Californian Terroir: Pinot Noir

royal Queen

It might seem astonishing to Burgundians, but 40 years ago, the handful of Californians who tinkered with Pinot Noir did not appreciate that the grape thrives best in a cool climate. Instead, growers planted it in the places they were accustomed to, primarily Napa Valley, an area patently too warm to yield delicate Pinot Noir.

The great André Tchelistcheff, whose instincts were so often correct, planted some on the Napa side of the Carneros appellation in the 1940s, and produced some interesting wines. But neither he nor his employer, Beaulieu, was inclined to investigate the possibilities, preferring instead to concentrate on Cabernet Sauvignon. So Beaulieu missed being a great, pioneering Pinot Noir winery.
There were other sporadic efforts with Pinot Noir in the 1940s and 1950s, but nothing of consequence occurred during that sleepy era. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that modern adventurous winemakers truly began testing the waters. The late Joseph Swan and the still vibrant Joe Rochioli, Jr. both planted Pinot at their estate vineyards, within a few miles of each other in the Russian River Valley, although in those quiet days, neither was aware of the other.

Meanwhile, far to the south, in Santa Barbara County, a pair of Burgundy-obsessed winemakers, Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict, installed a Pinot Noir vineyard in the cool, western part of the Santa Ynez Valley, now known as the Santa Rita Hills. Upon these early, modest efforts was built the great Pinot Noir expression in California today.

The grape, we now know, needs to be close to the Pacific Ocean, which rarely warms to 60 degrees F even during summer. With prevailing westerly breezes, a swathe of the California coast, roughly 20 miles wide, is kept cool during the summer months. (Experienced visitors to San Francisco know to pack heavy clothing even in July and August.)  California heats up rapidly once you move inland, with the Central Valley culminating in the broiling, killing heat of Death Valley.

But in favored spots along the coast Pinot thrives, in a series of valleys running between Santa Barbara County, up through the Central Coast and Santa Cruz Mountains, into Sonoma County and the scenic Anderson Valley of Mendocino County. The soil composition of these valleys varies widely; each type has its adherents. Some argue for the Goldridge soils of the Sonoma Coast; others proclaim the greatness of Santa Rita’s limestone. Still others swear by the fine silts and gravels of the Russian River Valley.

What all these regions share in common is their cool climate. In the Russian River Valley, we see the best understood expression of Pinot Noir. Its northernmost stretches are warmer, being further away from the maritime breezes, running up against the hot, land-locked barrier of the Coast Ranges. Here, alongside Westside Road, at such luminous names as Rochioli and Williams Selyem we find ripe, juicy Pinot Noirs, full of berry sweetness even when young; but they age well. To the south, where it is cooler, and especially in the foggy Green Valley of the Russian River, are Pinot Noirs, from the likes of Marimar Torres, that are tightly wound in acids and tannins in youth, but they, too, develop in the bottle.

In my thirty years of studying the California wine scene, there has been no greater development than the success of Pinot Noir. It started from almost nothing, rien, opposed by a tide of critical opinion that declared the Pinot Noir could never do well. The critics have been proven wrong. Pinot Noir now stands beside Cabernet Sauvignon as California’s greatest red wines, one the reigning King, the other his royal Queen.

Written by Steve Heimoff

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