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Wine of the Week

Etude's Excellence

When I first opened this week’s Wine of the Week, the Etude Heirloom Carneros Pinot Noir 2003 ($75), it wasn’t even close to being ready to drink despite being eight years old, ancient in California time.

So I put a stopper in it, pumped it out, and left it. It then took two days to open up, but when it did, it was magnificent.

This is why, despite the oceans of cocktail wine that California produces, I am an eternal optimist, pulling cork after cork, because I know I am going to discover, every once in a while, a glorious wine like this.

It’s possessed of that hallmark Pinot Noir magic, that elegant ethereal fruit-laced delicacy, combined, without a hint of contradiction, with a profound, pagan fecundity.

A perfect winter wine. To accompany a hearty Boeuf Bourgignon, perhaps?

To learn more about this special Pinot, I talked with winemaker Jon Priest. He explained that Heirloom is not a single vineyard wine but a special cuvée made from a particular strain of vines bred over decades to produce a small number of tiny, intensely flavored grapes. Hence the name.

“Because of the low yields and small berries,” Priest said, “these grapes tend to have the structure and the tannin to hold these wines up over age. There’s also a different sense of acidity; the grapes seem to have a brightness to them and that can add to the longevity of the wine.”

Such low yields do not exactly constitute a winning business plan, though, and at one point this lack of financial viability threatened Heirloom’s existence. “They found these selections to be maddening, because they produce a very small yield, so from the standpoint of a grower, who is trying to maintain his financial stability, it really didn’t make much sense to have them in the ground. The growers just wanted to plough them under. But it was important to us to keep these because we can make a very, very substantial and special wine out of them, and they are very important to us.”

So Etude came to an arrangement with the growers to pay by the acre rather than by the ton—hence Heirloom’s high but totally justified price. Such commitment to a unique but financially challenging wine is unusual in the jet-fueled environment of Napa, so bushels of well-deserved kudos to Etude and its corporate parent, Treasury Wine Estates (TSRYF:US).

To find this wine near you, try Wine Searcher.

When to Drink: Now and for the next 10 years

Breathing/Decanting: Decant and breathe for as long as possible

Food Pairing: Boeuf Bourgignon … and any other hearty meat dishes

Grapes: 100% Pinot Noir

Appellation: Carneros

Region: California

Country: USA

Price: $75

Availability: Extremely limited


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Nick Passmore is an independent wine writer and consultant based in New York. For five years he contributed a widely read monthly wine column to, in addition to which his work has appeared in such publications as Forbes, Discover, Town & Country, the Robb Report, Wine Enthusiast, Saveur, Sky, and Golf Connoisseur. He is currently artisanal editor for Four Seasons magazine and contributes a twice monthly column to He is also a judge at the annual Critics’ Challenge wine competition.

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