Pinot noir is a grape that seems to attract California winemakers the way a charming but unpredictable woman or man attracts a potential lover. The emotional conflict is over how much they can change the basic nature of the grape — or person — and how much they learn to treasure it for what it is.
For years, West Coast winemakers carried tattered photos in their wallets and purses of a wine that had the haunting fragrance of red Burgundy and hoped that California pinot noir, with time, love, and money, would match that image.
It seldom has, so recently most California winemakers have accepted the fact that for all their talk of clones and terroir, West Coast pinot has a basic character that is not Burgundy. It is riper and fruitier (ironically, often having some merlot-like qualities), grapier on the finish, and generally more alcoholic. In fact, most of the wines reviewed below have alcohol levels of around 14.5. percent
This does not mean that California pinots are better or worse than Burgundy reds. They retain their own sometimes-roguish charm. And, for the most part, regional winemakers have accepted Stephen Stills’ advice: “And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.”
2012 Belle Ambiance California pinot noir ($8): Fruity and rooty with some fresh cola flavors and fair acidity in the finish. A simple wine, but nevertheless nice drinking.
2014 Calista Coast Range pinot noir ($21): Rounded cherry flavors, some cola, some root beer with very good mouth feel and good finishing crispness.
2012 FEL Anderson Valley pinot noir ($35): From the Lede family, this pinot has fresh cherry sweetness balanced beautifully by a nutty, lightly tannic finish — think cherry + walnut. There is also a nice tangy quality. My Pick of the Litter.
2012 Frank Family Carneros pinot noir ($34): Well-structured with ripe Bing cherries, a pleasant rootiness, and a hint of balsamic. The impression is smooth and velvety.
2012 Robert Mondavi Carneros pinot noir reserve ($60): This pinot has a spicy intensity that sets it apart — cherry flavors, some rootiness, very tangy, tannic. It is very big for a pinot and also quite good one.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Jim Fischer