American Pinot Noir

Great American Pinot Noir is no longer the wine version of a UFO
| By Matt Kramer | From Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

 Joe Rochioli asserts he's "just a farmer."  

"My father grew hops here in the Russian River Valley," says the 65-year-old owner of Rochioli Vineyards. Indeed, an elegant stone-faced hop kiln, easily identifiable by its distinctive pyramidal roofline, stands adjacent to the Rochioli ranch. Sonoma County is dotted with kilns, as hops were once a major crop.  

But today, in western Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, wine grapes are the big cash crop. All sorts are successfully grown: Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and many others. But Pinot Noir put Russian River Valley on the map.   "Whoever thought people would be saying 'great American Pinot Noir'?" asks Rochioli, who, with his winemaker son and partner, Tom, creates some of those very Pinot Noirs.  

All the area's grape varieties reflect a familial finesse, a restraint and delicacy born of Russian River Valley's cool, Pacific Ocean-influenced climate and the winemakers' sense of community. The river undulates through the valley's flat, open expanse, twisting on the ground like a landed fish.  

The Russian River runs through Rochioli's property, a fact that somehow makes a tasteable difference in the wines--the Pinot Noir, anyway. For example, among Rochioli's multiple Pinot Noir bottlings are two that come from contiguous four-acre plots. The plots look the same, but their wines don't taste the same. One (called West Block) is closer to the river; the other (Three Corner Vineyard) is farther away. West Block is always better. "Dunno why," Joe Rochioli says. "It just is."  

That's the thing about Pinot Noir. It's the world's most sensitive wine grape, and no other variety is so indicative of its site. Pinot Noir will broadcast the most minute distinctions of site--exposition, air flow, water drainage, soil temperature--like a tattletale little sister with the lungs of a hog caller.  

This is one of the reasons for America's new Pinot Noir accomplishment. Unlike other red wine grapes, Pinot Noir demands your attention. It subtly reveals elements in the earth you can't even see, yet it is assertive enough to tell you they're there.   Winemaker Tom Dehlinger of Dehlinger Winery, another Russian River Valley producer creating some of America's best Pinot Noirs, displays a map of his 16 acres of Pinot Noir. "I have it broken down into 60 sections," he says, without a trace of awareness of just how, well, crazy that is. "It's all based on different soil types, ripening times, all kinds of things that have made themselves known over the past two decades.  

"When I make the wines," Dehlinger continues, "I separate them into 12 to 15 different lots to see how they evolve. Then, depending on the vintage, I'll blend these into between two and five different bottlings each year." Does this intense focusing make a difference? The results speak for themselves. Dehlinger's Pinot Noirs have improved steadily over the years. Today, his mailing list is closed and Pinot Noir lovers clamor to obtain a single bottle of his wine.  

If your soil doesn't have what Pinot Noir likes, well, you're better off growing hops. It's less embarrassing. However, when you hit, it's a gold mine.   Consider, for example, the success of Williams & Selyem Winery, across the road from Rochioli. It was Burt Williams's wine-making success with grapes purchased from Joe Rochioli that put him and Rochioli on top. Neither Williams nor his partner, Ed Selyem, owned any vineyards. All the Pinot Noirs they made, beginning in the early '80s, came from a number of northern California vineyards, mostly from western Sonoma County.  

But winemaker Williams had what can only be called a "touch." His Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir made Rochioli famous. In turn, the Rochioli's grapes were essential to Williams' & Selyem's success. The symbiosis was so effective that, in 1998, Selyem and Williams sold the winery--a nondescript warehouse plunked in a vineyard managed by Rochioli--to John Dyson, the owner of Millbrook Vineyards & Winery in New York State, for $9.5 million.  

What Dyson really bought (along with the building and existing inventory) was the brand--and the critical commitment from the Rochiolis and other growers loyal to Williams & Selyem to continue supplying grapes.  

