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California Pinot Noirs
By Ed McCarthy
Mar 23, 2022
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Wines made from the Pinot Noir grape variety are among the most popular in the world.  In the U.S., most Pinot Noir wines come from California and Oregon. 

Pinot Noir is one of the oldest known grape varieties, much older than Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot; it was cultivated in what is now the Burgundy region of France as early as the first century AD.  Today’s Pinot Noir wines of Burgundy, simply called red Burgundy, as we refer to them collectively, are among the world’s most sought-after wines; the best are rare and very expensive.  In fact, the most expensive bottle of wine in the world upon release is Burgundy’s Romanée-Conti (100% Pinot Noir), which retails in the range of $17,000 to $20,000 (a bottle that is), depending on the vintage.  Crazy, right?   And yet Romanée-Conti sells out quite rapidly, even considering the price.

Pinot Noir has always been a difficult grape variety to grow successfully.  It is early-ripening, and prone to spring frosts.  It is susceptible to many vine diseases.  It grows best in cool, dry climates.  Being a delicate variety, Pinot Noir does not blend successfully with other grape varieties (the one major exception being sparkling wines; it does blend quite well with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier in France’s Champagne region).  You might wonder, why do wine growers even bother with it? 

The answer is simple: the wine can be magnificent, when everything works right.  Many of the best wines I have ever consumed have been red Burgundies.  Outside of Burgundy and the U.S. West Coast, very few wine regions in the world have been successful with Pinot Noir, other than New Zealand, Chile’s coastal area and (perhaps) Patagonia in Argentina.

And so it was no surprise when California winemakers (and later Oregon’s) decided to produce Pinot Noir wines.  But the initial results in California with Pinot Noir during the pumped up1970s were quite disastrous.  Pinot Noir is a light-colored grape variety.   California winemakers, accustomed to their dark red Cabernet wines, tried to emulate the same dark color in their Pinot Noirs.  The resulting early Pinot Noirs from many California producers were clumsy, beefed-up specimens, bearing little if any resemblance to the elegant, delicate flavors of the Burgundies produced in France.  I remember drinking a California Pinot Noir in the late 1970s from a reputable California producer and throwing it out, saying, “My God, this is awful!”  Oregon winemakers, who got started making Pinot Noirs mainly in the 1980s, did not make the same mistakes as their California brethren.  Oregon’s Pinot Noirs were quite good from the beginning.

But California winemakers learned, often by including a trip to Burgundy as part of their education.  And so, by the 1990s, California winemakers, especially on the Sonoma Coast and in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, started making some very fine Pinot Noir wines.  I began buying California Pinot Noirs then, especially from Williams Selyem and Littorai wineries in Sonoma.  West Coast Pinot Noirs are of course different from red Burgundies; very different terroirs.  And of course Burgundy has had hundreds of years dealing with the fickle Pinot Noir variety to understand it.

 When I dine at a restaurant (it seems like a long time ago right now, but restaurants will return!), I often seek out a Pinot Noir from California, Oregon, some other state, or Chile (Burgundy usually being too expensive).  The food I eat, such as seafood, often will pair better with Pinot Noir than with a more robust wine.

I have devised a list of my favorite California Pinot Noirs.  A few of the smaller wineries listed below are difficult to find outside of their local region; often your best bet is to contact the winery and buy the wine directly from them.  Most of the Pinot Noirs I am recommending retail in the $25 to $50 range, with a few over $50, and so noted when they are.  Starting in the southern part of California and going north, here is my list (all wines listed in alphabetical order):

Santa Barbara County (including Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys; also Sta. Rita Hills):  The cool breezes from the Pacific Ocean create a fine environment to grow Pinot Noir.  Santa Barbara Pinot Noirs often offer luscious strawberry aromas and flavors, with herbal notes.  They are precocious—delicious in their first four or five years, but not long-lived:
--Au Bon Climat (an exception to the norm; this wine has staying power)
--Cambria Estate Winery, Julia’s Vineyard; good value
--Fiddlehead Cellars small; buy directly from the winery; exceptional; $65; owner-winemaker, Kathy Joseph
--The Ojai Vineyard
--Presqu’ile Winery
--Sanford Winery especially Sanford & Benedict Vineyard; $60
--Sea Smoke Cellars expensive (all over $100); also an excellent sparkling wine, Sea Spray

Paso Robles:  Although the Paso Robles region is best known for Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, there is one winery which also makes an outstanding Pinot Noir:
--Adelaida Cellars HMR Pinot Noir; old vines, $60; one of the best wineries in CA.

