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Wild West wine

At Au Bon Climat winery on California’s Central Coast, the bottling line is rattling, forklifts are zipping here and there, and a motley crew of bartenders, Aussie winemakers, and overtalented pizza-parlor employees are perched on planks over open-top fermenters.
/ Source: Sunset Magazine

At Au Bon Climat winery on California’s Central Coast, the bottling line is rattling, forklifts are zipping here and there, and a motley crew of bartenders, Aussie winemakers, and overtalented pizza-parlor employees are perched on planks over open-top fermenters.

They’re performing a chore that needs doing every fall: punching down the cap — breaking up and pushing down the thick mass of skins and seeds that carbon dioxide lifts to the top when wine is fermenting — to extract flavor and color. Pigeage tool in hand, I give it a try and am mortified; I plunge, and nothing moves. When no one’s looking, I surreptitiously shove a foot in, risking tennies, Diesel jeans, and all. Better, but I have no potential career in punch-downs.

The wine they’re making is Pinot Noir, and it’s why I’m here in the Santa Maria Valley. In the last quarter-century, while big-name vintners were buttering their Chardonnay and turning Merlot into a darling, a handful of restless, talented winemakers have made Burgundy’s great red grape a West Coast story. I asked a couple of these winemakers if I could watch through some critical harvest days, looking for clues to the passion and the judgments that produce great bottles of this wine.Pinot has inspired more lurid prose than a history of sunsets. It “wraps you in silk pajamas” and offers up flavors of “strawberries, blueberries, dried cherries, rose petals, green tea, licorice, black pepper, cola, vanilla, mushrooms, cedar, sweet pipe-tobacco smoke, sweaty leather...”

Sweaty leather?
The story of the average love affair with Pinot starts with an epiphanic encounter in France, the grape’s ancestral home (if it’s red and it’s a Burgundy, it’s Pinot Noir), with, say, a plate of duck and wild mushrooms and a bottle of ’71 Drouhin-Larose Gevrey-Chambertin.

I had no such epiphany in my early, palate-forming years. I was just drinking a lot of cheap wine, and the trouble with Pinot Noir — especially cheap Pinot — is that it’s so often not what it’s supposed to be. Good Pinot Noir is an exquisite alternative to the pounding tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon and a best friend to both white-and red-leaning foods. But when it’s bad, it’s very, very bad.

André Tchelistcheff, mentor to a whole generation of early winemakers in the Napa Valley, is rumored to have said that “god made Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the devil made Pinot Noir.”

With all the characteristics of a high-maintenance friend, the grape is famously hard to grow and turn into wine. Thin-skinned, sensitive to challenging conditions, and highly susceptible to mildew, Pinot needs leaf-by-leaf and berry-by-berry attention in the vineyard, the growers say. In the winery, while sturdy Cab is being pumped and racked and generally beaten into cleanliness and submission, moody, volatile Pinot requires the gentlest hand. Winemakers have to watch, watch, watch — but touch it as little as possible. There are enough caveats on the way to delicious Pinot to drive a sane man crazy.

And drive a rebel to make Pinot.

Which brings me to the “Mind Behind” Au Bon Climat, Jim Clendenen. (The title’s official — it’s on his card.) More descriptors have been applied to this winemaker than to Pinot Noir, if that’s possible: “outspoken,” “eccentric,” “iconoclastic.”

Aside from my punch-down adventure, following Clendenen for a day turns out to be easy. He spends the entire morning in the kitchen carved out of a corner of the winery, cooking lunch for the crew and multimanaging winemaking operations.

Lunch is a lineup of jambalaya, fresh-cooked lima beans, rotisserie chicken, corn on the cob, tomatoes with pesto, and 14 bottles of wine, including a mini vertical (three years’ worth) of the Baram Mendelsohn Pinot that Clendenen makes from Russian River Valley grapes. The crew pours more hot sauce on the spicy jambalaya (Pinot can handle anything) and sips each bottle, studying the effect of their actions on the wines while in the middle of crafting a new vintage.

