Top Ten Nor-Cal Producers Who Redefined Pinot Noir

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

It's time to uncork another insiders-look, into the world of high-end Food and Wine, an article written by regular guest contributor; Ilona Thompson. She's the Editor in Chief for Palate Exposure, a self-described believer in the Sustainability of Critical Thinking and Personal Responsibility. She is also a regular contributor to the Brenner Brief.

Pinot Noir a special grape, as any Pinotphile would eagerly tell you. Thin-skinned, fragile, fickle 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 the source some of the world's greatest wines. For a winemaker, it can be a powerful muse, if he/she is willing to open up and allow it to engage their very soul.

Pinot Noir can be compared, in an artistic 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 occur. 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. With Pinot, the winemaker has few tools for fine tuning. With Cabernet and other more robust varietals, errors can be hidden during the blending process.

The following list of Pinot Noirs could easily be titled Pinot Royalty. Highly allocated and quickly snapped up by the adoring fans, they enjoy a great demand and cult status.  That status affords the winemakers exceptional creative freedom. For instance, when sourcing fruit, they enjoy rather strong say in the viticultural practices of their fruit sources. Their growers farm to their exact specifications, thereby ensuring the highest possible quality.

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 coveted Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. 

If you haven't heard of Helen Turley, however, you have been living under a wine rock. Arguably the most powerful woman winemaker in the business, she won favor with critics and consumers alike. James 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 minuscule. 

Wines are sold via mailing list with a significant waiting list (rumored to be as long as 15 years) Ordinarily I would strongly encourage you to join the waiting list but it could be a while before you are offered 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!

2. Kistler

Steve Kistler founded the winery in 1978. After an apprenticeship at Ridge he became a winemaker and a vineyard manager, an unusual combination, of his own brand. Mark Bixler, worked at Fetzer prior to joining Kistler Vineyards and been their Business Manager ever since. Kistler has been producing some of the most compelling Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays for 34 years, and has been getting accolades from the renowned critic Robert Parker on virtually every vintage, and rightly so. Arguably the reference point for the varietal, Kistler wines are as authentic as they come and exquisitely crafted.

3. Rochioli

Rochioli Vineyards and Winery was established in 1938, when Joe Sr. bought a 160 acre vineyard in the majestic Russian River Valley. Today it represents three generations of stellar farming and extraordinary wines. When Tom, the current generation, took over in the mid 1980's, it became evident that Rochioli name will always be associated with outstanding Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. High in demand, the minuscule 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" recently, 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 truck, the waiting list for their wine is now 5000 customers strong and growing. A true American Pinot "rags to riches" story of the wine brand that has perennially scored very high by Wine Spectator and is known for its rich, fruit-forward, unapologetic opulence in both style and substance.

5. Benovia

The name Benovia pays homage to Ben and Novian, fathers of Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane who shared passion for wine led them into both starting the winery and acquiring the highly coveted Cohn Vineyard. 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 was sheer genius. If you are looking for exhilarating wines made with uncompromising quality standards that represent huge QPR (Quality/Price Ratio) then check them out.

6. Hartford

Nestled in the heart of Sonoma County, just a few 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. 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.

7. Flowers

Originally from PA, Walt and Joan Flowers, fell in love with wine and took many trips to Napa and Sonoma before they purchased 321 acres on the north Sonoma Coast, high above the Pacific, back in 1989. Flowers Winery produces world class Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from its two estate properties, Camp Meeting Ridge and Sea View Ridge. They also source fruit from a few select and highly regarded vineyards. Their wines are predominantly sold direct to consumer but can also be found in a few upscale restaurants and wine shops.

8. Aubert

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. A chance meeting with renowned winemaker Helen Turley set him on a career path of winemaking legends. It was Turley who hired Aubert to be her assistant winemaker at Peter Michael in 1989. Upon her departure for Colgin Aubert was named head winemaker at Peter Michael at 28 years old. It was deja vu all over again when Turley left Colgin and Aubert became her successor. In 1999 he launched his own brand that became an instant hit. His critically acclaimed Pinot Noir[s] and Chardonnays are sold exclusively via mailing list and are highly allocated.

Williams Selyem Winery is a love child of Ed Selyem and Burt Williams, two amateur winemakers who dream big. Their first vintage was 1981 and the rest, as they say, is wine history. Arguably, they pioneered and set an entirely new set of standards for winemaking, viticulture and distribution of what, back in the 80's, was a rather obscure, enigmatic variety in California.

Although primarily known for the their Bordeaux blends Sir Peter Michael winery makes some extraordinary Pinot Noir from both Monterey and Sonoma Counties. Although the winery is a state of the art facility, outfitted with all every possible resource of modern technology, Nicolas Morlet, the winemaker, has a hands off, intuitive approach. Nicholas's brother, Luc, was one of my Top 10 CA winemakers: 

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.

  1. Mushrooms, preferably wild ones varieties. Add it to any protein, finish the dish with a splash of port-style red wine for extra oomph, and experience your mouth melting in gratitude. There is something wildly satisfying about the perfect marriage of earthy, fleshy, deep flavored, fruit-driven Pinot Noir.
Great Pinot Noir simply spells pleasure. If you are a card-carrying hedonist, you will be hard pressed to find a grape that lends itself so naturally to fulfilling your unspoken palatal desires;  one that seduces senses so effortlessly. The above list represents the apogee for the senses as interpreted by ultra-talented folks on a perpetual, relentless quest of pinot-perfection.

Warning: If you are lucky enough to partake, 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.


Ed Thralls said…
Thanks for the mention in this list amongst some great company. Oh, and beets are an awesome pairing!

Popular Posts