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TASTINGS

The Central Coast's Newer Noirs

February 07, 2001|CHARLES E. OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most wine lovers know that Carneros and Russian River in Northern California are two of the finest growing areas for Pinot Noir in the country. And I am the first to admit that the wines of Dehlinger, Gary Farrell, Acacia and Saintsbury are about as good as it gets.

But Central California-from the Santa Ynez Valley up into the coastal vineyards of San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties-has its way with the grape as well. While there are those who argue that Syrah is the red grape of the future in that area, it is clear from my recent tastings that Pinot Noir is and will continue to be an important player.

It was not so long ago-maybe no more than a couple of decades-that most California Pinot Noir was grown in relatively warm locations. Only the rare Pinot came from cooler climes. Today, virtually all the great West Coast Pinots-whether from Northern or Central California-are grown in these moderate locations and the grape, always difficult in the vineyard and in the winery, has flourished in its new homes.

In past columns, I've looked at the offerings from such leading Central Coast Pinot Noir producers as Au Bon Climat, Babcock and Talley. This time, we turn to some less well-known but equally worthy wineries.

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* 1999 Foxen, Santa Maria Valley, $22. Make no mistake about it. Foxen is not part of the upscale, beautiful winery trend that is beginning to rule the roost up in Santa Barbara County. No fancy mausoleum-like architecture or art gallery for Foxen. But within its barn-like tasting room, you will find a treasure chest of special bottlings of Pinot and Syrah. And while this bottling is at least a bit more widely available, it shows the style of the winery in its ripe, outgoing, piquant fruit and its youthful firmness that lies just under the surface of the supple texture that is so much a part of Santa Barbara Pinot.

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* * 1998 Gainey Vineyard "Limited Selection," Santa Maria Valley, $32. The Gainey family has been making wine for almost 20 years, and, were they a bigger winery or more aggressive marketers, their enterprise would surely have become more widely recognized. In addition to achieving great success with their Limited Edition Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, Gainey has now come up all aces with this exceptional Pinot Noir. It begins with deep, perfectly ripened cherry-like aromas and is buttressed by creamy oak. Its lovely, velvety texture is the very hallmark of fine Pinot and its long finish makes nary a misstep in completing the picture of wine in harmony. It demands almost no further cellaring yet has the range and stuffing to age up to five years.

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* 1997 Lafond "Lafond Vineyard," Santa Ynez Valley, $35. Owner Pierre Lafond and winemaker Bruce Maguire are the duo behind the venerable Santa Barbara Winery. Now, they have combined to make a series of limited production wines under this label. This one is a carefully balanced, oak-enriched Pinot that captures an extra bit of spice and comes with a tougher edge of tannin in the finish than might be expected. It is grown in the coolest, most westerly region of the Santa Ynez Valley, and the wine's firming acidity and age-demanding coarseness may be due to provenance alone.

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* * 1998 Stephen Ross, Edna Valley, $22. Stephen Ross Dooley is a name to remember. He makes small quantities of very good wines, and his reputation is sure to spread if he maintains the good results he has shown here. I admit to liking the less expensive of his releases a little better than his higher-priced spreads, but both are worth seeking out. This one is the more straightforward of the two, and its direct, ripe cherry fruit and reasonably velvety feel have earned it a fair amount of attention.

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* 1998 Stephen Ross "Bien Nacido Vineyard," Santa Maria Valley, $33. This wine is firmer than the less expensive version and may ultimately have the longer life. It picks up some of the brushy, herbal, tea-like notes often associated with the Santa Maria Valley and juxtaposes them with very solid, still nascent fruit. A bit of patience is probably the wisest course with this one.

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* 1998 Steele Wines "Bien Nacido Vineyard," Santa Barbara County, $40. Jed Steele's winery may be located up north in Lake County, but he has plenty of experience with Santa Barbara Pinot and is actively involved in consulting with folks in the area. One could argue about which grape in his arsenal has been the most successful. While it is true that Zinfandel and Chardonnay from his winery have long lists of admirers, for me, it is Steele's work with Pinot Noir that has been the most impressive. Even here, in a wine that is not his best, he has nevertheless succeeded in capturing a good dose of ripe, open fruit to balance the brushy, herbal leanings of the wine.

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Symbols

*** A world-class wine, superb by any measure, the top 1% to 2% of all wines tasted.

** An exceptional wine, well worth the effort to find, 10% to 12% of wines tasted.

* An admirable wine, tasty, focused, attractive, about 25% of wines tasted.

No Rating: The best are quite pleasant and can be good buys when moderately priced

$ Good value for the money.

+ Below average quality, to be avoided.

Tasting Notes is based on tastings conducted by Connoisseur's Guide to California Wine, a monthly newsletter devoted to the critical review of California and West Coast wines.

Readers of the Times may obtain a sample copy by sending their name and address to: CGCW, P.O. Box V, Alameda, CA 94501, by calling or faxing (510) 865-3150 or by e-mailing CGCW@aol.com.

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