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Littorai: A Burgundian Heritage

I have had a 30-year love affair with Pinot Noir. I drank Pinot Noir long before it ever became fashionable in California and Oregon, and was fortunate to live through the renaissance of North American Pinot Noir. I had my trysts with the great Chalone Reserve Pinot Noirs of the 1980s, the wonderful wines of Mt. Eden and Calera, the early Central Coast Pinot Noirs of Sanford, Lane Tanner and Whitcraft, the Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs of Gary Farrell, Rochioli, Dehlinger and Williams Selyem. When Williams Selyem was sold in 1997, I was rocked by the news and felt a void had been created in my Pinot Noir world.

It was a good friend, Master Sommelier René Chazottes who resuscitated my passion. I was talking Pinot with René one day when he told me in his signature understated way, “There is this winemaker named Ted Lemon who is very talented, trained in France, and makes good wine.” Knowing René’s excellent palate and his sensibilities, his low-key endorsement was enough for me.

I tracked down Littorai and found the winery had been established in 1993. There was little publicity and fanfare about Littorai, although Ted Lemon was well-known, widely admired by the winegrowing community, and highly valued as a consultant. Winemakers I spoke to talked in revered tones about Ted Lemon, but he shunned the limelight. A quote by Max Leglise appeared in one of Littorai’s annual newsletter wine offerings that underlined Ted’s philosophy, “Good wines speak for themselves and need no Press secretary.” Ted sends no samples to the media, finding no motivation in competitions, ratings or trends. I had done my research and located the elusive Littorai Winery, but all the current vintage of Littorai Pinot Noir was sold out. I signed up for the mailing list and waited, receiving my first wines from the 2000 vintage.

Before this, as happenstance, I come across some Littorai Pinot Noirs on a local restaurant list. The Littorai Pinot Noirs were an epiphany, a revelation, love at first sip. The wines had elegance, purity and perfect balance. They were a beautiful marriage of the classic Old World Burgundy style and the New World flair. The wines were indelibly imprinted in my sensory memory and I was hooked. They were like the best sex you ever had. Littorai Pinot Noir became my standard bearer, the yardstick against which I judged all other North American Pinot Noirs.

The story of Ted Lemon and Littorai Wines has been told numerous times in the PinotFile but bears repeating here. Born in Bedford, New York, Ted traces the origins of his interest in wine to a high school year in which he studied abroad in Burgundy. Later he attended Brown University where he majored in French literature. In his junior year of college, he spend six months at the University of Dijon and took a wine appreciation class from the director of Burgundy’s tourism office. The director was so impressed with the twenty-year-old Lemon, he offered him a job if he ever decided to take up winemaking.

After graduating from Brown University, he was awarded a Samuel T. Arnold Fellowship and returned to France in the fall of 1980 to study viticulture and enology. He obtained his Enology degree from the Université de Dijon in 1981 and worked at many prestigious estates in Burgundy including Domaine Georges Roumier, Domaine Bruno Clair, Domaine De Villaine, and Domaine Dujac. Ted returned to the United States when his funds ran out and apprenticed with Josh Jensen at Calera Winery in Hollister, California.

Surprisingly, late in 1982, while working at Calera, Ted was contacted by Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac, who asked him, “How would you like to make Meursault?” At Domaine Guy Roulot in Meursault, one of the owners of the oldest and most traditional wineries in Burgundy, Guy Roulot, had died and his family was searching for another winemaker. Guy’s son, Jean-Marc, was in love with the theater, not winemaking, and had not chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps. The Roulot family sought the advice of Jacques Seysses. “Of all the apprentices I’ve had, and I’ve had many, Jacques Seysses told Madame Roulot. “None has been as bright and capable as Ted Lemon. He has so many fine qualities, but there are two problems. He is twentyfive years old and he is American.” After consulting with Aubert de Villaine, Partrick Bize and others, Madame Roulot offered to make Ted the first, and still today, the only American winemaker and vineyard manager at a major domaine in Burgundy’s history. A young Ted Lemon is charmingly pictured below in Burgundy.

Because Ted spoke French fluently, he quickly overcame the initial surprise of the village people. He said, “At first I had to prove myself physically to the cellar and field help. I had to prune as quickly, drive a tractor as well, and work as hard as they could. I had to prove to Madame Roulot that I could keep up the reputation of Guy Roulot’s wines.” Ted was highly successful and remained in Burgundy until 1984.

