A notoriously finicky varietal, Pinot Noir has captivated many a California vintner, including Dave Phinney of Orin Swift and The Prisoner fame. Phinney’s first attempts at bottling Pinot Noir came well over a decade ago, and they weren’t so fruitful right out of the gate. “I tried making Pinot Noir from Kent Richie’s Sonoma Coast vineyards back in the late 2000s, but I never bottled anything,” Phinney says. “I kept picking it too ripe, and I ultimately couldn’t get it right, so I’d just blend it all away.” Still, Phinney persisted, and years later—after much more trial and error—he finally released his first Pinot Noir, Slander, within Orin Swift in 2015. Since then, Phinney’s stayed hooked on the grape, like so many California winemakers before him.
In California, Pinot Noir thrives along the coastal reaches, particularly in the north, where the climates and soils are similar to those found in France’s preeminent Pinot-growing region, Burgundy. Such a correlation has resulted in a proliferation of luxury Pinot labels, pushing the varietal up the ranks to join Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay as one of California’s most valuable viticultural players. By plantings, Pinot Noir is now the fifth-most grown varietal in the state, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2019 California Grape Crush report, accounting for 6.5% of last year’s total crush.
Given that California Pinot Noir has been entrenched in the minds of winemakers and consumers for some time now, an increasing number of sub-AVAs are becoming hot spots for the varietal, among them such Central Coast names as Monterey, Sta. Rita Hills, and Edna Valley. And while the luxury Pinot Noir segment still holds considerable weight in the market, an abundance of affordably priced alternatives have come on stream in recent years. Among them is a newer class of Pinot, widely popularized by Meiomi, that’s characterized by bold, rich, and full-bodied flavors that stand in stark contrast to light, more delicately structured counterparts from Sonoma, Burgundy, and elsewhere. Though Covid-19 has raised a host of questions for California vintners, many of whom are only just beginning to reopen their tasting rooms after months of forced closures, Pinot’s familiar prowess looks poised to lend it staying power for the long run.
Central Coast Success
California’s North Coast has long been the premier growing region for Pinot Noir within the state, with Napa and Sonoma each offering elegant, award-winning iterations of the grape. But more specific sub-AVAs further down the coast are coming to the forefront and carving out a significant place for themselves in the California Pinot Noir lexicon.
In southern Monterey, Delicato Family Wines has owned thousands of acres in the little-known San Bernabe AVA since the 1980s; today, the company remains the single largest landholder in the region. The San Bernabe vineyards are the backbone of Delicato’s Diora brand, which first launched on a small scale in 2016 with a portfolio of high-end Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “San Bernabe has an ideal temperature and growing climate for Pinot Noir,” says Delicato vice president of marketing Kathy Pyrce. “Here, the grape develops thicker skins, so the wines are more deeply colored and structured.” She points to the influence of the coastal winds as one of the area’s most distinctive qualities, and among the reasons the TTB eventually granted San Bernabe an AVA designation in 2004. The Diora Pinot Noir offerings expanded into national distribution last year, with La Petite Grace Pinot Noir ($26 a 750-ml.) at the helm. Vineyard-designated wines serve solely as gatekeeper offerings, according to Pyrce, with availability limited to winery visits.
Nearby, in the Sta. Rita Hills, Phinney debuted his first Pinot Noir-led label, L’usine, last year. The culmination of over three years of intensive work, L’usine currently consists of three wines: Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($65 a 750-ml.), Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Pinot Noir ($99), and Annapolis Vineyard Pinot Noir ($125). Key to creating this lineup were the specific vineyard sites, according to Phinney. “Having those vineyard designates was extremely important to me, given the differences they highlight in Pinot Noir,” he says. “We wanted to be respectful of the varietal and showcase how it changes according to the site that it’s grown on. In this region, what we ended up with are wines that aren’t so lean and Burgundian, but they’re also not Meiomi.” L’usine—part of the E. & J. Gallo portfolio—is currently a small project for Phinney, who is keeping the brand’s reach restricted to DTC channels in California and New York in its initial years, as a means of better fostering organic growth.
