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Unpopular California Pinot Noir : The Impossible Dream Does Have Definite Possibilities

April 10, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Consumers have turned away in droves from California Pinot Noirs for so long, vintners are reluctant to make it. The grape is temperamental to the point that even fine wine makers with finer vineyards were giving up, accepting the theory that California and Pinot Noir were simply not made for each other. Much of the acreage was pulled in favor of such popular varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

The dream, however, of making stylish Pinot Noir similar to French Burgundy continues to be nurtured by a number of die-hard vintners spurred by the idea that what is needed is a select clone to be grown on appropriate soil in a cool locale. Clone after clone has been tested in the attempt to fashion a Pinot Noir that makes wine lovers forget the lush, velvety, in-depth flavors of a fine vintaged Burgundy. So strong is the effort that several wineries took on the project to the exclusion of other varieties.

Dedication Brings Success

Steadfast dedication has brought some success, to such wineries as Calera, Santa Cruz Mountain, Kalin, Swan, Chalone, Carneros Creek, Acacia and David Bruce. Hanzell in Sonoma seems to be the only winery that has been a consistent producer of good, sometimes great, Pinot Noir for any length of time (since the mid-'50s) .

Francis Mahoney, wine maker and co-partner of Carneros Creek, believes he has found the Pinot Noir answer in the Carneros district of the Napa and Sonoma valleys, where he has been experimenting with hundreds of clones since the early '70s under a $100,000 grant made by the Lucky Baldwin Estate Foundation. When Mahoney started in Carneros, there were only 200 acres of vineyards developed by Louis Martini, Beaulieu and Rene Di Rosa, the journalist-turned-farmer who established the successful Winery Lake Vineyard recently sold to Seagrams.

Mahoney has limited the number of clones to about five, but it is the cool Carneros climate which he feels is the controlling factor. "Heat ruins grapes," he said. "Carneros is the coolest Napa Valley region, not far from San Francisco Bay's fog and breezes, which act like penetrating air conditioners to keep the grapes from getting overheated. Pinot Noir-producing wineries in hotter regions farther north in the Napa Valley simply can't produce moderating temperatures with their long, cool growing season. Hence, we get better balance here.

"At Carneros Creek and throughout the Carneros area," he continued, "we try to better understand Pinot Noir in that we never produce in more than two-ton-per-acre quantity, which is barely economic for the winery. Prior to my Carneros involvement, I would not walk more than 10 feet, if that much, for a bottle of California Pinot Noir."

Today's Carneros Creek Pinot Noirs, 1981 and 1983 are both worthy of a distance walk. The 1983, representing an excellent year, showed a delicate fruity, jammy-style nose with excellent fruit, balance and finish. This should age nicely through 1988 and provide the kind of lush, Burgundy-like flavors of which Pinot Noir is capable in this region.

Bouquet of Jam and Roses

The '81, displaying a lovely bouquet of jam and roses, coupled with a sweetish, lingering scent, is developing well, although it is from a hot year. The wine shows good flavors and balance, a bit of heat in the finish, but is otherwise nicely styled.

Also tasted were Carneros neighbors, Acacia, St. Clair, 1983 and Acacia, Iund, 1983. The former reflected sharp fruit coming through the nose in a more angular style. It had fine tannin and finish and was a bit heavier. It has enough fruit to age but don't count on it as a "long liver." Enjoy it for its concentrated flavor derived from very small berries.

The Iund, also with high intensity, sports a very clean nose, bigger structure, more tannin and a bit of heat finish. This will last a bit longer and is characteristic of the fine Pinot Noir styles that Acacia has been developing for the last five years.

As a final cap to the Carneros tasting, Mahoney showed an aged Carneros Creek 1978 from a very cool year. Here is tremendous nose and bouquet developing with ample fruit showing and, above all, Burgundy-like developing flavors. It is a complete and fine wine, and perhaps one of the best Pinot Noirs tasted in recent years. Apparently, if Carneros Creek can make more of this style, then the '83 is worth buying and others of the region's Pinot Noirs must be taken more seriously.

Mahoney is so confident that he formed a group known as the "Carneros Quality Alliance" to further develop the area's viticulture and to emphasize Pinot Noir. Other alliance members producing Pinot Noir are Buena Vista, Acacia, Chateau Bouchaine, Clos Du Val, Gloria Ferrer and Saintsbury.

If Mahoney had his way, Carneros would be limited to Pinot Noir, even though it is earning just as good a reputation for Chardonnay. To reflect the intensity of his conviction, total acreage planted, both bearing and non-bearing, represents a little less than 7,000 acres, of which 37% is Pinot Noir, a substantial figure given the background of negative Pinot Noir review.

Mahoney has become a successful Pinot Noir pioneer without having graduated from enology school. A graduate of the University of San Francisco in an unrelated field, he has audited virtually every wine-making course at UC Davis' Department of Enology. He became interested in wine when he started to drink sweet sauternes at his family's "Irish Thanksgivings." Pinot Noir became an obsession with him after moving from soft drinks to wine while touring and tasting in France.

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