After lunch, Clendenen sticks around to tell me how he got into this business in the first place. (“Same reason anyone does what they do — my father hated me,” he deadpans.) Actually, his own French epiphany convinced him that going to law school would be a bad idea; learning how to make that amazing wine would be a good one.

Clendenen’s Pinots have French values. They can be ringers for Burgundy — lean, earthy, and minerally. The most important goal is to taste of the place the wine came from, that concept of terroir that’s as hard to explain as to say. A crusader for making the most balanced wine naturally possible — picking at sugar levels (° Brix) low enough to keep the resulting alcohol in the 13 percent range and give nonfruit nuances an even playing field — Clendenen is defying the critics, whose high scores (most influentially, Robert Parker’s) go to big, ripe fruit-and-alcohol bombs.

“People say not to pick until the flavors are there,” he argues. “But are they good flavors? There’s always more flavor in alcohol and sugar, but more [of those] isn’t necessarily better.” They make a wine that you can’t drink much of and that doesn’t taste very good with food.

“Good, balanced Pinot,” for Clendenen, “has a sense of richness, roundness, body, and texture that you can’t find in any other grape. With age, it takes on wonderful layers of rose petals, dried flowers, tea, dried citrus peel...”

Two weeks later, at Ponzi Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, I step up to take over one side of the sorting line, to monitor the grapes moving up the belt after their trip through the destemmer. Winemaker Luisa Ponzi checks my early progress. “You’ve done this before,” she says. Well, I do recall seeing this before...and suddenly she’s off, moving from fermenter to fermenter, measuring temperature and sugar levels, and I’m alone, grabbing at leaves and twigs. If this vintage is more vegetal than usual, it’s going to be all my fault.

It’s a minor risk compared to the one that Luisa takes every year: She’s pushing the northern limits of where the coastal West can grow Pinot. Back in the early ’70s, her parents, Dick and Nancy Ponzi, were just behind David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards in planting Pinot Noir in this cool valley, where everyone said it couldn’t be done. But they and Lett saw the region’s similarities to Burgundy — latitude (and therefore similar hours of sun in the day), temperatures, and, scarily, the threat of rain as grapes ripen.

Despite being a daughter of wine pioneers, Luisa’s Pinot epiphany was a bit delayed. She first had to realize she wasn’t a perfect match for medicine: “Working in a clinic, I found out I wasn’t very compassionate!” She had a greater passion for the Pinot Noir her parents were making and set out to study enology in Beaune, France, for the edge of respect that a second-generation winemaker here might need. It turns out the bigger job was earning respect there. Initially put to work cooking lunch, she had to seize a moment when no one was around and a truck needed unloading before she was taken seriously.

Ponzi’s still making the most of challenges, in a region that delivers barely enough light and heat to ripen grapes. Coming off a few unusually warm years, which produced big, ripe, fruity Pinots (“not what Oregon does best,” in her view), this year will “separate the men from the boys.” The rains came early, threatening crops; the grapes can swell, split, and rot, or just become diluted. A few makers got the jitters and picked too early — “a California reaction,” Ponzi chuckles. The payoff for those who toughed it out, though, is that the flavors developed early, before sugar levels got too high. “And ’04 Ponzi is going to be fantastic,” according to Ponzi.

Between Ponzi and Clendenen, in a swath of cool valleys down the coast — Anderson Valley, the Russian River Valley, and Carneros in Northern California, and Southern California’s Santa Maria Valley, near Santa Rita Hills — maverick winemakers are honing their Pinot recipes. And they’re discovering new best places to grow this grape: Watch Edna Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands, and, especially, the Sonoma Coast.

They generally agree that the best Pinot comes from cool places, where the grapes don’t fully ripen until the last possible day of the growing season (a risky proposition). There’s also much accord that the grapes, juice, and wine should literally be handled by hand, and a gentle one at that (an expensive proposition). From there, opinions fracture.

There seem to be three style camps: those who work on the Burgundy model, those who say they work on the Burgundy model but don’t, and those who boldly make big, rich, fruity, New World Pinot Noir. How they get there offers endless conversation fodder in the tasting rooms: What ° Brix they pick at. Whole clusters, a few stems, or berries only into the fermenters? Cold soak? Natural yeast, adding acid, subtracting alcohol, filtering, fining, gravity flow...

