The Pinot of Our Fathers

A brief history of Pinot Noir

It was a mysterious enigma. It could be aloof or sublime, sexy or austere. You didn’t know what you would get or the mood it would be in when you opened the bottle. Its intrigue was in the hunt, the ongoing search for that one bottle that would once again take you to that place – the sensory climax where the olfactory piqued with the aromas of the gods, a subtle dance that developed into an explosion of flavor that left a wake of silk, leather, sandpaper, fruit, funk, earth and sex. Pinot Noir could be a rarified gem or plonk. That was Pinot Noir in the sixties.

The few who cared followed with awe and respect for the vigneron who toiled over the fragile Pinot Noir grape. They read the tea leaves in the weather patterns of each vintage with the hope that just enough sun would lead to perfectly ripened fruit – just ripe enough… not too ripe, because the magic happened when it was on the razor’s edge with good acidity, bright fruit and moderate alcohol – 12.5 to 13.5% versus today when most are right around 14%.

Pinot Noir was beautifully inconsistent and almost unknown in the New World back then. Most people, if they knew it at all, just called it Burgundy. Americans had no respect for the fact that Burgundy was a place where great Pinot was grown and some put other grapes in the bottles they called Burgundy.

It was in the late seventies that the New World began its obsession with the delicate Pinot Noir grape. It became the holy grail of vintners to grow the “Heartbreak Grape” and craft it into a classic Pinot that was on par with the greatest in the world.

The early eighties saw a revolution in Pinot Noir. More growers got into the game, including us. But in the early eighties, you didn’t have access to many clones so you would taste your neighbors wines and if you liked what you tasted, you took cuttings from that vineyard to plant in your own. These “massale selections” were the heirlooms that had been kicking around the Napa/Sonoma regions for decades and  had been selected for their unique qualities and how well they grew in the chosen micro-climate. We didn’t know it at the time but these heirlooms would be the key to great Carneros Pinot Noir.

As the ‘80’s came to a close, the perfect storm was brewing. The root louse phylloxera mutated in the monoculture of vines that were planted on the once resistant AXR rootstock, causing mass replanting at the same time as the new French clones were becoming available. These new clones seemed like a revelation. They had wonderful aromatics with a deep, rich texture, and the new 100-point wine critics loved the new, more powerful wines. So, more and more people planted the clones. Suddenly, California Pinot Noir started having higher alcohol and lower acidity. These were not the classic style of Pinot Noir we were captivated by. We were concerned that the potential loss of the heirlooms would lead to a generic, fruit-driven style of Pinot Noir that was the opposite of the complex, delicate Pinot that we loved.

Save the heirlooms! In the 1990’s RSVnapa recognized that relying too much on the new French clones would result in a style of Pinot that was more about making a bold first impression than a wine you wanted to get to know over dinner. They sugared up before they were physiologically ripe, causing winemakers to pick at higher sugars and lower acidity to get the flavor development from a clone that was created for the cooler French environment. We found the answer was right in front of us all along and we needed to collect as many cuttings from heirlooms as possible before they all disappeared. We originally planted the “S” and the “I” selections, then later added cuttings from Chalone, Hanzell, M and H, Swan and more. These heirlooms ripened more slowly, developing flavor at lower sugars for a wine with moderate alcohol and bright, mouth watering acidity.

Now in the 2020’s – we face new challenges. How do you create a delicate and delicious Pinot Noir in the age of climate change? Well, some years we don’t and we have chosen to not make wine from the grapes that have been exposed to extreme heat and/or smoke from fires. The main challenge is to find a selection that is resilient to the extremes – heat spikes, unseasonal rain, etc. We feel that organic, biodynamic and regenerative farming has helped, but we may need to look for new solutions like blending Pinot Noir with one or more other varieties to find the wine’s natural balance that we are looking for. As a famous French vigneron once told me: “Follow nature and the rest will come.” We will always let nature take the lead and we will do our best to keep up.

Rob Sinskey