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Pinot, Pinot Everywhere

by Monty and Sara Preiser

Preisers’ Reserve:  Cabernet Francs are becoming “hot” in the Napa Valley, and we will, in fact, be writing about some of the best quite soon. Let us prime your palate with an early (and strong) recommendation that you search out the 2004 Gridley Family Cellars ($45). But only if you like your wines to come at you with a pronounced blueberry flavor, layer out with wisps of white pepper, and finish for a long minute with an explosion of fresh spices.                               


Pinot, Pinot Everywhere

Wednesday night: 17 Kosta Browne Pinot Noirs to sample. Saturday afternoon: 50 more from Russian River, Sonoma Coast, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Lucia Highlands, Anderson Valley, and Santa Maria Valley. And Sunday: Hundreds available from every Pinot Noir producing region in California. This was Pinot Days, one of the country’s outstanding wine festivals. Held in two or three areas throughout the U.S., the venue for us was in San Francisco, where the relative ease of travel for vintners and winemakers allows for unequalled tasting availability.

These are heady days for Pinot Noir producers. Demand for this grape has never been higher among the public, and wine, being a commodity, finds its prices governed by the same laws of supply and demand as any other merchantable product.  Just ten years ago, for example, the average retail for drinkable, but not widely desired, California Pinot Noir, was on the lower scale of all wine costs. Now, superb Pinot Noir is being produced all over the state, and its popularity has seen price points rise sharply – some say to a level that is too high, whole others contend that the present figures only reflect what a quality bottle of wine should command.

It has become almost a cliché to opine and write that the spectacular jump in Pinot Noir sales over the past few years is a result of the movie “Sideways.” No doubt that is part of it, but the reality is that there is a coincidental confluence of factors that have led to the deserved prominence of this varietal.

Prior to this unexpected rise of California Pinot Noirs, most of the nation’s best were found in Oregon, where the cool climate was, and is, unquestionably conducive to the varietal. Then came a viticultural revolution. Growers and producers throughout the Golden State began to experiment and plant different Pinot Noir clones with designations such as 115, 116 and trip 7 (777). In preparation for the planting, they engaged in more studies and tests to determine the best vine placement. And the better winemakers who decided to undertake the production of this sometimes fickle grape grappled with, and to a great extent solved, many other problems that had interfered with making good California Pinot Noir in the past (Note: we know that there were California vintners selling this grape ten years ago, but, though there were exceptions, most of these wines did not measure up to Burgundies or to their Oregon relations. Unfortunately, some of the producers are still relying on their old methods, and they have fallen behind their brethren in the quest for quality Pinot.).

However, cinema, better fruit, and growing procedures are just some of the reasons leading to the warp speed jump in the popularity of Pinot Noir. There are at least three other important factors in the equation. Firstly, the country’s eating habits have changed. We eat far fewer heavy meals, so we often prefer wines with lighter bodies. Pinot Noir fits the bill. Secondly, we are more sophisticated as a culture in searching for compatible pairings of our wines with food. We now understand that wines can often accompany the sauces or spices that influence a dish rather than the core beef or fish. And finally, the ever spiraling costs of Cabernet Sauvignons have priced that varietal out of the market for many of us. As Pinot Noirs exhibit more depth and flavors, and maintain a much lower asking price than the vast majority of Cabs, they are filling the red wine void with great acceptance.

So while it is unquestioned that Oregon remains a leading player, at present it is just one player in a crowded field. “Pinot-philes” can now revel in the opportunity of enjoying hundreds of wines from a couple of dozen appellations – with just as many characteristics and variations thereon. It is a great time to love Pinot Noir. Last weekend was a great time for us to taste as many as we could.

At the Sunday grand tasting, most wineries were pouring multiple wines – some as many as six. Below we are rating how we saw the overall performance of all the wines being poured by each vintner or winemaker. However, if a particular wine knocked our socks off, we may include it as well. As you will see, then, some wineries left a gold medal impression overall without showcasing a particularly fabulous bottle, while other wineries received a lower medal in general, yet have a mind blower worth mentioning.

What is most important, however, is that since all the wineries and labels mentioned hereafter earned medals in our judgment, all were excellent during this particular weekend in late June of 2008.

