Top Ten Northern CA Pinot Producers to Pay Close Attention To
At their best, Pinot Noir is the most romantic of wines, with so voluptuous a perfume, so sweet an edge, and so powerful a punch, that like falling in love, they make the blood run hot and the soul wax embarrassingly poetic. - Joel Fleischman for Vanity Fair
Its flavors are sensuous, often erotic, above rational discourse and beyond powers of measured criticism. - Oz Clarke
Pinot Noir a special grape, as any “Pinotphile” will eagerly tell you. Thin skinned, fragile, moody and unspeakably pure, ranging from a single-minded focus precision to a seamless, subtle seduction it has a unique ability to pierce one’s emotions and linger in one’s heart and mind.
This “heartbreak” grape variety is widely considered to be responsible for some of the world’s greatest wines and can be a powerful muse, if you are willing to pay the ultimate price and engage your very soul.
I often compare Pinot Noir in an art sense to a watercolor, a medium that is entirely unforgiving to its creator. In the world of oils and acrylics many corrections are possible and routinely take place. In the world of watercolor you only get one shot to get it right. If you make an error, you are finished, no second chances.
I have been obsessed with this grape variety for many years, having tasted my first Kistler Occidental Cuvee Elizabeth in 1996. I remember dialing the winery and offering Mark Bixler, Kistler Vineyards GM at the time, pretty much anything he wanted in exchange for this 50 case production gem.
A number of Pinot Noirs followed that took my breath away, but you never forget your first.
The following list of Pinot Noirs could easily be titled Pinot Royalty, because they are. Highly allocated and quickly snapped up by the adoring fans they enjoy the cult status that affords them creative freedoms and in the case of purchased fruit, a rather strong say in the viticultural practices of their fruit sources. In other words, the vineyards they source the fruit from farm to their exact specifications, thereby ensuring the highest quality possible.
If you haven’t heard of Marcassin it’s little wonder. Some would argue that it is an equivalent of DRC of CA. This tiny 100 barrel production winery that sits on a 10 acre vineyard in Sonoma Coast is home to some of the most prized Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. If you haven’t heard of Helen Turley, however, you have been living under a rock. Arguably the most powerful woman winemaker in the business, she won favor with critics and consumers alike. Jim Laube of WS never met a wine of hers he didn’t like. She was the winemaker of record for some of the most coveted producers such as Turley, Martinelli, Colgin, Blankiet, Bryant Family, to name a few. Her vineyards are meticulously farmed, the fruit is allowed to physiologically ripen, and the yields are miniscule.
Wines are sold via mailing list with a significant waiting list (I heard it was as long as 15 years.) Ordinarily I would strongly encourage you to join the waiting list, but it could be a long while before you see any wine, so your second best bet is to seek her wines on the open market where you are likely to pay high premiums. Conversely it’s still a bargain in comparison to DRC!
Steve Kistler founded the winery in 1978. After an apprenticeship at Ridge he became a winemaker and vineyard manager of his own brand. Mark Bixler, who I mentioned earlier worked at Fetzer prior to joining Kistler Vineyards and has been their Business Manager ever since. Kistler has producing some of the most compelling Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays for 36 years, and has been getting accolades from the renowned critic Robert Parker on virtually every vintage, and rightly so. Arguable the reference point of the varietals, Kistler wines are as authentic as they come and exquisitely crafted.
Rochioli Vineyards and Winery was established in 1938, when Joe Sr. bought a 160 acre vineyard in the majestic Russian River Valley. It is now represents three generations of stellar farming and extraordinary wines. When Tom, the current generation, took over in the mid 1980s, it became evident that Rochioli name will always be associated with outstanding Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. High in demand, the miniscule production single vineyard offerings are sold via mailing list, larger production estate wines can be obtained either direct from the winery or at a few select retailers.
4. Kosta Browne
I wrote about the Kosta Browne “boys” here.
As the story goes two John Ash Co. employees, Dan Kosta and Michael Browne pooled their tip money to start a wine brand. Initially sold from the back of their car trunk, the waiting list for their wine is now 5,000 customers and growing. A true American Pinot “rags to riches” story the wine has perennially been scored very high by Wine Spectator and is known for its rich, fruit-forward, unapologetically opulent style.
The name Benovia pays homage to Ben and Novian, fathers of Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane who shared passion for wine led into both starting the winery and an acquisition of the highly coveted Cohn Vineyard atop a mountain near Healdsburg. The decision to partner with Mike Sullivan, one of California’s top winemakers, whose thoughtful and quality driven winemaking at Hartford vineyards caused for me to fall madly in love with his wines. Mike Sullivan used to make wines for the next favorite on my list, Hartford.
Nestled in the heart of Sonoma County, about 15 miles from the Pacific Hartford Family Winery was founded in 1994 by Don and Jennifer Hartford. Their current winemaker, Jeff Stewart’s passion for winemaking was ignited by a summer spent in France. A UC Davis graduate Jeff is an industry veteran who has made wine for over 25 years at renowned brands such as Laurier, De Loach, Mark West, Kunde, La Crema and Buena Vista. Hartford Family Winery. I have had along standing love affair with Hartford Pinots and Chardonnays for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is quality and consistency.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Walt and Joan Flowers, following a multitude of trips to Napa and Sonoma purchased 321 acres on the north Sonoma Coast, high above the Pacific, in 1989. Today, Flowers Winery
produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from its two estate properties, Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard and Sea View Ridge Vineyard, as well as select vineyards in the coolest regions of the Sonoma Coast AVA, which are farmed to Flowers’ specifications by their own crews. In addition to direct consumer sales, the wines are sold to fine restaurants and retailers in the US and overseas.
Mark Aubert grew up in the heart of Napa wine country, St. Helena, where his parents owned a vineyard. It was his parents cellar that first drew him to wine. After getting a degree from Fresno State in 1985 he worked at Monticello and later met the renowned winemaker Helen Turley who was producing state-of-the-art Chardonnays at Peter Michael Winery. Turley was so impressed she hired Aubert to be her assistant winemaker at Peter Michael in 1989. About six months after hiring Aubert, Turley abruptly left Peter Michael to embark on her own project, and later to the then-brand-new Colgin winery, where she proceeded to turn out some of the most sought-after Cabernets in Napa. Aubert, in turn, was named head winemaker at Peter Michael, where he continued to turn out exemplary Chardonnays. He was only 28 years old. A few years later, Turley departed from Colgin and again Aubert was named as her replacement. His Colgin wines are wildly sought-after and have received great accolades. By 1999 he was ready to make his own wines. Today his Pinots and Chardonnays are sold exclusively via mailing list and are very highly allocated.
9. Williams Selyem
Williams Selyem Winery began as a simple dream of two friends, Ed Selyem and Burt Williams, who started weekend winemaking as a hobby in 1979 in a garage in Forestville, California. It took less than two decades from their first commercial vintage in 1981 for Burt and Ed to create a cult-status winery of international acclaim. Together, they set a powerful new standard for Pinot Noir winemaking, raising Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley profile to among the best winegrowing regions in the world.
10. Peter Michael
Although primarily known for the their Bordeaux blends, Peter Michael winery makes some extraordinary Pinot Noirs from both Monterey and Sonoma Counties. Nicolas Morlet, the winemaker, who follows in the footsteps of his brother Luc, uses a non-interventionist, neo-classical approach. This relies on traditional, hands-on winemaking methods blended with the best of modern technology.
I often get asked about wine and food pairings. In my view there are no steadfast rules in regards to that. However when it comes to Pinot Noir, there are two things that I must share that gave me much pleasure over the years.
Pinots often evoke a powerful desire to be consumed with food. My two favorite pairings that bring out the best in this varietal are:
1. Beets. I know some of you are cringing right now, but give it a second. Roasted, or fresh heirloom beets with a little goat cheese tossed in can deliver a merry mouthful, paired with bright (especially red fruit dominated) and minerality-driven Pinots.
2. Mushrooms. Preferably wild ones, but you can work with any. Add it to any protein, finish with a splash of port-style red wine for extra oomph (I call it my “Be” Bordelaise effect) and experience your mouth melting in gratitude. There is something wildly satisfying about the perfect marriage of earthy, fleshy, deep flavored, fruit-driven Pinots.
Great Pinot Noir simply spells pleasure. If you are a card-carrying hedonist you would be hard pressed to find a grape that lends itself so naturally to fulfilling your unspoken palatal desires and seduces senses so effortlessly and expertly.
The above list represents the apogee for the senses as interpreted by über-talented folks on perpetual, relentless quest of pinot perfection.
Warning: If you are lucky enough to partake, like I was, you will be entirely incapable of accepting any mediocrity in your future when it comes to this variety. You palate simply won’t let you. Seek at your own risk.