Quick Sips — 16 February 2012
Pinot Noir Thrillers


California begins to catch – even surpass – the world-class French pinot noirs


Once upon a time — and not that long ago — if you wanted a good glass of wine made from pinot noir grapes, you had to pour something from the Burgundy region of France. And that was it.

Try as they might, vintners in California just couldn’t make a pinot noir that could even begin to compete with the French. Some opined that California wineries should just forget about pinot and concentrate on cabernet and merlot. Fortunately, not everyone followed that advice, and by the last decade of the 20th century, California pinots had begun to come into their own. They were good — and sometimes great.

Three pinots from California – a 2009 from Donum Estate, a 2009 from Jim Ball Vineyards and a 2008 from Bernardus Winery – just won double-gold medals in the American Fine Wine Competition, judged in January at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. Most remarkable, the Best of Show in the AFWC’s red wine category is a 2009 Manchester Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir from La Follette Wines in Mendocino County ($50).

The key to success seemed to be finding the right places to plant pinot noir vines, and once they were identified and proven to be successful, pinot production in California moved ahead.    Today, those looking for quality should look on the bottle label for the name of the locale where the pinot grapes were grown; it’s the one piece of information that can provide you with some surety that a particular pinot should be pretty good.

One of the best regions for growing pinot noir is the Russian River Valley in California’s Sonoma County. Some favorites produced there include pinots from Donum, Patz & Hall, Dehlinger, Russian Hill, Rochioli, EnRoute, Toad Hollow, Sequana, Tudal Family and Davis Bynum. With price tags that range from $30 to $85 a bottle, the choice is up to the consumer.  However, whichever wine you choose, it should be as good, if not better, than a comparably priced pinot from Burgundy. If you’re looking for a real bargain, look for the Picket Fence Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($18).

Other locales in Sonoma County also produce first-rate pinot grapes. Vineyards along the Sonoma Coast provide grapes for Kutch and MacRostie, two of Sonoma’s premium pinot vintners; and Robert Stemmler’s and Robert Mondavi’s attractive pinots are produced from grapes grown in Sonoma’s Carneros district. Serious bargain hunters should look for the Sebastiani Sonoma Coast Pinot and Gloria Ferrer Carneros Pinot Noir ($18 and $22, respectively).

One over-looked California location that deserves our attention for pinot is Monterey County.  I can certainly vouch for the quality of pinots produced by Morgan, Talbott, Paraiso, Hahn and Siduri, all from vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands; and for the J. Lohr pinot from Monterey’s Arroyo Seco region.

Last, but certainly not least, Santa Barbara County is another place in California where pinot noir grapes excel. Indeed, the county plays “pinot central” in the award-winning movie Sideways.  Two wineries helping to maintain that reputation are Byron and Sea Smoke.  Byron pinots are well-made, ready to drink, and affordable, while the Sea Smoke famous libations are higher priced (but worth every penny), extremely complex, and, I believe, will be even better after a couple years of bottle aging.  A budget-priced Santa Barbara pinot that deserves your attention is Hitching Post, named for the real-life restaurant that’s featured in movie; it’s a nice, easy-to-like red.

In the 1980s I asked a well-known California wine maker what was his greatest challenge, and he responded, “I want to make a first-rate pinot noir.”  Fortunately he and others like him never gave up.  They discovered the best places in California to plant pinot noir grapes, and we are the beneficiaries.

Sample some award-winning pinot noirs – including the Best of Show 2009 La Follette, and other varietals – at the American Fine Wine Competition Gala, presented by Patriot National Insurance Group, Inc. The gala, starring Chef Emeril Lagasse, Alan Kalter and over 600 American wines to sample with the five-course meal, will be April 19 at Boca Raton Resort & Club. Proceeds from the silent auction. featuring all 600+ award winning wines each signed by the winemakers themselves, benefit The Diabetes Research Institute and the Golden Bell Education Foundation.
Tickets are $300. 561-504-8463,


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