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Pinot Noir: Sanford's Barrel Select Wins Taste-Off
Santa Barbara County is one of the best places in California to grow pinot noir, and Sanford Winery is one of the state's premier producers of Pinot Noir. The combination proved to be the ingredient for success when Sanford's 1994 Barrel Select Pinot Noir took top honors in the Vintners Club annual taste-off for this varietal.
A taste-off is the culmination of a year's worth of tastings involving a particular varietal. The top two wines from each of six elimination tastings are reassembled for the Club's tasting panel where they are put through a final blind, comparative, cream-of-the-crop evaluation. The winner is thus the best example of the varietal the Club has judged out of 72 wines from the elimination tastings.
The Pinot Noir taste-off is always one of the Vintners Club's most popular events, and on this occasion, the tasting panel was composed of more than 25 people. Out of this number, seven chose the Sanford as their first-place wine, and three rated it their second-place choice.
Over the last few years, the Pinot Noir taste-off top spot has been fiercely contested between Sanford Winery and David Bruce Winery, with each coming in first on two occasions. These two wineries were again competing against each other on this occasion, and each had two different Pinots in the taste-off. But, significantly, another producer also had two wines in the tasting and did very well with each.
Cambria Winery, a Santa Barbara County producer which is part of the Kendall-Jackson family of wineries, took second place with its 1993 Estate Reserve and fourth place with its 1994 Julia's Vineyard bottling, a result almost as impressive as taking top honors. David Bruce Winery's 1992 Estate Reserve placed third and the budget-priced 1993 Vintner's Select placed fifth. Also quite impressive.
Geographically, Santa Barbara County was by far the appellation best represented in the taste-off with seven of the 12 wines. Next came Sonoma appellations and the Central Coast (including the Santa Cruz Mountains and Mount Harlan, home to Calera) with two wines each. Oregon had one Pinot Noir in the tasting.
Sanford's Secret for Success
Sanford Winery has been producing great Pinot Noirs since the 1989 vintage, which yielded an excellent harvest for Santa Barbara County, in contrast to the less successful results from the soggy North Coast that year. Sanford's winemaker, Bruno D'Alfonso, had been making good, but not great, Pinot Noir up until then from purchased Santa Maria Valley grapes, but production quality improved significantly in 1989 when Richard Sanford regained access to the grapes from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, the vineyard he had planted in the 1970s with his then partner, Michael Benedict, and which had been lost to him when the partnership was dissolved in 1980. Before 1989, D'Alfonso's full-blown, yet exquisitely balanced, Chardonnays were the winery's chief claim to fame.
Ever since that breakthrough harvest, more and more Sanford & Benedict fruit went into the Barrel Select Pinot Noir until the wine was finally made entirely from these magnificent grapes. The Sanford & Benedict is one of the best vineyards for Burgundian varietals in the world. The reason is its location. Situated in the cooler western portion of the Santa Ynez Valley near the ocean on a north-facing slope to protect it from the sometimes scorching midday sun, it is just within the narrow median between a too foggy coastal zone and a too warm inland valley best suited for varietals other than pinot noir and chardonnay.
The Barrel Select Pinot is always neither fined nor filtered and is actually the result of D'Alfonso's evaluation of the best barrels of Pinot from the vineyard, inasmuch as he keeps the wine made from various blocks in separate barrels.
Interestingly, the vineyard is no longer designated on the label of the Barrel Select Pinot Noir. But until the winery says otherwise, the consumer can rest assured that the wine's fruit is Sanford & Benedict Vineyard fruit.
1994 Sanford Pinot Noir, Barrel Select, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County ($30)
Very forward, complex, almost floral (geranium-gardenia), slightly herbal nose of spicy, ripe strawberry-black cherry fruit, wild mushrooms and nicely integrated vanillin oak. Round and luscious on the palate, the wine is bursting with delicious, layered flavors of raspberries and wild strawberries, licorice and cinnamon-clove spice reminiscent of a great Burgundy. A magnificent, superbly balanced wine with soft, ripe tannins and a long, lingering finish.
