The Pinot Files: Top Ten Central Coast Pinot Noir Producers

"Pinot Noir is a righteous grape, chock full of incredible texture and hedonistic pleasures; it is sex in a glass, so seductive that it is hard to say no to." - Madeline Triffon

It's time to uncork another insiders-look, into the world of high-end Food and Wine, an article was 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.

Last week I spoke of the wonders of the magnetic Pinot Noir grape, as interpreted by an elite group of dedicated Pinot disciples. This week the conversation continues; by showcasing some of my favorite producers from Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) and Santa Rita Hills (SRH)

The following list of Pinot Noirs hailing from California's Central Coast was as hard, if not harder, to narrow down as the North Coast list. The winemaking talent there is formidable, and the wines are just as compelling, albeit, differently. These regions are dramatically dissimilar regarding climate and soil, and to a meaningful degree regarding clonal selections and farming practices.

The two regions described below, covering vast geographical territories, are home to some of the most profound domestic Pinot Noir. In the Santa Lucia Highlands grape growing history dates back to the 1700's. However it wasn't until the 1970's, that premium quality fruit was first produced by the Smith Family, known today for their Paraiso brand. Nicky Hahn (Smith and Hook), Robb Talbott (Talbott Vineyards) and Dan Lee (Morgan) soon followed, and in 1991, a newly formed appellation was established. 

Today, boasting over 6000 acres under vine and over 20 wineries, SLH is known for its extraordinary fruit quality, due in no small part to the efforts of a long-established farming dynasty led by Gary Pisoni. As the story goes, Gary approached his dad, who was content growing row crops, with the idea of planting grapes by suggesting that it's a more lucrative proposition. "Have you ever heard of anyone willing to spend $250 on a head of lettuce?" Gary's power of persuasion brought about what are today some of the highest regarded vineyards in the United States.  In EU terms, these vineyards would be labeled “Grand Cru." 

Gary planted his vineyards on the south side, at high elevations and farmed them sustainably, way before it became a trend. He sold fruit to a number of notable producers until his own namesake brand launched in 1998.

His vision brought about a significant change. He recognized the confluence of the climate (warm afternoons moderated by cool, ocean-kissed breezy nights) and the soils (sandy loam) that were capable of delivering world-class grapes.

SLH wines are known for their expansive palatal range; from intense, rich black/blue fruit, to earthy, fleshy flavor profiles, too tight, borderline austere expressions.  Santa Rita Hills (SRH) Appellation, half the size of SLH at 2800 acres, was established in 2001. It is a decidedly cooler growing area that occupies a part of the Santa Ynez Valley and extends all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Home to 41 wineries, it is known for some of Santa Barbara County’s most coveted Pinot Noir vineyards. 

Richard Sanford is widely regarded as the pioneer of the region. He is credited with the first plantings of Pinot Noir in the 1970s in what's known as Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. Others growers came flocking into the area known for its unique soil structure, composed mainly of rare limestone which is ideal for growing Pinot Noir, and Santa Rita Hills AVA was born. However, it took a few decades and an indie film to swing things into high gear.  The famed wine movie, “Sideways,” had an indelible effect [like it or not] in the area and brought about the level of awareness that no significant number of publicity campaigns or copious amounts of money could buy.

The wines are known for high definition, crisp, bright acidity and refined, sophisticated characters. The long growing season typically uninterrupted by rain events allows the grapes to physiologically blossom. The fruit comes in fully ripe, balanced, with generous, well-delineated characteristics.

Born in 1999, a culmination of many years invested in tireless research, Sea Smoke vineyard is a proprietor's (Bob David) vision of all things great about SRH.  If you walk the vineyard, you get an instant sense of why it is so unique. Only the south-facing hillsides are under vine, and diurnal temperatures are about as perfect as they come; ensuring long maturation process. In the vineyard, meticulously farmed, small batch, and an artisanal winemaking approach yields wines of integrity, complexity and pure class. Unfortunately, its cult status means a long waiting list. 

Bill Wathen and Dick Dore are industry veterans who have forgotten more about "terroir" than most of us will ever know. They quietly and consistently craft some of the most exciting, delicious, well-priced wines in SRH. The only producer to have access to Sea Smoke fruit, they produce a Foxen Sea Smoke bottling that astounded my senses on a number of occasions.