But on the first day of October, as I hook a cluster of Willamette Valley Pinot grapes and drop it gently into my bucket — in the same time it takes each of the real picking crew a row over to fill theirs — I see that talking about winemaking is the cheap way to go. A plume of smoke on the horizon is explained by a cell-phone call to the winery: Mount St. Helens is threatening to blow again. And my bet is that two years from now, because of these pickers — and the sorters and punchers and would-be-chemist winemakers, measuring and prodding — a glass of this Pinot Noir will be full of this moment and place.

Finding the West’s best Pinots
We gathered almost 120 bottles of Oregon and California Pinot Noir and a panel of wine educators, writers, makers, and sommeliers for a blind tasting. The only information the judges had was price range: inexpensive, moderate, or expensive. Working in teams, we rated every wine on a 20-point scale and scribbled our impressions. When we unmasked the wines at the end of the afternoon, we were amazed by some of our reputation-shattering scores (see below) and reassured that West Coast Pinot Noir has never been better. Here are 33 that we highly recommend.

What we found out
Some telling patterns emerged from our scores and notes.
• When we tasted two or more Pinots from a winery, the more expensive one didn’t always score higher. Don’t buy by price!
• On average, high-profile wineries scored no better than lesser-knowns. Don’t buy by cult status!
• Our tasters weren’t easily able to nail the region a wine was from, dismantling those regional flavor-profile stereotypes (cherry-berry fruit here; blueberries and game there).
• Sparkling-wine producers are making some great still Pinots.
• Descriptors for a wine varied widely from taster to taster, so don’t mourn your inability to detect a single obscure flavor. There was, however, consensus over whether a wine was well made or not.


Under $20

Lucas & Lewellen “Queen of Hearts” 2002
(Santa Barbara County; $10). Powerful — almost masculine — with notes of dried leaves and grenadine. Delivers for the price, and calls for meat (beef stew).
Meridian 2003 (Central Coast, CA; $11). Thanksgiving wine on a budget. Its raspberry tea, dark cherries, and spice would match the whole meal (even the root vegetables).
Pedroncelli Winery — F. Johnson Vineyard 2003 (Sonoma County; $15). Cherry pie and strawberry jam framed with wonderful acidity. Lush and long.
Robert Mondavi Private Selection 2004 (Central Coast; $11). Fresh and clean; a pleasant balance of cherry fruit with earth and spice.
Saint Gregory 2002 (Mendocino; $16). Lush cranberry and cherry fruit with a touch of spicy oak. Rich enough for duck with cherry sauce.
Sebastiani 2003 (Sonoma Coast; $15). Toasty oak balanced with black cherries and plums. Duck is your dish.

