Pinot Noir, that tempermental, sometimes curmudgeonly red grape of France's Burgundy region, is regarded by many a wine afficianado and empassioned winemaker as the Holy Grail of Wine, or, at least, the Holy Grail of Red Wine.
It has been said that Cabernet Sauvignon, the noble red grape of Bordeaux is the wine of reason. But it is Pinot Noir that strikes passion in the hearts of men and women. And it does so with an inviting, seductive, intoxicating passion too! I realize I speak with predjudice, but there is no equal to great pinot noir. A wine writer onced quipped in a piece she wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle, "Pinot Noir is like sex, even when it's bad it's still great."
And many of the wine producers of our county are regarded as producing the greatest pinot noirs on the continent. A number of years ago, Robert M. Parker, Jr., a wine writer highly regarded by serious consumers, and probably the most influential wine writer in the United States, has proclaimed our pinot noirs the most exciting pinot noirs produced outside the grape's home turf of Burgundy!
Going back to the 60's when I was in college, friends would tell me, if you drink red wine, drink California cabernet sauvignon, but avoid California pinot noir like the plague. There may have been several exceptions to that axiom--perhaps the Santa Cruz Mountain pinot noirs of the late Martin Ray, which I never had the privilege of tasting--but by and large these mentors of the time were correct, I think.
Enter the 1970's and Chris Whitcraft, a then-prominent wine merchant in Santa Barbara (and later on, becoming one of the great winemakers of Santa Barbara County), was turning me on to the great Hanzell pinots of Sonoma County. Also notable of the era were the pinots coming out of Chalone on the Central Coast. These wines were fabulous red wines, but they never qualified as great pinot noirs in any burgundian sense.
By the late 70s and early 80s, visionaries like Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and Richard Sanford of Sanford Winery were demonstrating to the world that it was possible to produce quintessential pinot noir in north America and they were doing it right here in Santa Barbara County. By the 90s, you would see dedicated and empassioned producers like Bill Wathen and Dick Doré of Foxen, Lane Tanner, and Frank Ostini and Grey Hartley of the Hitching Post, and last but certainly not least, Chris Whitcraft, joining the ranks of Clendenen and Sanford, producing without question some of the most exciting, inviting and intriguing wines in the new world.
The producers to search out:
Au Bon Climat. Founded in 1982 by Jim Clendenen and his then-partner, Adam Tolmach, this winery has singularly put forth some of the greatest wine in the world--and all from a Santa Barbara County location and address!
Babcock Vineyards. The vineyards are located out in the cool, foggy reaches of the west end of the Santa Ynez Valley not too far from Lompoc. Wines to try, especially the most current vintages.
Byron Vineyard & Winery. The winery and vineyards are now owned by Robert Mondavi. The Mondavi Family realizes the potential for pinot noir here in our fair county, and they have given founding winemaker "Byron" Ken Brown pretty much carte blanche to produce stylish Santa Maria Valley pinot noirs.
Cambria Winery & Vineyard. Another important player to watch is Cambria. Like Byron, this winery is owned by another important northern California producer, Kendall Jackson. Like Ken Brown at Byron, winemaker Dave Guffy and his staff and turning out some very consummate pinot noirs from the Santa Maria Valley.
Fiddlehead Cellars. This small operation is the inspiration and brain-child of winemaker-proprietor, Kathy Joseph. Her first vintage of pinot noir (1989) was snapped up by the White House and is served at state dinners today. She has recently acquired some 130 acres across from the fabled Sanford & Benedict Vineyard on Santa Rosa Road near Lompoc in the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley where she will plant pinot noir, of course.
Foxen Vineyard. Everything the Foxen Boys, Dick Doré and Bill Wathen, do is done with panache and taste. Along with every other varietal they produce, their pinot noirs are regarded as some of the best produced in the United States!
The Gainey Vineyard. Even though the winery itself is in one of the hotter regions of the east end of the Santa Ynez Valley, winemaker Rick Longoria manages to get high quality fruit from vineyards near Lompoc and the Santa Maria Valley, producing substantive, tasty pinot noirs.
Hitching Post. I don't know who has the passion more, Frank Ostini, or Chris Whitcraft. Frank, owner of the Buellton Hitching Post, makes the Hitching Post pinots. The wines are available on a limited retail basis and are available at both Hitching Post restaurants, at the original location in Casmalia and at the Hitching Post II in Buellton.
Lane Tanner Winery. Lane tanner was mentored by the late, great dean of California winemakers, André Tchelistcheff and she has been producing wine in Santa Barbara County for a dozen years, under her own name since 1989. When she came to Santa Barbara County from Northern California, she was the chemist at Zaca Mesa Winery. Recently she has produced an exquisite pinot for Zaca Mesa as part of the winery's "Alumni Series." Her pinot noirs are lusty and exciting and regarded as some of the best examples of pinot noir produced in America.
Longoria. While making the wine at Gainey is a full-time job, Rick still finds time to produce small lots of wine under his own name. His limited production pinot is some of his best. Worth searching out.
Meridian Vineyards. The winery has one of the largest vineyard holdings in Santa Barbara County. And dispite the winery's size, winemaker Chuck Ortman continues to produce some pretty dazzling Santa Barbara County pinot noirs, especially for the price.
The Ojai Vineyard, winemakers-proprietors Adam Tolmach and Helen Hardenbergh produce some stunning pinot noir in small quantities from such esteemed vineyards as Bien Nacido. Usually underpriced, I think, these wines are always a terrific value. Adam had preceded Lane Tanner as Zaca Mesa's enologist after graduating from U.C. Davis. He and Jim Clendenen (Zaca Mesa's assistant winemaker under Ken Brown) were the founders of Au Bon Climat Winery back in 1982.
Sanford Winery. Along with Au Bon Climat, a pioneering spirit in Santa Barbara County, and winemaker Bruno D'Alfonso always manages to produce some of the most intriguing and best pinot noirs the county has to offer. These wines are widely available. Try a Sanford pinot noir; I think you'll like it.
Santa Barbara Winery. Winemaker Bruce McGuire always produces tasty and well made pinot noir at a great value. You can never go wrong with the regular bottling and the reserves from the Lafond Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley are ones to search out! I like all of the wines produced by Bruce at Santa Barbara Winery, but I think his magical propensity to great wine is anchored in his pinot noir.
Stephen Ross Winery. Like Adam Tolmach from Ojai, owner-winemaker Steve Dooley is producing some exquisite pinot noir from Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley. Limited production wines worth the search.
Whitcraft Winery. The man--Chris Whitcraft--has the passion! Whitcraft can walk on water. Pinot noir just doesn't get any better than this. Finding his pinots is like finding the needle in the haystack. But the search is worth it! Cheers!
Bob Senn writes The Independent's monthly wine column, "Grapevine," and owns the Los Olivos Wine & Spirits Emporium.
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