Seeking out the best up-and-coming pinot noir producers in a sea of pinot noir is no easy feat, but we did just that after sipping and swirling around Pinot Days last weekend, a large wine tasting event held at the Barkar Hangar in Santa Monica. We tasted wines from all over California, Oregon, New Zealand and France, and while there are stunners from every region, some of our favorites hail from closer to home.
Remember Sideways? It's no lie that pinot noir grows spectacularly in the Santa Ynez Valley, an area known for its cool ocean breezes, sunny hills and rocky soil. Since the movie, pinot noir from the region has been in high demand. And there are many well-known producers, but we love discovering some of the newer boutique wineries that you might not have heard about yet. Here are five we recommend finding now.
The story behind this winemaker is as good as the wine itself. James Ontiveros, a ninth generation Californian, grows his grapes on a small plot of Santa Maria Valley land that his ancestors originally owned. While he hails from a family of ranchers, he's a viticulturist maintaining vineyards for large brands like Gallo of Sonoma and Kendell Jackson Winery. But with his own Rancho Ontiveros, he makes some wonderful pinots with both Old and New World sensibilities. Ontiveros is known for his skills, but working with winemaker Paul Wilkins, the Native9 2008 and 2009 pinots are deeply colored, silky and viscous, with intense plum, blackberry and dark cherry aromas, yet still elegant and refined. Small lots yield small production: Only a few hundred cases of each are bottled each year.
This small, family-owned and operated winery and tasting room is located in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. Winemaker Ryan Zotovich worked with Steve Clifton of Palmina and Brewer-Clifton, two more great Central Coast wines, and later at the much-heralded Sea Smoke Cellars. One thing he learned from these mentors: how to create a superior product. Sourced from the estate vineyards, the Zoltovich 2008 pinot noir is big with juicy dark berry flavors, a little spice, and a long, clean finish. He's off to a great start.
Another family-owned and operated winery, Presqu'ile makes some fantastic chardonnay, syrah and pinot noir. Using a combination of estate-grown and sourced fruit, the pinot is more Old World than New, simply more elegant and balanced. The wine we tasted--the bright and beautiful 2009 Presqu'ile Vineyard pinot -- is the first estate bottling. And winemaker Dieter Cronje's pinot noir rose is a head-turner. A permanent winery and tasting room is slated to open later this year.
Most of the grapes from this Santa Rita Hills vineyard go to other top local winemakers at Brewer-Clifton, Ken Brown, Babcock and Hitching Post, but Peter Cargasacchi reserves just enough to bottle some fantastic pinot noir himself. The 2009 Pinot Noir is a complex, fruit-forward wine, and might be too rich for some pinot lovers, but we were into it, and can't wait to open a bottle with some grilled meats.
This Los Angeles-based producer (co-owner George Pitsironis is a former Spago sommelier) makes the most accessible pinot noirs on this list--you can find them at myriad wine shops and restaurants around town. The 2009 Pinot Noir (with the purple label) is a perfectly balanced wine, made with grapes from some of the top vineyards in the region. It bursts of berry and spice flavor, especially five spice, and has a little mintiness. Scoop up the real stunner, the 2009 La Encatada Vineyard pinot, when it's released this summer.
[All Photos by Lesley Balla]