Napa-based OneHope Wine offers a variety of Pinot Noir wines within its portfolio, covering a wide swath of growing regions. While OneHope co-owner Jake Kloberdanz notes that the entry-level Pinot Noir, Vintner Collection California Pinot Noir ($25 a 750-ml.), is the varietal’s volume driver at the winery, other iterations of the grape have ignited consumer enthusiasm. “We have Pinot Noir from more well-known, special regions like Carneros, but we’ve also gone into other regions, like Edna Valley—one of my personal favorites—and cracked those areas open for consumers,” says Kloberdanz, who adds that consumers who appreciate Pinot will often explore each distinct regional offering. Less than 200 miles north of Los Angeles, Edna Valley sits on the Pacific Coast and, similarly to San Bernabe, benefits from ocean-influenced winds and morning fog, though its climate is far warmer. OneHope’s Edna Valley Reserve Pinot Noir ($35) is joined by Carneros Reserve Pinot Noir ($40), Russian River Valley Reserve Pinot Noir ($60), and Monterey County Reserve Pinot Noir ($30). The winery expects to produce upwards of 100,000 cases of wine this year, according to Kloberdanz.
A leap in enthusiasm for Central Coast Pinot Noir spiked back in 2009 upon Joe Wagner’s debut of Meiomi, a Pinot Noir-led label that features tri-appellation sourcing from vineyards in Sonoma, Monterey, and Santa Barbara. Wagner eventually sold the brand to Constellation in 2015 in a $315 million deal, and its success has since skyrocketed; today, Meiomi is at 1.32 million cases, with 83% of that volume coming from Pinot Noir, according to Impact Databank. Meiomi’s ongoing popularity rests primarily on its distinct style: The wine marks a stark departure from the lean Pinot Noirs of old, carrying a luscious, full-bodied profile that’s far bolder than most other iterations.
In August 2019, following the expiration of a four-year non-compete agreement with Constellation, Wagner returned to the tri-appellated Pinot Noir field through his Böen label. Böen California Pinot Noir ($24 a 750-ml.) blends grapes from Sonoma, Monterey, and Santa Barbara, resulting in a lush wine that favors bold, ripe notes. Thus far, Wagner says the wine and its fellow new release, Böen California Chardonnay, have performed incredibly well. “We came out of the gate really strong and saw some great initial growth for these tri-appellated wines,” he says. “That $15-$25 category for Pinot Noir is so robust right now, and people are in love with this rich, opulent style that has a whole bunch of flavor and aromatics within it.”
In their first year on the market, Böen Pinot Noir and Chardonnay depleted around 40,000 cases, according to Wagner, who also notes that the brand is up 13% year-over-year overall. In addition to Boën, Wagner is also active in more fruit-forward, full-bodied California Pinot Noir through his Belle Glos label, which focuses primarily on vineyard-designate wines at higher price points. Among the rich, structured Pinot Noirs in the Belle Glos lineup are Clark & Telephone ($55 a 750-ml.), Las Alturas ($55), and Dairyman ($55).
Elsewhere, Guarachi Wine Partners has also innovated in the opulent Pinot Noir space, releasing Black Ink Noir within its Black Ink brand late last year. The California-appellated wine is aged on French and American oak prior to bottling, imbuing it with a full-bodied, inky finish. Black Ink Noir is aimed at a younger demographic, according to Guarachi proprietor Alex Guarachi. “We’ve made this wine fun and approachable, catering it to millennials, who want to discover,” he says, pointing to the style of the wine and the tattoo-centric packaging it comes in as key features. Black Ink’s price point has also buoyed its success among the younger set—the wine is priced at around $13 a 750-ml.
At retail, such bold expressions of Pinot Noir have proven themselves ultra-popular among consumers. “California Pinot Noir is staying strong from a growth standpoint, with weightier iterations from brands like Dark Horse always in demand and doing a lot of volume,” says Dustin Mitzel, CEO of North Dakota-based retailer Happy Harry’s Bottle Shop. Dark Horse Pinot Noir retails at $8 a 750-ml. at Happy Harry’s, and is supplemented by strong Pinot sellers like Meiomi and Ménage à Trois. Outside of richer styles, Mitzel points to Decoy by Duckhorn as a Pinot Noir at a higher price point that does consistently well for the company. The varietal also moves well at Kroger, according to director of adult beverage Jason Milburn, with Meiomi ($19), Prophecy ($10), and Barefoot ($5) among the California Pinot Noirs offered in-store.