The landmark transaction shows just how far American Pinot Noir has come. It wasn't always so. As far back as 1897 an article in the San Francisco Chronicle made no bones about slighting California Pinot Noir: "Much wine is made and sold in California as Burgundy, but we have produced no wine which resembles the Burgundies of France. Our Pinots have proved a failure, probably from the lack of proper methods and care in fermentation."  

That's all changed. More exciting yet is that the success is just beginning. Although fermentation techniques certainly play a role in Pinot Noir quality, today's stunning new Noirs really are all about vineyards--their location, what's planted there and even how it's planted.  

Take Saintsbury in Napa Valley's Carneros district, which abuts breezy San Pablo Bay. In the early '80s, it looked as if Carneros might be California's ideal place for Pinot Noir, thanks to its cool climate. The wines that originally emerged--especially Saintsbury--were appealing. They were generous Pinot Noirs, plumped with a pure raspberry/cherry Pinot fruit.  

But soon it became apparent that that's all they were. Carneros Pinot Noirs lacked depth, dimension and the kind of breadth of flavors that sets apart Burgundy's Pinot Noirs. Saintsbury, among others, went back to the drawing board.  

Saintsbury co-owner David Graves is honest about those challenges and the winery's evolution. A serious, even scholarly, man, Graves doesn't flinch in acknowledging the limitations of those early Pinot Noirs. "There's no doubt that we've evolved into something richer and more concentrated, but with a recognizable Carneros core of fruit," he says. "It's been the result of a lot of things: a different, vertical canopy in the vine trellising so the sunlight penetrates better. Different, better rootstocks. Denser spacing of the vines. And not least, a lot more clones."  

Clones, or strains, are part of America's new Pinot Noir accomplishment. All grape varieties have multiple strains, genetic mutations that occur naturally in the vineyard. For centuries, growers have kept a lookout for them, as some strains yield better or show greater disease resistance.  

More than any other red grape, Pinot Noir mutates more readily. The range of Pinot Noir clones is vast, numbering in the hundreds. Starting in the 1970s, French vineyard researchers based in Dijon in Burgundy began to isolate these clones and run trials on them, giving them numerical designations such as 113, 114, 115 and so on. They were looking for consistent taste characteristics (a pronounced raspberry scent, for example), good crop levels and disease resistance.  

After decades of investigation and selection, a number of "new" Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) clones trickled onto the market, cultivated by commercial vineyard suppliers. Collectively, these are known as the Dijon clones. They have performed especially well in very cool climates, such as Oregon and northern California.  

Saintsbury latched on to these clones with its usual aggressive vigor, setting up clonal trials in its vineyards. After all, just because a clone performs well in Burgundy doesn't automatically make it ideal for Carneros. Besides, American growers already had a good collection of "older" clones, brought in over the decades and identified by names such as Pommard or Martin Ray or Joe Swan, all referring to the original source of the cuttings.  

Saintsbury grows its clones mostly in one block, segregating each clonal batch and making individual lots of wines. These are aged in neutral-tasting oak barrels, which allow the clonal differences to reveal themselves.  

When you sit in Saintsbury's wine "library"sampling six different Pinot Noirs isolated by clone, you quickly see just how great the differences are. It takes no wine-tasting expertise to recognize the intensely perfumey, raspberry scent of clone 115, which is almost an exaggeration of what some people consider a classic Pinot Noir flavor. Clone 667 shows a strong "black fruits" scent. It's rich, slightly gamy, but coarser. Clone 777 has a strong note of black cherry, while the widely planted Pommard clone displays its characteristic chewy, chunky, dense qualities with its signature "cola" scent.  

Which clone is the "best"? As all Pinot Noir growers already know, a blend of them. "I like the grip and mid-palate astringency of the Pommard," says Graves. "Clone 115 makes a complete wine; about 30 percent of our Reserve bottling is composed of 115. I like all the Dijon clones," he adds. "They have a different mix of flavors and tannins than I'm used to seeing."   Until very recently, no one thought--few even dared to think--that America had anything on Burgundy. Great American Pinot Noir had long been the wine version of a UFO: many sightings but no real proof. Tantalizing reports filtered in for decades.  

Then, as now, it came down to location. Pinot Noir, like a flying saucer, is a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't sort of grape, even in Burgundy. Walk 500 feet and you've literally lost the thrilling flavor of the adjacent plot.   One such early "sighting" was the now-legendary telegram sent to the late Martin Ray, the purist winegrower whose 2,000-foot-elevation vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains sometimes yielded extraordinary Pinot Noir. In 1936 the famous New York-based wine connoisseur Julian Street, no friend of California wine making, telegraphed Ray:  

Your Pinot Noir 1936 tasted tonight is first American red wine I ever drank with entire pleasure. Color superb bouquet beautiful. Flavor unmistakably Pinot Noir big and full. Wine still somewhat hard with slightly bitter aftertaste nevertheless remarkably fine. I am astounded. Warmest congratulations.  

It was then, and is today, all about that one vineyard. Martin Ray's original vineyard--with his original clonal selections--is today Mount Eden Vineyards. The present winemaker and co-owner, Jeffrey Patterson, continues the tradition, creating classic Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, which is dense, a bit burly, profound and long-lived. It's utterly different from the silky perfume-like characteristic of Russian River Valley wines, yet no less a member of that breed.  

Such sightings continued with one or another Pinot Noir of fleeting impression popping up in various spots. In 1969, for example, one of the more frequent Pinot sightings came from Chalone Vineyard, 1,600 feet above the town of Soledad in the dry Salinas Valley of Monterey County, California. Although the limestone soil gave Chalone's Pinot Noir a classic Burgundy-like goût de terroir, or savor of site, the streaming sunshine sapped the wine of delicacy. It was then and remains today an intriguing, if less-than-classic, Pinot Noir.  

Another such sighting popped up in the 1980s with Calera Wine Co. near the town of Hollister. Owner Josh Jensen was looking for limestone soil--a Burgundian standard--and found it about 20 miles from Chalone on the eastern flank of the Gavilan Range. (Chalone is on the western flank.) Again, the resulting Pinot Noirs were rich, meaty, sun-filled experiences redolent of chocolate but wanting in delicacy and grace. Still, they suggested possibilities.  

Such occurrences were not confined to California. By the early 1980s, more than a few observers were convinced--and remain convinced--that the most promising place in America for Pinot Noir is not California, but Oregon, specifically the 100-mile-long Willamette Valley in the northwestern part of the state. Oregon became a sort of Roswell for its extraordinary, if sporadic, Pinot Noir occurrences.  

Take, for example, the most famous Oregon Pinot Noir event, which actually occurred in France in 1980. The Eyrie Vineyards South Block Reserve 1975 Pinot Noir came within two-tenths of a point of beating the first-place 1959 Chambolle-Musigny, a wine from shipper Joseph Drouhin, who organized the tasting. Drouhin was obviously impressed. Seven years later the Burgundy firm purchased vineyard land in the Willamette Valley and established Domaine Drouhin Oregon.  

Pinot Noir likes it cool. The best Pinot Noirs, no matter how dense in flavor, must display a kind of delicacy or finesse. This is Oregon's strong suit. More than any other American Pinot Noirs, the Oregon versions are exemplars of finesse. But this comes at a price.  

In Oregon, the price is variability. The Willamette Valley's cool, rain-swept climate means that every harvest in late September is a race to get Pinot Noir ripe enough before fall rains damage the crop. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't. When they win--1993, '94 and likely '98--the results are lovely: Pinot Noirs redolent of wild berries delivered with balletic grace. However, when the vintages are less than ideal, many Oregon Pinots are thin. You can say the same for Burgundy.  

Consistency is hard-won among Oregon Pinot producers, but a few wineries get close to the mark. Foremost among them is Domaine Drouhin Oregon, which relies on densely spaced vines to deliver an unusual resonance of fruit, especially in its Laurène bottling.  

The thinking is that, somehow, more Pinot Noir vines crammed onto the same space produces fruit of greater depth and dimension. Part of Drouhin's vineyard has 3,100 vines per acre, which is three to four times as many vines as conventionally spaced vineyards. This growing approach shows in the wines, which are deeper flavored and have greater resonance.  