$20 to $35

Acacia 2003
(Carneros; $25). Well structured, with bright strawberries and cherries and hints of rose petals.
Alderbrook 2002 (Russian River Valley; $24). A crowd-pleaser that would satisfy connoisseurs as well, with dark, ripe fruit; a texture of silk over bark; and pairing potential from pasta Bolognese to short ribs.
Argyle Reserve 2003 (Willamette Valley; $30). Interesting aromas of dried cherries, cloves, cedar, and violets lead into bright red fruit — especially raspberries.
Clos LaChance 2002 (Santa Cruz Mountains, CA; $25). A lightly smoky Pinot full of strawberries and cranberries baked with fall spices. Pour with salmon, turkey, or roast chicken.
Deerfield Ranch 2001 (Carneros; $25). They threw the spice rack into this one. The allspice, mushroom nose is followed by plush raspberries, cherries, and root beer.
Domaine Carneros 2003 (Carneros; $28). Most of this winery’s Pinot gets turned into bubbles. In this still version, interesting spices lurk under bright strawberry fruit, and a rich texture calls for wild salmon.
Everett Ridge 2002 (Russian River Valley; $32). An amazing wine (look for Miles to have a heyday with this one in Sideways II). Soy sauce, cola, cherries, dried cranberries, dried leaves, and old library books crowd the nose. Flavors of all of the above — plus grenadine and Turkish spices — follow.
Gloria Ferrer 2002 (Carneros; $26). Soft oak on the nose, with cinnamon, nutmeg, and pepper, followed by juicy cherry, berry, and yellow peach flavors. A toasty, smoky Pinot; try with barbecued ribs.
Husch 2003 (Anderson Valley; $21). A leaner-style wine, with plum, cherries, and cranberries. Pair with roast salmon or lamb chops.
Lincourt 2003 (Santa Barbara County; $22). Bright and briary, with cherries, spice, and a dash of lemon. A Pinot with focused food cravings — for chipotle-crusted pork roast or a Reuben sandwich.
Masut Redwood Valley 2003 (Mendocino; $32). Deep, long flavors — plum, cranberry, and berry fruit with vanilla and exotic spices. They would pair well with a gamut of rich cheeses, duck, or a lamb tagine.
Navarro “Méthode à l’Ancienne” 2001 (Anderson Valley; $24). Earthy (a little smoky bacon), with cherries, plums, and spice.
Navillus Birney 2003 (Sonoma Coast; $30). Earthy cedar and forest-floor aromas, with plums, Chinese five spice, and herbs. An elegant, Burgundian Pinot with a long, silky finish.
Roederer Estate 2003 (Anderson Valley; $22). A still wine from a sparkling house. This Pinot would please a Cab drinker, with jammy fruit, dried cherries, chocolate, vanilla, and spices. A beef bourguignon wine.
Sanford 2002 (Santa Rita Hills; $26). A tightly structured wine (give it two to four years), with layers of cola flavors, raspberries and black cherries, and spice.
Sokol Blosser 2002 (Dundee Hills, OR; $25). Fresh and clean, with cherry, cola, and spice notes and a long, silky, toasty finish.
Summerland Chamisal Vineyard 2003 (Edna Valley, CA; $33). This wine delivers on the promise of its interesting nose, with cinnamon, coriander, and berries in Burgundian balance. It calls to mind pasta with wild mushrooms.
Williams Selyem 2003 (Central Coast, CA; $29). A poem of a Pinot Noir — why people pay a gazillion bucks for a bottle (although this one costs slightly less). It’s a seamless package of cranberry and cherry fruit with chocolate, vanilla, and potpourri.

$35 and over

Brick House “Les Dijonnais” 2003
(Willamette Valley; $45). Restrained and elegant, with bright acid carrying raspberry and dried-plum flavors.
Erath Prince Hill 2002 (Willamette Valley; $40). Intense and earthy; dried leaves and herbs give way to subtle dried cherries and milk chocolate. For Burgundy lovers only.
Esterlina 2002 Estate (Anderson Valley; $35). Slight herbal notes over blackberry, cherry, cassis, and black pepper. Chicken stew would make a match.
Goldeneye 2002 (Anderson Valley; $52). Generous to a fault with oak, but loaded with great berries (cran- and blue-), chocolate, vanilla, violets, and spice. Will age well.
Ken Wright Cellars Guadalupe Vineyard 2002 (Dundee Hills, OR; $40). Pleasant gamey, toasty nose, and wonderful fruit — dark berries, cherries, and plums.
Quail Cuvée 2002 (Russian River Valley; $40). Earthy nose of mushrooms, game, and leather gives way to rose petals, vanilla, chocolate, and a round, lively slate of plums, berries, and cola over minerals and silky tannins.
Rutz Cellars Dutton Ranch 2003 (Russian River Valley; $38). An elegant Pinot, with pretty floral notes and a hint of earth with raspberry, cherry, and cranberry fruit over spice.
Sanford, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard 2002 (Santa Rita Hills; $43). Lush fruit up-front — spicy raspberries and cherries — with chocolate. Roast some duck, or stir some bacon and peas into pasta.
Tandem Keefer Ranch 2003 (Green Valley, CA; $38). A charmer with a long finish. Smoke, vanilla, and cloves add layers of interest to big berry flavors. Try it with herb-roasted fish.

