I won’t say that great pinot noir can only be made in Burgundy nor will I assert that a strict Burgundian interpretation of the grape is the only legitimate course to follow. Yet there is a greatness and fineness about the best models of the pinot noir grape from the Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy that examples produced in other parts of the world seldom achieve. Still, who would decry the fresh, pale, astringent pinot noirs of the Jura mountains, or the uniquely rooty, earthy pinots of Oregon’s Dundee Hills or the bright, fruity pinots of Carneros? One of the most transcendent pinot noirs I have ever tasted hailed from Tasmania. Obviously we must allow room for variation and individual style, yet most important is the notion that place matters; geography, friends, is a dear teacher, and whether in warfare or winemaking only fools will fail to pay heed to its lessons.

The responsibility of the winemaker is to produce a wine that exploits the grape’s best and most expressive character. The first exercise of that responsibility lies in planting grapes in the right location. Soil composition, sub-soil, underlying strata; the folds in hillsides, exposure to the sun and its duration, the ability of the ground to absorb or shed rainwater; the direction of prevailing winds and their distant source; the seasonal range of temperatures throughout the day and night; all of these factors and more coalesce in that precisely measurable yet somehow mysterious notion we call microclimate or terroir. Five hundred years have proven that a group of lamentably tiny vineyards in central-eastern France form the perfect terroir for the pinot noir grape, but that fact will not hinder prophets and pioneers from seeking a similar salubrious combination of effects elsewhere in the world.

The winemaker’s next responsibility is to allow a grape variety to seek its most natural level of eloquence; such a wine must be made without ego or agenda. Excellent grapes picked from a great vineyard need little help in accomplishing this goal, yet winemakers are an interfering lot. All details and variations of place and year aside, the pinot noir grape does not express itself best when the alcohol level is high, when the grapes are extremely ripe, when through deep extraction and oak aging the winemaker tries for size, voluptuousness and power. Let me state my feeling clearly: A pinot noir wine that, because of its size, its extraction, its power, reminds the taster, even in part or in passing, of, say, a syrah or a zinfandel, is a flawed wine, is, frankly, a failure, and it has been made in bad faith. The compact was been broken between the winemaker and the grape, and the wine amounts to an act of betrayal. I’m not saying that a pinot forced into larger-than-life dimension could not be enjoyable, match well with certain foods and so forth; I’m saying that it’s not pinot noir, and you might as well be drinking something else.

Over the past two or three weeks, I tasted 30 to 35 pinot noir wines from various regions of California; all are from vintages 2007 and 2008. I present my findings in a three-part series beginning today. A few of the examples displayed exactly what lovers of the pinot noir grape hope for, that ineffable marriage of delicacy, elegance, earthiness and authority that no other grape can offer in the same balance or proportion. More, however, and sadly, seemed heavy-handed, over-wrought, stridently-oaked and burdened with alcohol. Of course the pinot noir grape is not alone in such misfortune.

Image of pinot noir grapes from bighandsome.com.
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Benovia Winery was founded in 2005 by Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane, with winemaker Mike Sullivan as co-owner. The wines produced are chardonnay and zinfandel and a variety of single vineyard or proprietary pinot noirs. New French oak ranges from 53 to 60 percent; fermentation is induced by indigenous yeast.

The Benovia Savoy Vineyards Pinot Noir 2006, Anderson Valley, is pure and intense, rooty, loamy and minerally in the graphite sense. Scents and flavors of macerated black cherries, currants and plums are full-blown and spicy, yet the wine retains a tinge of reticence and austerity. Ten or 15 minutes in the glass bring out hints of pert cranberry and mulberry and burgeoning spice, but you feel the oak too, a tide that pushes against the swathing of fruit. The “Savoy” is the most sinewy, the most powerfully structured of this trio. 14.1 percent alcohol. 372 cases. Excellent. About $58.

The Benovia Cohn Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Sonoma County, is a little warmer, a little spicier and certainly more exotic, with notes of sassafras, sandalwood and cloves. The texture is satiny, almost plush, but with a backbone of rigorous acidity and shale-like minerality. The black fruit flavors become rather marinated and roasted and hints of rhubarb and fruit cake seep in. Again, one feels the oak from mid-palate back, drying the finish. 14.4 percent alcohol. 372 cases. Very Good+. About $58.

