California: The State of Pinot Noir

By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

“The quality of pinot noir has escalated dramatically in the last ten years”, asserts Karen MacNeil in her introduction to a tasting of thirteen California pinot noirs held last week to kick-off the annual California Wine Fair. The author of best selling The Wine Bible (fully revised in 2015) and chairman and creator of the program at The Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, MacNeil is as well qualified as anyone to make the claim. She’s been a keen observer of the California wine industry since the 1970s, and as a native New Yorker, is unfettered by regional chauvinism. The wines she selects for the tasting amply prove the point.

And I couldn’t agree more with MacNeil’s assessment of the state of California pinot noir. The grape has undergone a radical makeover over the last decade, more than any other variety. Chardonnay, too, it can be said, has been given a 21st century facelift, slimmed down, toned up, and applied less makeup to be sure. But pinot’s evolution has been more complete, transforming from garish cabaret dancer to elegant ballerina (just keeping up the mixed metaphors) in under a generation.

Perhaps that’s because pinot noir had so much further to go in order to find a comfortable and natural regional expression, while great California chardonnay has a much longer and more robust history, with many protagonists. Once all but indistinguishable from merlot or even cabernet, California’s finest pinot noirs are now clearly recognizable as pinot noir, while still informed by the generous sun and thick fog that flood coastal vineyards and give rise to the state’s unique style.

Karen MacNeil and her selection of representative California Pinot Noir-4982

Karen MacNeil and her selection of representative California Pinot Noir

There are of course producers who found a confidently Californian expression many years ago – pinot pioneers Josh Jensen of Calera, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and Burt Williams and Ed Selyem of Williams-Selyem spring to mind. But the list of people making memorable pinot noir now stretches into the dozens, drawing on vineyards spread over 800 kilometers from the Anderson Valley in the north to Santa Barbara down south. Pinot noir is California’s 5th most planted variety, and it finally has an expression all its own, in all of its infinite nuances. This is fantastic news for devotees of the grape.

The turning point for pinot noir came sometime around the turn of the millennium, when it was apparently recognized that pinot is in fact not cabernet, and that it needs to be farmed differently, in different areas, and treated with more deference in the winery. During the tasting, MacNeil shared the thoughts of one winemaker who makes both pinot noir and cabernet (a rarity). After spending some time away from the winery, he likened his cabernet to a Labrador retriever that jumps and slathers you in delight on your return, happy, undemanding, unchanged. Pinot noir, other the other hand, is more like the sullen, aloof cat, which eyes you suspiciously and rancorously as you walk in the door, as if to say: “where have you been?” before slinking off moodily into another corner. Compared to pinot noir, cabernet is a breeze to make, another reason why it has taken so long to master.

What Makes for Great California Pinot Noir?

As we taste, MacNeil, a consummate educator, asks us to consider some key points that distinguish great California pinot noir. She speaks of “corruptness”, a twist on a common theme discussed amongst pinot fanatics, where slight imperfections contribute to the appeal of a wine. “Pinot Noir needs a little corruptness, something dark, primordial”, she says. Indeed, beauty often resides in slight asymmetry; technical perfection has all the romance and excitement of differential calculus. MacNeil quickly points out that she’s not referring to outright flaws, just minor deviations.

Also critical to pinot greatness (and the greatness of any wine) is what Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton describes as ‘negative space’. As in visual arts, what isn’t there often helps to define what is, the visual equivalent of deafening silence, or the spaces that hang between the notes in a piece of music. To illustrate, MacNeil taps out a beat – a constant “rhythm” that great pinot should lay down as it washes across the palate, like a trusty metronome, with essential silence between the beats.

Texture is also critical, one of the pinot noir’s greatest assets. California’s pinots are most often softer and gentler – read less tannic – than red Burgundy, a feature, McNeil speculates, which arises from enlightened winemakers’ desires to get as far away as possible from cabernet. There is undoubtedly a suppleness and softness in California pinot that is rare to find elsewhere.

And one last hugely important point: understanding the difference between richness and concentration. These separate attributes are frequently confused, as MacNeil suggests. California wines are rarely short on concentration; that’s easy to achieve in a warm, sunny climate. Harvest your grapes after they start to shrivel into raisins and you’ll get plenty of concentration (and alcohol). But that’s not genuine flavor richness and certainly not complexity. MacNeil quotes famed wine importer Kermit Lynch: “turning up the music loud doesn’t make it any better.” Exaggerated concentration was a common flaw (and still is in some cases), but the best of the new generation have honest richness and depth and breadth of flavour, something that can’t be faked in the winery.