Upon returning to the United States, Ted was hired by a French family that had bought a vineyard on Howell Mountain above the Napa Valley. Ted became the founding vineyard manager, winemaker, and oversaw the building of a new winery. Chateau Woltner’s Chardonnays soon became a favorite among American wine connoisseurs.

With his winemaking and winegrowing skills assured, Ted and his wife Heidi founded Littorai Wines in 1993. The name Littorai (lit’tor-i) is a pleural derivative of the Latin word littor, which means the “coasts.” Ted had spent a summer with his wife driving up and down the coasts of California and Oregon to taste local wines and learn the terroir and history of local vineyards. He believed the finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were grown along the true littoral (coastal) zone of the continent. He became convinced that the geology and mesoclimates of the extreme portion of the continent north of San Francisco were diverse enough to create a series of unique terroirs. Ted settled on sourcing his grapes from vineyards in western Sonoma County and western Mendocino counties. He set out to find the finest vineyards at the very boundary of where grapes could be successfully ripened.

Ted’s winegrowing idiom is profoundly French and profoundly Burgundian since he learned from such eminent winemakers as Jacques Seysses, Aubert de Villaine, and Jean Marie Roumier. His years in France inspired him to base his winegrowing on terroir. Terroir-based winemaking postulates that wine of a single place produced by a single estate is the greatest expression of winemaking. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wine grape varieties are uniquely suited to this philosophy. According to Ted, “I believe soil is of major importance in a wine’s character. It’s clear there are tremendous differences between wines made from vineyards right next to each other even if they are vinified and treated exactly the same way.”

In speaking of the importance of soil and the future of West Coast Pinot Noir, Ted’s remarks to me from a few years ago still ring true today. “The future of West Coast Pinot Noir, and indeed all West Coast wines (I would include Oregon in warm vintages), lies in learning to work with our soils so that we can produce full, ripe and profound flavors at lower Brix levels, Brix levels which will naturally give us wonderful wines in the 12% to 14% alcohol range. Mother nature does this occasionally on her own. What I refer to as the “Ultrafornian” school of winemaking is not interested in balance in the classic, cuisine-driven sense. They are interested in flavor impact. They may speak of balance, but they are using the term in an entirely different way than we do at Littorai. Too often in California, winemakers pick fruit at absurdly high Brix levels, claiming that is the genius or forte of California terroir. Imagine the Northern European corollary: picking fruit very under-ripe because it emphasizes Northern European terroir (acidity and freshness). For all wine producing regions, there is a middle ground of striving to produce fully mature fruit which reflects the terroir in which it is grown. Fruit picked at perfect balance will always be the most crystalline reflection of the terroir in which it is born.”

Ted was the first in California to create a “by-the-acre” contract for grapes in which he personally and closely supervised all aspects of vineyard management including pruning, fertilizing, irrigation and crop yields. In these contracts, growers are paid for the quality of what they grow, not the quantity. The first contract was written in 1993 for the One Acre Vineyard in the Anderson Valley that is part of Rich Savoy’s Deer Meadow Ranch. This type of contract is now the norm for premium Pinot Noir growers in California and Oregon.

Ted was one of the first winegrowers who believed world class wine production could be achieved in California by low yields, proper clones, vertical trellising, leaf removal, and other now commonly used viticultural practices. Littorai has maintained a long term committed relationship with great vineyard sites such as Cerise, Charles Heintz, Hirsch, Mays Canyon, Savoy, Summa and Thieriot vineyards, and in the history of the winery, only one site has been discontinued. This is an exceptional record of terroir-based winemaking for California. Littorai was the first winery to vineyard designate Savoy Vineyard, Mays Canyon Vineyard, and Charles Heintz Vineyard.

In recent years, Littorai has developed estate vineyards, now accounting for 39% of all production. Littorai has been farming organically since 2002 and now 90% of Littorai’s vineyard sources are farmed using only organically certified materials. 54% of vineyard sources are farmed biodynamically which Ted embraces wholeheartedly. Ted believes the clearest path to achieve wines of classic balance in California’s dry summers is biodynamics. He says, “We must improve the long term moisture retaining ability of our soils. Regardless of whether one practices biodynamic farming, the goal will be achieved primarily through increasing our soil humus content. Balancing organic matter levels, appropriate long term management of cover cropping, precise yield control, discriminate hedging and leafing, and judicious irrigation management will all play significant roles. What I describe is an arduous, lengthy undertaking. While any producer will be able to give lip service to such ideas, implementing them will be far more complex.”

