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Smokin' Pinot Noir
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Feb 8, 2012
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Sea Smoke, Sta. Rita Hills (California) Pinot Noir ‘Ten,’ 2009 ($80):  Sea Smoke is a Pinot Noir with buzz.  When I first tasted it four years ago, I had heard that it was something of a cult Pinot, an insider’s wine.  I don’t like many of the California Pinots that pass for “cult” because I find them too dark in color, too heavy in alcohol and oak and too weak in true Pinot Noir aromatics.  My initial impression of the Sea Smoke Pinots was mixed: I liked their aromas and flavors, but found some of the wines clumsy. Those wines were from the 2005 and 2006 vintages.  Fast forward to the 2009 vintage, and I’m admiring the wines.  (Which changed, I wonder: me or the wines —--or both?)

Sea Smoke is a wine estate founded in 1999 in the western end of the Sta. Rita Hills district in Santa Barbara County.  Its vineyards are planted with French clones of Pinot Noir, on hillsides facing south along the Santa Ynez River gorge, which channels cool air and fog into the area at night.  (The estate is named for that fog, or “smoke.”)  The vineyards encompass 26 unique blocks planted with ten clones, and the grapes of each block and clone are each vinified separately.  Typically production is low and the wines are hard to find.

In 2009, the yield in Sea Smoke’s vineyards was almost 2.3 tons/acre, a large crop for the property.  That year also marked the inauguration of a new winery, a boon to facilitating all those separate-block and separate-clone fermentations.  The 2009 vintage also marked “the culmination of a subtle stylistic shift to enhance the wine’s aging ability through slightly lower alcohol levels and the finessing of new oak ratios during barreling,” according to press information.  (The stated alcohol on two 2009s I tasted is 14.5 percent, compared to 14.7 and 14.9 percent in the earlier wines.)

I can’t compare the age-worthiness of the 2009 Sea Smoke Pinots with those wines I tasted four years ago, but it seems to me that the 2009 wines are more refined, with less oak and alcohol interference for the vivid, lovely fruit character.  It seems to me that I’m now glimpsing the land.

The 2009 “Ten” Pinot Noir -- named for the ten clones that go into it -- has a compelling aroma of red cherry, dark berry, lavender, and a high-toned herbal note akin to eucalyptus.  The nose is focused, pure and precise.  In your mouth, the wine is full-bodied and oh-so-smooth, with oak tannins that barely register on your tongue while pronounced flavors of black cherry and blueberry distract your attention.  The long, long finish echoes the fruitiness and the herbal notes, and shows what concentration of flavor the wine actually has.

Another 2009 Sea Smoke, “Southing,” ($52) is a darker, more textured wine that gives an impression of a bit more acidity and tannin (although it actually has only 55 percent new oak compared to 65 percent in Ten).  I recommend it for those who prefer a slightly more structured Pinot Noir.

Sea Smoke’s 2009 “Ten” deserves the finest Burgundy glass that you have. I estimate that this wine can age for ten-plus years.

92 Points