Philippe Cambie is the Grenache whisperer. He has made 15 wines that earned a perfect 100 points from Robert Parker, consulting on a vast array of vintages, most widely in his home base of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where he’s become known as the master of the region’s favored varietal. Through 2018, though, Cambie had never made a Pinot Noir. What would lure a Rhône Valley winemaker to Burgundy’s red grape and Oregon and California’s famously pure voice of terroir? Well, in Châteauneuf they call Grenache the “Pinot Noir” of the region, and Cambie simply couldn’t resist the chance to apply his Grenache-whispering skills to Pinot stateside.
The likeliest partner in such a venture was his friend Adam Lee, widely known as a Pinot guru through his Siduri wines and newer Clarice brand. Considering that Lee is a veteran of the variety—from Santa Barbara County up through Monterey, Sonoma, Mendocino and Oregon’s Willamette Valley—I had to ask him: Did the West Coast need another Pinot-focused winery? What could you add to the lexicon, to the range of the wine here, with Beau Marchais (the brand Cambie and Lee launched)? And why concentrate on California? He took the last one first. “Historically, the French winemakers who have come to the New World to work with Pinot Noir have headed to Oregon,” Lee says. “Presumably that’s because the climate is viewed as more similar to Burgundy. But Philippe is the finest producer of Grenache in the world, so getting his interpretation of somewhat warmer-climate California Pinot Noir only made sense. I’m hoping it leads consumers to consider Pinot somewhat differently.”
Taking their direction from Cambie, these first Beau Marchais wines—one from Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands and two from Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills—stretch Lee’s typical lean-alcohol, structured profile. They’re riper and richer, with upfront deliciousness across the board. The Beau Marchais 2019 Sobranes Vineyard Pinot Santa Lucia Highlands ($95) combines haunting florals, black tea and blackberry confiture with a plush and velvety mouth-feel. The 2019 Clos Pepe Vineyard Ouest Pinot Sta. Rita Hills ($95) opens with pine forest and ocean salinity before melting into juicy cherry and blueberry with underlying warm baking spices—structured and vibrant, as well as ripe. And the 2019 Clos Pepe Vineyard Est Pinot Sta. Rita Hills ($95) leads with lovely minerality and savory tobacco and licorice, then exudes sweet fruit—black raspberry, strawberry, and cherry—over fine tannins. This is a long, opulent, textural wine.
Lee is quick to describe how these wines veer from his own traditional patterns. “I’m really working with Philippe’s winemaking protocol—what he has done to make some of the finest wines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape—and the world, quite frankly,” he says. “So everything, from the time on the skins (much longer than what I usually do), the amount of whole cluster (less than on my wines), ripeness levels (a bit riper) and barrels chosen are different.” All of this, Lee admits, has pulled him out of his comfort zone—stagnation he even calls it. “Looking at Pinot Noir through Philippe’s eyes has allowed me to view the grape differently. It’s almost like being a kid in a candy story, looking at things anew again.”
For his part, Cambie sees the project through a personal lens. “It’s the story of a Franco-American friendship,” he says. “I love Pinot, and particularly the great American Pinots. The proposal to make a Pinot with Adam seemed obvious to me. We all have a vision of the elaboration of wines, but a team vision will always be more efficient. This project was a dream come true.”
There’s irony in the outcome here. Under the direction of one of France’s most-respected winemakers, the inaugural Beau Marchais Pinot Noirs, in a sense, carry more New World character than most of Lee’s former West Coast versions do. But they’re beautiful and nuanced, balanced in their richness—a welcome addition to the lexicon.