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Profiles in Pinot Noir: Marcassin

Harvey Steiman
Posted: September 23, 2003

John Wetlaufer and Helen Turley have made their own Pinot Noir since the mid-'90s.
In Pursuit of Pinot Noir
After decades of struggle, American vintners are finding success with this difficult variety
Williams Selyem
Domaine Drouhin
Pinot Noir: Today
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Santa Barbara's New Frontier
Santa Rita Hills is making its presence known with cool-climate Pinot Noirs

Helen Turley made her name by fashioning rich, polished Cabernets for B.R. Cohn, Bryant Family, Colgin and others. When she and her husband, John Wetlaufer, started their own winery in 1990, Marcassin Estate, it quickly earned its reputation with stunning Chardonnays. For all that, Pinot Noir was always the goal.

"This is what we wanted to do from the beginning," says Wetlaufer, 57, his goatee sprinkled with gray, his black hair thinning at the part, wrinkles crinkling around his eyes. "The Chardonnay only came first because we couldn't find vineyards we wanted to buy Pinot Noir grapes from."

Today, the cutting edge for Pinot Noir in California is on the cool outer reaches of the Sonoma Coast. Williams Selyem already had made stunningly original wines from the region's Summa and Hirsch vineyards. Turley and Wetlaufer discovered the area's potential some 14 years ago, when they tasted a Sea Ridge Pinot Noir.

"The wine had something we hadn't found in those from Carneros or Russian River Valley," says Wetlaufer. "There was something that reminded us of Burgundy."

In 1990, Turley went to see a property for sale just up the road from the vines that made that wine. "There was a special feeling about the place," she says. "Of course, we also got backhoes in there, did soil samples and backed it up with science. But it just felt right from the start."

The vineyard rises from 1,200 to 1,350 feet about 3.5 miles from the ocean. "The first ridge is too cold. The third ridge is too warm. Like the mama bear, this one is just right," says Turley, 57, who stands 6-feet tall, with steely blue eyes and medium-length grayish blond hair. "It's a warm spot in a cool region."

By 1991 they had planted 6.5 acres, using California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones that they had been scoping out for years, plus a few of the newly available Dijon clones. In 1995, birds ate most of the initial crop. "We made one barrel of Pinot Noir," Wetlaufer sighs. They installed bird-netting for 1996, and the resulting wine earned 96 points from Wine Spectator. Marcassin 2002, tasted from barrel, has amazing richness and power; the berry, cherry, plum, mineral and earth flavors seem to explode out of nothing, the texture is so fine and elegant.

What does it take to make wine like that? Attention to every detail, like the close-spaced (and therefore harder to work) vineyard. Close spacing, Wetlaufer argues, allows each vine to put all its energy into fewer grapes, improving balance and concentration. The average in California when they planted the vineyard was around 600 vines per acre; Marcassin's vineyards range from 1,100 to 4,000 vines per acre, the density found in Burgundy.

Their winemaking process also looks to Burgundy, especially to Henri Jayer, whose Burgundies the two admire above all others. That includes cold-soaking the freshly harvested and ruthlessly culled grapes in stainless steel fermentors sized precisely to accommodate designated portions of the vineyard. Turley gently sprinkles the fermenting wine to moisten the cap, rather than punching it down. She only allows de-stemmed whole berries in the fermentors, because stems can add rough tannins.

Even after the wine in the fermentors is dry, the whole berries still hold some fermentable sugar; when the must is pressed and transferred to barrels, the fermentation actually finishes in the barrel. Turley believes this extra fermentation creates silkier wine that better integrates the barrel flavors.

Marcassin makes several other Pinot Noirs. One is from Blue Slide Ridge, a vineyard adjacent to Marcassin's own. Owned by the Martinelli family, for whom Turley and Wetlaufer consult, Blue Slide Ridge seems to make a wine of greater fruit intensity but less complexity than that from Marcassin's own vines. Another source is Three Sisters, just down the road. A final bottling, significantly softer and more plummy, comes from Bondi Home Ranch, several miles away in the rolling hills near Sebastopol.

What jazzes Wetlaufer and Turley about the Pinot Noirs they have made so far is what they see as their classical character. "The wines are familiar," Wetlaufer says, "to people who know Burgundy."

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