In general, domestic Pinot Noir is lighter in body and color than Cabernet and Merlot. However, some producers produce it in such a ripe fruit-forward style it bears little resemblance to lighter Burgundy or even Oregon Pinot Noir.
But that's not the case across the board. A small but growing group of winemakers are committed to producing California Pinot Noir that lets the site speak for itself. I'll call these producers terroir-driven. And as such, their wines are leaner in style. The best succeed in producing balanced, compelling wines that speak to where they were produced and at the same time are an absolute pleasure to drink.
Here are 5 outstanding producers to check out:
Ted Lemon seems to have found the perfect intersection of being committed to his craft in an authentic way, and producing wines that are truly pleasurable to drink. Crazy-committed to biodynamic and all that - it's a wonder the wines aren't more expensive. Their appellation wines list in the high $30s, and the single vineyards go for closer to $60.
Availability: I've seen these around at retail occasionally, but they disappear quickly. You wouldn't know it from Wine-Searcher.com but The Urban Grape is the place to buy them in Massachusetts.
Guidance: Absolutely seek out and try Pinot Noir from Littorai. Great Chardonnays too.
Rhys Vineyards is the poster child for a leaner direction in California Pinot Noir production. That being the case, they can be polarizing. They're the opposite of Kosta Browne.
My experience with their wines has been mixed. I've enjoyed their sub-$40 Alesia Pinot Noirs, but stretching further into some of their ~$60 single vineyards hasn't necessarily paid off. Some say they need time, but I couldn't see the 2009 Family Farm, for example, turning into a swan. That said, I could see the quality in the 2009 Bearwallow. Not my style necessarily, but I can see why they're well regarded.
Availability: Almost entirely mailing list. If you see it at retail, the price is typically jacked up.
Guidance: Find a friend on the mailing list and try a bottle of their Alesia to get a window into their style. If you like what you see wait on their mailing list for a long time and let their single vineyard Pinots cellar for a while before opening.
If there is a winemaker's winemaker, it's Ross Cobb. The last time I visited Sonoma, I asked winemakers whose wines they enjoyed and whose style they'd like to be favorably compared to. I was amazed how often Cobb's name came up. He also makes wines for Hirsch, Claypool (love Primus, haven't tried Les's wines yet though) and Banshee. No wonder we've all enjoyed Banshee so much!
They're pricier for sure with most of their wines selling in the mid-$60s. A tough price point, but it's all here.
Availability: Quite limited at retail, but I have seen it from time to time. I spotted a couple bottles at Lower Falls in Newton recently, and I even saw some appear on WTSO.com (by way of WineNabber.com) for a short time.
Guidance: Worth seeking out and tasting. A benchmark for high end California Pinot Noir.
Here's a producer who, I'm told, started out making bolder wines but is now firmly committed to producing more restrained Pinot Noir. Perhaps similar to Rhys, I loved the more affordable 2010 Sonoma Coast ($39) but the 2009 Savoy ($50) was less impressive. All things considered the price points are quite reasonable if you can buy them without a markup.
Availability: Very hard to find at retail near release price.
Guidance: I'm looking forward to trying more of these. Hop on their mailing list and have patience.
5. Red Car
The most famous Red Car bottling is actually a bit of a head fake. Their 2007 Heaven & Earth La Boheme graced the cover of Wine Spectator with a massive 97 point score. But it's not representative of their house style at all. The rest of the wines in their portfolio are far more restrained and they are absolutely a lower alcohol producer committed to producing wines that deliver a compelling experience without being overly ripe.
Availability: You do see these around at retail, so have a look on Wine-Searcher.com.
Guidance: Try the Heaven & Earth if you like a more fruit forward style, and compare them to other bottlings.
- Trip Report: Interesting Times at Kosta Browne
- Is Rhys the Next Cult California Pinot Noir?
- Littorai: Visit and Tasting Report
- Tasting Report: New Releases from Kutch Pinot Noir
- California Pinot Producer Reacts to Top Rating With Excitement, Humility
- 7 Reliably Outstanding Fruit Forward California Pinot Noir Producers
Question of the Day: Who are some of your favorite terroir-driven California Pinot Noir producers?