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Cottonwood Canyon: Age Worthy Pinot

Cottonwood Canyon wines are treasured primarily by a select following who have visited the winery . The wines are only sold at the winery and to the winery’s Connoisseur Club members. A small boutique winery that specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Cottonwood Canyon was founded in 1988 by the Beko family. When the 15-year-old property was purchased, there were 46 acres of Chardonnay planted. Replanting began in 2001 and currently the 78-acre estate has 25 acres planted to Pinot Noir and fewer than 18 acres to Chardonnay (5 acres of Syrah also). There are five Pinot Noir vineyards, with Sharon’s Vineyard being the oldest (1991) and High Density Vineyard (2003) the youngest.

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Cottonwood Canyon is located at the northern-most edge of the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, just 19 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean resulting in significant marine climatic influence. The vineyard has cool ocean breezes throughout the day and morning and evening fog are trapped by the surrounding 7,000 foot San Rafael Mountains east of the estate. The estate vineyards sit on a flat expanse, facing in a north-south direction. The growing season is quite long, with bud-break in mid-February and ending with a mid-October harvest. Vine farming is “row-by-row and vine-by-vine,” and is supervised by vineyard manager, Frederico Arredondo.

6,000 feet of caves have been carved into wall of a canyon formed by an ancient river bed. These are used for barrel storage as well as special events. A small winery and tasting room comprise the current estate buildings.

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The winemaking philosophy of Norman Beko is oriented to the Burgundian paradigm of high acidity and age ability of wine. He is a staunch advocate of the fact that acid in wine is key for refreshment, food and aging. Picking commences when optimum fruit flavors are detected, usually around 24° Brix. The fruit is hand sorted in the field. The must is cold soaked for 4 to 5 days in small lots. The cap is punched down below the surface by hand. Natural yeasts drive the primary fermentation in open top bins and the wine is then transferred by gravity into French oak barrels for secondary fermentation. Due to the near perfect conditions inside the winery’s high humidity/low temperature caves, there is virtually no evaporation of the wines as they age. The barrels are turned on their sides and rarely opened during the aging process which is typically 18 to 24 months. The fruit’s natural high acidity in combination with cave conditions creates very long-lived and age worthy wines which develop over many years, reaching their nadir after 8 to 12 years.

The chart below is displayed on the Cottonwood Canyon website and shows the relationships between wine acidity, pH, sugar, and alcohol.

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The most distinctive feature of Cottonwood Canyon is that Norman Beko believes in making wines that age and he holds back past vintages to allow his customers to taste and buy mature wines. This is highly unusual in today’s wine business. I had written some remarks in the PinotFile back in 2007 about the fact that currently wines were being made for early consumption (an astonishingly high number of wines are consumed within 48 hours of purchase) and that there was a shrinking market for ageable wines. The idea of cellaring wines came from the popularity of Cabernet and Bordeaux twenty years ago, since these wines profited from maturing in a well-maintained cellar. Over time, however, the wine drinking public has demanded instant gratification, with little patience for holding onto wines for several years. Most wine enthusiasts have not consumed a significant number of aged wines and cannot appreciate and/or do not enjoy the secondary bouquet and flavors that develop. If they do want to drink an older vintage, they simply buy the mature wine on the secondary market. Norman wrote me and pointed out that his experience at Cottonwood has been that a significant number of his visitors find their way to his winery in order to have the opportunity to taste older vintages. The younger age group (under 30) is particularly interested, he says, because they are willing to experiment. He has noted an up tick in the ethnicity of his visitors, with more people of Hispanic, East Indian, Oriental, and to a lesser extent African American origin eager to sample wine.

The initial winemaker at Cottonwood Canyon was Kevin Volk of Wild Horse Winery fame who helped considerably in an advisory capacity. Norman has been the winemaker for the past seven years.

