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Forkmedia LLC


by Fred McMillin
for October 18, 2001


When California Said...

No To Pinot!



"California winemakers plunked the Pinot Noir vine down into arid heat, where the poor thing became sunburned and petulant." Marq de Villiers in The Hearbreak Grape.

"California Pinot Noir often has an unnerving suggestion of overboiled cabbage about it." Jancis Robinson in Vines, Grapes & Wines.



ZD Winery


Byron Vineyard


How did California get into this bind? Let's go back to Pinot's Burgundian beginnings, and do some name-dropping along the way.

Pliny the Elder indicated that a Pinot precursor was being grown by the Allobroger tribe when the Romans invaded Burgundy two millennia ago.

Phillip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, noted the small, tightly-packed grape bunches resembled a pine cone. Hence, in 1375 he named it Pineau, and forbid the growing of its rival, the Gamay, which he condemned as a "very bad and disloyal plant." Some four centuries later...

Napoleon's favorite wine was Chambertin, made from its 25 acres of Pinot Noir in Burgundy.

Count Agoston Haraszthy—The future "Father of California Viticulture" at age 18 was an officer in the Royal Hungarian bodyguard of Francis I, a nephew of Napoleon's father-in-law. In 1861 he brought 100,000 vines to California, including Pinot Noir. However, the Pinot proved to be so finicky about soil and climate that little came of the variety during the next l00 years.

André Tchelistcheff—"The first California Pinot Noir that brought acclaim was André's legendary 1946 vintage, produced from fruit grown in the [COOL!] Carneros region." ...(from M. Bonadies' Sip By Sip)

It took a while, but the celebrated winegrower saw the Pinot vines finally moving to friendly microclimates. So, in 1978 André prophesied, "Within 10 years, California will be known for its Pinot Noir." Historian Charles Sullivan points out that sure enough, soon there were well over 100 California wineries building that reputation.


Is The Cabbage Gone?

So why not try a few Cal Pinots and see if Jancis' "suggestion of overboiled cabbage" is gone? Here are the best six my panel has tasted in recent months, with the top-rated bottle listed last.

They all came from cool coastal districts. The tasters couldn't see the bottles and didn't know the prices, so did some less-expensive wines outscore pricier competitors?

6th—$25 ZD, Carneros, 1995
5th—$32 Davis Bynum, Russian River Valley, 1998
4th—$32 Byron, Santa Maria Valley, 1997
3rd—$50 Robert Mondavi Reserve, Carneros, 1998
2nd—$60 Gary Farrell, Russian River Valley, Rochioli Vineyard, 1998
1st—$60 Gary Farrell, Russian River Valley, Rochioli Vineyard, 1998 (same wine again, only in a different tasting) Hm-m-m. No $ signs out of order. Looks like "the price is right."


Postscript—Wine and Golf

I poured a $30 David Bruce Pinot Noir for professional golfer Warren Chancellor. He swirled, sniffed and sipped. "That's the best wine I've ever tasted. It is excellent."

I responded, "Glad you like it, and speaking of excellence, I hear you have been nominated for the University of Texas Alumnus of the Year award. What year were you captain of the golf team?"

He smiled. "Never. I was in the same class, would you believe, as Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw!"


About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. For information about the wine courses he teaches every month at either San Francisco State University or San Francisco City College (Fort Mason Division), please fax him at (415) 567-4468.



This page created October 2001