Pinot noir frustrated even the best winemakers for decades in California. In recent years, though, California has begun to figure out the grape. Today, numerous appellations are along a 500-mile stretch from Mendocino to Santa Barbara sourcing fine Pinot Noir wine.
The best sites are characterized by proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the associated fog and cool breezes leading to long growing seasons that enable optimal ripeness, fresh acidity and elegance. The best reveal pure (mostly red berry) fruit with integrated forest, earth and brown spices.
The wines below are the best I tasted over the past year, listed in order of preference in each category.
Remote, rugged and sparsely populated, the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County is an unexpected source of fine Pinot Noir.
- 2015 Goldeneye ($55) smoky, dense, graceful
- 2015 FEL ($38) enticing plum, savory
The Russian River Valley in Sonoma County arguably is one of the world's top sources of Pinot Noir.
- 2015 Sonoma-Loeb "Dutton Ranch" ($40) large scaled, complex, concentrated
- 2015 Sonoma-Loeb "Bateman" ($60) lively, intense, woodsy
- 2014 Rodney Strong ($25) solid fruit, tea notes
- 2016 Raeburn ($25) pure fruit, fine acidity
The Sonoma Coast is California's newest "hot" (but actually cool) region for Pinot Noir. I found a good value in the 2015 La Crema Sonoma Coast ($25). But I was particularly impressed with three wines from MacRostie:
- 2014 Wildcat Mountain ($56) pure fruit, floral, aromatic herbs
- 2014 Goldrock Ridge ($56) supple, savory
- 2014 Sonoma Coast ($38) vibrant, earth-tinged
Straddling the south end of Sonoma and Napa counties, Carneros has transformed from sheep and dairy ranches to prime vineyards over the past 50 years. The three wines from Carneros in my tasting were outstanding.
- 2015 Frank Family ($35) earthy, spicy, richly textured
- 2015 Clos du Val "Gran Val Vineyard" ($60) juicy, complex floral, spice, earth
- The 2014 Bouchaine Estate ($35) sweet but focused berries, baking spices
In Monterey County, certain microclimates enjoy a balance between the cool Monterey Bay and the warm Salinas Valley.
- 2014 Albatross Ridge "Estate Reserve" Carmel Valley ($60) complex, bright, minerals, satiny
- Carmel Road winery has fashioned three beautiful small lot wines in 2014 ($55) from the Panorama Vineyard in Arroyo Seco: North Crest - dark fruit, full, intense spice; South Crest - tangy red fruit, firm, silky; First Row - floral, spice, deep red fruits
- 2014 J. Lohr "Highlands Bench" Santa Lucia Highlands ($35), full, rich, silky
- 2015 Kali Hart Santa Lucia Highlands ($26), approachable, bright, characterful
- 2015 Metz Road "Riverview Vineyard" Arroyo Seco ($35), balanced, lively, herbal
- 2015 La Crema Monterey ($23) textbook varietal character
In San Louis Obispo County, a few small, artisan producers have shown the promise of two smaller growing areas.
- 2015 Tolosa "1772" Edna Valley ($65) textural lushness, beautiful balance
- 2014 Talley Estate Bottled Arroyo Grande ($36) vibrant, mineral, spice
Santa Barbara County sports two regions that rival Sonoma as California's best source of Pinot Noir.
- 2014 Sea Smoke "Southing" Santa Rita Hills ($60) loads of fruit, savory, licorice, firm structure
- 2014 Sanford Santa Rita Hills ($35) energetic, pleasant earthy, smoky notes
- 2014 Cambria "Benchbreak" Santa Maria Valley ($25) dark fruits, intense