I recently visited Cottonwood Canyon and tasted through a number of Pinot Noirs starting with the 1991 vintage. The wines currently being poured in the tasting room are the 2000 Estate Pinot Noir, the 2001 Estate Pinot Noir, 2001 Elizabeth’s Vista Pinot Noir as well as several library Pinot Noirs dating back to 1995. A 2000 Estate Blanc de Blanc, 2001 Estate Blanc de Noir and several Chardonnays dating back to 2000 were also available to taste. The Pinot Noirs were quite impressive for their age worthiness, all of them retaining good color and holding on to their fruit. The wines are crafted in a classic style of Pinot Noir with respectable elegance, fine textures, integrated tannins, and plenty of lift and lively acidity. The vintages beginning in 2000 show more refinement and sophistication, a reflection of the maturity of the vineyards and the winemaker’s experience with his fruit. All in all, it was a very unique and gratifying experience for me. I have traveled and tasted extensively in California and I have never had the opportunity to taste such a lineup of mature Pinot Noirs like that offered at Cottonwood Canyon. Kudos to Norman and his staff!!

2003 Cottonwood Canyon High Density Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

13.4% alc., two barrels, 500 ml bottles. Wädenswil clone (2A). 10% Syrah used to top off barrels. · Dark purple in color. Plenty of racy red fruits and hints of vanilla and spice in the aromatics which carry through to the finish which adds a pepper note. Some unresolved tannins. Drinkable now but will only improve with time in the cellar.

2001 Cottonwood Canyon Estate Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

14.91% alc., 709 cases, $39. The first entire vintage where the wine was left for 18 months on the lees in unopened French oak barrels. Aged for 20 months in barrel. From the estate’s Sharon’s Vineyard and Elizabeth’s Vineyard. Just released! · Light ruby in color. Earthy scents of wet leaves, hay, charcoal, minerals and a little toast. Red stone fruits, earth and wood shed, smoke, pepper and spice and everything nice. Elegant with fine grained tannins. An interesting and charming drink.

2001 Cottonwood Canyon Elizabeth’s Vista Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., 228 cases, $48. 18 months in French oak. Clones 2A and Freedom. · Herbs, light oak, wild berries and earthy notes in the nose are echoed in the flavors. Light in body with plenty of finesse. A lip-smacker that is easy to drink and easy to like.

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2000 Cottonwood Canyon Sharon’s Vineyard Barrel Select Santa Maria

? alc.. An illustration of Sharon’s Vineyard by artist Michael Humphreys is on the attractive label. · Burnished red in color. A rich and heady nose displaying dark berries, raisin and new leather. Ripe cherries leap out on the palate with a hint of pepper and oak. I liked this wine a lot for its aged patina.

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2000 Cottonwood Canyon Estate Pinot Noir

14.37% alc., 600 cases, $39. Sharon’s Vineyard and Elizabeth’s Vista Vineyard. Aged in 50% new oak. · Very slight orange-tinged rim. Bright crushed berries with a little raisin note make for pleasing aromatics. A bit rustic for me with soft berry and red stone fruits with a pastry dough and almond sidecar. Not my cup of tea.

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1995 Cottonwood Canyon Sharon’s Vineyard Estate Santa Maria Valley

13.0% alc., $58. · The wine has retained a pretty garnet color. The bouquet is typical for an aged Pinot Noir with shy cherry fruit complimented by oak, wet stone, spearmint and some minerality. Tart cherry and cranberry fruit flavors are a bit faded. There is crisp acidity and noticeable, but soft, tannins on the finish.

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1994 Cottonwood Canyon Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

12.4% alc., 325 cases (750ml), 150 cases (500 ml). Sierra Madre Vineyard. 21 months in French oak. · A subtle hint of orange in the rim. Rich Bing cherry and spice aromas lead the show. The palate is all Pinot with red stone fruits, cranberry, herbs and green tomato flavors. The bright acidity gives the wine freshness and some residual tannins add structure. This wine is holding up remarkably well.

1991 Cottonwood Canyon Santa Barbara Pinot Noir

13.02% alc., 364 cases (750 ml), 192 cases, $65. (500 ml). Aged 19 months in 40% new French oak. Sierra Madre Vineyard. · Light ruby in color. Toast, oak and tobacco on the nose. Cranberry, red cherry and a touch of animale and funk compose the flavor profile. Palate-cleansing acidity on the finish. A dead ringer for an older Burgundy and to me the best of the older Pinots in the lineup. A treat.

Cottonwood Canyon is located at 3940 Dominion Road, Santa Maria. The phone is 805-937-9063. The tasting room is open daily from 10-5:30. Cave tours are available regularly on weekends and by appointment on weekdays. Food pairing is offered with tasting. Several wine club options offer significant discounts on wines. The website is

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