A little prank played by a Sonoma winemaker, (Read Eric Asimov's account of it and follow that up with Samantha @ Sans Dosage). That publicity stunt told more about Adam than about Raj, but it did flag the fact that people think Cali pinot noir is a very big deal. Continuing on the theme, there was a super-charged panel discussion on pinot pursuit of balance in San Fran. The twitterverse and blogosphere and print media is on it, everyone seems to be talking pinot. The question I have is not only why but why now? Because the grape is staring puberty in California in the face? Or is it fighting for its life or at least identity?
Holding the minority position, I've had some nice examples of the varietal from Oregon, one or two from the Finger Lakes, but California pinot's bright fruit and one or two flavors, for me, grows dull and difficult. This shouldn't be surprising as I tend to gravitate to wines that are anti-fruit, not austere but where the fruit is subtle. Consider the source; carignan is my favorite grape from the west, held up by syrah, mourvedre and at least in one person's hands, cabernet franc.
In the far west, the heart-break grape, often breaks mine with its candied and fruited personality. On top of that, winemakers there often have an abject fear of tannin. Acidification is most often needed, even in those who try to work naturally. I love the delicacy of Burgundy, I love that whiff of Chanel, edge, and florality, I love perceptible tannins, structure and freshness.
With out a doubt, the Cali-pinot style is changing; more producers are leaving behind the heavy duty candy and the alcohol. The fat and toasty oak is falling off the bone. Some people aren't even trying to extract for color anymore and allowing the wine to be its more delicately, tinged self. It is morphing into something more interesting for me, but still, I do wonder about its potential in the land where carignan + mourvedre + syrah do so much better.
I do believe there are spots that it can be expressive. I have long wondered about the grape's expression up on the Santa Cruz mountains. It was there, at Four Gates that I had a too -pink -for -me, but a very interesting one, not only a sense of place but one that had an arrow pointing to it.
Calera in that same area, less pink but still.... Last week, my colleague Michael Steinberger raved about the Santa Cruz winery, Rhys. And because he does, I'm curious to taste them (in the past they haven't returned my calls). I'd like to see if the grape in the Rhys expression shows sophisticated instead of the obvious. Maybe there's hope? Maybe there is a California pinot with charms I could extol?
I keep on coming back to the question of why does the passion for pinot and the search for it exist in California? I'm not convinced it isn't about the desire for it instead of the belief.
When I asked winemaker Gideon Bienstock of Clos Saron why he grows pinot up up there in the hot Oregon House Valley, he said, "Because life without pinot isn't worth living."
Gideon's vineyard's rocks
If I had a garden I'd probably be compelled to grow tomatoes wherever for the same reason, but if I could not buy pinot from Burgundy, the Loire, Alsace or the Jura, or the odd Piemontese bottle, would I learn to live without it or would I learn to embrace the strong black cherry and mallow and 'colas' of the state's grape expression. Or is there an expression in pinot that I have yet to discover that I would really enjoy?
Jasper Morris recently published Inside Burgundy. Morris discovers the region by vineyard and soil. He speculated that his book will never be outdated as the vineyards and the soil, famously built on a clay/limestone mix, remain the same. I find this a poignant counter-position for most New World winemakers who rarely put the soil first, but rather the climate, coastal or inland. Pinot, I believe is a grape that is site specific first. Place for pinot does matter.
Today on twitter, one person noted that in the the Balance in Pinot conference few even brought up soil. It was not part of the discussion. I wonder how long before soil becomes a significant player, or does the American democracy (which translates to grapes; plant what you want, it matters not) will interfere with finding a true sense of place.
Here's my thought. I'd like to see the wine from grape grown on a site that is specific, not just cool climate, seek out a limestone/clay base. Go for naturally or organically grown, unirrigated, own-rooted, vines that were massale selections and not skinny, sterile clones. I think a good dose of stems would be useful, because California can use the edge that mitigates the intensity of sunny fruit. No cold soaking for extra color and extraction and brightness of fruit. I would really be very curious to see what this would show, (and so if you've got some old Paul Masson and Martin Ray pinots, send me an email please). I have an even more radical idea; treat pinot noir in California as one would treat a pinot noir from lesser terroirs in France, simply.
I think only then can I see what the grape can do in California. Who knows, if I've gone back to loving California carignan, perhaps I can claim pinot noir as well.
But, nevertheless, I have been going out of my way to try them. And I will in the future. So far the most intriguing pinot I've tasted from California was at the March La Paulée de New York.
Finally! I got to put my nose in one of those pot wines from a certain Santa Barbabara wine maker.
The weed added a certain complexity, and certainly added an edge to what I usually feel is just too much fruit.
Other than that, recent tastings have uncovered....
Anthill Farms, Tina Marie Vineyard 2009
The fruit was reversed on this, on the finish instead of the attack.Found the etheral weight interesting. But still fruit forward, I mean backward.
Was this wine really $14? At 13.5 % it still has all of that bright fruit that I swear I don't know what to do with but the little bit of bug shell and aspirin bitter makes it palatable.
Kutch Anderson Valley 2009
Found this round and powerful but helped out with some nice rosewater that might have come from the 50% whole cluster. Bring on the stems.