Santa Lucia Highlands; San Benito County; Chalone (Monterey County has lots of wine, mostly not Pinot Noir. Here are three exceptions, featuring Pinot Noir):
--Bernardus Winery (Santa Lucia Highlands) value-priced wines
--Calera Wine Company (San Benito County) the legendary Josh Jensen, founder of Calera, has produced several outstanding single-vineyard Pinot Noirs ranging from $65 to $100, with a Central Coast Pinot Noir at $30; Jensen sold Calera to Duckhorn Winery in 2017.
--Chalone Vineyard located on the Gavilan benchland, an area rich in limestone.  Chalone makes a unique, powerful Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay); sold to Foley Family Wines in 2016.

Santa Cruz Mountains:  climate is cool on the western (ocean) side; Pinot Noir thrives here
--David Bruce Winery Dermatologist David Bruce, a pioneer here, began in 1964.
--Mount Eden Vineyards Best-known for Chardonnay; also makes a world-class Pinot Noir ($60)
--Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Known for its Old World, European-styled wines; $98

Carneros (Napa Valley/Sonoma) Most of Napa Valley is too warm to make Pinot Noir, but the southern part, Carneros (partly in Sonoma), which borders on the San Pablo Bay, is cool):
--Robert Mondavi Winery makes a fine Pinot Noir Reserve here ($67.50)
--Saintsbury Wines known for its classic, cool-climate Pinot Noirs

Sonoma (Mainly a cool climate; ideally suited for Pinot Noirs; produces many of California’s greatest Pinot Noirs.  Traditionally, the Russian River Valley and its sub-region, Green Valley, has been home base to many Sonoma Pinot Noirs.  But lately, a cooler region, the Sonoma Coast—especially the area closer to the Pacific Ocean, sometimes called “The True Coast,” is getting much attention.  The first group below lists the wineries in and around the Russian River Valley; the second group lists primarily newer wineries specializing in Pinot Noir from the town of Sebastopol to the Sonoma Coast):

Russian River Valley vicinity:
--Dehlinger Winery
--Hartford Court  Several Pinot Noirs, some in and around RRV and some on the Coast
--Kistler Vineyards best known for Chardonnay, but also makes a top Pinot Noir; $70
--La Crema Winery moderately priced Pinot Noirs
--Littorai Wines one of California’s great Pinot Noir wineries; Ted Lemon, owner-winemaker; average price, $65
--Merry Edwards Winery
--J. Rochioli Vineyard One of the super-stars of Sonoma Pinot Noirs; limited; $125
--Williams Selyem Another super-star, arguably the first to attain this status; its Pinot Noirs tend to be powerful and long-lasting; average retail price, $90

Sonoma Coast:
--Cobb Wines a personal favorite, especially the fantastic Emmaline Ann Vineyard, $75
--Fort Ross Vineyard on the Coast
--Hirsch Vineyards a pioneer; probably the best-known in the region, $38 to $85
--Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards
--B. Kosuge
--Lioco Wine Company good value wines
--Peay Vineyards on the “True” Sonoma Coast; one of the best
--Red Car Wine Co.
--Wild Hog Vineyard one of the earliest wineries on the Coast; good values here

Mendocino (Directly north of Sonoma County, Mendocino’s Anderson Valley is home to cool-climate Pinot Noirs, with two large producers and a few smaller producers:
--Fetzer Vineyards  Large winery producing several well-priced Pinot Noirs; good values
--Goldeneye Winery (Duckhorn), Goldeneye is Duckhorn’s large Anderson Valley winery producing good Pinot Noirs; average price, $49.
--Handley Cellars Pinot Noir Winemaker-owner Milla Handley retired three years ago, but her daughters have taken over the winery.
--Husch Estate small, family-owned winery producing good-value Pinot Noirs

Summing up, my favorite Pinot Noir producers include Cobb Wines, Littorai, Adelaida Cellars, J. Rochioli, Williams Selyem, Peay Vineyards, Hartford Court, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, and Fiddlehead Cellars.  I am quite amazed at the improvement in quality of California’s Pinot Noirs over the last few decades.  And prices have remained reasonable, which allows us to enjoy one of my very favorite wines, Pinot Noir.  

More wine columns:     Ed McCarthy