Wild West Wine

Two mavericks unlock the secrets to good Pinot Noir. Here's where to go for the very best.

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Wild West Wine


Dave Lauridsen

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Pinot feet

  • Pinot feet

    Au Bon Climat winery empoyees punching the cap into fermenting wine.

Pinot tank

  • Pinot tank

    An employee in a tank at Au Bon Climat winery.

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.


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