1993 Cambria Pinot Noir, Estate Reserve, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County ($35)
Fragrant, compelling scents of strawberries and raspberries, vanilla, clove spice, toasty oak and a hint of herbaceousness mingled with a pleasant earthiness. Smooth, round and silky in the mouth with medium tannins, the flavors replicate the nose with emphasis on raspberry fruit; delicious and full bodied. Another Burgundian-like wine with a long, spicy finish.
1992 David Bruce Pinot Noir, Estate Reserve, Santa Cruz Mountains ($30)
Dark ruby in color with a forward nose of cherry-berry fruit, white pepper, licorice, rose petals and medium-char French oak; quite complex. Generous on the palate, offering lots of ripe black cherry-strawberry fruit and smoky oak; extracted and concentrated, almost jammy, but nicely balanced. Hint of white pepper in the finish; more Californian than Burgundian, but delicious.
1994 Cambria Pinot Noir, Julia's Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County ($22)
Toasty oak and vanilla custard scents mingle with delicate, raspberry-perfumed fruit and a hint of mocha. Smooth and generous in the mouth with flavorful, cherry-berry fruit, the wine shows good depth and a fair amount of oak, which will require some time to resolve, as will the tannins.
1993 David Bruce Pinot Noir, Vintner's Select, Sonoma County ($15)
Slightly floral nose of cherries, sweet oak and a minty note. Clean varietal flavors focus on strawberry-like fruit in a lighter style, almost like a hefty Beaujolais.
1992 Rodney Strong Pinot Noir, River East Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County ($15)
Intriguing, appealing, complex nose of pleasant earthiness (topsoil), roasted coffee beans, forest-floor herbaceousness, warm spice and red cherries. Rich, round and smooth with a good mouthfeel, offering lots of ripe, sweet, berry-cherry fruit and vanillin oak; medium tannins. Very good value.
1993 Bernardus Pinot Noir, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($25)
Forward scents of vanilla, cinnamon, black cherries, peppery spice, toasty oak and a hint of green leafiness lead to flavors of somewhat less intensity than one would expect. Lighter in body than most of the preceding wines and showing some tartness; needs to be paired with food to show its better qualities.
1993 Calera Pinot Noir, Mills Vineyard, Mount Harlan (San Benito County) ($35)
Interesting, distinctive nose of intense strawberry-like fruit, celery root, peppery spice, thyme and roasted coffee. Smooth and round with medium tannins, offering generous, ripe, spicy strawberry flavors, again with a note of celery root. Nice acid balance.
1993 Villa Mt. Eden Pinot Noir, Grand Reserve, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($14)
Minty, moderately herbaceous nose exhibiting black cherries, strawberries and cola nut, plus vanilla and toasty oak. A delicate wine with flavors that replicate the nose, especially the minty element. Medium tannins.
1992 Sanford Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County ($18)
Very forward, slightly stemmy scents of ripe wild strawberries, cinnamon-clove spice and vanilla. The slightly earthy flavors show the same characteristics as the nose, framed in toasty oak. Medium tannins.
1992 Ponzi Pinot Noir, Reserve, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($30)
A much better wine than its ranking would indicate, offering fresh, fragrant, fruity scents of perhaps too ripe strawberry-cranberry fruit, vanilla, tobacco leaf and toasty oak. Moderately rich on the palate, offering ripe strawberry-like fruit with nice depth; elegant, with a hint of clove spice in the finish.
1994 Fess Parker Winery Pinot Noir, American Tradition Reserve, Santa Barbara County ($28)
Flawed by very intense, stinky, barnyard smells that weren't evident in its elimination tasting, this funky wine appears to be affected by brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast bacterium that can occasionally intrude in even the best of production facilities. The flavors are equally off-putting, showing a horsy, gamey, leathery character.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.