 tons per acre, but the wines are guaranteed to make Pinot Noir lovers swoon. With classic 96-point ratings for its 1996 and '98 vintages, Marcassin has already taken its place at the pinnacle of American Pinot Noir.

"It does feel like we're out here on the edge," says Wetlaufer. "Over that ridge, there's nothing but ocean."

As Marcassin's remote, meticulously kept Pinot Noir vineyard suggests, it takes a little extra dedication to pursue great Pinot Noir. Notoriously fickle, the grape makes something special only on certain blessed pieces of land in a few regions of the world.

One of these is Burgundy, where Pinot Noir grapes grow on sloped sites staked out 2,000 years ago by the Romans and painstakingly perfected by monks in the Middle Ages.

When all the pieces fall into place, Burgundy makes red wines that sing a heavenly chorus of flavors that seem to emerge, ineffably, from midair.

Today's best American Pinots, which come from California and Oregon, approach that Burgundian ideal with some consistency. But it took a while to get there. Long after California vintners proved they could make top Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, they still struggled to get the flavors and textures right with Pinot Noir. It turns out, for example, that until the 1980s, most of the Pinot Noir vines that existed in California were sparkling wine clones, not intended for still reds, which helps explain why so much early California Pinot Noir was weak. Oregon initially looked more promising, a cooler region that seemed more like Burgundy. But inexperienced winemaking impaired many of that state's early efforts.

As pioneers in California and Oregon pushed each other to make better Pinots, they learned from each other, often taking two steps forward, one step back. The vintners profiled in this story achieved the most significant milestones along that road, if not always the highest ratings for their wines. Together, their efforts chronicle the progress of Pinot Noir in America.

There were a few glimpses of possible triumph early on: André Tchelistcheff made a legendary 1946 Pinot Noir at Beaulieu Vineyard; Martin Ray made intriguing wines on Mount Eden in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the late 1940s and '50s from grapevines Paul Masson had sneaked in from Burgundy's famed Romanée-Conti; old California hands speak fondly of Louis M. Martini Special Selections from the 1950s. But by all accounts the modern history of New World Pinot Noir dates from 1957, when James Zellerbach, a former U.S. ambassador to France, decided to plant a few grapevines at his new home in Sonoma.

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