Ted’s experience has shown him that with rigorous winemaking, “Wine from a well-managed biodynamic vineyard expresses terroir like no other. Through biodynamic practices, many of the yearly, weather related difficulties experienced in the organic paradigm are overcome. In other words, we can produce vines which express the year and yet overcome its greatest challenges, all in a self sustained, self contained model.” Ted explains the philosophy of a biodynamic vineyard as generating as many of the farm’s needs as possible on site or close as possible. “The farm is a self contained organism which seeks to achieve a natural stasis with its environment. This balance will minimize (but not eliminate) pests and diseases. They will be reduced to a level which both plant and farmer can live with. The farmer works with celestial rhythms to further harmonize the farm with its environment. A good biodynamic farm is a bit like a monastery: a self contained, self supporting unit.”

Ted’s winemaking approach emphasizes minimal intervention, long lees contact, and gentle handling of the fruit and wine. Pumps and filtration are avoided. All the Chardonnays are barrel fermented. The Pinot Noir wines are fermented in traditional open-top fermenters and at least some proportion of whole clusters are used. Punch downs are routine. All the wines undergo native yeast fermentation and complete malolactic fermentation, as long as nature does not dictate otherwise. The goal is to avoid high alcohol levels and overripe flavors, focusing on finesse, balance and length. Usually one-third to one-half new oak is used for aging the wines as an element of complexity, but never leading you to think of “oak” when tasting a Littorai wine. The objective is wines of balance and harmony that can improve and blossom with cellaring. As Ted remarks, “The key word here is patience: patient winemaking and patience from the consumer.” I would suggest that if you ever find older vintages of Littorai Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the secondary market, buy them. I have acquired quite a few older vintages and enjoyed all of them immensely, especially the Pinot Noirs from One Acre in the Anderson Valley.

Ted now has his own winery on his estate in Sebastopol, finished in time for the 2008 harvest (photo below is during construction). The winery is a straw bale building built on two levels on the side of a hill. The facility is designed for solar power (part of phase two construction) and to maximize energy efficiency. Winery water is reclaimed through an innovative constructed wetlands treatment system and will be reused for vineyard and farm irrigation. The best news is that Ted now receives visitors by appointment (707-823-9586) for tours and tasting at the new winery. As part of phase two construction, underground caves for barrel storage will be dug adjacent and connected to the winery. Littorai wines are sold exclusively to a mailing list at There is still a small amount of the 2006 vintage wines available and there is currently a secondary offering on the 2007 vintage. Contact Sheri Wood at 707-826-9586 or

Ted is a life long winemaker passionately committed to his craft. He did not come into wine as a second career. His wines adhere to a personal esthetic sensibility. His impressive track record of consistent excellence with multiple vineyard sources and through fifteen vintages is impressive. If you splurge on one ultra-premium California Pinot Noir producer each year, Littorai should be a top consideration.

Listen to my interview with Ted Lemon:

Tasting Recent Vintages of Littorai Pinot Noir

Vintage notes from Ted Lemon:

    2006 - Aromatically fruity and flowery with decreased tannin. Charming wines that are approachable young.
    2005 - Serious, woodsy wines with notes of decaying earth. Lowest yields ever seen, averaging one-half ton per acre.
    2004 - Highest acid Pinot vintage Littorai had made. Tannin levels are average. Sappy, nervy wines full of aromas of brier patch and dark recesses of forest. More palate weight and aromatic expression than 2003.
    2003 - Wines have good color and concentration. Tend toward elegance and precision. Harvest coincided with a heat wave in Sonoma and Anderson Valley. Ted said in 2005 that the wines had no indications of the warm harvest conditions, but I do feel the wines now show cooked or roasted fruit notes (see my tasting notes).
    2002 - Every lot from every vineyard had exceptional quality. The wines are uniformly dark and vibrant in color. The aroma range and purity are exceptional. Lower in alcohol than 2001. Plenty of tannin structure to give the wines long life, yet not a tannic vintage.
    2001 - Normal yields. Ripe, classic fruit aromas, supple and seductive flavors. A forward vintage.

Tasting verticals is most instructive since it provides an understanding of vintage variation. Verticals offer the consumer a path to the realization that wines are not going to taste the same every year. Vintage differences are part of the charm of wine and should be celebrated. Tasting verticals also provides a better understanding of the process of winemaking and the challenges that winemakers confront year in and year out. I recommend that you seek out producers you admire, stay true to them year in and year out, and appreciate the vintages for the diversity they provide. Collect verticals, invite over some friends and pop the corks, and revel in the inevitable convivial conversation that will result.

Hirsch Vineyard

In February, 1994, Ted Lemon, Burt Williams (Williams Selyem) and Steve Kistler (Kistler Vineyards) visited Hirsch Vineyard which is located in the outpost of Cazadero on the true Sonoma Coast. This was like the three Apostles traveling to the mountain to begin the transfiguration of Hirsch Vineyard. Each of the trio chose blocks from which to source fruit. Some of the blocks were shared between wineries and some were “monopole” blocks entirely designated to a single winery.

David Hirsch, who began planting his vineyard in 1980, was a visionary but was not a trained viticulturist, and relied upon the trio, particularly Ted Lemon, to provide guidance for pruning, suckering, fertilizing, leaf removal, leaf thinning and pest control. All Littorai grape purchases were converted to a by-the-acre formula in 2001. Initially, Ted obtained grapes from a few different blocks. Each block was kept separate during production and then blended before bottling. Gradually, Ted refined his block selection and by 2001 he had some preferences. Beginning with the 2001 vintage, Littorai offered a Sonoma Coast bottling consisting primarily of declassified Hirsch blocks, so that only the very best of the Hirsch production was bottled as the vineyard designate. The declassifications have been as high as 50% of the total buys from the property. Starting in 2003, Ted restricted his purchases to Block 6, which has shown exceptional quality potential. The clones from this blocks are Swan, Pommard and Dijon 114. The soil is Hugo gravelly loam, usually found only on extremely steep and densely forested hillsides in Sonoma, and therefore rarely used for vineyards. The Littorai block has been committed to farming using only organically certified materials since 2008, the first on the property to be converted to organics. Littorai has always been the largest purchaser of Hirsch Vineyard fruit.

The Hirsch Vineyard bottlings receive very little whole cluster fermentation, no press wine is added back, virtually all vintages are never racked between barrel down and the bottling tank, and the wines are unfiltered.

2003 Littorai Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 660 cases, $50. · Very dark reddishpurple color. Ultra-ripe aromas of cooked cherries, raisins, black currents and a touch of porto. Rich and meaty on the palate, with a plethora of ripe, dark raisiny fruits with notes of earth and sassafras. Soft in the mouth with supple dry tannins. Too ripe and chunky for me. Decent.

2004 Littorai Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., 300 cases, $55. · Heady aromas of black cherries, black currents, and spice. Delicious black cherries jump out on the palate with a hint of citric peel on the hi-pitched finish. This is a wine for those who say California Pinot Noir doesn’t have enough acidity. Very good.

2005 Littorai Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., 84 cases, $63. · Really charming nose that is both floral and fruity with hints of leather and forest floor. Dark red and blue fruits are augmented by tastes of savory herbs and sweet oak. Notably structured with dry tannins perfectly balancing the lively acidity. Silky textured and quite harmonious. Very good.

2006 Littorai Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.6% alc., 636 cases, $65. · Moderately deep garnet in color. Showy aromas of dark red stone fruits, slightly confected, with underlying baking spice and char. Medium-weighted and more elegant than the previous three vintages but with an admirable mid-palate attack of tasty dried cherries. Bright acidity, soft tannins and a slightly viscous texture come together in a very congenial package. Very appealing now but has the cajones and balance to age. Really sings with food (try it with a Pastrami sandwich, you will be surprised).

Thieriot Vineyard

This 2-acre vineyard sits at 1,200 feet above the town of Bodega Bay, about five miles east of the Pacific Ocean. Cameron Thieriot planted his vineyard in 1994 with Pommard 4 and Dijon 114, 667 and 777 clones. The top soil is Goldridge sandy loam with underlying sandstone. Littorai has a 25-year lease on this vineyard and farms this vineyard organically for the owners.

1998 Littorai Thieriot Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.3% alc.. · Very potent and intense aromas of ripe black plums and black currents with hints of herbs, oak, cigar box and black olives. A big-boned, potent wine with a hint of roasted flavor to the dark, earthy fruits. Still sporting well-structured tannins. The least refined wine in this vertical tasting and the most out of character for a Littorai wine. Decent.

2001 Littorai Thieriot Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., 357 cases, $55. · Very fresh for an older wine with vibrant aromas cherries, berries, and sweet oak spice. Lip-smacking juicy cherry flavors dominate with a subtle hint of confection. Still young at heart with supple tannins, a silky mouth feel and a long and lush finish. Everything is in perfect harmony. Very good.