One notices immediately that the warmest, the most generous and multi-dimensional of these pinot noirs is the Benovia Bella Una Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, for which grapes are drawn from the Martinelli, Dutton and Manzana vineyards. The wine is also the earthiest, with layers of a moss-like Oolong tea, and traces of tobacco leaf and sandalwood. This is frankly a big mouthful of pinot noir, and fortunately it possesses a core of delicately wrought black fruit flavors to play against the forceful oak and tannic structure, offering convincing balance. 14.5 percent alcohol. 195 cases. Excellent. About $58.

Samples for review.
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Davis Bynum, who could be counted among the Sonoma County pioneers, founded his winery in 1975, concentrating on chardonnay, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. Well-known winemaker Gary Farrell came aboard in 1986 to bring some steadiness to the label, before starting his own winery. The label is now owned by Tom Klein and is part of Rodney Strong Wine Estates. Winemaker is Gary Patzwald, for whom 2007 was the first vintage.

Fine so far, I suppose, but I have to say that the Davis Bynum Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, is one of the most un-pinot-like pinot noirs I have experienced, and I have to wonder what good ol’ Davis Bynum, with his label in other hands, thinks of it. The color is a deeply extracted dark ruby-plum hue; aromas of plum and black cherry, fruit cake, lavender and rose petal (some dark, heady damask-like rose) seethe in the glass in a promiscuous smoky, fleshy welter. The wine is dense, succulent, almost viscous, and the intense ripeness pushes the fruit toward boysenberry, just as the 14.9 percent alcohol shoulders through the finish as a kind of sweet heat. Is it zinfandel? Is it shee-razz? The grapes, we’re told, are pinot noir, but the effect is bizarre. Not for this boy. About $35.

A sample for review.
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Donum Estate occupies the former Tula Vista Ranch in Carneros, which the Racke family held onto after selling the Buena Vista Carneros Winery to Allied Domecq in 2001. Buena Vista traced its origin to 1857, when it was founded by the Sonoma County wine pioneer, Count Agoston Haraszthy, so even peripherally, there’s a lot of history here. President of Donum is Anne Moller-Racke, who came to California from Germany in 1981 and by 1997 was vice president of vineyard operations for Buena Vista; Moller-Racke is highly regarded as a grower, and her experience with the vineyards from which Donum draws its estate grapes goes back 20 and 30 years. I understand how meticulously the estate is run, how thoughtful and careful the vineyard practices are; I comprehend the innumerable questions and details that Moller-Racke and winemaker Kenneth Juhasz address in trying to achieve what the winery’s website calls “the purest possible expression of site and vintage.” So why do I find this trio of pinot noirs not thrilling? These are large-framed, packed-in pinot noirs, very Californian in tone and presence, and there’s nothing wrong with that nature, necessarily — all pinot doesn’t have to be Volnay or Chambolle-Musigny –but the persistent presence of new French oak in these wines is distracting, distancing and, particularly in one case, unbalancing.

The color of the Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Carneros, is medium-darkish ruby. Scents of black and red cherries and cloves with a touch of cola and rhubarb burst from the glass in a welter of macerated and slightly roasted fleshiness; this is heady stuff, indeed. The spicy black and red fruit character continues seamlessly through the mouth, ensconced in a satiny texture that flows smoothly and lushly across the palate; the wine is substantial, even weighty for the pinot noir grape, and you feel the pull of the oak — 11 months, 70 percent new barrels — as it takes over the finish. 14.4 percent alcohol. 800 cases. Very Good+. About $65.

Even more seductive and exotic is the bouquet of the Donum Estates West Slope Pinot Noir 2007, Carneros, a seething cauldron of red currants and black cherries, sandalwood and ashes of roses, lavender, rhubarb, sassafras and smoky Oolong tea, like some hippie cologne concocted in Kathmandu. The wine is smooth, silky, plush, dense and dusty with moderately chewy tannins and a touch of slate; altogether, it takes the grape’s sensuous possibilities almost to the limit, that is to say, almost beyond a sense of natural pinot noir-ness. In quite a feat, Moller-Racke and Juhasz pulled off a minor miracle by putting the wine through 16 months in French oak, 70 percent new barrels, and not overwhelming the wine (and its drinkers) with too much wood. Try through 2013 to ’14. Alcohol content is 14.4 percent. 150 cases. A grudging Excellent. About $70.

Beyond the pale for this palate, however, is the Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, a wine that opens with sweet succulence and quickly proceeds to display the tangible panoply of its oaken arsenal. The regimen was 11 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels; the result is very foresty, very briery, with dry woody spice and dusty austerity. Where’s the fruit? 14.4 percent alcohol. 500 cases. Not recommended. About $65.

