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Paul Lato: 2015 Pinot Noirs Dazzle

2015 is turning out to be a stunning vintage for California Pinot Noir and no where is this more evident than in the lineup of Pinot Noirs crafted by Paul Lato.

Paul is the epitome of the American immigrant success story. Born in Poland, he worked as a certified sommelier in Toronto Canada’s most exclusive restaurants. His encounter with noted winemaker Jim Clendenen in 1996 on a trip to California for the first time inspired him to move to California six years later to enter the wine production business. He had plenty of passion, very little savings, and all of his possessions in two suitcases.

His first job was at Bien Nacido Vineyards where he worked for $10.00 an hour while receiving free “lodging” at the bunkhouse in the vineyard. The late owner of Bien Nacido Vineyards, Bob Miller, urged Paul to make his own wine.

Paul is a smart guy and he realized that he could draw on the experience of other vintners. He observed the best in the business for many years, asked many questions and experimented a lot. After he produced his first six barrels of wine in 2002, he met Robert Parker by chance. Parker tasted his wines and was so impressed, he gave them rave reviews. Paul didn’t even have a name for his new winery but his encounter with Parker brought tears to his eyes. Paul’s career was officially launched at that moment and his wines have continued to dazzle the pinotphile community ever since.

Starting out very modestly with no investors, he began crafting Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay alongside many other vintners in a small space at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria. Despite success over time, he refuses to succumb to grow fast, take on investors and engage a marketing machine. Instead, he opts for carrying on true quality, rejoicing in the authenticity of his wines. I have visited him a number of times and have been impressed by his gracious demeanor and modesty. While other Pinot Noir specialists are losing their soul to corporate takeover (think Kosta Browne, Copain, Brewer-Clifton, Siduri, etc.), Paul remains true to his vision and craft.

Paul does not own any vineyards but carefully selects vineyards of distinction located in the Central Coast of California. He has an uncanny gift for recognizing blocks in each vineyard that offer the best potential for fulfilling his winemaking goals.

I have been reviewing Paul Lato wines since the 2005 vintage. I recently had an epiphany while tasting several of his 2015 Pinot Noir wines. Could these wines be the Holy Grail of California Pinot Noir? Maybe not, but they were undoubtedly the most stunning lineup of Pinot Noirs I had ever tasted from a California producer. Some wines flirted with perfection and these are surely reference wines for California Pinot Noir. The wines fulfill Paul’s goal of creating wines that possess authenticity, harmony and elegance, as well as enough structure and balance to complement fine cuisine.

Paul, who is never grandiose in his personal acclamation about his wines, told me, “2015 is probably my best vintage to date. The vintage offers both power and elegance.” 2015 was a unique vintage due to a severe drought and low yields. It was a vintage greatly influenced by vineyard practices. Paul relied on his French vineyard consultant, Philippe Coderey to advise him in overcoming the 2015 vineyard challenges.

Paul Lato’s wines are made in small lots and eagerly snapped up by a faithful cadre of mailing list customers. The 2015 Pinot Noirs reviewed here are long sold out but may be available on the secondary market. Not surprisingly, a number of US fine restaurants also carry Paul Lato wines since Paul is also a foodie who relishes great food as much as great wine. These restaurants are listed on the website at Paul Lato wines are released two to three times a year and sold on a first-come, first-served basis.

Other Paul Lato Wines that were part of the Spring Release: 2016 “Manga Girl” Rosé of Pinot Noir ($40), 2015 “Belle de Jour” Duvarita Vineyard Chardonnay ($70), 2015 “Le Souvenir” Sierra Madre Vineyard Chardonnay ($70), 2015 “East of Eden” Pisoni Vineyard Chardonnay ($80), and 2015 “The Prospect” Sierra Madre Vineyard Pinot Noir ($70).

All wines are unfiltered. Only the Pisoni bottling has a small amount of whole cluster inclusion.

2015 Paul Lato “Duende” Gold Coast Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., $70. This vineyard is owned and managed by the Burk and Espinosa families. Low yielding vines grown on a sandy plateau with excellent drainage. The own-rooted vines are over 22 years old and are a Martini selection. · Moderately light garnet color in the glass. The nose offers an olfactory onslaught of cherry, exotic spice, and burnt tobacco aromas. Light to mid weight in style, with fruit flavors of cherry and cranberry. Elegantly composed, with tight acidity and modest tannins, offering a slightly tart finish. A riff of baking spice and tobacco notes add interest. The fruit is somewhat under ripe, but the wine remains highly satisfying. Score: 92

2015 Paul Lato “Suerte” Solomon Hills Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $80. The most westerly vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley appellation making it the coolest due to its proximity to the ocean. Low yielding vines of clones 115, 667 and 777. · Moderately light garnet color in the glass. Cozy fruit aromas of black cherry and raspberry are paired with aromas of fertile earth, spice, burnt tobacco and bark. A flood of black cherry, black raspberry and blackberry goodness greats the mid palate. Velveteen in texture with deft oak appointments. A juicy cut of acidity energizes the lengthy finish. Score: 94

2015 Paul Lato “Atticus” John Sebastiano Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., $75. A newer vineyard on the eastern side of the Sta. Rita Hills. Clone 115 and Swan selection. Ownership partners are Sebastiano Sterpa and John Wagner, and vineyard manager is Ruben Solzono. · Moderate garnet color in the glass. The aromas of exotic spices, beautifully ripened dark red and purple fruits and a pine sap note are knee-weakening seductive. An ephemeral wine with impressive vibrancy, amazing harmony and silkiness. The boysenberry fruit core is enlivened by bright acidity that also energizes the finish that lasts and lasts and lasts. I found it really hard to avoid swallowing this one. The wine was still almost indescribable when tasted the following day from a previously opened and recorked bottle. Score: 98

2015 Paul Lato “The Contender” Drum Canyon Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., $75. This vineyard is an estate property of Dierberg Winery. Sourced from a parcel located in the western section on the steepest slope, graced by southern exposure. Planted to Swan and Calera selections. · Moderately dark garnet color in the glass. The nose is rather shy upon opening, delivering more sustained black fruit and spice aromas over time in the glass. Mid weight plus in style with an energetic core of gorgeous boysenberry and blackberry fruit flavors accented with spice and earth. Lush in the mouth with impeccable balance, suave tannins, and a very long, fulfilling finish. Score: 96

2015 Paul Lato “Seabiscuit” Zotovich Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $75. This vineyard is located in the heart of the Sta. Rita Hills off Hwy 246. A collaboration between Steve Zotovich, his family, and vineyard manager Ben Merz. Dijon clones 113 and 115. · Moderate garnet color in the glass. Inviting aromas of black cherry, sous-bois, mushroom and spice. Vivid and vibrant in the mouth with a mid weight core of wellspiced blackberry goodness. Silky, fine-grain tannins satisfy, as does the elegant demeanor, lasting finish, and overall harmony. Even better the following day when tasted from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Score: 97

2015 Paul Lato “Lancelot” Pisoni Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., $90. · Dark garnet color in the glass. The nose soars over time with enticing aromas of raspberry compote, rose petal, fertile earth and vanilla biscuit. Silky in the mouth, with plenty of sap yet lacking a husky character, offering flavors of earth-toned, mineral driven, blackberry, black raspberry fruit flavors along with a riff of spice. This wine kept grabbing appeal over time in the glass and was considerably more generous when tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. The tannins had been tamed, and the finish was of uncommon length. Decanting of this wine would be advisable if drunk now. A superb rendition of this vineyard’s terroir. Score: 97

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