Considering Oregon and California Pinot Noir

“Pinot Noir country. My grape. The one varietal that truly enchants me both stills and steals my heart with its elusive loveliness and false promises of transcendence. I loved her, and I would continue to follow her siren call until my wallet – or liver, whichever came first –gave out.”
– Rex Pickett, Sideways

In the 2004 movie Sideways, the main character, Rex Pickett, describes his great love affair with not a beguiling woman but Pinot Noir. In one fell swoop, this movie and its proclaimed adulation for Pinot noir single-handedly changed the trajectory of how much we Americans now drink – and love – Pinot Noir. This wine captivates wine enthusiasts worldwide with its refreshing acidity and low levels of tannins. It is the fifth most planted red grape variety globally, with 277,000 acres under vine. Though France is considered the motherland of Pinot Noir, Sideways is set in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California. And this says it all, for Pinot Noir has transcended its original Burgundian boundaries and is now grown wherever there is a cool enough environment to support its delicate and temperamental nature.

Pinot Noir had a 65% increase in plantings in California in the ten years from 2006 to 2015. There are Pinot Noir vineyards wherever there is a fog-laced valley and cool Pacific breezes. And nowhere has embraced an American enthusiasm for Pinot Noir more than the state of Oregon, where it is almost impossible to walk into a store or restaurant and buy any red wine other than their home-grown Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Over 81% of Oregon’s wine production is attributed to Pinot Noir, and the Oregonians are immensely proud of this fact. And while most of us think of Pinot Noir as red wine, it is also used as the primary grape in Champagne. In fact, more Pinot Noir is planted in Champagne than in Burgundy, at over 32,000 acres compared to Burgundy’s 26,000 acres. Like Champagne, the many excellent sparkling wine producers of the New World also use Pinot Noir as their primary grape. While Burgundy may claim to be Pinot Noir’s heartbeat, it has quickly become the globally essential grape for cool-weather wine growers.

Pinot Noir, when done well, displays more elegance than power, with intense and complex aromas of strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, and violets. Depending on how a winemaker chooses to vinify and age their Pinot Noir, the wine can acquire desirable characteristics of wet earth, forest floor, spices, autumn leaves, and softly velvet, barely perceptible tannins. Yet, the most striking feature of Pinot Noir is its capacity to express its growing environment and terroir with laser-like precision. Pinot Noir tends to change its character in warmer climates where the grapes ripen more quickly. The wines are richer in mouthfeel and weight due to the increase in alcohol caused by the heightened sugar levels at harvest. For some people, this equates to a Pinot Noir of lesser quality. But there are many examples of excellent warmer-than-Burgundy Pinot Noir wines that may not taste as if they came from Geverey-Chambertin, but why should they?

Ultimately, the character of any wine is, of course, also dependent on what the winemaker does during and after fermentation. The smaller, higher-end producers treat their Pinot Noir grapes with kid gloves. There is most often a gentle extraction and cool fermentation to produce a lighter and more elegant style of wine. Some producers extend the skin contact before and after fermentation to extract as much color and aromas as possible from the Pinot Noir. If the winemakers are hoping for a fuller-bodied, more powerful wine, they will ferment it at warmer temperatures. Many “old-school” oenophiles believe one should be able to read a novel through a glass of Pinot Noir, but this notion has altered since the recent proliferation of so many New World Pinot Noirs. A well-structured Pinot Noir is often aged in oak barrels, though winemakers tend to do this very judiciously, as oak can overtake the elegant red fruit aromas desired. Pinot Noir is finicky and high maintenance in the vineyard, but doubly so in the wine cellar. The risks during vinification are real; however, success is sublime.

The Newcomer: Oregon

Pinot Noir is an old grape variety mentioned as early as the 14th century in Burgundy, so it is fair to say that Oregon Pinot Noir is in its infancy because it was only 57 years ago that David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards planted his first Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. He was not the first to plant Pinot Noir in Oregon, but he is responsible for putting it on the world wine map. In 1979, Lett took his wines to a blind-tasting competition in Paris known in English as the Wine Olympics, and his wines placed third in the Pinot Noir category. In a 1980 rematch arranged by French wine magnate Robert Drouhin, the Eyrie vintage improved to second place behind Drouhin’s insurmountable 1959 Chambolle. This moment instantly put Oregon front and center as a world-class Pinot Noir producing region. It is little wonder that in 1987 the same Drouhin family purchased land in the Dundee Hills region of the Willamette Valley and established Domaine Drouhin – which, of course, specializes in Pinot Noir wines. The truth is, Oregon has a comparatively small cut of the world’s Pinot Noir production, yet the wines continue to receive global accolades. It is only the sixth in the line for Pinot Noir production, trailing behind none other than . . . Moldova.

Oregon’s wine drinkers take their Pinot seriously, and Oregon’s Pinot producers focus on industry-wide attention to quality over quantity. Winemaking in the Willamette Valley – in all of Oregon, in truth – is predominantly artisanal or handcrafted with an eye toward creating world-class wines. The growers are blessed with the Willamette Valley’s fertile sedimentary floor and hillside soils. Oregon’s winegrowers have embraced sustainable and organic growing practices along with these ideal soils, cool northerly latitudes, prolific rain in the winter months, and a dry growing season. There is a fervent policy engagement within the Oregon wine industry toward the collective goal to rise together and create premier-class wines that express the natural essence of the state in a glass of wine.