Here, Pinot vineyards flank golden California hills. Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association(805/688-0881)

Au Bon Climat Winery. The winery is not open to the public, but you can order its wines at or taste them at the Au Bon Climat Tasting Room (10–4 Thu–Mon; tasting $9; 3631 Sagunto St., Santa Ynez; 805/688-8688).

Foley Estates Vineyard & Winery. A new winery and visitor center for Foley Estates’ Burgundy-leaning Pinots is scheduled to open by Nov 1. 10–5 daily; tasting $5. 6121 State 246, Lompoc; 805/688-8554.

Foxen. Small farm shed is beyond rustic but houses finely crafted wines. 11–4 daily; tasting $5. 7200 Foxen Canyon Rd., Santa Maria; 805/937-4251.

Melville Vineyards and Winery. Taste estate-bottled Pinots at this gracious Mediterranean-style winery. 11–4 daily; tasting $5. 5185 E. State 246, Lompoc; 805/735-7030.

Sanford Winery & Vineyards. Rustic in the most beautiful sense. Total strangers compare opinions at the tasting table. 11–4 daily; tasting $5. 7250 Santa Rosa Rd., Buellton; 800/426-9463.

Vineyards in small swaths through the hills share space with other crops. Willamette Valley Wineries Association (503/646-2985)

Adelsheim Vineyard. Fortresslike structure with a beautiful new tasting room. 11–4 Wed–Sun; tasting $5. 16800 N.E. Calkins Lane, Newberg; 503/538-3652.

Anne Amie Vineyards. Formerly Chateau Benoit, and a longtime favorite tasting spot for its grand outlook, Anne Amie is now making some impressive expressions of single vineyards. 10–5 daily; tasting fee varies. 6580 N.E. Mineral Springs Rd., Carlton; 800/248-4835.

Archery Summit. Some of the most expensive Pinots in the valley, the most beautiful caves. 10–4:30 daily; tasting $10. 18599 N.E. Archery Summit Rd., Dayton; 800/732-8822.

Argyle Winery. Antithesis of Archery: Barrels are housed in a former hazelnut-processing plant; tastings take place in a Victorian farmhouse. 11–5 daily; tasting fee varies. 691 State 99W, Dundee; 503/538-8520.

Bethel Heights Vineyard. Airy tasting room opens to deck over the vineyards and 100-point views. Interesting lineup of small-block Pinots. 11–5 Sat–Sun; tasting free. 6060 Bethel Heights Rd. N.W., Salem; 503/581-2262.

Carlton Winemakers’ Studio. Great place to taste the wares of multiple winemakers together. 11–5 daily; tasting fee varies. 801 N. Scott St., Carlton; 503/852-6100.

Cristom Vineyards. Mediterranean-feeling tasting room surrounded by beautiful gardens. 11–5 Wed–Sun; tasting free. 6905 Spring Valley Rd. N.W., Salem; 503/375-3068.

Domaine Drouhin Oregon. A prominent French winemaking family puts its stamp on Oregon Pinot in a sleek, simple Old World–New World structure. 11–4 Wed–Sun; tasting $5. 6750 N.E. Breyman Orchards Rd., Dayton; 503/864-2700.

Elk Cove Vineyards. Way the heck out there, where elk still might roam. Tasting room is perched on a knoll, where every view has a long finish. 10–5 daily; tasting free. 27751 N.W. Olson Rd., Gaston; 503/985-7760.

Ponzi Vineyards. Dick Ponzi personally put local stone and wood into this building. View the cellar while you taste (11–5 daily; tasting fee varies; 14665 S.W. Winery Lane, Beaverton; 503/628-1227). You can also taste Ponzi wines, and those from many other great local makers, at the Ponzi Wine Bar (11–5 Mon–Fri, 11–6 Sat–Sun; 100 S.W. Seventh St., Dundee; 503/554-1500).

Sokol Blosser Winery. Sustainably produced wines in a light, modern structure with a great deck. 11–5 daily; tasting from $5; or 503/864-2282.

