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Windy Oaks Estate: New Pinot Noir Offerings Merit Special Praise

“I do the most I can in the vineyard and the least I can in the winery”
Jim Schultze

Regular readers know that I have been a fan of Windy Oaks wines going back to 2004. Windy Oaks was my 2018 “Winery of the Year,” and Windy Oaks Pinot Noir has appeared eight times on my annual California Pinot Noir “All-American” Teams.

Jim recently contacted me and explained that a lot had happened at his winery since I last visited several years ago. A number of new Pinot Noirs have been introduced that Jim thinks are among the best he has ever produced.

A number of innovations underlie recent vintages. Throughout the vineyard, Jim is using a multi-stage pruning process to help control the evenness of flowering and set; leaf pulling within the vine canopy not outside of it; avoidance of hedging (inspired by Domaine Leroy in Burgundy); a split canopy to enhance airflow and expose the clusters to more light; the use of a hot-air machine to minimize the need for chemical sprays and control undesirable insects and increase the phenolics in some of the Pinot Noir wines.

In the winery, Jim is using a naturally-occurring yeast to eliminate the need for sulfur dioxide during crush; specially designed 600-liter fermentation barrels to maximize the preservation of delicate nuances of aroma and flavor in one of the wines; extension of aging on the lees to enhance mouthfeel and phenolic integration; elimination of all filtering and fining of the wines, including all white varietals.

Jim put together a very interesting and unique mix of recently released Pinot Noir wines for me to review: I should emphasize that these are not “Bro wines,” that is, bigger, beefier styles of Pinot Noir that speak to a specific American audience. Instead, Jim’s wines display the qualities of Pinot Noir that most connoisseurs look for: elegance, charm, gentle power, nuance, and modest alcohol levels.

The Pinot Noir wines reviewed here are not inexpensive but compare them to top-level red Burgundies which are significantly more costly. I am reminded of a quote by the Burghound, Allen Meadows who remarked, “In the search for great Pinot, you may not always get what you pay for, but you will never get what you don’t pay for.”

Most Windy Oaks Estate private reserve wines such as reviewed here are sold directly to eager Wine Group members. Visit the winery’s website:

All of these wines are from Windy Oaks estate vineyards except the Santa Lucia Highlands clone 943. All wines are fermented in very similar ways, with no additives other than a minimal amount of sulfur dioxide. Gravity is used throughout the winemaking process including bottling.

2017 Windy Oaks Estate Eleven:11 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.4% alc., 49 cases, $58. Jim’s son, Spencer, the Windy Oaks Estate assistant winemaker, makes this unique bottling crafted from Dijon clone 943 and Calera clone. Very different from the main estate offerings, this wine is named for the project’s start date. 100% whole cluster with a long, cool fermentation with foot trodding and hand punch downs before a gentle pressing to used French oak barrels where it was aged for 24 months with no racking. After the extended elevage, this Pinot Noir was treated like a Riserva giving it another full year in tank to mature, then further aging in bottle before release, much like is seen in Brunello and Rioja wines. This strategy creates a more mature, slightly oxidative quality that fans of those wines love. · Light garnet color in the glass. The aromas really jump out of the glass including red cherry, cranberry, baking spice, burnt tobacco and pine sap. Lightly extracted with flavors of red cherry and strawberry with a spicy riff. Plenty of Pinot charm in a delicate but satisfying style with gentle tannins, subtle whole cluster input and fruit flavors that build in intensity on the finish. A very distinctive wine. Score: 93

2018 Windy Oaks Estate Le Chaud Special Vineyard Treatment Special Release Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.7% alc., 95 cases, $85. The grapes come from an exclusively-farmed vineyard parcel that sees the use of a special piece of machinery that sends a directed blast of super-heated air in rapid motion so as to not harm the vines but gets rid of pests and reduces the need for mildew and botrytis spraying. The result is an effort to be as organic and sustainable as possible and as good as the environment can be. One of the side benefits after five years of trials is the fact that the process also dramatically increases the natural phenolics in the grape skins that are important for flavor and structure of the finished wines. · Moderately light garnet color in the glass. A seductive nose leads with aromas of dark red berry, plum, spice and sous-bois. Discrete richness on the palate with flavors that echo the aromas along with a subtle savory note. Impeccable harmony with an aristocratic, silky mouthfeel, suede tannins, and a generous and juicy finish of exceptional length. Deserving of special release. Score: 94

2018 Windy Oaks Estate Barrel Fermented Special Release Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.7% alc., 64 cases, $85. Jim’s comments: “A unique Pinot Noir that is fermented and aged in specially-designed 600L French oak barrels with no punchdowns and the use of indigenous yeast. The result is a wine of unusually rich flavors, texture and delicate complexity, including haunting aromatics and exceptional length. This may be the only version of Pinot Noir made by this method.” Aged 27 months without racking. · Light garnet color in the glass. Pleasing aromas of red and purple berry, cocoa powder and bramble. Light and ephemeral with succulent flavors of red cherry and berry and an appealing underlying earthiness. Excellent harmony, with no oak intrusion and good finishing length. Score: 93

