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California Wine: It's Raining Pinot

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It was pouring in Santa Barbara, and I don't just mean the welcome rain: on February 28 and March 1 over 200 pinot noir producers took part in grand tastings at the World of Pinot Noir held at the Bacara Resort & Spa. You know it's going to be a monumental event when you descend the stairs to the tasting area only to see Richard Sanford first, currently the man behind Alma Rosa wines, but also the one who first thought pinot, that tricky grape to grow, would find a fine home in Santa Barbara back in 1970.

Once into the main hall, it was easy to get lost in the tables of tastings; it was easy to imagine barkers might lure you over to each winery, since no one, not even the spitters, were going to taste everything. On Friday it was easy to head straight to Paul Lato, posing with fans while hoisting a large format bottle in fine winemaker/rock star mettle. Something about wine decanted at a tasting always seems seductive, as if the winery said, "We want this extra special and aired it just for you." Lato's 2009 Zotovich was everything a fan of bigger style pinot noir could want -- a bit of age to tame the edges (aka tannins), not too much age, so it was still a wine about its fruit, and then yet even more fruit. This is a pinot that has been described as perfumed for good reason.

Then, just a few tables away was Sashi Moorman with his (and Raj Paar's) Domaine de la Côte. The name is in French as the approach is classic Burgundy despite the grapes coming from the most western edge of Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara. Actually, despite is the wrong word, since the location keeps the growing season quite cool, and that means this is pinot at 12.5% alcohol, a level surprisingly low for California. Welcome to a wine that's about restraint, beauty, and a search for the perfect dinner companion (perhaps a classic beef bourguignon).

Two days of tasting like these helps make you a master of fine distinctions, given the grapes themselves are the same (well, there are clones, but let's not get that geeky). It gets easier to pick up variations in locations -- for instance, if you favor cherry and some rose in your pinot noir, consider winemakers from Anderson Valley in Mendocino County. Perhaps something like Couloir's Monument Tree or anything from FEL, which used to be Breggo Cellars, and is now named for new owner Cliff Lede's mother Florence Elsie Lede. New name, same wonderful, delicate, delicious wines.

But half the fun is watching the winemakers themselves wandering the floor, too, on busman's holiday (if it were ok for bus drivers to sample wines). There's Joshua Klapper (former wine director at LA's Sona) from Santa Barbara's La Fenêtre, teasing the folks at the Baxter Winery from Mendocino table, and thereby making it clear their wines are as worthy as his are. And there's Rick Longoria -- whose own aptly named Lovely Rita pinot at $32 a bottle is one of the best buys of the day - sipping at the esteemed Paul Hobbs table and clearly appearing both pleased and a bit embarrassed when the pourer there pays him a compliment.

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