Close this search box.

Pinot Hits New Heights

By Karen MacNeil
March 30, 2017

I once asked Luke Smith, owner/winemaker of Howling Bluff winery in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia what it was like to make pinot noir. He paused for a moment then said, “Making pinot is a little like waking up a woman at 3 in the morning. You never quite know what you’re going to get.”

Of course, when it comes to wine, unpredictability isn’t exactly bad. Never truly knowing what to expect is part of the attraction; it is why wine appeals to the intellect in a way that, say, vodka does not.

But even though pinot noir is hard to make, and even though it can age according to mercurial and mysterious rhythms of its own, I’d still maintain that in terms of quality, some pinot noirs have a kind of beauty that can be depended on. For me, that’s particularly true of top California pinot noir.

(Over the last several months, I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, as we’ve just wrapped up a fascinating series of pinot “pre-tastings,” the purpose of which is to choose the very top 16 pinot noirs for a seminar I’m giving at California Summit 2017 in May.)

By “depended on,” I don’t mean the wines are uniform, cut from the same cloth, or manipulated to immunity from vintage variation.  Exactly the opposite. I think that slowly and quietly over the last 15 years, California pinot noir has surged way forward and hit a new pinnacle of excellence. There was a day when much of the “good California pinot noir” tasted like flat coke; and most of the “bad California pinot” tasted like flat coke mixed with prune juice. That’s just not true today.

For the last several years, I’ve done tastings in my office of the top 150 or so California pinot noirs from north (Anderson Valley) to south (Sta. Rita Hills). Generally, I invite sommeliers and Level 4 WSET graduates to taste with me, and the double blind tastings are held over a series of four days. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned:


“Earthy” isn’t quite right.

For Burgundies, earthiness is a very helpful umbrella descriptor. I don’t find it as useful with California where the pinot noirs are almost always highly influenced by the Pacific Ocean. There’s a salty/saline character to California pinot noir—an umami character— that’s the result, not of damp earth, but of cold ocean.


The core is critical.

California pinot noir is like a sphere; Burgundy is a like an hourglass. With California, the core of the top wines is critical. The fruit right in the middle is obvious. But here’s what has changed. Today, for the top wines, that core is composed of cool fruit laced with all sort of good “corruption”—a dark primordial character.


Richness doesn’t necessarily mean concentration.

Maybe they used to mean the same thing. But top pinot noir winemakers in California are way ahead of this game now. As the wine importer Kermit Lynch likes to say, music isn’t better because you play it louder.  I think California’s top pinot makers have spent the last ten years getting the music right, but trying to keep the volume down.


Here, by the way, are the top scoring pinot producers from our pre tastings:

Au Bon Climat, Brewer-Clifton, Calera, CIRQ, Davies, Failla, Foursight Wines, Hirsch, Joseph Phelps, Kosta Browne, Laetitia, Littorai, Lucia, Ojai, Paul Hobbs, Peay, Peter Michael,  Radio-Coteau, Roar, Robert Mondavi, Rochioli, Sea Smoke, Three Sticks, Williams Selyem

California Pinot Noir