WillaKenzie Estate. A drive, but worth it. Compare the intense, fruit-forward Pierre Léon Vineyard Pinot to the earthier, loamy Emery from higher up. 12–5 Fri–Sun and by appointment; tasting free. 19143 N.E. Laughlin Rd., Yamhill; 503/662-3280.

One of the most remote and beautiful — yet civilized — wine drives still to be had. Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association (707/895-9463)

Fife Vineyards. Best known for its Rhône reds, Fife has just opened a redwood tasting bungalow and will be releasing its first Pinot soon. 10–5:30 Thu–Mon; tasting free. 11201 Anderson Valley Way, Boonville; 707/895-2532.

Goldeneye. Practically Napa-esque sit-down tasting on a terrace looking across vineyard blocks to the redwoods. Napa is in fact moving in here — Goldeneye is owned by the Duckhorn Wine Company. 11–4 daily; tasting $5. 9200 State 128, Philo; 707/895-3202.

Husch Vineyards. Small (very) tasting hut under the oaks. Two Pinot styles — one lean and earthy, the other fruit-forward. 10–5 daily; tasting free. 4400 State 128, Philo; 800/664-8724.

Navarro Vineyards. The hub of wine-tasting traffic, and what Anderson Valley is all about — well-made wines (in this case, available only at the winery and in restaurants) at reasonable prices, poured in casual, creative spaces. 10–6 daily; tasting free. 5601 State 128, Philo; 707/895-3686.

Roederer Estate. This French-owned sparkling-wine house has grand views through the windows behind the bar. Taste the still Pinot Noir. 11–5 daily; tasting $3. 4501 State 128, Philo; 707/895-2288.

Quintessential Northern California, with dense evergreen stands and gnarly oaked knolls hugging one rolling vineyard after another. Russian River Valley Winegrowers (707/521-2534)

Davis Bynum Winery. Fascinating comparisons to be had among Pinot bottlings from all over the region. 10–5 daily; tasting fee varies. 8075 Westside Rd., Healdsburg; 800/826-1073.

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery. Tasting bar perched above the valley’s wildest part. Region-wide and single-vineyard Pinots. 11–4 daily; tasting $5. 10701 Westside Rd., Healdsburg; 707/473-2900.

Hartford Family Winery. Grand-scale château (the family is part of the Kendall-Jackson clan) in the exciting Green Valley appellation. Compare high-end single-vineyard Russian River Pinots with some from other regions. 10–4:30 daily; tasting free. 8075 Martinelli Rd., Forestville; 707/887-1756.

Iron Horse Ranch & Vineyards. Stand at the “tasting plank” laid across barrels near the barn and take in the vistas with a glass of bubbly, then a still Pinot. 10–3:30 daily; tasting $5. 9786 Ross Station Rd., Sebastopol; 707/887-1508.

J. Rochioli Vineyard & Winery. Homelike redwood room overlooking Rochioli vineyards. (The family has been growing grapes for other great local winemakers for decades.) 11–4 daily; tasting free. 6192 Westside Rd., Healdsburg; 707/433-2305.

Spanning southern Napa and Sonoma Counties, the region is interesting for its two big sparkling-wine houses that are leaving the bubbles out of some of their Pinot now. Carnernos Quality Alliance (or 707/253-2678)

Artesa Vineyards & Winery. Earth-covered structure that’s light and airy. Modern art gallery and mini wine museum. 10–5 daily; tasting from $10. 1345 Henry Rd., Napa; 707/224-1668.

Carneros Creek — Mahoney Vineyards. Homey, but a great Pinot education is to be had here. 10–5 daily; tasting $7. 1285 Dealy Lane, Napa; 707/253-9463.

Domaine Carneros. Still Pinot is a brilliant departure at this château owned by Champagne’s Taittingers. 10–6 daily; tasting from $14. 1240 Duhig Rd., Napa; 707/257-0101.

Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves. Compare Pinot-heavy sparklers with still Pinots at this Spanish-owned winery. 10:30–5:30 daily; tasting fee varies. 23555 Carneros Hwy./State 121, Sonoma; 707/996-7256.

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