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Paul Lato: Master of Harmony & Elegance

In January, I wrote about Paul Lato and reviewed the 2008 lineup of Pinot Noirs. On my way to World of Pinot Noir this year, I stopped by and visited Paul in his modest, but expanded winery space at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria. We spent an afternoon sampling his 2009 lineup of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. He opened up about his struggles through the years as a fiercely independent winemaker (Paul Lato Wines is truly a one-man operation and Paul has no investors), peppered with the many analogies he conjures that capture your attention (“I am fastidious about barrels, and treat them like a high-maintenance girlfriend”). Paul is an engaging personality and it easy to be seduced by cellar palate when tasting with him, but I believe I have enough integrity to honestly tell you that the 2009 Paul Lato Pinot Noirs are among the most sophisticated wines now being produced in California, displaying a stunning pinotosity in a Chambolle-inspired fashion. That is not to say that these wines are Burgundian, for they are clearly Californian, but they exhibit the same seductive elegance that wines from Chambolle Musigny offer.

The 2009 wines were released to an eager mailing list this week and by the time you read this they may be sold out. The wines had only been in bottle two weeks, but were fresh and lovely. The moderately high alcohols are the result of the level of humidity in the winemaking facility which concentrates the wines, and not from picking grapes at exaggerated ripeness. Cold soaks are generally up to 7 to 8 days. No whole cluster is used except in the Syrahs. The wines are gently fined with egg whites (“A little makeup is a good thing on a pretty woman”) and bottled unfiltered. Paul only produces about 900 cases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (his 100 cases of Syrah are also outstanding but that’s another story). Sign up for the mailing list at Paul is also consulting now for Hilliard-Bruce wines and the Hilliard-Bruce Vineyard is a new vineyard-designate for Paul in 2009. These wines are crafted by John Hilliard, who puts his own distinct stamp on his estate Pinot Noir and are not stylistically identical to Paul’s. Visit

2009 Paul Lato “Le Souvenir” Sierra Madre Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay

14.5% alc., pH 3.35, 200 cases, $55. Sourced from 6 acres of the choicest part of the vineyard. The vines are low-yielding Old Wente clone picked at 23.5º brix. Native and inoculated yeast. 100% barrel fermented, 100% malolactic conversion in 66% new Francois Freres and Damy French oak barrels. Gently fined and unfiltered. · Light yellow color in the glass. Expressive nose of Asian pears, green apples, and brioche. Crisp and bright flavors of pears and citrus fruits with subtle notes of biscuit and vanillin. Beautiful harmony and finesse.

2009 Paul Lato “Duende” Gold Coast Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., 100 cases, $60. Paul says it is crucial to know when to pick this vineyard and fortunately he has nine vintages of experience in managing his vineyard block. The grapes are from 21 year-old own-rooted Martini clone. Yields are 2 tons per acre. Aged in 50% new French oak barrels. · My notes say, “Amazing” twice, both in the aromatic and flavor descriptives. Alluring scent of fresh plums flush with spice. Red and black stone fruits with impressive presence and length on the finish. Just the right amount of oak spice influence to augment the fruit spice. No one does old vine Martini like Paul.

2009 Paul Lato “Seabiscuit” Zotovich Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.7% alc., 75 cases, $65. This vineyard is located near Melville on Hwy 246. Previously the vineyard was neglected, but the new owners have brought on Jeff Newton to bring it up to speed. The wine’s name reflects this, with Seabiscuit referring to the great horse that was initially mismanaged. 50% clone 113 and 50% clone 115 planted in shallow sandy soils. Picked at 24º brix. Aged in 50% new French oak barrels. · Lovely dark berry melange on the nose with a spice box high note. Luscious core of blackberry and black raspberry fruit with a vivid mineral lift and impressive persistence on the finish. Still has plenty of tannin on board that will integrate with time. Paul is just getting to know this vineyard, yet his inaugural take is distinctive.

2009 Paul Lato “Suerte” Solomon Hills Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

14.8% alc., 200 cases, $65. Paul has sourced this vineyard since 2005 and has gradually upgraded his sections to obtain the best parcels. His vines are stunted and only yield a little over 1 ton per acre. Clones 115, 667 and a tiny amount of 777 (“777 is like garlic, you can only use a little”). Aged in 70% new French oak barrels. · Moderately dark color in the glass. Heavenly scent of fresh plums and blackberries echoed on the palate. Earthy and savory too, with plenty of Santa Maria spice. Smooth as a baby’s bottom with gossamer tannins. Hard to believe this wine is already so good to drink.

2009 Paul Lato “Alegria” Hilliard-Bruce Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.7% alc., 100 cases, $70. This vineyard is located on Hwy 246 4.5 miles west of Zotovich Vineyard and just west of Clos Pepe Vineyard. This is the first close-planted vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills and is managed by noted Central Coast viticulturist Jeff Newton. Owner John Hilliard is fanatical about meticulous farming and this is one of the most manicured vineyards in California. The 21-acre vineyard was planted over three years beginning in 2005 to Dijon clones 115, 667, 777 and 828, Pommard clone, and Calera selection. This wine contains primarily clone 115 with a tiny amount of 667. Paul says the incoming grapes were perfect and didn’t require sorting (“Like a well-kept woman”). Aged in 50% new French oak barrels. · Demure aromatics showing darker well-spiced cherry, berry and currant fruits with an underpinning of forest floor and underbrush. Earthy and mysterious on the palate with firm ripe tannins, a silky mouth feel, and some persistence on the aromatic finish. A lot to like in this young vines offering.

2009 Paul Lato “Sine Cera” Fiddlestix Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.7% alc., 125 cases, $70. This vineyard is farmed by Jeff Newton. Yields are 2.5 tons per acre from 11 to 12 year-old vines. Clones 115, 667 and 777. Aged in 70% new French oak barrels. · Gorgeous aromas of black cherries, blueberries, and black raspberries with a hint of cardamom spice. Powerful black cherry and red licorice flavors, but silky smooth with tamed tannins. I didn’t write much about this wine in my notebook because it defied descriptives and I was stunned as I sampled it. It was the only wine I swallowed. In a word, spectacular. Could be California’s next 100 point wine.

2009 Paul Lato “Lancelot” Pisoni Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.8% alc., 100 cases, $80. Sourced from 28 year-old own-rooted vines from the original block at Pisoni Vineyard. Aged in 80% new French oak barrels. From a less ripe vintage, requiring no manipulation. · Deep, dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Copious earth-kissed black fruits with a roseate note on the nose. A profusion of dark, plump black cherry and berry confiture with notes of game and cassis carrying over to an explosive finish with lasting intensity. Corralled tannins and very precocious. A bombshell and even better than the superb 2008.

Paul has never been one to seek publicity but he has opened the door for me and I am happy to toot his horn. In his recent offering of the 2009 vintage he compared winemakers to accomplished musicians. He said, “Winemakers have so much to learn from music: about balance and harmonies, about rhythms and controlling the intensity of the expression. We must learn to make our wines a concert of flavors and textures, an experience that is fully pleasing and yet never too overwhelming. Music itself, especially classical music, is a tremendous tool (model) for us. It constantly reminds us about balance, harmony and elegance. Winemakers recognize how much music can teach us about the sensibility involved in making wine.” You see a window into the philosophy of Paul Lato in this quote. I, for one, am pleased that he has chosen to apply this analogy to his wines.

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