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California Pinot Noir

Porter Creek Pinot Noir

Porter Creek Pinot Noir

I saw online last night that Eric Asimov had an article in the NYT today about California Pinot Noirs, and since we took a trip to Northern Sonoma County last October to visit vineyards, I went staight for the article. It turned out to be written from Healdsburg, where we stayed. And it turns out to be the featured article in the Dining section of the print edition, with a cute accompanying drawing of a tipped-over wine glass with red wine pouring out into the shape of California.

In reading the article last night, I was of course on the lookout for mentions of the vineyards we visited. The thrust of the article is that a lot of California pinots are overdone, but there is now a most welcome counter-revolution, with several vintners returning to lighter wines. Here is the opening passage:

AS the rain slanted down onto the vineyard around Copain Wine Cellars, just outside this town in northern Sonoma County, Wells Guthrie, the proprietor, poured a glass of one of his 2006 pinot noirs.

The wine was fresh and light with aromas of flowers and red fruit. Even in the gray dimness of his tasting room I could see my fingers on the other side of the glass through the pale ruby wine.

It was vibrant and refreshing, nothing like the dark, plush, opulent wines that have made California pinot noir so popular. Mr. Guthrie used to make wines more along those heavier lines, but not anymore. After the vinous equivalent of a conversion experience, with his 2006 vintage he renounced the fruit-bomb style in favor of wines that emphasize freshness and delicacy.

“It got to the point where I didn’t want the wine to be fatter than the food,” he said. “Wine should make you think of what you want to eat.”

From Mendocino and Sonoma through the Santa Cruz Mountains and Arroyo Grande south to the rolling hills of Santa Barbara County, a rebellion is brewing. The dominant style of California pinot noir remains round, ripe and extravagant, with sweet flavors of dark fruit and alcohol levels approaching and sometimes surpassing 15 percent.

But on a recent trip through these leading pinot noir areas I was thrilled to find a small but growing number of producers pulling in the opposite direction.

Instead of power, they strive for finesse. Instead of a rich, mouth-coating impression of sweetness, they seek a dry vitality meant to whet the appetite rather than squelch it. Instead of weight, they prize lightness and an almost transparent intensity.

A little further down in the article, I read, “For me, wine’s place is with food, and that’s why I had begun to despair of so many California pinot noirs. Their power and sense of sweetness were overwhelming at the table. But it turns out that more than a few California producers share my feeling, like Ehren Jordan of Failla and Thomas Brown of Rivers-Marie, Joe Davis of Arcadian and Alex Davis of Porter Creek. Almost to a person, they make no secret of being inspired by the wines of Burgundy.”

Sure enough, one of the vineyards we visited is mentioned: Porter Creek. It was highly recommended by the wine expert at our Healdsburg hotel, Les Mars, and we made it a point to stop there first on our drive down the Russian River Valley to the ocean. Here’s what I wrote about Porter Creek in my post last October on our day in the Russian River Valley.

As our hotel’s wine expert, Ron, explained last night, this is a low key place, with some pretty laid back people doing the wine pouring in a simple building. We parked just off the road in a small gravel lot, just past which was a house with a dog, and beyond that was a wooden shed, where our wine pourer awaited us, as did two more dogs, one young and destined to be big, the other immense. We had a great time there, trying several wines, listening to his explanation of the joy of smelling wine, and hearing his views on life and vineyards in general. They have a small amount of land just outside with Pinot Noir grapes, and he offered us three Pinot Noirs made from them. The difference in the three, he explained, is that the grapes for the reserve came from the vines on the upper part of the slope, the grapes for the cheapest Pinot were from the middle, and the grapes for the final bottle were from the bottom. (The final wine is generally only made available to restaurants, but for a short time each year regular people like us can taste and buy it. On the wall was a list of New York restaurants that have bought the wine.)

At the end of our trip, we shipped back to Seattle 24 bottles of wine from 11 different vineyards. In reviewing the list, I see that the only vineyard from which we bought Pinot Noir was Porter Creek, where we got a bottle of 2005 Pinot Noir Reserve and a bottle of 2006 Pinot Noir Estate. They still await tasting, so I can’t write yet about our impressions, but we are eager to try them.

Asimov explains in his article that after using late-picked grapes to make the pinots so rich, with high alcohol content, some vintners then proceed to lower the alcohol level by adiding water. The article’s close contains another quote from Alex Davis of Porter Creek.

“There is a lot of pressure in California to make wines in that other style, and you can understand why,” said Alex Davis, whose 2006 Porter Creek Fiona Hill pinot noir from the Russian River Valley has a freshness that will wake up the most tired palate. “People have a lot of bills to pay.”
Still, none of these producers is suffering, and many are encouraged by the growing demand for their wines.

“The palate in Europe, like the wines, has had a thousand years to develop,” said Ted Lemon of Littorai, whose wines beautifully combine structure and intensity with restraint. “We’re only starting.”

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