Unlike other states within America, the Oregon wine industry rallied around creating strict state labeling laws to safeguard quality. In Oregon, the law established a 90 percent minimum varietals content, meaning that to call it a Pinot Noir, it must be made from at least 90 percent Pinot Noir. Elsewhere, the national standard labeling laws of 75 percent exist. This means that your “Pinot Noir” could be 25 percent Syrah (or any other variety) in California, and the winery would not need to let the consumer be aware of this fact. Likewise, there are stricter laws for regional naming; if a wine is claimed to be from the Willamette Valley, at least 95% of its grapes must come from the Willamette Valley. In other states, the regional labeling laws are looser, with only 85% needing to come from the region printed on the label.

Oregon’s wine industry has come a long way in a short period. Since the 1960s initial plantings of Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, there has been a massive influx of money poured into the Oregon wine industry. Yet, the Oregon community continues to generate excellence and a contrasting, laid-back, agriculturally driven lifestyle. Today, there are over 700 wineries, covering two-thirds of all agricultural acreage within the Willamette Valley. The question then becomes, how do you find the Oregon wineries producing the finest Pinot Noir wines? Let us assist in choosing a few of the finest Oregon Pinot Noirs to include in your cellar:

Hyland Estates Pinot Noir Coury 2017 – WE 94 Points, JS 93 Points
In the VanDuzer Corridor AVA, Hyland Estates vineyards are nestled in a southerly facing, cool location yet uniquely isolated from extreme weather events. This is a long and moderate growing season perfect for growing Pinot Noir. This wine expresses the aromatics unique to the Coury clone – ripe red cherry, plum, dried earth, and spice. The palate is light to medium-bodied with an intense freshness, grainy tannins, and a long and layered finish.


Twomey Cellars Pinot Noir Prince Hill 2017 – WE 93 Points, WS 92 Points
The Duncan family of Sliver Oak fame established Twomey in 1999 to farm and vinify Pinot Noir from the top vineyards in California’s Russian River, Anderson Valley, Santa Maria Valleys, and the Willamette Valley. In 2017, they purchased the Prince Hill Vineyard in the Dundee Hills from Oregon Pinot pioneer Dick Erath. This first Prince Hill vintage under the ownership of Twomey once again establishes the winemaking excellence the Duncan family brings to the table. This wine is stunningly aromatic with layers of spice notes, black cherry, cola, and molasses. The medium bodied mouthfeel is full of polished tannins and just a hint of barrel toast. It is a wine that can be enjoyed now or cellared for another five years.


Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Jerusalem Hill 2012 – WS 94 Points, CT 93 Points, JS 94 Points
Domaine Serene has six individual vineyard estates, with five located in the Dundee Hills region. The 90-acre Jerusalem Hill vineyard is Domaine Serene’s only Eola-Amity Hills property, and the wines coming out of this vineyard are an awe-inspiring embodiment of Oregon’s terroir. There is meticulous attention to detail in their vineyards, as well as in the cellar. As a result, these wines continuously command the highest awards and accolades from both critics and consumers. The 2012 vintage of this Pinot is highly perfumed with aromas of currant, dark berries, oak spices, cocoa, and distinct bay leaf aromas. The medium-bodied palate has a peppery finish and smoothly integrated tannins. After ten years of aging, it is now in its prime drinking window. This is Oregon Pinot at its best.


California: The Pinot Noir Goldilocks Effect

California’s coastal regions have the Goldilocks fairytale ending for Pinot Noir. It’s not too hot, not too cold; the nights are cool, and the days are sunny and warm. The soils have optimal drainage and perfectly suited mineral compositions. In the end, it is Pinot Noir’s “just right.” It is reliably warmer and drier in California than in Burgundy, so there is less concern with vintage variations and more of a focus on the winemakers and winegrowers’ talents and artistry.

California’s Pinot Noir vineyards stretch approximately 450 miles along the state’s coastal regions from the northern parts of Mendocino County, heading down to the southerly tip of Santa Barbara County. What is most important to know about California’s Pinot vineyard areas is that they’re a multi-faceted collection of smaller regions and AVAs – each expressing unique nuances through the Pinot Noir wine. While California is an overall warmer growing region for Pinot Noir compared to the Old World, this in no way means that the resulting wines are overripe fruit bombs. On the contrary, a legendary Sonoma Russian River, Santa Lucia Highlands, or Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir, has all the aging potential and layered complexity as a great red Burgundy.