The road to pinot greatness requires of course vineyards in the right areas, a trial-and-error process that takes considerable time. But by now it has become clear where the most suitable pinot noir sites are found in California.

Three Top Regions to Consider

If I were forced to narrow down California’s 137 AVAs to just three essential regions for Pinot Noir, these would be the Sonoma Coast, the Sta. Rita Hills and the Anderson Valley. What all three have in common is their proximity to the Pacific and its heavy cooling effect felt in onshore vineyards. Fog, too, plays a mighty role in moderating climate and slowing ripening in all sites except those located above the fog line.

Sonoma Coast-3146

Sonoma Coast

The Sonoma Coast is a large, sprawling AVA (the largest in Sonoma County), so to be more specific, I’m referring to what the locals call the “West Sonoma Coast” (or sometimes “far, true, real or extreme Sonoma Coast”), an unofficial distinction that carves out the coolest, westernmost 10% of the AVA. It runs roughly from Jenner, where the Russian River meets the Pacific, north to Annapolis, and from just a couple kilometers inland from the coast to no more than about 20 kilometers, except in the most southerly section where lower coastal hills allow cooling influence to seep a little further, to near Freestone, Occidental, Green Valley and Sebastopol. In short, it’s the coolest, rain and fog-soaked western margin of the county in the coastal hills, often within sight of the Pacific. And the distinction is taken seriously by those eager to distinguish themselves by the more sun-soaked vineyards of inland Sonoma Coast. There is in fact a West Sonoma Coast Vintners (WSCV) Association of some 40 vintners with vineyards in the West Sonoma Coast, or who source grapes from it. Most of the top names in Sonoma pinot make wines from this area.

A little further north in Mendocino County, the Anderson Valley is likewise a cool, heavily Pacific-moderated AVA, about 25 kilometers from end to end. The west end of the Anderson Valley, open directly to the ocean via the Navarro River valley (also known as “the deep end”) and reliably bathed in morning fog, is only a few kilometers from the Pacific. It’s classified as a Region I viticultural area, the coolest still viable for grape growing. Aside from pinot noir, Anderson Valley is also known for its chardonnay, riesling and gewürztraminer, and especially traditional method sparkling wine. Champagne house Roederer set up shop here.

Hirsch Vineyards-3171

Hirsch Vineyards

Although nearly 800 kilometers further south, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County is another hot, cool spot for fine pinot. In California, as in Chile, its proximity to the ocean that principally defines climate, not latitude, and here a similar Pacific-exposed geography plays out to create cool, coastal growing conditions. The Sta. Rita Hills AVA could also have been called a valley, indeed one of the most clearly delineated transversal valleys (east-west) on the western coast of the Americas, thanks to tectonic plate movements that spun the coastal hills 90º clockwise, from parallel to perpendicular to the coast (see this brief video of plate motion). The resulting open end to the Pacific draws in cold air and fog with occasional ferocious intensity, and vineyards, especially those at the western end near Lompoc are indeed at the marginal edge of viable viticulture.

If you’re just starting your California pinot road trip, these would be my first three stops.

A Tasting of Cool California Pinots

The following wines were selected by Karen MacNeil to illustrate the current state of California pinot. To avoid repetitiveness in describing production techniques, virtually all wines were made from 10-20 year old vines, including multiple clones of pinot noir, fermented with wild yeasts, punched down by hand in open top fermenters, and aged in barrel but with minimal new oak. You might call it a recipe for the best.

(Ontario Agents are listed where available.)

Foursight Wines 2012 Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley

A relatively new, small family-run operation. Pale garnet colour. Delicately aromatic, tending towards the oxidative, more floral, faded fruit, leafy end of the spectrum. The palate is mid-weight, very soft and gentle, low tannin, with some baby fat and balanced acids, neither fat nor racy. Good length on light caramel wood notes. A really lovely style, for fans of delicate pinot. 91

Failla Wines 2013 Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast

Winemaker Eric Jordan has never studied winemaking; his degree is in Art History “Artistic intuition is hard to teach.”) Fruit comes from David Hirsch’s vineyards on the far Sonoma Coast, the pinot pioneer in the region with some parcels planted in the 1970s. This is saturated red-garnet, with pronounced fruity-cherry aromatics, like spiced morello cherry, with little obvious wood. The palate is firm and succulent-juicy, with great tension and sappy red fruit flavor, and very good length on lifted alcohol vapors. Great length – there’s considerable underlying power here. This will develop nicely over the next 2-3 years, and gain in complexity. 92

Talley Vineyards 2013 Estate Pinot Noir, Arroyo Grande Valley (The Vine Agency)

