Californian Pinot Noir

Tim Atkin MW unmasks this variety, that grows extremely well in parts of California.

It’s more than 20 years since Marq De Villiers published The Heartbreak Grape: A California Winemaker’s Search for the Perfect Pinot Noir about Josh Jensen of Calera’s obsession with making a West Coast red that could bear comparison with the best Burgundies. The book tells you a lot about the way the grape was perceived in the 1990s: tricky, aspirational and very much a French preserve.

A lot has changed in the intervening 23 years. Pinot Noir can still be thin-skinned and high-maintenance, but it doesn’t shatter quite so many hearts these days. California, like a number of other wine regions outside Burgundy, has proved that it can make excellent examples of the variety on a consistent basis. And, just as significantly, its popularity has also been boosted by the success of the film, Sideways, whose anti-hero, Miles, was obsessed with Pinot Noir.

Indeed, Pinot Noir is now the third most planted grape in California, with 18,000 hectares under vine (nearly three times more than the Côte d’Or itself). Not everything that comes out of the Golden State bears comparison with the best wines of villages such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée, and Morey-St-Denis, of course, but the best do. That said, there’s less of an obsession with imitating Burgundy these days. Now, the focus is increasingly on making wines that are distinctively Californian. As a T-shirt from Saintsbury, one of the state’s Pinot specialists, would have it: “Beaune in the USA”.

Now, the focus is increasingly on making wines that are distinctively Californian. As a T-shirt from Saintsbury, one of the state’s Pinot specialists, would have it: “Beaune in the USA”

No one knows when Pinot Noir was first imported to California – sometime after the 1849 Gold Rush is the best guess – but it didn’t make a significant impact until the 1940s and 1950s, thanks to the work of Beaulieu Vineyard, Inglenook, and Louis Martini, and to the growing interest in sparkling wines.


It is not meant as a criticism of those pioneers to say that the quality of California Pinot Noir has improved dramatically in the last decade. There are several reasons for this. The first is better clonal material, specifically the so-called Dijon clones that were introduced in the late 1980s; the second is more judicious site selection; the third is a deeper understanding of what remains a difficult grape to grow and vinify. Many California plantings are still comparatively young when set against Burgundy – there are no 100-year-old blocks here – but as they mature, they are reflecting a growing sense of place.

Most of the state’s best Pinot Noirs are influenced by the proximity and cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean in appellations such as the Anderson Valley, Carneros, the Russian River Valley, Santa Barbara County, the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Sonoma Coast.  Not many people realise that parts of the West Coast are cooler than Oregon, and ideally suited to Burgundian grapes.

More often than not, as Karen MacNeil pointed out during the 2017 California Wine Summit, these top Pinots are small lot, artisanal affairs, made by committed Pinotphiles who tend to focus on this variety, but that’s not always true. Producers such as Kendall Jackson and Robert Mondavi have shown that it’s possible to make larger volumes of very drinkable stuff.

Tasting a range of California Pinots recently, I was struck by a number of things: the move away from excessive new oak, the lower levels of alcohol, more freshness and verve and the increasing use of a percentage of whole bunches during fermentation. There’s also a desire to reflect terroir as well as vintage variation, placing individuality above consistency. The best wines from the likes of Au Bon Climat, Calera, Chamboulé, Cirq, Davies, Hirsch, Littorai, Peay, Radio-Coteau, Sanford, and Saintsbury are truly outstanding. It’s taken a while, but the heartbreak grape has found a home in California.