Cabernet Sauvignon still dominates the golden state’s county vineyards except for Sonoma County. Pinot Noir has been growing in this county since the 1880s, and today it is recognized as the leading producer of California Pinot Noir. Compared to Napa County, Sonoma County is almost double the size and directly borders the Pacific Ocean and the San Pablo Bay. Of Sonoma’s 14 AVAs, all have Pinot Noir vineyards spanning the hillsides and valleys. Consistently known for growing the most outstanding Pinot Noir grapes are Russian River Valley and Green Valley (nestled within the Russian River Valley), Los Carneros; Petaluma Gap; and Fort-Ross Seaview. A dependable cool afternoon breeze precedes the evening fog with the ocean’s proximity. In the mornings, the fog dissipates by noon, and the grape vines get a whole afternoon of warm summer sunshine. Some vineyards crown the mountaintops (this is especially true in Fort-Ross Seaview), and the grapes grow above the earth-hugging fog line. The cool microclimates of Sonoma County’s AVA produce age-worthy Pinot Noir wines with tight acidity, excellent structure, and plush red-fruit flavors.

Heading south to the Santa Cruz Mountains are the dramatic, high-elevation coastal ridges that provide the cooling weather needed for Pinot Noir. Many of the rocky-soil vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountain wine region sit as high as 2800 feet above sea level, resulting in Pinot Noir wines that reflect a distinct minerality with complex flavors and the tannins needed to age gracefully. This growing area is heavily forested and very close to the ocean, so fog plays a significant role, leaving a unique saline tanginess and forest-scented notes in the wine. Pinot Noir is a grape known to express the terroir character where it is grown, and this is entirely evident in the elegant Pinots of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Heading further southward are the limestone-rich wine regions of California Central Coast, Mount Harlan, and Chalone. Here, the unique soil produces Pinot Noir wines with spicy minerality and incredible floral aromas. Traveling further southward is the windy Santa Lucia Highlands and Sta Rita Hills. These two wine regions have chilly microclimates where the hillsides funnel in the Pacific breezes over the Pinot vineyards. These calm Pacific winds prolong the growing season beyond what is expected, intensifying the wine’s acidity and distinct saline notes. These excellent coastal vineyard Pinots are elegant with complex red fruit, black cherry, and rose aromas. The sandy, well-drained soils in these wine regions lead to a concentrated minerality on the palate. The top-rated Pinot Noir wines from the Central Coast show true gracefulness. These Pinot wines are not about the big, ripe, bold fruits and spices people think of when they conjure up an image of the West Coast supermarket red blends, but rather, a sublime liquid of California cool.

Here is Benchmark Wine Groups’ list of some of the finest producers of Pinot Noir wines from up and down the Golden State. These are must-try Pinots if you want the best of what California has to offer:

Kistler Pinot Noir Laguna Ridge Vineyard 2016 – WA 94 Points, V96:
Let’s start with the fact that Kistler is a legendary California wine producer crafting the finest varietal expressions. This winery is typically known as the premier Chardonnay producer in Northern California; however, Kistler’s winemakers also manage to create some of the finest Pinot Noir wines derived from two famous clones. The Laguna Ridge vineyard sits on a coastal overlook, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Russian River Valley on the other. The roots dig deep into sandstone layers and fine shards of petrified wood. Drinking this Pinot Noir is a sensory experience of flowers and red fruit. It is bright on the front of the palate, evolving into layers of cassis, black cherries, earthy forest floor, and velvety tannins. The finish is long and luxurious.


Sea Smoke Pinot Noir “Ten” 2012 – WA 95 Points, JD 95 Points:
Just seven miles from the Pacific Ocean’s edge and located in a valley wind tunnel lays the Sta. Rita Hills Sea Smoke vineyards. Even though these vineyards are at the southernmost border of California’s Pinot Noir growing areas, they are some of the coolest, thanks to the afternoon fog. The “ten” is named after the ten clonal selections that go into this wine. Aged for 16 months in 65% new French oak barrels before bottling, this Pinot is deeply complex and aromatic with black raspberry, violets, and baking spices. There is a finely integrated tannin structure to this profoundly concentrated wine. Sea Smoke is an outstanding representation of the southern edges of the Central Coast Pinot Noirs. Ten years later, this wine is within its best drinking window.


Rhys Pinot Noir Mt. Pajaro Vineyard 2017 – JD 93 Points, V 93 Points:
Located directly on top of the San Andreas fault in the Santa Cruz Mountains sits the Rhys Mt Pajaro vineyard. It represents an iconic illustration of California’s higher elevation Pinot Noir with all the distinctive nuances. The Mt Pajaro Pinot Noir is driven by the clay topsoils and rocky marine subsoils found along the mountain ridgetop. Bright red fruit, black fruit, potpourri, and cinnamon dominate the heady aromas. The palate is interwoven with dusty earth, chocolate, and savory herbs. This Pinot Noir is layered and complex with fine-grained tannins and a long finish. Rhys is one of the absolute finest of California’s Pinot Noir producers, not to be missed.


Regarding innovative winemaking and the world’s most reliable vintages, California and Oregon are unsurpassed. The finest Pinot Noir wines from these West Coast states have quickly become cult classics, commanding investment-level prices. Serious wine collectors have followed suit and moved past a “Burgundy only” mindset, embracing the excellence of the Golden State and the Beaver State Pinots. It’s time to give the New World Pinots their due.