Even as additional sub-AVAs, styles, and price points find sturdier footing within California Pinot Noir, the North Coast regions and luxury labels that first pushed the varietal into the spotlight remain dominant forces in the market. In Napa, Duckhorn Wine Co. has cemented its status as a Pinot Noir leader not only through extended investment in its own labels, but through the acquisitions of the Kosta Browne and Calera brands as well.
“We’ve been making Pinot Noir at Duckhorn since the ’90s, and between that and the purchases of Calera and Kosta Browne, we feel as though we have the bookends of the story of American Pinot Noir,” says Duckhorn senior vice president and chief marketing and business development officer Carol Reber. “Calera established luxury Pinot Noir in the United States, and Kosta Browne represents the evolution of the American Pinot Noir segment in the last 20 years or so.” Duckhorn acquired Calera in 2017, and followed it with the acquisition of Kosta Browne in 2018, heartily supplementing an existing Pinot Noir portfolio that includes such offerings as Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($58 a 750-ml.) and Migration Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($42). Located in the Mt. Harlan AVA and known for its single-vineyard Pinot Noirs ($60-$100), Calera’s production hovers around 35,000 cases annually; Kosta Browne, meanwhile, is based in Sonoma and produces roughly 30,000 cases of high-end Pinot per year.
Also operating on the Sonoma Coast is Balletto Family Vineyards, which offers a portfolio of 100% estate-grown and -bottled wines, with special focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Winery owner John Balletto notes that the Russian River Valley is an ideal home for the grape, and that the winery has benefited from a longtime legacy in the region, having kicked off operations in 1977. “We source our grapes from 850 acres of vineyards across 24 different vineyard sites in three distinct areas, referred to in the Russian River Valley as ‘neighborhoods,’” he says. “This allows the Balletto winemaking team the ability and flexibility to access the grapes they want for the expression they want to achieve. We’re not restricted by grape contracts.”
This year, the winery—which produces around 25,000 cases a year—has a few new vineyards coming online, and is eagerly eyeing the release of the second vintage of single-vineyard Pinot Noir from Pelleti Vineyard, which joins other vineyard-designate offerings including Emerson Block Pinot Noir ($48) and Sexton Hill Pinot Noir ($46). Balletto’s primary Pinot Noir volume driver remains its Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($29).
Established in 1997, Russian River Pinot Noir specialist Merry Edwards Winery remains top-of-mind at the upper end of the category today. The winery was acquired by the Louis Roederer Champagne house last year, but co-founder Merry Edwards has stayed on temporarily as a consultant during the transition. In looking back at her legacy, Edwards points to the importance of the region where the winery is based. “The Russian River Valley has this sandy loam—no rocks, just sand, and it drains beautifully and goes on forever in the ground, making for such lovely wines,” she says. “It’s part of the reason why I think the Russian River is the most important place in the country, if not the world, for Pinot Noir. More so than any other place, the wines made up here in Sonoma County have always had more fruit and seemed richer in flavor.” The Merry Edwards portfolio contains such structured, single-vineyard Pinot Noirs as Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir ($66 a 750-ml.), Meredith Estate Pinot Noir ($68), and Warren’s Hill Pinot Noir ($63). Across all wines, the brand hovers at around 28,000 cases.
Riding Out The Storm
While California Pinot Noir declined 2.6% in IRI channels to 5.1 million cases in the 52 weeks ending December 29, 2019, those losses have reversed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In the 26 weeks ending April 19, 2020, California Pinot Noir jumped by 6.2% in the same IRI channels, reaching 3 million cases. The varietal’s familiarity has certainly helped this rally at retail, as consumers looked to stock up in the midst of the pandemic.
There’s also been positive developments for tasting rooms: After more than two months of closures, wineries in several regions, including Sonoma County, are now reopening, with social distancing restrictions in place that affect the number of visitors allowed in at once. To combat this, many vintners are planning on keeping the virtual outreach they instituted at the start of stay-at-home orders in place as a means of connecting with as many consumers as possible.
And for those that have relied heavily on restaurant partnerships, there’s strong camaraderie at work. “While we have to figure out the business part of the conversation, which is ‘How do we make up for lost [on-premise] sales,’ we’re really looking at ways we can help out our friends and partners in the restaurant community until they get back on their feet,” says Phinney.