Samples for review.
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In 1998, Bill Foley, who has deep pockets, founded his winery in the Santa Rita Hills, a sliver of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley. Not long afterward, he swung into acquisition mode, and now Foley Wines owns 16 wineries or labels, including the venerable Firestone and, as of December 2008, the even more venerable Sebastiani. The Foley label itself focuses on chardonnay and pinot noir from the estate’s Rancho Santa Rosa vineyard. Winemaker is Kris Curran, who before she came to Foley established the very successful pinot noir program at Sea Smoke Cellars.

Lord have mercy, the Foley Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Rita Hills, is lovely. Despite 16 months in French oak, the wine is a model of subtlety, poise and elegance. Poignant aromas of red and black currants and cherries are married to piercing slate-like minerality and a wafting of cloves and the slight asperity of allspice. As is the case in great pinot noir, slashing acidity cuts a swath on the palate, so the wine’s luxurious satiny texture does not overwhelm or turn into exaggeration; the wine is so fresh that even the spare tannins feel clean and wholesome. The bouquet’s heady perfume increases as the moments pass, while the ripe black and red fruit flavors deepen and darken. A wonderful amalgam of grace and authority; close to perfection. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 to ’14. Excellent. About $40, but prices on the Internet can be as low as $32.

Tasted at a trade event.
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Rich Frank — no pun intended — sough relief from the stress of the Hollywood media industry by buying a house in Napa Valley in 1990. He had been chairman of Disney’s television and telecommunications division and president of Walt Disney Studios. In 1992, he and a partner — subsequently bought out — purchased the defunct Kornell Champagne Cellars on the old Larkmead Winery near Calistoga. Larkmead had been established in 1884. Frank Family Vineyards concentrates on chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, and though I have liked the cabernets and chardonnays, I have found the zinfandel overbearing. The pinot noir discussed today is the first pinot that the winery has released for national distribution; a Reserve Pinot Noir is sold only in the tasting room. Winemaker is Todd Graff.

The Frank Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2008, Napa Valley-Carneros, is one big snootful and mouthful of pinot noir. Scents of red and black cherries and plums are dominated by ripe, earthy, fleshy elements and by piercing slate-like minerality and spicy oak. The treatment is entirely reasonable — 11 months in French barrels, 25 percent new, 75 percent one- and two-years-old — yet wood pervades every aspect of the wine, building from mid-palate back through the finish and providing, paradoxically, a sort of robust balance between voluptuousness and austerity. A few more details emerge in hints of cherry cola and briers, rose petals and licorice, but this is a wine primarily dominated by structure. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 954 cases. Very Good+. About $35.

A sample for review.
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The Gainey family hails from Minnesota, where they built Josten Inc., a company devoted to academic and athletic products and services, into a Fortune 500 company, while, at the same time, dedicating their lives to the raising of Arabian horses. That avocation brought them to the Southwest and then to Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley, where Daniel J. Gainey, son of the family patriarch, in 1962 purchased 1,800 acres of farmland and open range. Grapevines came later, and in 1984 Gainey Vineyards released its first wines. The ranch is the largest diversified farming operation in Santa Ynez Valley, with 1000 acres for cattle, 600 for organically cultivated farmland, 100 acres for horses and 100 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards. Winemakers are Kirby Anderson and Jon Engelskiger.

The Gainey Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Rita Hills, offers lovely balance and integration, with delicately wreathed notes of smoky black cherry, red currants and plums, touches of orange zest and lapsang souchang tea and an intriguing back-tone of spiced apple. The wine drapes the mouth like satin, and then pulls out the panoply of dried baking spices and subtle hints of blueberry, cranberry and dried currants. A modicum of briers and brambles testifies to the presence of firm but unobtrusive tannins, while the oak influence, probably inescapable after 16 months in French barrels, 30 percent new, hews a dry, slightly woody path through the finish. I personally would rather see a tad less oak on the finish, but this is by and large a very warm and appealing pinot noir. Alcohol is 13.9 percent. production was 450 cases. Excellent. About $32.

A sample for review.
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In Part II of this post about California pinot noir, I’ll review wines from Hahn and Hahn SLH Estate, three pinots from La Crema from 2008, two single-vineyard pinots from Lucienne (2007), three from MacMurray Ranch and the Meiomi 2008 from Belle Glos.
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