Wine is meant to be enjoyed, and enjoyment does not mean sitting at a table stiff-backed, sniffing, sipping and slurping, then analyzing color, flavor, viscosity and mouthfeel, and then spitting the liquid into a dump bucket. Enjoyment means opening a bottle with friends, sitting comfortably, sharing stories and communing. It is the sacrament, after all.
So this beginner’s list doesn’t address taste or flavor or technical bits like ABV, clone strand or soil composition; it addresses the region the wines were grown in, and the winemakers who wrote the “recipes” for each. It also, hopefully, tells a short story about the bottle, which you can share when opening it among friends. Because identifying notes of honeycomb or stable hay doesn’t matter as much as engaging with wine’s more magical components — namely, the commitment to sit and talk awhile, at least until the end of the bottle.
Criteria for Selection: All of these grapes and wines are grown, aged and bottled in California, one of the few pinot noir growing regions in the world (other major regions include Burgundy, Oregon, New Zealand). These wines were selected as a sampling of wines I tasted while traveling through California, meeting and drinking with the winemakers and vineyard managers who grew this local, craft beverage. I tried to keep the list to people I had met, because I can best share their stories. That said, I do think this list stands up as a comprehensive, though not exhaustive, sampling of California pinot noir, and the bottles selected are demonstrative of each winery’s style.
I also considered availability. All the bottles listed here are available for purchase online or by joining the respective vineyard’s wine club. Of course, you can visit a local wine shop and inquire about sourcing bottles from there. I’ve found that befriending a wine shop owner is one of the better investments one can make in life.
A Note on Pricing: None of these bottles are more than $100, an exceptional deal for world-class pinot noir. I’d heavily advise avoiding bottles under $20, however, for quality-of-taste reasons. I found $30–$50 a bottle to be domestic pinot noir’s sweet spot in pricing.
At the southern end of California’s pinot noir region, Santa Barbara is a good place to start drinking your way up the coast. The wines are exceptional and extremely affordable, which is a testament to the quality of the growing region, soil and climate — and the practices of the vineyards. Much of the grape harvest goes to bigger-name producers up the coast in Sonoma and Napa, but the true aficionados know to drink the good wines by sticking with the local wineries of the region.
J. Wilkes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir
Meant as an affordable yet refined pinot noir, this bottle is readily available and doesn’t break the bank. Winemaker Wes Hagen is an affable geek, and between his time winemaking, he also hops around the country, teaching the history of wine at Cornell University and California Institute of Technology. For a solid introduction to pinot, this is a great place to start, and know that each sip is backed by an encyclopedia of wine knowledge.
Sanford Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir
Spend anytime drinking California pinot, and the name Sanford & Benedict will arise. They are one of most established growers in the region, and winemaker Steve Fennell makes incredible wines. This bottle is a more wallet-friendly option, and it pulls together grapes from a variety of vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills. It’s a good introduction to Sanford’s offerings — a little like starting with Foster Wallace’s journalism, before jumping into Infinite Jest.
Lutum Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir
When I met with the local winemakers of Santa Barbara, winemaker Gavin Chanin stood out. He was younger than most seated at our table, yet he garnered respect. Lutum invested in the young maverick, and put him at the helm of turning the grapes from their vineyards into great wine. The results are memorable.
Babcock Winery Ocean’s Ghost Pinot Noir
Winemaker Bryan Babcock is an old-school California grower, and he’s drawn to the sensual side of the wine. He’s great company to drink with, often calling out the sexy and seductive nature of a particularly good glass. Babcock is also pioneering a new trellising system for his grapes in an attempt to reduce water usage, lower the workload of vineyard workers and, most importantly, improve flavor.
Gypsy Canyon: a later-in-life project from two ex-LA-ers, GC makes incredible, high-end wines. They’re great, and the price reflects it. Order Here
Au Bon Climat: like Sanford & Benedict, one of the old-order wineries in the region and a canonical California wine. Order Here
Presqu’ile: a South African transplant, Dieter Cronje runs the winemaking operation here, and he, like Chanin, is a rising star in the space. Order Here
Tucked in the Salinas valley, this region sees that perfect grape growing mix of evening and morning fog, and hot, sunny days. The soil is right. The weather is right. And the land yields incredible grapes. It’s also a charming farm community (this is the “lettuce belt”, where most of the nation’s greens are grown), and the most rustic and least developed of the areas I visited. It’s down-home winemaking in a golden location.
Roar Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir
In the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, two Gary’s run the show — Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni. Franscioni is an incredibly affable guy, and the perfect drinking partner. In our dinner together, he kept the jokes flowing along with the wine. His wine is exceptional, and his vineyards grow some of the most desired grapes in the state. This is aficionado’s wine, and it’s well worth the investment to be on his wine club list.
Hahn SLH Pinot Noir
Hahn’s a relatively ubiquitous label, but that shouldn’t confused them for a big operation. When touring the facility, I ran into the winemaker, Greg Freeman, and he took the time to pull wine currently in barrel aging, showed us the lab, and talk the process through. There’s a business, science and art to wine, and Hahn hits all three.