2002 Littorai Thieriot Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.25% alc., 205 cases, $55. · My favorite year for this vineyard. I have had this wine more times than I can count, and each time it was stunning. Unfortunately, this bottle did not quite match up to other lofty memories. Teasing, forward aromas of Bing cherries, wild strawberries and raspberries, and faint oak char. Tasty cherry and berry core with a hint of cola, tobacco, char and wood. Some lingering tannin and plentiful acidity for a refreshing finish. Very good.

2003 Littorai Thieriot Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.6% alc., 100 cases, $60. · Strikingly pure with aromas of intense dark red cherries, strawberries, straw, grass, incense and mahogany. An appealing richness with a mid palate attack of delicious fruit that has a liquor-like lift to it. Despite its appealing hedonism, the wine has class and elegance displaying a very smooth texture and caressing tannins. You can’t say no to this one.

2004 Littorai Thieriot Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., 200 cases, $65. · Lovely nose featuring fresh, sweet dark red cherries and berries and hints of straw and smoke. Discreetly concentrated black cherry and berry essence that is bright and clearly focused on the palate, ending with an aromatic and extended finish. Perfect in every way.

2005 Littorai Thieriot Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.8% alc., 48 cases, $70. · Predominant scents of straw and pine forest with berry fruit in the background. Earthy and herbal with a brooding red and blue fruit core, firm tannins and a silky mouth feel. Well-crafted, but doesn’t deliver enough Pinot love. Decent.

2006 Littorai Thieriot Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.9% alc., 305 cases, $70. · Clearly the most approachable and most seductive wine in the lineup. Ted says, “As gentle a wine as Littorai can make.” Heavily perfumed with Bing cherries, strawberries and Provencal herbs with a hint of incense. The redder fruits explode in the mouth, finding every crevice and lingering for some time. Lovely richness of flavor with gossamer tannins and bright acidity. Very harmonious with charm to thrill. As sexy as this Pinot is now, it has the balance to go the distance, so did feel rushed to pull the cork now.

Summa Vineyard

Proprietors Scott and Joan Zeller planted their 4.25-acre vineyard on Taylor Lane east of Occidenta and just across the street from Thieriot Vineyard. Summa means “with the greatest honor.” Williams Selyem bottled a Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir as far back as 1988 that brought attention to the vineyard. The Summa Vineyard was always Burt Williams’ favorite while he was at Williams Selyem and his vineyard designate Pinot Noir from there was the first California Pinot Noir priced at three digits. Littorai and Rivers-Marie are currently the only wineries sourcing Pinot Noir from the Summa Vineyard. The vineyard is a mix of old vines (1.75 acres planted in 1977) and newer plantings (2.5 acres planted in 1998). The clone is a mystery to everyone but the owners. I have had wines from this vineyard over the years from Rivers-Marie, Brogan Cellars, Williams Selyem and Littorai that have been flat-out stunning. The Littorai Summa Vineyard Pinot Noirs sell out quickly every vintage.

2003 Littorai Summa Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.9% alc., 85 cases, $65. · Darkest in color of the four vintages in this flight. Aromas of black cherries, plums, black currents, Guiness and a hint of oak. Black fruited, intense and very ripe, almost syrupy with a slight raisiny flavor. So much fruit, it seems cloying. Very smooth and silky with a good acid underpinning. Decent

2004 Littorai Summa Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.7% alc., 36 cases, $70. · Heady aromas of fresh cherry tart and forest floor. Pure, fresh and vibrant. Ambrosial flavors of loamy dark cherries with a sidecar of savory herbs. Seamless, soft and sensual in the mouth with gentle tannins and a clean, fruity finish. Excellent.

2005 Littorai Summa Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., 24 cases, $80. · Similar to the 2004 vintage but a bit denser with more body. Alluring scents of black cherries, black raspberries, wood shed and mint. Luscious dark stone fruits with hints of herbs, earth and cola. Smooth, even creamy, with silky tannins. Perfectly balanced.

2006 Littorai Summa Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.7% alc., 121 cases, $80. · Lightest in color of the four vintages in this flight. Demure but enticing aromas of cherries and raspberries with a hint of Asian spices and oak. Veers a little more toward the redder fruit spectrum than the previous three vintages. Full-on generous flavors of creamy cherry and raspberry fruit. The flavors march in waves across the palate leading to a finish that won’t quit. Absolutely gorgeous and pure, and not propelled by high alcohol. A little lighter-weighted than the 2004 and 2005 vintages, yet equally, if not more satisfying with more finesse, yet possessing enough tannin to age. Close to a perfect California Pinot Noir and a sure fire First Team Pinot Noir All-American for 2009.

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