2018 Windy Oaks Estate Judy's Block Special Release Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.7% alc., 24 cases, $110. Sourced from a half-acre block of Dijon 777 clone. Typically the grapes are blended into the Reserve, but in exceptional years (2009, 2017, and 2018), it is bottled on its own from a single barrel. The grapes are sorted both in the vineyard and again by hand in the cellar with extreme care so that only the very best grapes make it into this wine named after Jim’s wife. Native yeast fermentation and partial whole cluster. Aged for 24 months in French oak barrels. · Light garnet color in the glass. Intriguing nose with forward aromas of warm cherry pie, floral lift, and aged oak. Light to mid-weight in style, with dark red cherry and berry flavors that are broad and envelope the palate, expanding through a lip-smacking and notably lavish finish that lingers for an exceptionally long time. There are spice accents of cardamom and turmeric that I find particularly intriguing. Exquisitely balanced and clearly a special wine. Score: 96

2018 Windy Oaks Estate Special Burgundy Clone Special Release Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., 24 cases, $120. The pinnacle of Windy Oaks wines that comes from the oldest parcel of the singular proprietary Burgundy clone block hand tended by Jim at the home estate vineyard. Jim brought the original cuttings to the United States from a grand cru vineyard in Vosne-Romanée. This wine is made in a single barrel lot with native yeast and partial whole cluster fermented grapes, receiving a long, cool maceration, and native malolactic fermentation, with aging on the lees for 27 months in a special custom French barrique made exclusively for Windy Oaks by artisan coopers in Burgundy. This wine is only released in vintages that are deemed to exemplify its special characteristics. · Light garnet color in the glass. Alluring, even spectacular aromas of Bing cherry, cola and spice.. The essence of black cherry is complimented by a savory tone. Substantial flavor that defies the wine's light color. Impeccably balanced with polished tannins and a lush, distinguished finish that goes on and on. Score: 95

2018 Windy Oaks Estate Deux Grand Crus Special Release Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.7%, 24 cases, $105. A co-fermentation of two grand crus clones originally from Burgundy (Chambertin and Vosne- Romanée). This special release is from mostly de-stemmed grapes using native yeast fermentation and a long, cool maceration period with gentle hand punch downs before being aged 24 months without racking in a new French oak barrel. The barrel is custom made for the winery with long air-dried, old growth, tight-grained staves, and a long, lower heat toasting process. · Very light ruby red color in the glass. Dreamy aromas of red cherry, baking spice, sandalwood, vanilla and sous-bois. Lighter weighted with gentle power, offering hi-tone fruit flavors of red cherry and raspberry. Soothing and polished, with a subtle oak flourish and a welcome touch of spice. The finish is of grand cru length. This wine has amazing flavor in contrast to its pale color and herein lies the greatness of Pinot Noir. This wine reminds me of a 1990 Domaine Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti that I drank several years back. It was very light in color and delicately powered yet was definitely one of my most memorable drinking experiences. Clearly, this is not a wine for fruit hedonists. It remained seductive when tasted the following day from a previously opened bottle. Score: 97

2019 Windy Oaks Estate Mountain Block Special Release Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.7% alc., 64 cases, $85. The grapes come from a 1-acre parcel planted to Windy Oaks own cleaned-up version of the special Burgundy clone, sourced from cuttings that Jim originally brought back from an historic, walled grand cru vineyard in Vosne-Romanée. Barrel fermented with native yeasts in a proprietary, custom-crafted, 600L French oak barrel using 100% de-stemmed grapes that were gently crushed. Finished with RC 212 before maturing without racking for 26 months. · Light garnet color in the glass Very seductive perfume of rose petal, Bing cherry, cola, iron filings, and a hint of oak. The deep flavor of cherry creates the sensation of bombs bursting in the mouth. There is an appealing underlying roseate quality, a hint of milk chocolate and a compliment of oak.. A very distinctive and seamless wine with modest tannins and a spirited finish of good generosity. Score: 95

2019 Windy Oaks Estate Escolle Vineyard Clone 943 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

13.4% alc., 50 cases, $49. Sourced from a small block at Escolle Vineyard that is farmed especially for Windy Oaks. The vineyard is located in the cooler, northern part of the Santa Lucia Highlands, near the well-known Garys’ Vineyard. Native yeast fermentation with elevage in 50% new French oak barrels for 23 months. · Light garnet color in the glass. The nose grows on you over time with aromas of darkest cherry, pomegranate and spice with a woody undertone. Delicious flavors of black cherry and purple berry fruits along with cardamom spice, dark chocolate, and a thin cloak of oak in the background. The tannins are sparse and the finish is moderately long. I have never tasted a 943 clone Pinot Noir that was this good and it makes for a very unique tasting wine. I would prefer less oak intrusion at this stage. Score: 93

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