California Pinot Noirs Fit for a Feast

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The Pinot Noirs we enjoy the most are farmed with care and vinified with restraint so as to express varietal character, terroir, and upbringing. With its variety of soils, viticulture, and winemaking talent, California's vast patchwork of winegrowing regions provides an impressive number of Pinot Noirs that fit this bill. We taste a whole lot of them and are always gearing up for the next most delicious rendering from our favorite producers or a new aspect of the grape revealed by an unfamiliar vineyard, region, or person. During the holiday season, we cannot keep these wines on the shelf. They are pleasurable and gastronomic, thus equally well received at cocktail parties and formal meals. 

Pinot Noir arrived in California in the mid-1800s, but was overshadowed by Zinfandel until many years later. John Winthrop Haeger (in North American Pinot Noir) documents its initial ascendance: "In the 1880s, when Americans began to realize how gravely European vineyards had been devastated by phylloxera, it occured to entrepreneurs bloated with pioneer hubris that California might have an opportunity to replace Europe as the world's main source for good wine." This revelation spurred serious interest in Cabernet and Pinot Noir, as growers and winery owners started thinking about filling some of the demand that phylloxera-ravaged Bordeaux and Burgundy left unmet. One pioneer's hubris is another's initiative!

For a long time, likening California Pinot Noir to Burgundy was the only way to illustrate its excellence. Wines from both of these regions are constantly confused with each other, by fans and critics alike (sometimes even by their own producers). Burgundian Pinot Noir is generally defined by and renowned for its mineral flavors, elegance, and ageability, which are indisputable virtues and are believed to be related to the particular contents of Burgundy's soils. Wine drinkers with open minds and palates are likely to agree that elegance, ageability, and effects of healthy, interesting soils (minerality, even!) lurk in California Pinot Noirs as well. There are also countless other virtues to admire in these wines, like their ability to convey a vivid sense of the place (and people) they come from in a unique combination of flavors and textures. Today, we are pleased to offer truly interesting wines from the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz. In the notes below, we move beyond comparisons with Burgundy in the interest of exposing qualities that make these California wines noteworthy and delicious in their own right.

We hope that lovers of California Pinot Noir will enjoy our selections as much as we enjoyed selecting them! We equally hope to lure the unitiated into sampling some of these gems by offering a six-bottle California Pinot Noir Starter Pack that highlights a thought-provoking range of flavors, styles, and terroirs at an excellent price. Order one today for Thanksgiving! Ariana Rolich

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California Pinot Noir Starter Pack 6 Bottles

A diverse and delicious 6-pack of pleasurable and food-friendly 2012 California Pinot Noirs: Demuth 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, Wind Gap 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Peay 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Ampelos 2012 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir, Dragonette 2012 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir, and Ghostwriter 2012 Santa Cruz Belle Farms Pinot Noir. Out of stock wines will be replaced with items of comparable quality and price. Perfect for holiday feasts and gifts! Ariana Rolich

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Eric Demuth 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Eric Demuth is an excellent winemaker and we wish we could carry every wine he makes. Although he rarely works with grapes that are not from very high altitude sites, this 2012 Russian River Pinot Noir comes from an intriguing vineyard of Dijon clones (113, 114, and 115) planted 17 years ago on sandstone and clay just above sea level in Green Valley. Over multiple tastings, my notes described this wine as a "clear and calming" rendition of Russian River Pinot Noir ("70s style" according to Demuth). It was fermented with 60% whole clusters and raised in 5-year-old barrels, with broad, pretty strawberry fruit, herbal strawberry seeds, subtle, savory earth tone, refreshing acidity and excellent balance, cool rosy florals, and minty pine needles. Ariana Rolich

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Porter Creek 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

We welcome many new labels to our California section, but there are several that have always been there and we’re happy to continue to support — Porter Creek Vineyards is one of them. Porter Creek is located in the heart of Sonoma’s famed Russian River Valley, grapes are grown biodynamically and there is little intervention in the cellar. Alex Davis studied winemaking in Burgundy, and his wines reflect the same passion for flavors of land over extracted fruit or oak flavors. The 2012 Russian River Pinot Noir is surprisingly fresh, but richer than last year’s effort and balanced with bright strawberry-toned fruit, savory herb and a touch of black cherry-flavored tannin. John Rankin

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Swan, Joseph Vineyards 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir "Cuvée de Trois"

Joseph Swan Vineyards provide some of California’s most classic, age-worthy Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels on the market. These wines are not shy — they have rich, dense fruit, and never lack for acid or soil expression. The 2012 Cuvée de Trois shows a bit riper than last year’s effort, with deep cherry peel fruit and raspberry compote flavors. Delicious now, but if there is anything that Swan’s 30-year history has taught us it’s that these wines have serious cellar potential. John Rankin

