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What To Drink Now: California Pinot Noir


I have always had a great affinity for Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley.  I had visited the Oregon region probably 3 times before ever stepping foot in the prestigious Napa Valley, and have found that the charm and personality of the then still small and developing region has lasted through the years.  I am headed back to Willamette this weekend for an annual holiday trip with friends, showing them why I love Oregon Pinot Noir so much, but before I go I wanted to give a few tips on some great California Pinot Noir options.

Let’s taste them.

I have grown to respect the Pinot coming out of California over the years, especially when I have tasted some of the best from Carneros, Santa Lucia Highlands, Russian River and Santa Rita Hills.  It is impossible not to raise a toast to the wines of Ancien, Vision Cellars, Freestone, Foley and pretty much anything from Rosella’s or Gary’s vineyards.  I will agree that California Pinot Noir can have the same elegance, complexity and expression of those from Oregon, but where Oregon tends to lean towards a more earthy style with layers of strawberry, cranberry and raspberry mixed with forest floor, mushroom and herbal notes, California is often more fruit forward with raspberry, blackberry, cherry and cola with floral notes. Both styles are delicious, it is just finding the one you prefer more….or the one that pairs better with what you are enjoying that night.  Here are a few great Pinot Noir selections from California, some were sent for editorial consideration.

2008 La Rochelle La Cruz Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – While I was out in California for the holiday I took a day trip to Livermore Valley to visit Steven Kent Winery and visit with their owner, 6th generation wine maker Steven Mirassou.  I was of course familiar with the family, as the Mirassou family started making wine in California in the mid 1800’s, and expected, as with many wine stops in Livermore, to spend the day drinking Cab, Chardonnay and of course, Petit Sirah (as Livermore was the first wine region in the US to produce the varietal.) To my delight we started our tasting with La Rochell, a sister winery to Steven Kent specializing in Pinot Noir from grapes sourced throughout California and even a few in Oregon.  The La Cruz Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast is 100% Pinot Noir created from three different Dijon clones of fruit picked, fermented and aged separately then blended together to create a perfectly balanced Pinot Noir.  I had a chance to try each clone separately – 115, 667 and 828.  The 115 had good depth and texture with earthiness and structure, the 828 had bright cherry and berry fruit, the 667 had spice, dried fruit and tannic structure, that when blended together creates a harmonious and delightful glass of  Pinot Noir.

2009 Landmark Grand Detour Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast – Cool coastal breezes from the Sonoma Coast do amazing things to the delicate Pinot Noir grape creating a juicy Pinot Noir that isn’t quite as dense as some from the neighboring regions. Sweet baking spice, cola and bright cherry and berry fruit describe this very approachable wine with balance, a silky texture and a lush finish.

2008 Etude Heirloom Pinot Noir, Carneros – Proud to be stewards of the land, the sustainable Etude winery 20 different Pinot Noir clones planted on their Carneros estate, of which 10 are old world, low yielding Heirloom varieties.  These create their high quality, low production Heirloom Pinot Noir.  Unfined and unfiltered, the wine is filled with blueberry, blackberry and violet aromas are followed by rich black fruit flavors matched with Asian spice.

2009 Vision Cellars Ms. Lil Vineyard, Russian River – Texas native Mac McDonald is a master at producing world class Pinot Noir, often from grapes sourced throughout California. His Chileno Valley Pinot Noir from the Petaluma Gap of Marin County will knock your socks off with dense fruit and spice flavors, and his Gary’s Vineyard from Santa Lucia Highlands is a constant go to wine when looking for a great Pinot Noir.  I recently had a chance to try Ms. Lil’s 2009 Pinot Noir with him and with great anticipation.  I had been hearing about this wine for the past few years, as Mac had planted the vineyard, on their estate behind their home, in 2006.  Named after Mac’s amazing wife Lil, this is a wine with personality and character, with layers of blackberry, cherry and cola with a touch of minerality.  I am happy to say the wine does its namesake well.  There is a chance that Ms. Lil’s will only be available to members of the Vision Cellars wine club, well worth joining to experience this beautiful wine.

2008 Robert Sinsky Vandal Vineyard, Carneros – From the northern part of Carneros, in the southern most part of Napa, the Vandal Vineyard straddles a ridge that joins the shoulder of Mount Veeder with good sunlight and well drained soils.  Five lots of Pinot Noir grapes were specifically chosen from Vandal Vineyard are selected to use in this single vineyard wine filled with black cherry and black tea with just a touch of earthiness.

2009 Frank Family Pinot Noir, Carneros – Just the second release of Pinot Noir from Frank Family, better known for their Chardonnay or Cabernet, shows that Frank Family could become just as well known for their Pinot Noir.   An expressive and balanced wine with wild blackberry, black cherry and ripe plum with a concentrated and lingering finish.

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