California Wine: Pinot Noir, Not Peanut No-Ear


Ever since the iconic and wine-world changing movie Sideways, Americans have, for better or worse, embraced Pinot Noir. Tossing aside their once treasured bottles of Merlot, they moved on to what they thought was a more sophisticated and nuanced varietal.

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Pinot Noir is a grape that has a long and well-respected history in the Burgundy region of France. Estates such as Domaine Dujac, Comte Lafond, and Romanee-Conti produce wines of dumbfounding depth and complexity that sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars. But it was no too long ago here in America that Pinot had quite a different identity.


Just twenty years ago, in the states, "Burgundy" was a term still mostly used to describe California jug wine from producers like Carlo Rossi and Paul Mason. At that time there could have been anything but Pinot Noir in the bottle, and the wine probably bore little or no resemblance to its well-respected namesake. But despite this unfortunate perception created by the misuse of a regional name, Pinot Noir did exist in California.

As far back as the early sixties and seventies, great vineyards were being planted throughout California as well as in Oregon. Wineries such as Iron Horse Vineyards, Calera, Williams Seylem, and Kistler were beginning to produce quality Pinot Noir. Since that time, Pinot has been planted and is flourishing in many regions of California. There are waif-like and spicy wines from the blissfully cool Sonoma Coast and foggy Anderson Valley as well as round, juicy wines from hot and steep vineyards along the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Unfortunately, in the hands of some winemakers, Pinot Noir has grown a bit too big for its britches. When left to its own devices in the rich California sunshine, the grapes can ripen to levels that would make their European brethren shrink in fear. That ripeness translates into berry-bursting mouthfuls of high octane Pinot. But despite the glut of boisterous bottlings, there are examples of Pinot Noir that closely resemble their French cousins, delivering a perfect balance of fruit, acid and moderate alcohol levels.

A stunning example of wine made in this style for a more than reasonable price is the 2009 Santa Barbara Winery Central Coast Pinot Noir. Classy and crisp, this wine offers fruit that sings of artisan raspberry preserves mixed with fresh cut Fraises du Bois. Delivering a long clean finish, this wine could easily stand alone as a cocktail sipper or pair beautifully with grilled salmon or a plate of charcuterie.

Santa Barbara Winery Central Coast Pinot Noir, retails about $15.

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