Another producer with a denser-than-usual planting is Beaux Frères, or brothers-in-law, an aptly named winery. One of the brothers-in-law is renowned wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. Beaux Frères Pinot Noir is a big wine by Oregon standards, a bit too laced with sweet vanilla-scented oak for some, but the underlying fruit is superb. It, too, has unusual resonance and depth, most likely from closely spaced vines.  

A third contender among the Oregon Pinot producers is Adelsheim Vineyard, which specializes in creating austere, detailed Pinots that age longer and better than most. The Elizabeth's Reserve bottling is invariably Adelsheim's best effort.   Less well-known but worth pursuing is Evesham Wood Vineyard. A tiny operation, it makes some of Oregon's best Pinot Noir. Its Cuvée J bottling is usually one of the state's best Pinots. Both it and the regular Pinot bottling will taste better if you age them in your cellar for several years, as the Evesham Wood style is restrained.  

Other Oregon producers of note include Ponzi Vineyards, Cameron Winery, Argyle, Cristom Vineyards, Chehalem, Ken Wright Cellars, King Estate and Archery Summit.  

Oregon's Pinot producers are not the only ones to watch. California suffers less from rain and annual weather variability in its pursuit of Pinot. What's called the South Central Coast--effectively San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties--is giving chase to western Sonoma County. Vineyards near the Pacific Ocean enjoy an odd, even bizarre, climatic circumstance that encourages ripeness (from dazzling sunshine) yet enforces coolness (through afternoon fog and ocean breezes). It's like driving a car by pressing the accelerator and the brake. Yet, the vehicle of Pinot Noir moves forward.  

Vineyard names to look for include Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, in San Luis Obispo County. Talley is issuing ever more intriguing Pinot Noirs, notably its Rincon Vineyard and Rosemary's Vineyard bottlings. Farther north, in Monterey County, Pisoni Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation is selling dramatically flavored Pinot Noir grapes to small producers such as Siduri Cellars and Flowers Vineyard & Winery, among others.  

In Santa Barbara County, near Lompoc, owner-winemaker Bryan Babcock of Babcock Vineyard makes a Pinot Noir that is fast becoming a California benchmark, with its fragrance allied to a distinctive earthiness. Sanford Winery's Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir is another consistently distinctive bottling from the same area. Not to be forgotten is Au Bon Climat, which issues an array of Pinot Noirs from several of Santa Barbara County's best vineyards.  

Elsewhere in California, one promising locale is the supremely cool Anderson Valley in Mendocino County. The availability of the new Dijon clones, which perform especially well in very cool sites, will likely propel Anderson Valley into the front ranks.   Another, very different spot that is producing Pinot Noirs with depth and finesse is the high elevation coastal zone of western Sonoma County. Perched on ridges bathed in intense sunlight and only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, a handful of small vineyards in this stunningly rugged, isolated locale are issuing intriguing Pinot Noirs.  

Notable among them (and whose wines are all very hard to get) are Flowers Winery "Camp Meeting Ridge"; Kistler Vineyards "Camp Meeting Ridge"; Hirsch Vineyard (made by Williams & Selyem and Siduri); Coastlands Vineyard (Siduri); Summa Vineyard (Williams & Selyem); and Marcassin Vineyard & Winery. Collectively, these wines share a striking intensity and a bit of tannic toughness. They're big wines, with a lot to say.  

One thing is certain: no one really knows where America's Pinot Noir motherlode really lies. More than 20 years ago winemaker David Lett, of The Eyrie Vineyards, who left California in 1966 to plant Oregon's first Pinot Noir vineyard, declared, "One hundred years from now, California won't even grow Pinot Noir!"  

Much more likely is that, 100 years from now, Pinot Noir will be planted everywhere, in every cool spot along the Pacific Coast, to say nothing of the as yet unexplored places in New York or New Mexico. You'd be surprised. Everyone is, once they taste some of America's great Pinot Noirs.  

Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator magazine, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.