The State of California Pinot Noir

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smThis post was inspired by a Nicholson Ranch (Carneros) Pinot Noir that I had last night. It certainly was one of the best Pinot Noirs I have ever had. But it pointed out the stark dichotomy between the have’s and have-not’s of California Pinot Noir. For the truth of the matter is that most California Pinot Noir is pretty insipid stuff. But for the producers from Carneros, Russian River, and the Central Coast, the quality of their Pinot has never been better.

I think more than almost any other grape, Pinot Noir needs exactly what it needs. And that means, more than anything, relatively cool weather, at least by grapegrowing standards.

I’ve always wanted to make a special Pinot Noir from our vineyards. First I tried a clone of Pinot Nero, the Italian clone of Pinot Noir, hoping that a clone from a somewhat hotter area than the Burgundy clones that are normally in use would do better in our hotter environment in Suisun Valley. Well, I planted the grape (or more accurately budded over some existing vines), waited a couple of years, and made it into wine. Was it bad? I couldn’t say that. Was it as good as Nicholson Ranch? Not even close. Where great Pinot Noir is light and perfumed, this wine was much heavier, closer to a Cabernet Sauvignon in texture. The fruit, instead of trending towards the slightly underripe (as is the case with quality Pinot Noir) was ripe and extracted. It may have been a Pinot Noir in name, but it was a Pinot Noir in name only, lacking the complexity and elegance of the grape.

My next, and last, effort in the quixotic pursuit of quality Pinot Noir was to use a standard Burgundy clone (I even forget which one) in the vineyard that we have set up for misting (we used misters to cool the vineyard during the summer heat). Good idea: bring the heat of the vineyard down a few notches so that it more closely resembles the cooler weather climates where Pinot Noir does its best. The idea may have been good, but he results were very similar to my first attempt, namely a competent wine, somewhat extracted, ripe. None of the elegance, balance, and perfume that Pinot Noir should have.

Unfortunately, in many areas of California, grapegrowers and winemakers are repeating my experience combining Pinot Noir with a climate that’s just too warm for the variety. They are producing wines similar to mine in many cases. In some cases, they seem to be doing it on purpose, on the assumption that Pinot Noir in an extracted, overripe reincarnation, is something to be enjoyed in its own right. All I can say is that, at least in my opinion, these wines aren’t just a different style of Pinot Noir, but uninteresting, boorish psuedo-Pinot Noirs.

Other vintners in these hotter areas are picking earlier (at least that’s what I assume) and avoiding extracted, ripe wines, but at the cost of getting wines that are thin and lacking in much of anything at all.

I hate to wish ill on anyone in the wine business, but I guess I’m hoping these inferior Pinot Noirs have their own “Sideways” moment. California has such great Pinot Noirs that it would be a shame if these second-rate wannabes spoil the party for everyone.

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One Response to “The State of California Pinot Noir”

  1. randy says:

    Sorry, but if pinot noir has the body and texture of a Cab, Not for me…

    A pinot that’s ripe,extracted and heavy… nah, not my cup o tea.

    If you want to drink syrah, drink syrah;)

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