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Pinot Noir and California: Flashes of greatness

Pinot Noir and California make a fantastic team – sometimes. ALAN GOLBFARB reports on a developing relationship, tears and all.

It’s not the sort of place you’d generally associate with uprisings. But according to winemaker Merry Edwards, the revolution began several years ago at the annual Steamboat Pinot Noir Technical Conference in southern Oregon. There, alongside other like-minded producers, she learned how to make California Pinot Noir. ‘Thirty years ago we didn’t know what we were doing,’ says Edwards, whose tiny winery is on the Russian River in Sonoma County. ‘Today, I’m doing the opposite of what I was doing then.’ Sounds simple, but alas winemaking is never black and white. Especially when it’s red. Today, Edwards and many of her Californian colleagues are still learning about and experimenting with the myriad – upwards of 200 – Pinot clonal selections available to them. Which clone to use can stir great debate. Edwards is a progenitor of using the controversial cold soak method, in which Pinot grapes are plunged into 50?C temperatures for up to a week in order to give them texture, colour and flavour. She has also been working with new strains of yeast and different methods of fermentation.

What this all adds up to is the same old story: when it comes to Pinot Noir, it’s the most difficult variety to tame, but it makes great wines – sometimes. Not much has changed today, but California Pinot makers – after nearly three decades of trying – are finally sussing out what this grape offers. Perhaps now more than ever, California is turning out better and better Pinot Noir. That doesn’t necessarily mean that producers are catching up with the Burgundians, but they are letting the wines stand on their own. ‘Now we have confidence. We don’t refer to Burgundy as respectfully as we did in the past,’ says Michael Terrien of Acacia. ‘There’s increasing confidence in New World methods.’

The Californians are making Pinot like only the Californians can. From the Anderson Valley to the Russian River, to the Carneros, to the Central Coast, the styles remain as varied as ever, but the quality has been elevated. ‘We’ve come very far in the last six years,’ says Terrien. ‘Our vineyard treatment is 180 degrees diametrically opposed to the way we were doing it then.’ Then, in the wind-swept Carneros, buffeted by weather from nearby San Pablo Bay, Acacia’s vineyards got plenty of water early in the growing season. Now, Terrien is irrigating in the latter part of the season and increasing density and colour. Additionally, new trellising methods are improving Pinot in the Carneros where once the variety was all too often light in colour and thin in body. ‘The theory now is to endow the fruit with everything to make good wine,’ Terrien says. ‘California sprawl is a thing of the past. Now we do vertical trellising for better distribution of the fruit. It may not be necessary to do extended maceration because it’s counter-productive, producing way too much tannin.’

While that might be true of the Californians building up their nerve to produce distinctly California Pinots and eschew notions of replicating Burgundians, there are others who hold to the French model. Talk to Marc Goldberg at his tiny Windward Vineyard in Paso Robles, and you realise that Burgundy is still Mecca for some. Without naming names, Goldberg reveals a disdain for the kind of Pinots being made by some of California’s younger winemakers.


American interpretations

‘We’ve come a long way in establishing American Pinot Noir as different,’ Goldberg says. ‘But the American way of stylistically handling Pinot Noir is to make huge wines. It’s the same with the (California) Syrahs and the Rhône blends. They exceed anything you can find in France in terms of weight, alcohol, inkiness. When you’re market-driven you’re building wines for a public that has that palate. The fruit is magnificent, but too ripe.’

Goldberg refers to growers and producers such as Gary Pisoni and his ilk. Pisoni is emblematic of this trend (see panel). From his Santa Lucia Highlands vineyards in Monterey County, Pisoni makes Pinot Noirs – as do the winemakers who purchase his fruit – in the huge, distinctively California style, and if the rest of the world doesn’t appreciate it, it’s their loss. But, says Pisoni, there’s a proviso – you can have all the colour, all the tannins and all the sugars you want, but the key is to not over-crop: ‘Drop fruit to two to three tonnes and use very little water and fertiliser.’


So, why until now, has California had so much difficulty consistently producing great Pinots? ‘They’ve been using the wrong clones and using bad sites,’ says Pisoni. ‘You have to be within 15 to 30 miles of the ocean,’ he adds emphatically. ‘But we’re getting there. We’re getting closer every year.’


Christian Roguenant, winemaker at Baileyana in the Edna Valley, comes from Dijon, and custom crushes Pinot for many Central Coast vintners. He agrees that Volnay, Santenay and Pommard are models. But he also believes that the Central Coast is a few years away from defining its style – its vineyards, only six or seven years old, are still too young to make a definitive Pinot. ‘In the 1970s and early 1980s, there were a lot of young winemakers here,’ he says. ‘Most of us have 20 years of experience now, and we make good wine. It has more colour than before, we are now able to extract a lot of black cherry, red cherry fruit, and the fruit is much nicer. The wines have better tannin structure, too; the crops are lower, the acids higher.

‘We all try and make Burgundy. We look at it as a model. Are we getting closer? Certainly. We are reaching premier cru levels. But most of us on the Central Coast have young vineyards. In Burgundy, they’re 40-50 years old. I think we’re going to make fuller, richer, better wines, but it’s going to be very challenging to make the very best.’

But what is the ‘very best’? Chad Melville, vineyard manager at his family’s Melville Vinery in the Santa Rita Hills near Lompoc, believes Pinot Noir is a ‘very intellectual’ wine, and therefore elicits controversy and debate. ‘Pinots that are made these days are complicated and sophisticated,’ he says. ‘It is intriguing because it’s so difficult to grow and difficult to make. It’s baffling. ‘When I find one that appeals to me, I have to take it into the other room and figure out what’s going on with it.’ There’s a lot of that going on in California just now.

Alan Goldfarb is Wine Editor of the St Helena Star in the Napa Valley.

Written by Alan Goldfarb

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