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Gros Ventre 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Baranoff Vineyard

Chris Pittenger is best known for his outstanding work with Rhone varieties for Skinner Vineyards (Sierra Foothills). Gros Ventre is Pittenger's personal label with his wife, Sarah, under which they make Pinot Noir from some of the most interesting (and prestigious) sites in the Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley, and Russian River Valley appellations. Baranoff is a 3 acre vineyard overlooking the Laguna de Santa Rosa, planted to seven different Pinot Noir clones (a rarity in California) on red sandy clay loam soils in 2001. 2012 is complex and elegant, with warm aromas of roses, cinnamon sticks, funky purple plums and skins and a generous, exuberant palate of rich red berries and brambly black cherry, with earthy undertones of nettles, sage, sandalwood, licorice, and bright bolts of citrus oils. -Ariana Rolich

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Cobb 2011 Sonoma Coast Coastlands Vineyard Pinot Noir

The windswept and late-ripening Coastlands Vineyard was planted just 4 miles from the ocean at 900-1200 feet elevation by the Cobb family in 1989 (making it one of Sonoma Coast's oldest Pinot Noir vineyards). 2011 was an extreme year, yielding just .5 ton/acre (compare to 1.5-2 tons/acre in 2012) and a complex, layered character to the resulting wine. Cedar and pine resin aromas seep into the dark, herbal, structured palate of wild cherry, crunchy leaves, and earth. Complicated and ageworthy, but also energized and open right now. Ariana Rolich

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Peay Vineyards 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

One of the most versatile and appealing wines on the shelf, Peay's 2012 Sonoma Coast is a blend of fruit from the Peay estate vineyard, planted in 1998 on ancient marine soils of fine, sandy loam in the extreme Sonoma Coast's chilly northern edge (just 4 miles from the sea) with a few barrels from neighboring Campbell Ranch. Winemaker Vanessa Wong coaxes structure, balance and easy beauty from this fruit: aromas of sweet black cherry, cinnamon, and clove, with fragrant pink florals and exotic citrus oils, followed by flavors of rich tart cherry, raspberry blossom, blood orange, lime zest, spicy earth, lemongrass, and tingly pine. Raised in 27% new French oak and bottled unfined and unfiltered. Clones include 115, 777, 828, 114, Swan, 667, Pommard, Suitcase, Calera, and Mount Eden. Ariana Rolich

 

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Wind Gap 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

No surprise to lovers of Pax Mahle’s wines, this is an intriguing expression of Pinot Noir from a blend of below-the-fogline vineyards in the Petaluma Gap, which lies in the southernmost span of the extensive Sonoma Coast AVA. Invigorating red berry notes bounce about the nose, with black currant, violet flowers, blueberry, and a touch of oregano oil and woodsy thyme. These herbal elements feature prominently on the multi-tiered palate as well, interwoven with chewy dark berries, the sweet sap of really ripe freshly-picked raspberries and spicy cedar, with minerals and wild rose on the finish. Elegant but not delicate, this is a medium-bodied Pinot Noir that grows denser and spicier with a few hours of air and exhibits a delicious tension between red and blue fruit. Ariana Rolich

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Dragonette Cellars 2012 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

Dragonette is one of the wineries that expands our understanding of Santa Barbara terroir with their startlingly layered, plush, and satisfying wines. In addition to outstanding Sauvignon Blanc and Grenache, their Pinot Noirs have become staples on our shelves. This cuvée comes from a number of distinctive Sta. Rita vineyards (John Sebastiano, Fiddlestix, and Radian among others) planted to a variety of clones (4,113,114,115, 667,828, and 777), for a complex and pleasurable result. Aromas of grape skins, tart plums, cranberry, and sweet smoke; sizzling acidity is flanked by flavors of sour cherry, tart red berries, rich raspberries, more cranberry, and a good bit of ashy earth (a flavor associated with one of the vineyards, La Encantada). Plush yet precise, this is a shoe-in for autumnal feasts. Ariana Rolich

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Dragonette Cellars 2012 Sta. Rita Hills Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir

Dragonette's wines never fail to impress us with their pure acidity and multidimensional flavors and shapes. This one comes from 4 separate blocks (and 4 separate clones – 113, 115, 667, 777) of the renowned SIP-certified Fiddlestix Vineyard planted on soils of clay loam with chert and diatomaceous earth at the cool western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. It is powerful, expressive, and a necessary wine for fans of Dragonette or the general region. Sour cherry, sweet smoke, and fresh, bright, wild strawberry aromas merge onto the structured and sizzlingly acidic palate of purple berries, blue fruit and flowers, exotic spices and piquant pepper and pine notes on the impressively long finish. Made with 17% whole clusters and 22% new French oak, this wine benefits from a short decant. Ariana Rolich

