CALIFORNIA winemakers, who have had so much success with most major vinifera grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, johannisberg riesling and chenin blanc, continue to fall on their faces when it comes to producing quality pinot noir.
From its beginning in California, pinot noir has had its problems regardless of the skills of the winemaker, the age of the vines or the location of the vineyard. Because of the outlandish price charged for most French burgundies, the wine press has tended to overstate the case for pinot noir efforts in California in hopes that the consumer would turn to them as alternatives.
The bottom line, however, is that the vast majority of pinot noirs are uninteresting wines that are frequently overblown, with exaggerated smoky components, stemmy, harsh tastes, and jammy, flabby flavors that lack direction and structure. Of course, an occasional pinot noir rides above the tide of mediocrity, such as the 1977 Carneros Creek, 1976 Caymus, 1975 Hoffman Mountain Ranch or the 1976 Martin Ray. However, these wines represent only a small drop in the barrel of pinot noir.
Recently, a number of wine critics have raved about the new pinot noir releases from such small wineries as Calera and Acacia, and many consumers would no doubt expect to taste exquisite wine. Not only are these wines overrated, but they are selling at ridiculous prices of $18 to $23 per bottle. Such prices are no less outrageous than the $125 per bottle for romane'e conti. For most California pinot noirs, consumers should remember the price is simply not proportional to the quality of the wine.
I recently tasted more than 30 current releases of California pinot noir wine on the market. The following six wines are those wines that I found of merit. Most of these pinot noirs are expensive and available only in small quantities, but all can be found at the local wine shops. The wines are listed in order of my preference.
Santa Cruz Mountain Winery 1978/1979 ($12.95). Full bodied and darkly colored, this well made pinot noir -- a blend of the 1978-1979 vintages -- has a surprisingly complex bouquet of smoky, fruity scents backed by spicy oak. Full, intense and tannic on the palate, this big wine has a modest kinship to a finely made French chambertin. It is an impressive pinot noir that should be given another two to three years of aging.
Sokol-Blosser 1979 "Red Hills Vineyard" ($8.99-$9.49). If any winery seems to have a vision of what pinot noir is all about and can capture the elusive qualities of this temperamental grape, it is Sokol-Blosser in Oregon. Their pinot noir captures the purity of the fruit, which is not apparent in most Californian pinot noirs. In addition, the wine has an elegant sense of balance, while combining power and authoritative varietal character. The current Sokol-Blosser that I like is from their Red Hills vineyard; it has lovely, clean fruit that is silky and lush, and it reminds me of a well-made French volnay.
Acacia 1979 Iund Vineyard ($17.59-$17.99). Acacia pinot noirs have received some rather dazzling reviews, but I find the majority of them entirely too exaggerated and stemmy, as well as absurdly priced. If you are willing to shell out the money, the Acacia pinot noir from the Iund Vineyard will prove the most interesting of the Acacia pinot noirs. It is the darkest of the Acacia wines and has the purest bouquet, with ripe, berry-like fruit and subtle oaky, smoky elements. A full bodied-wine, it has a good deal of tannin and acidity, which seems to indicate that two to four years of bottle age will render an even more enjoyable wine. This wine, which is definitely California-style in its bigness and richness, can hardly be compared to a French burgundy, but it is quite interesting.
Calera 1979 Selleck Vineyard ($18-$22). Calera has developed a reputation for producing some of the most interesting pinot noirs from California. Like the Acacia winery, Calera offers three pinot noirs with vineyard designations. The Calera pinot noirs tend to be among the most intense pinot noirs I have tasted from California. They are dark, with plenty of fruit, tannin and acidity. Of the three current offerings from the 1979 vintage, I prefer the wine from the Selleck Vineyard which is dark ruby with plenty of fruit, although its abrasive tannin seems to warrant additional bottle age. The price is absurd, but if you are inclined to taste one of the best California pinot noirs, then you will have to pay the price.
Carneros Creek Winery 1979 Carneros District ($16.95). This wine may not be the same as the wonderful 1977 pinot noir from Carneros Creek, but it is an attractive wine with light to medium ruby color and a moderately intense, stemmy, fruity, slightly smoky aroma reminiscent of a a lighter co tes de nuits. This wine has light tannins and medium to full body, making it a pinot noir that should be drunk soon.
Chalone 1979 ($11.95). Chalone is justifiably famous for its chardonnays and pinot blancs. Occasionally, a Chalone pinot noir proves to be quite good. This medium ruby wine seems to be one of the better efforts. There is some good smoky, earthy, ripe fruit in the bouquet, which is followed by a rather full-bodied wine with good structure and surprising depth of fruit -- certainly an above average good pinot noir from California that can be consumed now.