Wild West Wine
Two mavericks unlock the secrets to good Pinot Noir. Here's where to go for the very best.
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.
Au Bon Climat winery empoyees punching the cap into fermenting wine.
An employee in a tank at Au Bon Climat winery.
Pinot close up in Santa Maria
Luisa Ponzi on a grape check