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Ampelos 2012 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

Ripe, juicy, and versatile, Ampelos' basic Pinot Noir is composed primarily of grapes from certified organic and biodynamic Ampelos vineyard and John Sebastiano vineyard with 14 months in French oak (23% new). The demure nose of earth and herbs precedes bright red cherry and strawberry fruit flavors that combine with buoyant acidity, gentle tannins, rich licorice, café-au-lait, and cherry cola on the finish. A rich, juicy everyday Pinot Noir from an estate with integrity. Ariana Rolich

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  • Organic
  • Biodynamic
  • Low Sulfur

La Fenêtre 2012 Central Coast À Côté Pinot Noir

This is a surprisingly earth-driven effort from the folks at La Fenêtre. The name means "window" in French, and the wine is meant to provide a clean, fresh, view into some of California’s cool-climate terroirs. Most of the fruit is sourced from Mission Ranch in Monterey, with the remainder coming from prime Santa Maria Valley vineyards like Bien Nacido and River Bench. This wine reminds us a lot of Au Bon Climat, but with more definition and a touch lighter in body. John Rankin

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La Fenêtre 2012 Santa Maria Pinot Noir

The Santa Maria bottling has fantastically vibrant cherry fruit and a touch of tea and smoke flavors. The wine’s color has a radiant cranberry skin character, and the tannic structure is light, but present. Some of Santa Barbara’s oldest vines go into this bottle (from Riverbench and Ben Nacido vineyrads), and it’s available at a sensational price. Just over 300 cases made. John Rankin

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Ghostwriter 2012 Santa Cruz County Pinot Noir

Kenny Likitprakung makes this Pinot Noir from a blend of Santa Cruz vineyards. Richer and earthier than 2011, the 2012 vintage consists of 59% Amaya Ridge, 20% Woodruff Family Vineyard, 7% Aptos Creek Vineyard, 7% Belle Farms, and 7% Madonna Vineyard fruit, fermented 15% whole cluster with native yeasts then racked into new and second-use French barrels. Sweet raspberry and cherry fruit with lavender on the nose, followed by deep, savory earth, delicate florals, and smooth oak influence alongside red and purple berries on the palate. A dining companion recently exclaimed, "Like falling into a boysenberry patch!" Ariana Rolich

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Ghostwriter 2012 Santa Cruz County Belle Farms Pinot Noir

Ghostwriter Belle Farms Pinot Noir is a show-stopper from 1.5 acres of Pinot Noir (clones 9 and 23) planted in 1997 nearly 600 feet up in Santa Cruz (580 to be exact, thus just missing out on the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA). Aromas of dry earth, cherry vanilla, bark, clove and cardamom swirl from the glass, with lovely, languorous notes of crisp cranberry, rich cassis, spicy strawberry, sultry citrus oils, and ample acidity on the complex palate. Flavors evolve on the second day open toward elegant, high-toned raspberry and sheer cherry fruit with graceful florals and a fresh, salty, mineral layer. An aptly named vineyard! Ariana Rolich

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Lioco 2012 Santa Cruz Pinot Noir Savaria

The briary and mineral-tinged aromas of this wine really got me excited for the flavors and sensations to come: tart black raspberries, freshly ground cinnamon and clove, strawberry patch, black tea leaves, green peppercorn, graphite, blue and purple flowers, sandy earth that deepens over many days open, and a profound mineral tone that is amplified with air. Lioco winemaker John Raytek (Ceritas) retained 30% whole clusters  in the wild yeast fermentation, followed by 11 months in 20% new oak. Lioco refers to Savaria as a "hidden" vineyard, planted in the late 1990s on deep alluvial sand and marine deposits just 6 miles from the coast and farmed by the expert Santa Cruz viticulturist and "grape whisperer" Prudy Foxx. A beautiful and contemplative wine for special occasions and your favorite people. Ariana Rolich

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Anthill Farms 2012 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

It’s time for our tiny, seasonal allocation of the brilliant Anthill Farms Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. Started by three young winemakers who met at Williams Selyem, Anthill is an opportunity for them to work as negociants who farm many of the plots that they make wine from. The Anderson Valley bottling shows the region’s savory character, which is enhanced by the Anthill squad’s efforts to harvest for balance and refreshing acidity instead of goopy ripeness or sweet-jam flavors. Ariana Rolich

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