Pisoni SLH Pinot Noir
Mark Pisoni, Gary Pisoni’s son, joined Gary Fanscioni at our dinner, and proved the perfect sidekick. He’s affable and kind, and also helped field my litany of questions. He’s a child of this land, and has the good luck of being heir to some of the finest land in California. The wines from the Pisoni label are from the vineyards premium grapes (they also have the Lucia and Lucy labels), and they reflect the best of this region.
Calera Jensen Vineyard Pinot Noir
Full disclosure: I didn’t visit Josh Jensen’s labor of love in the mountainous Mt. Harlan AVA. But Calera is one of the iconic California pinot noir makers, and I’ve since consumed a few bottles and read the book, The Heartbreak Grape, about Jensen’s winemaking. Wine from his namesake plot makes his most notable wine, but the whole collection is worthy of a glass (or two).
Morgan: Dan Morgan Lee started making wine in Monterey County in the late ’70s, and he’s been a staple of the region ever since. Order Here
Puma Road: Ray Franscioni, a relative of Gary, runs this small winery creating delicious wines from the SLH. Order Here
Pessagno: a Another offshoot of the Franscioni family, Ray helps with the winemaking of this mainly Monterey-wines label. Order Here
In the pantheon of California pinot, Sonoma sit as the top. Partially, that’s name recognition; sitting next to the Napa Valley, Sonoma benefits from being a part of the most recognized wine region in the world. The other part is that the conditions are fantastic for growing pinot, with that precious fog rolling through the Petaluma gap every evening. That and, the vineyards and wineries know how to do things right. Many of the wineries in Sonoma also buy grapes from the other two regions to make their wines — which highlights the difference in demand (or, in some cases, intent) for these wineries.
Landmark Vineyards Grand Detour Pinot Noir
Winemaker Greg Stach said that he started making pinot for one reason: it’s the hardest to get right. If you want to be the best winemaker you can be, you grow and make pinot. He does, and has seen success. What you get out of this bottle is a determined effort to make the finest wine possible — as for the name, the vineyards that make up this bottle are a worthy detour to pursue (driving, and — separately — drinking).
Balletto Vineyards Burnside Pinot Noir
If goodness of heart is any indicator of success, then John Balletto is justified in his accomplishments. One of the more generous, big-hearted people I met, Balletto took us around his vineyards on ATVs, talking through his wines and sharing stories from his upbringing, right there on the land. Balletto owns some premium plots of land in the region (the farmland is second generation), and the pinot, which creates the best flavor when grown in the right conditions and then left relatively undisturbed, reflects this.
Siduri Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir
Adam Lee moved from Texas to Sonoma with $15,000 in his pocket, a big personality and a dream. Lately, it all has turned out right. His winery recently sold to Kendall-Jackson, but he’s retained control of the winemaking. Sourcing grapes from premium vineyards around the state, Siduri doesn’t tend its own vines, but makes the most of their vineyard relationships. Tasting across the Siduri spectrum is also tasting across the entire state, which is, as recreational activities go, a pretty good time.
Poseidon Vineyard ‘Primo’s Hill’ Pinot Noir
Poseidon rests at sea level, by the Carneros Creek and the Napa River (on the Napa County side of the Carneros AVA, rather than Sonoma County). Primo’s Hill is a bit up from the water, and winemaker Alex Beloz uses the low yield of the pebble-and-gravel slope to bring some great wine to expression. This wine is classic Carneros, and it’s from one of the most premium plots of land in the area.
Patz & Hall Jenkins Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
If there was one savant of wine I met, it’d be winemaker James Hall. In a quiet way, he demonstrated exactly how he makes his wine and why, perhaps, his wine is better. He has contracts with the best vineyards in the state and meticulously controls every step of the winemaking process, down to how long the French oak dries in the open air (he bought his own portion of a forest for this purpose). The results are impeccable, and if you want one bottle to truly impress guests, this one has the name recognition and quality to achieve that.
Russian River Vineyards Appian Way Pinot Noir
Russian River Vineyards operates a fantastic, rustic-fare restaurant, and also makes some incredible wine from both estate and local vineyards. Winemaker Giovanni Balistreri is a young, charismatic force in the Sonoma Valley, part of a growing number of the next generation taking over the winemaking in the region.
Artesa Block 91D Estate Pinot Noir
It’s not unusual to find a female winemaker, but it’s not common. Ana Diogo-Draper runs the winemaking operation at this Spanish-owned winery, and she’s chock-full of force of will and personality. This vitality comes through in the wines, which are perhaps best shown by a single vineyard wine, Block 91D — a premium parcel of land on the estate. This is sense of place in a bottle, at the hand of a very deft winemaker.
Schug: Schug maintains the traditional, simple winemaking of its German ancestry; they also sit on an incredibly windy plot of land, which strains the vines and makes the wine that extra bit of delicious. Order Here
Christopher Creek: the trip to Healdsburg is always worth it, but especially when you’re stopping off to grab some CC pinot noir. Order Here
Donum: an estate-only winery, they produce fantastic wines from Carneros, the Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley. Order Here
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