More Silk, Less Slurp, Alcohol as Vintners Class Up Pinot Noir

Former investment banker Jamie Kutch
Former investment banker Jamie Kutch with the grapes intended for his 2010 Kutch McDougall Ranch vineyard pinot noir. Source: Kutch Wines via Bloomberg

I’ve had it with prune-colored California pinots that taste like over-oaked top-heavy syrahs.

I give them a sniff, two sips just to be fair, then a groan and a thumbs-down score.

I’m not merely disappointed. I think they’re a wine crime. Why? Because when pinot is made to caress the tongue instead of grabbing it, it can seduce the palate as no other grape can.

Fortunately, the small band of passionate pinot makers championing pure fruit elegance and silky-textured finesse over gross oak and ghastly levels of alcohol (some 16 and 17 percent!) is growing and getting more vocal.

Two weeks ago, at the 11th World of Pinot Noir event in San Luis Obispo county, there was plenty of discussion among the six winemakers from both camps on an “Alcohol Levels and Balance” panel.

Participant Rajat Parr, wine director of the Michael Mina restaurant group, caused a big stir two years ago when he decided not to include any California pinots with alcohol levels over 14 percent on San Francisco restaurant RN74’s wine list. Ironically, without knowing the alcohol levels of two Siduri wines poured at the panel, Parr chose the 15.2 percent wine as one to buy.

But he wasn’t fazed. “It’s a matter of balance,” he told me a few days later, “The tannin, acidity, fruit, alcohol, the whole combination working together.” His own just-launched Sandhi pinot, though, is 13.3 percent.


Speed-talking Jim Clendenen, the wild-haired winemaker/owner at Santa Barbara’s Au Bon Climat, who was also on the panel, has been pursuing complex pinot for decades.

“To get those big, purple, slurpy flat fruit wines,” he told me via phone, “people wait to pick until grapes are so ripe they’re raisined garbage.” That stylistic choice requires “radical surgery in the cellar” by adding water and acid. (The more sugar in the grapes at harvest, the more alcohol in the wine.)

“I get perfectly ripe grapes at lower alcohols,” he said, “because my vines are in the right cool sites. I’m one of the first to pick.”

I’ve long been a fan of his wines, like the bright, tangy La Bauge Au Dessus ($27) and savory Sanford & Benedict single vineyard bottling ($45), which can age 10 years and more.

Clendenen blames high scores from The Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker for encouraging so many winemakers to continue the over-the-top pinot making that began in the 1990s. But Parker’s influence is waning. He announced last month that he’ll no longer personally review California wines.

Talky Dog

“Site, microclimate, and soil are everything,” says Ross Cobb, winemaker at his family’s Cobb Wines and also at Hirsch Vineyards. Both are on the Sonoma Coast a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, cooled by wind and fog so ripening is slower, preserving the acidity that lets pinot age.

His Cobb Coastlands ($65) has that purity of bright fruit, complex minerality, and silky finish that makes you crave another glass. “Pinot noir shouldn’t look black. You should see your thumbprint through the glass,” he says.

Long-time pinot specialist Greg La Follette, who’s just launched his own La Follette label, uses only one third new barrels for aging his wines. Too much oak masks pinot’s delicate fruit, which is very much on display in his single vineyard Sangiacomo ($40) and Manchester Ridge ($50) bottlings.

“We’re now in the third wave of making California pinot,” La Follette says. “We’ve shown the dog can bark, now we’re giving him elocution lessons.”

Cloned Grapes

Some winemakers have only recently become converts to the idea of balance. Former investment banker Jamie Kutch left his day job five years ago to make wine in Sonoma, proposing to his wife by hiding a boxed engagement ring among grapes on the sorting table.

“That wine was 16.3 percent alcohol,” he says. “The fruit profile was like a flatline on an EKG.”

But his palate shifted. He realized the wines needed more acidity and brightness. The level in his 2009s is down to 13.2 percent, giving his current wines -- like the McDougall Ranch -- focus and vibrancy.

Higher alcohol gives an impression of fuller body and texture, he explains, but low yields give true concentration, richness, and intensity. Kutch, who buys grapes, also seeks out vineyards with old heritage clones that were once smuggled into the country from France.

For many of these winemakers, Burgundy was the original inspiration. But California’s climate, soil and sites are different, and they’re still finding better ways to make very American pinots with grace and balance.

Next week, Clendenen, Kutch, Cobb and 21 others will hold the first group tasting in San Francisco under the “In Pursuit of Balance” banner.

Organizers Parr and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch vineyards dream of taking the wines on the road like pied pipers, bringing along pinot believers.

I’m following the leaders.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE