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Starter Kit for Pinot Newbies

The writing in the PinotFile is often directed at pinotphiles who have an assumed expertise about wine in general, and Pinot Noir in particular. Occasionally I receive e-mails from the uninitiated who are new to wine and are just now getting hooked on Pinot Noir. A reader recently wrote that “I am relatively new to wine collecting and I’m learning more each day. I have taken a keen interest in Pinot Noir wine so your newsletter has been of great interest and very useful.” The same reader went on to suggest that I write about “reference Pinots” that would form the basis of educating a newbie palate. He asked that I identify Pinot Noir wines that best reflect various wine growing regions of California and Oregon. Finally, he requested that I list the “top 10 must try” Pinots that should be experienced by those who are just starting out. I thought this was an excellent idea and decided to take on the challenge. So here is a Starter Kit for Pinot Newbies.

Before proceeding, a few bits of sage advice must be emphasized.

v There are a bewildering number of labels and variety of styles. Don’t fret, dive in and drink, drink, drink. Knowledge comes with experience. Experiment bro.

v Be weary of proclamations and hype written by winemakers, retailers and wine critics. They can enhance and direct your wine experience, but they cannot BE your wine experience.

v Don’t drink labels. As Dr. Maynard Amerine said, “It is not the year, the producer, or even the label that determines the quality of the wine; it is the wine in the glass, whatever the label or producer or year.”

v Trust your own palate. If you like it, then it is a good wine. There is no accounting for taste. Mark your own territory. As wine importer Neal Rosenthal has proclaimed, “Your taste is your own. Your patrimony. You play with it as you play with your hands.”

v Drink Pinot Noir with company to profit from the impressions of others and by all means have food on the table.

v As you would never judge a book by its cover, never judge the quality of a Pinot Noir by its depth of color.

v Serve Pinot Noir at cellar temperature (60°). Pinot Noir is often served too warm, accentuating the alcohol which is very volatile. The alcohol can overwhelm the nose and palate.

v Purchase some proper glassware, preferably, a Burgundy-styled stem such as the Riedel Vinum series Burgundy glass ($18) or Schott-Zwiesel Burgundy glass ($7). The large bowl allows the aromas to develop fully and the shape maximizes the fruit flavors.

v Smell the calm wine in the glass first. You will perceive the most volatile aromas. Then gently swirl wine in the glass with a circular motion of your wrist. This releases the less volatile and more subtle aromas.

v Give the wine in the glass at least 15-20 minutes or more to open fully. Frequent swirling or decanting the wine prior to pouring can hasten this aeration process. Take a sip of wine and leave it in your mouth. To intensify the tasting you can chew the wine (this releases tannins) or you can take in some air with your lips slightly open (this opens up shy aromas).

v Pinot Noir can bring you close to heaven one night and the next night slap you in the face. It is a chameleon of a wine, notoriously variable and changing both in the bottle and in the glass.

v Visit as many wineries as you possibly can. Remember that wines often taste better at the winery (the so-called “cellar palate”).

v There are basically two types of North American Pinot Noir: blended and single vineyard. The single vineyard or vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs may or may not justify their higher prices. Some have a distinctive range of flavors and can be outstanding. Blended Pinot Noirs (sourced from several vineyards) can be as good, are often less expensive, and are not as subject to the vagaries of vintage.

v Generally speaking, there are two styles of Pinot Noir but many variations in between. The socalled classic or Old World style brings out the feminine side of Pinot Noir. These wines feature elegance, finesse, subtlety, palatable acidity, and sensuality. The Caliesque or New World style is the masculine expression of Pinot Noir, fruit-driven with plush ripe flavors, intensity, and a healthy backbone of oak and sweet alcohol.

v There are many ways to judge quality and often it boils down to the simple judgment of whether you like or dislike the wine. A popular mnemonic for quality assessment at Master of Wine courses is BLIC. A wine must have Balance (integration of acid, alcohol, fruit and tannin), Length (how long the taste remains after it is swallowed or spat out), Intensity (the perception of impact), and Complexity ( a great wine has more than one aroma and/or flavor). I have developed my own mnemonic: BLINGS. Balance, Length, Intricacy (complexity), Nature (character of the wine including intensity), Grain (texture) and Sexiness (the sensuality that is as difficult to describe).

v There are very few bad Pinot Noirs on the market today. Be more concerned with differences than what is good or bad.

v Great Pinot Noir is usually produced in small quanities (50-500 cases). The best source for these small production wines is the wineries which sell much of their wine direct to consumers. High-end wine retailers can also be a valuable source. Networking is invaluable as many wine enthusiasts do not purchase their full allocation of desirable wines. There are three good free internet search engines to locate wine:,, and

v Be ready to open your wallet. Pinot Noir is expensive to grow and to produce, Pinot Noir loves oak (Pinot Noir and Francois Frères are good friends) and the best French barrels are now pushing $1,000 apiece. Many of the trophy wines are “deep-pocket Pinots,” but there are numerous excellent Pinot Noirs priced in the sweet spot between $20 and $40.

Reference Pinot Noirs by Region

This list is not meant to be all-inclusive. Inevitably some worthwhile omissions will occur. I have omitted highly allocated wines which are only sold through mailing lists that have waiting lists or are available at inflated prices on the secondary market. (ie Kistler, Marcassin, Kosta Browne, Radio-Coteau, J. Rochioli, Sea Smoke, Sine Qua Non). I want to emphasize that these choices do not necessarily represent my favorite wines but rather are representative of the various regions.

Santa Barbara County

Sta. Rita Hills

Alma Rosa (La Encantada Vineyard), Ampelos (Estate Vineyard), Arcadian (Fiddlestix Vine yard), Bonaccorsi (Sanford & Benedict Vineyard), Brewer-Clifton (Mt. Carmel Vineyard), Cargassachi (Cargassachi and Jalama Vineyards), Clos Pepe (Clos Pepe Vineyard), Fiddlehead (Fiddlestix Vineyard), Flying Goat (Rio Vista Vineyard), Gypsy Canyon (Estate Vine yard), Ken Brown (Cargassachi and Clos Pepe Vineyards), Lafond (Estate Vineyard), Longoria (Fe Ciaga Vineyard), Melville (Melville Vineyard), Prodigal (Estate Vineyard), Sanford (La Rinconada Vineyard).

Santa Ynez

Rusack (Estate Vineyard)

Santa Maria Valley

Ambullneo (Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard), Au Bon Climat (Knox Alexander - Bien Nacido Vine yard), Bianchi, Cottonwood Canyon, Foxen (Bien Nacido Vineyard Block 8), J. Wilkes (Bien Nacido Vineyard Q Block), Lane Tanner (Bien Nacido Vineyard), Native9 (Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard), Paul Lato Wines(Duende Gold Coast Vineyard).

San Luis Obispo County

Paso Robles area

Adelaida Cellars (HMR Estate), Jack Creek Cellars (Kruse Vineyard), Windward (Estate Vine yard).

Arroyo Grande

Talley (Rincon or Rosemary Vineyards), Laetitia (Estate Vineyard), Tantara (La Colline Vine yard).

Monterey County

Santa Lucia Highlands

Garys’ Vineyard (multiple producers including Loring, Lucia, Miner, Morgan, ROAR), Hope & Grace (Sleepy Hollow Vineyard), Morgan (Double L Vineyard), Pisoni Vineyard (multiple pro ducers including Arcadian, Pisoni, ROAR, Tantara), Rosella’s Vineyard (multiple producers including August West, Loring, Miner, Morgan, ROAR), Tondré (Tondrè Grapefield).


Cima Collina (Chula Vina Vineyard)

San Benito County

Calera Wine Company (Jensen Vineyard)

Santa Cruz Mountains (Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties)

Alfaro Family Vineyards (Lindsey-Paige Vineyard), Burrell School (Estate Vineyard), Clos Tita (Estate Vineyard), David Bruce (Estate Vineyard), Rhys Vineyards, Silver Mountain (Miller Hill Vineyard), Thomas Fogerty (Rapley Trail Vineyard), Windy Oaks (Estate Vineyard), Varner (Estate Vineyard).

Napa County

El Molino (Estate Vineyard, Rutherford), Etude (Heirloom), Green Truck Cellars, Saintsbury (Brown Ranch Vineyard), Talisman (Truchard Vineyard), Whitethorn (Hyde Vineyard), ZD.

Marin County

Dutton-Goldfield (Devil’s Gulch Vineyard), Miller Wine Works (Kendric Vineyard), Pey-Marin (Trois Filles), Sean Thackrey (Devil’s Gulch Vineyard).

Sonoma County

Sonoma Carneros

Buena Vista (Ramal Vineyard), The Donum Estate.

Sonoma Valley

Gundlach Bundschu (Estate Vineyard), Kalin Cellars

Sonoma Coast Brogan Cellars (Summa Vineyard), De La Montanya (Christine’s Vineyard), Flowers (Andreen- Gayle Vineyard), Fort Ross (Estate Vineyard), Hamel Wines (Campbell Ranch Vineyard), Hartford Family Wines (Seascape and Land’s End Vineyards), Halleck (Halleck Vineyard), Hirsch Vineyard (Estate Vineyard), Kanzler Vineyards (Estate Vineyard), Kastania (Estate Vineyard), Keller Estate (La Cruz Vineyard), Littorai (Hirsch, Thieriot and Summa Vineyards), Patz & Hall (Sonoma Coast), Peay Vineyards (Estate Vineyard), Pahlmeyer (Estate Vineyard), Sonoma Coast Vineyards, Ridgeway (Two Pisces Vineyard), WesMar (Hellenthal Vineyard), WH Smith (Maritime Ridge), Wild Hog (Estate Vineyard).

Russian River Valley

Anthill Farms Winery (Tina Marie Vineyard), Brogan Cellars (Helio Doro Block Buena Terra Vineyard), Davis Family (Estate Vineyard), De la Montanya, Dehlinger (Estate Vineyard), DuMol (RRV, Finn, Ryan), Emeritus (Estate Vineyard), Freeman (Akiko’s Cuvee), george wine co (Nuptial Vineyard), Inman Family (Olivet Grange Vineyard), Joseph Swan (Trenton Estate Vineyard), Merry Edwards (Olivet Lane and Klopp Ranch Vineyards), Lynmar (Quail Hill Vineyard, Five Sisters), Pellegrini Family (Olivet Lane Vineyard), Rochioli (Estate Vineyard), Scherrer (RRV), TR Elliot (“Queste”), Twomey (RRV), WesMar (RRV), WesMar (Ohleman Vineyard), Williams Selyem (Allen, Rochioli Riverblock Vineyards).

Mendocino County

Brogan Cellars (My Father’s Vineyard), Copain (Hein Family Vineyard), Drew (Fog-Eater) Elke Vineyards (Donnelly Creek Vineyard), Goldeneye (Estate Vineyards), Handley (Estate), Harmonique (The Noble One), Husch (Estate Vineyard), Lazy Creek Vineyards (Estate Vineyard), Littorai (One Acre and Savoy Vineyards), Londer (Estate Grown), MacPhail (Ferrington and ToulouseVineyards), Navarro Vineyards (Deep End Blend), Roessler (Savoy Vineyard), Skewis (Demuth Vineyard), Woodenhead (Morning Dew and Wiley Vineyards).


Willamette Valley

Adelsheim (Elizabeth’s Reserve), Anam Cara Cellars (Nicholas Estate Vineyard), Andrew Rich (Reserve). Argyle (Spirithouse), Beaux Freres (Estate Vineyard), Belle Pente (Estate Vineyard), Belle Valle (Wm Valley), Bethel Heights (Southeast Block and Flat Block), Brick House (Les Dijonnaise), Broadley (Claudia’s Choice), Chehalem (Estate Reserve), Domaine Drouhin (Cuvee Laurene), Domaine Serene (Evansted Reserve), Elk Cove (Mount Richmond), et Fille (Maresh Vineyard), Hamacher, Ken Wright Cellars (Guadalupe Vineyard), Patricia Green Cellars (Estate Vineyard), Penner-Ash Wine Cellars (Shea Vineyard), Ponzi (Estate Reserve), Privé (Estate le Sud or le Nord), Scott Paul (La Paulée), Shea Wine Cellars (Estate Vineyard), Sineann (Resonance Vineyard), Soter (Beacon Hill Vineyard), St. Innocent (Seven Springs Vineyard), Van Duzer (Estate Vineyard), Willakenzie (Pierre Leone).

Umpqua Valley

Brandborg Vineyard & Winery (Estate Vineyard) South America


Bodegos Chacra (Rio Negro Valley)


Cono Sur, Kingston Family, Matetic


British Columbia

Blue Mountain Vineyards & Cellars, Quail’s Gate Estate Winery


La Clos Jordanne

New Zealand Ata Rangi (Martinborough), Craggy Range Te Mura Road (Martinborough), Dry River (Martinborough), Escarpment, Felton Road (Central Otago), Rippon (Central Otago), Valli Vineyards (Central Otago), Villa Marie Estate (Auckland). All imported to the US.


Bindi, Kooyong, Yabby Lake. All imported to the US.

Reference Pinot Noir producers of great historical interest: David Bruce (Santa Cruz Mountains), Chalone (Gavilan Mountains), Hanzell Vineyards (Sonoma Valley), Joseph Swan Vineyards (Russian River Valley), Mt. Eden (Santa Cruz Mountains), Rochioli (Russian River Valley), Schug Carneros Estate (Sonoma Carneros) and The Eyrie Vineyard (Oregon).

Top 15 Must Try Pinot Noirs - California

1 Brogan Cellars Helio Doro Block Buena Terra Vineyard Russian River Valley

2 Calera Wine Company Jensen Vineyard Mt. Harlan

3 Dehlinger Estate Russian River Valley

4 Du Mol Finn Russian River Valley

5 Etude Heirloom Napa Carneros

6 Harmonique “The Noble One” Anderson Valley

7 J. Rochioli West Block or East Block Russian River Valley

8 Lynmar Five Sisters Russian River Valley

9 Littorai Theriot Vineyard Sonoma Coast

10 Pisoni Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands

11 Saintsbury Brown Ranch Vineyard Napa Carneros

12 The Donum Estate Sonoma Carneros

13 Windy Oaks Estate Reserve Santa Cruz Mountains

14 WesMar Hellenthal Vineyard Sonoma Coast

15 Williams Selyem Rochioli Riverblock Russian River Valley

Top 15 Must Try Pinot Noirs - Oregon

1 Argyle Spirithouse

2 Auteur Shea Vineyard

3 Belle Pente Reserve

4 Beaux Freres Estate

5 Cana’s Feast Winery Cuvée G

6 Chehalem Reserve

7 Domaine Drounin Cuvée Laurene

8 Elk Cove Mount Richmond

9 Et Fille Maresh Vineyard

10 Patricia Green Estate Old Vine Pinot Noir

11 Penner-Ash Shea Vineyard

12 Privé le Sud or le Nord

13 Scott Paul Wines Audrey

14 Shea Wine Cellars Homer

15 Soter Beacon Hill Vineyard

Top Starter Inexpensive Pinot Noirs


Au Bon Climat (Santa Barbara County), Blackstone (Sonoma Reserve), Cambria (Julia’s Vineyard), Castle Rock (highly variable), Chalone (Monterey), Coyote Canyon (Santa Lucia Highlands), Cycles Gladiator (Central Coast), Dancing Bear Cellars (Carneros), DeLoach (Russian River Valley), Handley (Anderson Valley blend), Husch (Anderson Valley), Irony (Monterey County), Kenwood (Russian River Valley), La Crema (Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast), J. Lynn (Russian River Valley), Laetitia Estate (Arroyo Grande), MacMurray Ranch (Sonoma Coast), Mayro-Murdick Hunterdon (Santa Lucia Highlands), McHenry Vineyard (Santa Cruz Mountains), Morgan (12 Clones),


A to Z, Cardwell Hill Cellars, O’Reillys.

Most of the major producers in Oregon craft a Willamette Valley or Oregon blend which is an extremely good value wine that is very representative of Oregon Pinot Noir. Examples include: Argyle ($16), Bethel Heights ($17), Broadley ($15), Erath ($18), four Graces ($17), King Estate ($23), McKinley ($16), Ponzi ($30), Rex Hill ($20), Torrii Mor ($25), Willakenzie Estate ($17), Willamette Valley Vineyards ($20).

A Note About France

No discussion on developing a palate for Pinot Noir would be incomplete without mention of Burgundy. Burgundy can be very intimidating and inconsistent. Jay McInerney (Bacchus and Me) wrote, “I love red and white Burgundy only slightly less than I love my children. But unless you are prepared to misspend a year or two of your life in study and thousands of dollars, stay the hell away from the Cote d’Or, the source of more heartbreak and tears than country music radio.”

Basically Burgundy wines are classified into four levels in ascending order of quality: Bourgogne (grapes can come from anywhere in Burgundy including even Gamay from declassified Grand Cru Beaujolais), Villages (ie Chambolle-Musigny), Premier Cru (labelled by the vineyard name as well as the village, ie Les Amoureuses, Chambolle-Musigny), and Grand Cru (labelled only by the vineyard, ie Musigny). The Bourgogne (pronounced burr-gôn’yE) wines are perfectly good from the top producers in good vintages and range in price usually from $15-$40. Many of them are very comparable to North American mid-priced Pinot Noirs ($30-40). They can be drunk upon release. I wouldn’t even think about getting into Premier and Grand Crus if you are a Pinot Noir newbie as they are very expensive ($60-$350), must be cellared for several years for full enjoyment, and require a very trained palate to relate to the different terroirs the different crus represent.

Look for Bourgogne or Village level wines from good vintages (recently, 2002, 2004 and 2005 are fine) and from good producers such as : Bertrand Ambroise, Bouchard Père & Fils, Bachelet, Confuron- Cotétidot, de la Vougerie, Maison Drouhin, Claude Dugat, Dugat-Py, Sylvie Esmonin, Faiveley, Alex Gambel, Camille Giroud, Geantet-Ponsiot, Anne Gros, Michel Gros, Heresztyn, Alain Hudelot-Noëllat, Frederic Magnien, J-Frederic Mugnier, Denis Mortet, Michel Lafarge, Daniel Rion and Joseph Roty.

Some of the French Bourgogne wines have become so consumer friendly to the United States that the words “Pinot Noir” are displayed on the label rather than the traditional word “Bourgogne.”

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Willowbrook Cellars

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