Our Gold Medals for the Weekend (alphabetically) and [winery contact location]:
-Alta Maria Vineyards [Santa Maria]
-Arcadian Winery [Solvang]
-Auteur Wines [Sonoma]
-2006 Shea Willamette Valley ($70) and 2007 Sonoma Stage ($60). The black fruit nose in both wines simply introduced the seamless layers that followed.
-Belle Glos [Rutherford]
-Note: While their 2006 Sonoma Coast ($45), 2006 Cohn Vineyard ($62),
and 2006 Savoy ($55) reflected this winery’s usual glory, the newly released Gambit Series, with both the 2006 Garys’ Vineyards and the 2006 Griffin’s Lair selling for $225/bottle, is a disappointment insofar as overall quality, and even more certainly insofar as the price point.
-The Donum Estate [Sonoma]
-This always “knocks our socks off.” The 2005 is no different. Enough said.
-Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery [Sonoma Coast]
-hope & grace Wines [Yountville]
-2006 Robert Talbott Vineyard ($40). Smoky, dark fruit oriented, and one of the day’s longest finishes.
-Kanzler Vineyards [Sebastopol]
-2006 Sonoma Coast ($48). We tasted nothing better in the $40-$50 range. This one has layers, and thus the complexity, missing from so many Pinot Noirs. And, unlike the heavily allocated Kosta Browne wine from the same grower, you may be able to find some of this one.
-Kosta Browne Wines [Sebastopol]
-2006 and 2007 Kanzler ($68). Both show off a huge mouth feel and persistent finish. Along the way, one finds citrus, tangerine, and even some watermelon. 
-Landmark Vineyards [Kenwood]
-2006 Soloman Hills ($125). A new vineyard for Landmark. Since the red fruit is so vibrant and the body so pleasant, it is a shame they only make 125 cases.
-Martinelli Vineyards and Orchards [Windsor]
-2006 Bondi Home Ranch ($60) and 2006 Zio Tony ($60). These show what can result when top fruit meets top winemaker. The flavors are unparalleled.
-Mayro-Murdick [Sonoma]
-2005 Mayro-Murdick Carneros ($35). The “buy” of the day. Succulent throughout, with a long and smoky finish.
-Picket Fence [Sonoma]
-Robert Stemmler Winery [Sonoma]
-2005 Ferguson Block ($40). We don’t know how they can keep the price this low for a wine where raspberries burst on the palate and dusty smoke provides the finish.
-Russian Hill Estate [Windsor]

Silver Medal:
-Addamo Estate Vineyards [Santa Maria]
-Benovia Winery [Santa Rosa]
-Martin Alfaro Wines [Watsonville]
-2006 Garys’ ($42). An under the radar winery doing a good job on its wines, but a super job with the one from this famous vineyard. The nose is cherry and cotton candy, while the tannins add structure. Beautifully balanced.
-Native to the 9th Power [Santa Maria]
-Pelerin Wines [Salinas]
-2006 Cuvee St. Vincent ($38). This is a bright and spicy wine with fruit flavors apparent from start to finish.
-Pessagno Winery [Salinas]
-Pisoni Vineyards and Winery [Gonzales]
-Siduri Wines [Santa Rosa]
-Sojourn Cellars [Sonoma]

-Abiouness Wines [St. Helena]
-Bernardus Winery [Carmel Valley]
-Cargasacchi Vineyard [Lompoc]
-Derbes Wines [Healdsburg]
-Dutton-Goldfield Winery [Sebastopol]
-Eric Kent Wine Cellars [Santa Rosa]
-Esterlina Vineyards and Winery [Philo]
-Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard [Santa Maria]
-Kastania Vineyards [Petaluma]
-Lynmar Winery [Sebastopol]
   -Mahoney Vineyards [Napa]

Our Readers Comment:

-In response to our mention that Carneros was the only appellation in California to span two counties, one of our favorite writers, Dan Berger, says, “I just couldn't resist pointing out that another AVA crosses two counties. It is Walla Walla Valley, which actually crosses the Washington-Oregon border.”
Thanks, Dan, for the information. So there is one in California and one in the Northwest.

-Barry Diamond writes that he believes we were incorrect by identifying the body of water that exhibits its cooling influence over Carneros as the San Francisco Bay instead of the San Pablo Bay.
We thank Barry (and some others – Barry was first) for bringing this up. In reality, the San Pablo Bay is an arm of the San Francisco Bay, so we were (hyper) technically correct. But Barry is really on the money - it is almost always referred to as the San Pablo Bay. We have made the change in our article for any future distribution.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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