A true All-American rags-to-riches story, Paul Lato is a Polish-born sommelier, who first came to Central Coast in 1996 with two modest suitcases and one big dream. He counts the late Henri Jayer, Chave and Williams Selyem as his remote mentors. He credits Robert Parker's support as the reason he was able to fulfill his dream. A chance meeting with the famed critic and Parker's generous reviews helped Paul launch the brand, which is now one of the most highly coveted nationwide. Mailing list customers and select upscale restaurants (Thomas Keller of French Laundry was one of Paul's first customers) would quickly snap up the tiny allocations in a matter of days. 

For a young winemaker, Gavin's list of accolades is immensely impressive. Named one of the winemakers of the year in 2012 by Food and Wine,  and has gotten glowing reviews from just about every national wine publication of note, not the least of which was the venerable Wine Advocate, Gavin Chanin is one of the most exciting and intuitive winemakers of our time. His quest for old vines, strict organic, sustainable farming regimes, and gentle approach to winemaking, which embraces minimalist intervention, yields wines of purity, integrity, impeccable balance, complexity, style and grace. He is also involved in a project named "Lutum" with vintner/investor Bill Price. Readers are urged to get on the mailing list before it's too late, as the future of both brands looks blindingly bright.

Brewer Clifton is a partnership between Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton. Transitioning from French teacher to a winemaker (and part-time musician), Greg worked with Bruce McGuire at Santa Barbara Winery and Sunstone before joining forces with Steve, who has his own brand, Palmina. His terroir-driven approach won sky-high praise from Robert Parker Jr., who compared the wines to DRC. Their spectacular Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are sold primarily via the mailing list.

6. Melville
Ron Melville and his two sons work side by side since Ron's dedication to Burgundian wines landed him in Lompoc in 1996. They planted 82 acres of vineyards to fourteen clones of Pinot Noir and sold fruit to such superstars as Bonaccorsi Wine, Brewer-Clifton, Jaffurs, Whitcraft, as well as producing their own brand. Crafted by Greg Brewer who shares Ron's passion for fine Burgundy, the wines are accurate reflections of the vineyard.

The Crowned Prince of SLH Kingdom, minus the annoying entourage, plus a great big [and readily available] hug, Gary Pisoni is to SLH what Andy Beckstoffer is to Napa. Winemakers can't get enough of his grapes (yes, there's a waitlist for his fruit). He reigns rather benevolently and has more fun by Monday afternoon than most of us will have in a year. Oh yes, and his own wines invariably rate a 100 on my hedonism scale.

Pisoni's business partner and vineyard manager/grower Gary Franscioni launched his own wine in 2003 to press and consumer accolades.  I’ve observed, that when minimal intervention is combined with careful cellar monitoring a sort of magic takes place. The wines are glorious creatures, boasting the depth of flavor and impeccable balance.

James Ontiveros, a 9th generation farmer, crafts this coveted Pinot Noir sourced from his family's 8-acre Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard. Farmed organically and meticulously, his wines are age-worthy, high energy, beautiful beasts. Quality and integrity is the key to his cerebral, multi-dimensional wines.

New Zealand native, Fintan du Fresne, holds degrees in both geology and enology. He is a faithful steward of the land who cut his winemaking teeth with Calera under the tutelage of the legendary Josh Jensen. He later worked at Adelaida and many other wineries in California and New Zealand.  His winemaking philosophy is rooted in embracing, cultivating and enhancing the natural characteristics of the historic Chamisal Vineyard, located in the Edna Valley.

Every detail, whether it's farming practices, hand harvesting or cellar work, with each block fermented separately, is aimed at achieving a single goal: harnessing brilliant, bold, intense fruit and coaxing the inherent sophistication from this glorious site.

In addition to actively seeking the wines from these rock star wineries, readers traveling to the area are advised to check out the "Lompoc Ghetto." It is quite an epicenter of winemaking activity; with well-established producers such as Fiddlehead, Flying Goat, Loring, Pali, Palmina, Brewer Clifton, and Piedrasassi.  It's also the home of rising superstars such as winemaker, Gavin Chanin, whose name is quickly becoming synonymous with refined elegance in Pinot Noir.

The atmosphere at this winemaking "ghetto" is decidedly casual, pure and vibrant. The spirit of camaraderie reigns and there isn't a whiff of pretense or room for egos.  It's refreshing in a way an old friend makes you feel good the way only he/she can, subtle, yet so comforting. It is also a hotbed of creativity, forward-thinking, self-challenge, information exchange and constant innovation.

In my opinion, readers seeking a stimulating, highly sought after, profoundly authentic and unbelievably tasty Pinot Noir experiences no one can really afford to miss the wines as mentioned above. Cheers!


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