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Quality of California Pinot “skyrocketed”

The quality of Californian Pinot Noir has improved more than any other grape in the state over the last decade, according to Karen MacNeil.

Karen MacNeil is author of The Wine Bible and chairman of the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies

The comment was made during a Pinot Noir tasting at last month’s California Wine Summit, where attendees tried 18 Pinots , selected by a group of professionals led by MacNeil, who is author of The Wine Bible and chairman of the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley.

Initially, MacNeil recorded a period 15 years ago, where “California Pinot Noir was evolving, but not at a very brisk pace”. Continuing she said, “There were a few exemplary wines, but Californian Pinot didn’t move the needle of emotion and intellect; it was relatively simple.”

However, she added, “In the last 10 years, the quality has skyrocketed faster than any other variety.”

Interestingly, in compiling a selection of Pinots for the Californian Summit from a total of 126 wines from 17 appellations, she said that “no single appellation stood out”.

This was despite the fact, MacNeil stressed, “Pinot Noir is grown over a 500 mile span in California, from Anderson Valley in the north to Santa Ynez in the south,” which she said, was a latitudinal span for Pinot only matched by New Zealand: Marlborough to Central Otago is also 500 miles.

Nevertheless, following a tasting with the help of four people, including one winemaker, the most high scoring wines were from the Santa Rita Hills, followed by Sonoma Coast, Russian River and Santa Lucia Highlands (see bottom for the list of appellations).

MacNeil also identified a “sensational seven” producers who made more than one of the top scoring wines in the tasting, with Laetitia – based in Arroyo Grande Valley in San Luis Obispo County – topping the list (see below).

Winery Wines Submitted Top Scoring Wines
Laetitia 5 3
Brewer Clifton 7 3
Williams Selyem 7 3
Sanford 3 3
Kosta Browne 9 3
Failla 4 2
Au Bon Climat 3 2

Concluding the tasting, MacNeil observed, “A lot of the Pinot Noir greatnesss has moved down south, where you get a suppleness of texture that is extremely hedonistic.”

She also noted, more generally, California is “attempting to move towards beauty”.

About the tasting:

126 pinot noirs from 17 California appellations were assessed by five tasters including Karen MacNeil, two people in the Advanced WSET program; one winemaker, and one 20-year veteran in the wine industry. The wines were “double-blinded” and tasted over 4 consecutive days, with each wine ranked on the 100 point scale.

The top scoring appellations:

4 were from Santa Rita Hills (out of 22 submitted)

3 were from Sonoma Coast (out of 17 submitted)

3 were from Russian River (out of 31 submitted)

3 were from Santa Lucia Highland (out of 8 submitted)

A list of the 18 wines shown at the Pinot Noir tasting can be viewed on the following page.

The 18 Pinot Noirs poured at the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies in Napa Valley during the California Wine Summit were:

2010 Foursight “Zero New Oak”  Charles Vineyard
2011 Littorai Savoy Vineyard
2011 Failla Occidental Ridge Vineyard
2010 Kosta Browne Kanzler Vineyard
2011 Peay Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
2011 Joseph Swan Trenton Estate Vineyard
2011 Williams Selyem Russian River Pinot Noir
2010 Martinelli Zio Tony Ranch “Grace Nicole”
2011 Scribe Pinot Noir
2011 ROAR Sierra Mar Vineyard
2010 Pisoni Estate
2011 Siduri Rosella’s Vineyard
2011 Brewer – Clifton “Melville”
2010 Samsara Kessler-Haak Vineyard
2010 Sanford Sanford & Benedict Vineyard
2011 Paul Lato “Seabiscuit” Zotovich Vineyard
2010 Au Bon Climat Talley Vineyard
2011 Laetitia Whole Cluster


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