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Anne Krebiehl reports from the Wine Institute of California's Cool Climate Pinot Noir Seminar

Published:  19 March, 2013

Is it possible to discuss Californian Pinot Noir without mentioning the "S" word? Apparently not, since the packed audience at Monday's Cool Climate Pinot Noir Seminar, held at the California Annual Tasting in Westminster, was treated to a video message by Rex Pickett, author of the notorious Pinot flick Sideways.

In a somewhat unfocused message, the writer made a leap straight from Californian Pinot Noir in general to Pinot from the Sonoma Coast, ironically hailing this cool region as "the hottest place" for Pinot Noir, producing wines that have "finesse, lower alcohol and are not manipulated".

This varietal theme was chosen because it was felt that somehow Californian Pinot Noir had been overlooked, with most US Pinot Noir mentions going to Oregon.

Four panellists had each chosen two wines to present. First up was Keith Isaac MW, general manager of Patriarche Wines and long-time importer of Californian wines. "What defines cool climate in California is not latitude and altitude," he stated. Focusing chiefly on climate, he explained that the California coast was made up of "quite warm areas moderated by wind and fog".

Gerard Basset OBE, who had been asked to talk about the particular on-trade aspect of these wines, thought that Pinot Noir's very versatility was posing a difficulty on the restaurant floor. Since sommeliers are expected to propose new wines and new combinations, the fact that Pinot is such a good match for many foods almost made it too obvious and "a disadvantage". The fact that the wine is Californian would be a point of difference, and he suggested to focus on the producer and "almost forget that the variety is Pinot Noir", to preserve excitement and novelty. In terms of price, he added "I think Californian Pinot Noir is good value".

Vanessa Cinti, sommelier at specialist American steak restaurant Cut in London, exhorted everybody to "give Californian wines a chance" and praised their immense variety: between the lines she cautioned against prejudice and presented two interesting Pinots to prove her point. For her, the climatic differences between the regions that result in such different expressions of Pinot Noir, provide her with interesting wines adaptable to the changing seasons.

Claudia Schug Schuetz of Schug Winery in Carneros delved into post-war history and painted a vivid portrait of her winemaker father who had pioneered Pinot Noir production in California. Schug also took exception to Pickett's video comments that homed in on alcohol and acidity: "I think what you need to pay attention to is not a wine's components, but its balance," she said. For her, the qualities of Carneros Pinot Noir are expressed as "red fruit, a little spice (clove), slight ethereal quality from mint but a real lightness". She added that "the handprint of the winemaker is also what Pinot Noir is about."

While we all know that the variables that influence the tastes and textures of Pinot Noir are numerous, it would have been useful to have more factual information, like comparative climatic and soil data of the varying Californian Pinot Noir regions to flesh out and underline regional differences.

Tasting the wines, most of which were artisanal, small-batch wines, often from single vineyards, left no doubt that California has a firm and well-deserved place in the world of Pinot Noir, Sideways or not.

The presented wines were:
Reata 2010, Sonoma Coast
Lucienne Doctor's Vineyard 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands
Hartford Court Land's Edge 2007, Sonoma Coast
Sanford & Benedict Au Bon Climat 2009, Santa Rita Hills
Sanford & Benedict Sandhi 2010, Santa Rita Hills
Sean Thackrey Andromeda 2009, Marin County
Schug 2009, Carneros
Flowers 2010, Sonoma Coast