It’s too easy to stereotype red-wine drinkers—lovers of power and structure in the Cabernet camp, fans of nuance and delicacy on the Pinot Noir side of the fence. (Hold—or not—any suggestion that the wine preference extends to personality type.) While I’m happy to stipulate that, in general, the Bordeaux family does harbor firmer tannins than many other reds, a flurry of Pinot tasting over the last few weeks has convinced me that the binary character perception does the Burgundian variety a grave disservice. The wine, as interpreted on the West Coast, is remarkable in its range, from delicacy to power, nuance to structure. And with good balance, every profile along the way can be delicious.
Carlo Mondavi, co-owner and winemaker, with his brother Dante, of RAEN puts it another way: “At its best, Pinot Noir is the most incredible liquid on earth.” Old-timers would be forgiven for not associating the Mondavi name with Pinot Noir, Robert Mondavi’s namesake winery being better known for its remarkable Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons (which themselves were—and still are—arguments for nuance in that variety), made for many years by Carlo and Dante’s father and Robert’s son, Tim. But this year marks 100 years of winegrowing for the Mondavi family—no vintages missed, in spite of well-known family business complications. And it is the Pinot Noir they’ve grown for all of those 100 years that inspired the younger Mondavis. “Dante and I first fell in love with Pinot Noir early on via our grandfather and father’s Pinot of the 1960s and 70s,” says Carlo. “The good bottles are still incredible.… I’ve always gravitated towards [the wine’s] elegance and lifted aromatics, its incredible length and the ability to age and evolve for more than a lifetime in great vintages.” (Debunking yet another myth about Cab vs. Pinot in the ageability department.)
The Mondavi brothers knew from family experience, though, that Pinot is one of the most difficult grapes to grow and make into great wine, so they took their time (about a decade) finding “California Grand Cru” sites in West Sonoma, for the three RAEN Pinots they are harvesting and making as I write.
My recent tasting has convinced me that not only is Pinot Noir diverse and multi-faceted, but also that winemakers from California’s Central Coast up to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, like Carlo and Dante Mondavi, have dialed in on making the most of great sites. These nine bottles throw down the glove in the face of simplistic stereotypes.
Benovia Winery 2018 Cohn Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma County
This beauty from Benovia comes from the winery’s oldest estate vineyard, now yielding little more than a ton of fruit per acre. What might be a losing business model is a wine lover’s gain. Earthy crushed rock, black tea and supple leather aromas are balanced by delicate florals and blackberry notes leading to herbal and more floral veins under concentrated plum, berry and cherry fruit flavors. Beautiful minerality carries through a long, intense finish.
Geodesy 2018 Chehalem Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains
This generous Oregon Pinot is part of Geodesy, a project Judy Jordan launched to benefit young women aspiring to a career in agriculture. Its opening aromas are sweet and savory at once—with complex layers of mint, bay leaf, forest, pepper and black tea under red fruit and hints of rose petals. The plushness of black and red fruit—cherry, black raspberry—is offset by a solid tannin structure that adds great texture to the mouth-feel. Exotic spice lingers on the finish.
Joseph Phelps 2018 Pastorale Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast
Here’s a lush but structured estate Pinot from Joseph Phelps, offering the best of a great vintage in far-west Sonoma. A slightly brooding nose combines forest botanicals with toasted spice; dark, briary berries; and a hint of vanilla. The palate gives up rich, generous black cherry flavors and more intriguing spices against a velvety tannin structure—deceptively appealing now even in its age-worthiness.
Kosta Browne 2019 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast
Part of Kosta Browne’s Appellation Series (which covers California with other fascinating Pinots—from Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands and Sta. Rita Hills), this Sonoma Coast version reveals all of the complexity, structure and savory notes the far-west edge of Sonoma County is capable of. Coastal botanicals, bay leaf, crushed rock, black tea and a briny character (picture a fresh breeze over tidepools) open under dark berry aromas. The palate has weight and gravitas, delivering red and blue fruit and hints of sweet baking spices with lovely tension in the mouth.
RAEN 2019 Royal St. Robert Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast
Named for Carlo and Dante Mondavi’s legendary grandfather, this delicate but complex and mouth-filling Pinot from the brothers’ Raen brand shows the character of its cool, far-west Sonoma Coast source. Earthy aromas open in the glass—botanicals, spices and woodsy herbs—wrapped in pretty floral notes. On the palate, mouth-filling texture and structure from 100 percent whole-cluster fermentation (which was native as well) carries cherry and black raspberry, with a contrast of velvety tannins against that structure and savory minerality under the fruit, persisting into a long, complex finish.
Ram’s Gate 2018 Estate Pinot Noir Carneros
A substantial structure combined with lively acidity make this Pinot from Ram’s Gate a good candidate for a few years in your cellar. A touch of mushroom opens, along with a generous sprinkling from the spice rack—cloves, cardamom, toasted cinnamon—giving cherry and dark berry fruit appealing complexity. The concentrated palate adds to the longevity story, with red plum, dark cherry, hints of tea and orange zest unspooling through a lingering finish.
Sokol Blosser 2018 Old Vineyard Block Pinot Noir Dundee Hills
Willamette Valley icon Sokol Blosser celebrates 50 years in Oregon with this Pinot from the block of vines Susan and Bill Sokol Blosser first planted. A deep and layered nose opens with a lovely loam quality edged with crushed herbs, black pepper and spice wrapped in leather. Silky red fruit follows, leaning toward raspberry and pomegranate, seasoned with clove and cardamom and buoyed by an impressive structure that lingers through a very long finish.
Talley Vineyards 2018 The Adobe Pinot Noir Arroyo Grande Valley
This inaugural vintage of an exclusive reserve Pinot from San Luis Obispo’s Talley Vineyards is remarkably elegant but not shy. Beautiful warm spice aromas open, with hints of pine and savory tea, leading to juicy layers of fruit, from strawberry, cherry and rhubarb to darker blueberry. Earth and minerality play supporting roles, providing a real sense of place.
Three Sticks 2019 Price Family Estates Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast
This blend from Three Sticks’ estate vineyards incorporates the diversity of the Sonoma Coast, with an elegant profile. Loamy forest floor notes open to briary berry aromas with a little edge of spiced tea and sprinkling of crushed herbs. Bright red fruit flavors—cherry and raspberry—are blended with a citrus quality, warm spices and silky textures. If the 750s are sold out, go for a magnum or larger.