The Arroyo Grande AVA is about halfway between Mendocino and Los Angeles, historically a big fruit-growing area. Subdued aromatics, slightly dusty and medicinal, showing old wood and slight volatility. The palate is a little sharper, leaner, with less depth and richness of flavor. Simple and straightforward. 88

Sandford Winery 2013 La Rinconada Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills (Terlato International)

Richard Sandford is co-responsible for the first pinot noir plantings in Santa Barbara, the Sanford and Benedict vineyard planted in 1971. La Rinconada abuts the original site on a north-facing slope. This has quite a saturated red colour, pure, holding on to some ruby hints. The nose offers riper, darker fruit within the pinot spectrum, with a measure of dark spice though it’s not obviously woody. The palate is verging on full, firmly textured, with dusty, structure-giving tannins, marked acids, with impressive length on the finish. I find this appealingly salty, savoury in the most positive way. 93

Williams-Selyem 2013 Precious Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast (Tre Amici)

Fairly dark ruby colour, matched by a core of dark fruit, like spiced black cherry, with cola nut and dried twig-leafy notes, more brooding and introspective. Wood influence is more prominent here. The palate is surprisingly light and lithe, low in tannins, axed more on acids, with lingering, high-toned notes (pleasantly lifted VA), and tightly wound texture. An intriguing wine that hasn’t quite come together – give it another 2-3 years. 90

Laetitia Vineyard & Winey 2013 La Colline Pinot Noir, Arroyo Grande Vineyard

Made from a selection of ‘Martini clones’. Pure, limpid red with a light ruby rim. Rather simple but pleasant red-fruited pinot noir, lightly candied. The palate offers an impression of sweetness, with an intriguing herbal note that brings to mind mescal and also brings balance to otherwise very ripe fruit. Tannins are lightly grippy. This stays on the right side of balance. 89

Brewer-Clifton 2014 Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills (Barrel Select)

From vineyards practically on sand dunes by the coast. Pure ruby-garnet red. Some stem inclusion (whole bunch) is evident from the marvelous aromatics, mixing fresh red and slightly darker fruit character with a measure of fresh earth, twiggy-leafy spice and more, including a touch of funk. The palate is rich and sappy, with fine flavor density and notable salinity, and great length – this has genuine concentration and a broad range of flavours. Fleshy, satisfying and dense, without excesses. Love the seaside saltiness. 94

McIntyre Vineyards 2013 Estate Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands

The warmest AVA on the table and it shows in this simple, medicinal cherry fruit-flavoured example, more power than finesse. The palate offers an impression of sweetness, with sweet oak notes. More of a plundering wine that rolls across the palate, focused on concentration rather than elegance. 89

Wrath Vineyards 2013 Boekenoogen Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highland

Another warm(er) climate example, resulting in a broad, very ripe, dark fruit and spice-flavoured pinot, more languid on the palate, even fat, with a vague sweet impression. Sweet baking spice lingers. 89

Kosta Browne 2013 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast (Halpern)

Closed aromatically, revealing only oak-spiced, mostly red but very ripe fruit, and vanilla extract. The palate is thick and full, structured, more palate grabbing, but also slightly sweet and generous with alcohol. This is certainly less edgy and bright than typical far Sonoma Coast pinot, pushed into a more powerful style. A bit of a bruiser. 90

Radio-Coteau 2013 Savoy Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley (Cru Wine Merchants)

There’s some funk leading off on the nose, though the palate is lovely, lean and vigorous, energetic, focused on fresh red fruit, cran-cherry, neither shrill nor over-wrought. Acids are firm and driving, bolstering light but dusty, structure-giving tannins. Great length. Really like this. Perhaps not the most complex, but alive and tension-filled. 93

Au Bon Climate 2012 Knox Alexander Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley

California pinot pioneer, and mentor to so many winemakers on the south-central coast, Jim Clendenen delivers the most old school style wine on the table. This 2012 Knox Alexander, named for his two children, is open and oxidative, earthy, old wood-driven, driven by acids, twiggy, with light but dusty-grippy tannins. A lovely, savoury style, infinitely drinkable, lighter but with serious flavor intensity. 92

Paul Hobbs 2013 Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir, Napa Valley (Authentic Wines & Spirits)

The darkest pinot on the table, with dramatic oak, fruit and intensity to match, a ‘back end’ wine that hits you on the finish. This is a big, ripe, intense, palate-gripping example with notable oak, and marked but ripe, supple tannins, abundant but not obtrusive. Better in 2-3 years in any case. For fans of power over finesse. 90

And just in case pinot is not your thing, here are 18 other recommended California wines from the fair: John Szabo’s Buyers’ Guide: California Wine Fair Highlights


John Szabo MS

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

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