Charting a Course in a Sea of Pinot Noir
It was a dark and stormy weekend for the 14th annual World of Pinot Noir but no one complained about the inclement weather. We all knew the parched Central Coast landscape needed a good strong drink of rain after so much drought. How delightful that the Grand Tasting, set largely in Bacara Resort & Spa’s ballroom, kept WOPN tasters dry as Pinot despite these drenching late winter storms. You have to love a good backup plan.
With over 90 wineries pouring during the 3-hour Grand Tasting on Friday and over 130 wineries scheduled for Saturday, I needed a good plan myself. Obviously, I would never attempt to savor multiple wines from 90+ wineries in 3 hours even if spitting 100% of the time. How, then, to chart a course through so much wine in so little time?
Wine Tasting Strategies
What strategy would help me discover great wines and good stories while lending focus, not overwhelm, when navigating this crowded dance floor? Given the broad diversity of Pinot Noir producers at WOPN, I detected several themes that might guide one’s wineglass from winery to winery such as SIP Certified wines, wines made by sommeliers, biodynamic wines, international winemakers, wines from Oregon, family winemakers, and wines from select AVAs. Every year at WOPN, endless possibilities abound for discovering discrete collections of nuanced, expressive wines, depending on one’s tasting goals.
At the start of Friday’s Grand Tasting, after discussing wines and storytelling with Dieter Cronje—winemaker at Presqu’ile Winery in Santa Barbara County, a producer of SIP Certified wines—I decided to simply ask trusted winemakers like him for a few recommendations and see where it would lead. We’ve always appreciated the supportive and collegial attitude among Central Coast wineries and winemakers. Confident winemakers who produce their own memorable vintages always seem willing to suggest a few exciting wines and wineries that One Must Not Miss.
During Saturday’s Grand Tasting, I had the good fortune to encounter two sommeliers who generously guided me to a few tastes of exceptional wines and the occasional introduction. Somms strategy!
Thank you Thamin Saleh of Pacific Grove’s jeninni kitchen + wine bar for introducing me to Sonoma’s Wayfarer and Hirsch Vineyards as well as Sandhi wines from Santa Barbara County.
Thanks to Toby Rowland-Jones of Big Sur Food & Wine Festival for the impromptu tour through Bacara’s ballroom to taste the lovely Chateau St Jean from Sonoma and meet the lovely Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat from Santa Barbara County.
Pinot Noir Stories
“You’ve got a great job,” said a fellow taster, pointing to my “Media” badge. “I’m working right now,” I smiled before heading to the next recommended winery on my WOPN beat. Winemaker and sommelier recommendations helped me both discover new wines and revisit some favorites. Several Sonoma County Pinot Noirs—especially those from Siduri Wines, Wayfarer, and Hirsch Vineyards—were so enjoyable, they left me wanting to know more. I seem to have a thing for Santa Barbara County wines based on my tasting notes for the wonderful wines of Hilliard Bruce Vineyards, Paul Lato Wines, La Fenêtre Wines, Kenneth Volk Vineyards, Deovlet Wines, Drake Wines, Ken Brown Wines, and Hitching Post Wines, among others. I love my job sharing interesting stories from our delicious Central Coast wine country with local and visiting foodies.
Pioneers Richard and Thekla Sanford of Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards certainly have a compelling story. On the table among their latest Pinot Noirs sat a framed black and white photo of their younger selves working on that first mid-70s vintage. Always with a commitment to sustainability, the Sanfords produce wines in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Rita Hills AVA that translate the terroir of this beautiful land into a rich sensory experience for the palate.
“We’re all about sustainability,” Richard Sanford has told me when we frequently encounter their quintessential Central Coast wines at sustainable foodie events across the region. We look forward to saying “hello” to Alma Rosa again over another taste of Pinot Noir during Monterey’s Cooking for Solutions event at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in May.
Family Winemakers, with Heart
Another interesting story that one can find at WOPN? Creative winemakers who produce wines for multiple labels, including their own. Clarissa Nagy, for example, makes wine for Riverbench as well as her own label, which began as a passion project with her husband Jonathan. The Nagy Wines website tells the story of Clarissa and her winemaking sweetie crafting a Viognier as a favor for their impending wedding. “This was the original Nagy wine and so begins the story,” she writes, infusing her wine with an emotional narrative and poetry.
— Clarissa Nagy (@cnagywines) July 21, 2013
Personal winemaking ventures present some of the most interesting stories for me in Central Coast wine country, from Clarissa’s wedding Viognier to Pisoni & Lucia Vineyards of Monterey County producing ultra premium wines and grapes across generations to Sinor-LaVallee, Mike Sinor’s personal Pinot Noir label that’s steeped in family. Mike and his wife Cheri decided to feature the fingerprints of themselves and their children on the wine labels for their ultra premium San Luis Obispo County Pinot Noirs to demonstrate how much of themselves they’ve poured into every vintage. Mike’s enthusiasm for Pinot Noir—imprinted on this family label—gets further exercise in his work with Center of Effort and Ancient Peaks Winery. We always enjoy tasting wines soaked in stories.
I particularly enjoyed chatting with winemakers (and spouses) Louisa Sawyer Lindquist and Bob Lindquist who were pouring Pinot Noir bottled under their Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard label. These wines, produced from Demeter-certified, biodynamically-farmed vineyards in Edna Valley AVA in San Luis Obispo County, allow them to come together to make nuanced biodynamic Pinot Noir. When they’re not collaborating, Bob also makes his own wines with Qupe while Louisa makes her own wines with Verdad. So sweet when foodie families can work well together and achieve success.
The best wines result from passionate and committed winemaking directly connected to the heart. One of our favorite storytelling winemakers is Paul Lato of Paul Lato Wines in Santa Maria Valley AVA. Whether it’s the good sense of humor, the charming Polish accent, or the intriguing stories for names of his very limited, extraordinary wines, it is always a delight to visit with this winemaker and experience his thoughtful, beautiful Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Syrahs, and the occasional Grenache. When I asked him once to note on a pie chart how much time he gave every day to his wine project, he took the pen and circled the whole pie. This sommelier winemaker poured a special treat during WOPN: a Pinot Noir called “Kokoro” or “heart” in Japanese that will only be released in Japan. I adore these wines.
For talented winemakers, every vintage narrates the climate, science, tradition, nature, and art that integrates in each wine. All of these creative winemakers enjoy their unique wine projects and telling stories with fruit. How fortunate for us that these producers take their vocations so seriously to spin delicious tales, with wine.
Thanks to the WOPN team for presenting such a well orchestrated and inspiring tasting event celebrating so many wonderful wines and talented winemakers. Thanks to Bacara, C’est Cheese, and Frank Ostini with Hitching Post II for the plentiful edibles that complemented the wine so well and added to everyone’s enjoyment. Cheers!