Over the last seven months my wine research has carried me through Northern California; down the length of the Rhône Valley; to Buenos Aires, Patagonia, and Mendoza; back to California; then on to Valencia, Mallorca, and Cava in Spain; Sicily and Tuscany in Italy; the Finger Lakes of upstate New York; and, just last week, to Champagne.
I’m tired. But I also have eight notebooks brimming with reviews, a computer with thousands of photos and recordings, and a head full of ideas. Cool weather—and the end of the vintage—means it’s time to hunker down and write.
In the meantime I’ve continued to sample wines that land on my doorstep, and while I work on those longer travel narratives, I’m also rebooting regular roundups, reviews from the best from these tastings.
With summer’s glimmer fading, it seemed right to focus on reds—here, sixteen Pinot Noir from California. I’ve listed the wines by provenance roughly north to south, from Mendocino down to the Sta. Rita Hills.
But given California’s complicated terroir, this north-south schema is somewhat arbitrary. Vineyard mesoclimate is largely determined by maritime mood and terrestrial contour rather than simple latitude. The Sonoma Coast AVA, where six of these wines were grown, wraps Sonoma and Napa counties in a nebulous embrace of cool Pacific air. Even the east-west valleys of the Sta. Rita Hills, five hundred miles south as the condor flies, channel coastal fog inland, accommodating temperate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. During colder seasons some of these sites struggle to ripen, but during smiling vintages the marine-induced diurnal temperature swings slow development and build complexity in the berries.
On the whole, the sixteen wines below, almost exclusively from the warm 2012 and 2013 vintages, are friendly, juicy, and a little bit spicy. Youthful and spritely now, most could benefit from some cellaring, their acid backbone suggesting a maturation period of two or three years, minimum. Pour them now with salmon, lighter meats, and young cheeses. And raise a toast to cooler air.
2013 Masút Vineyard and Winery Pinot Noir Estate Mendocino
Earthy and smoky, with aromas of clove, red berries, and eucalyptus. The palate is plush and sueded, with spiced black brambles and a top note of ripe tomato-y red fruits. The finish is hot and spicy. It’s too young; I expect a few years of bottle age will round out the fruit, adding savoriness and depth.
14.9% abv | $40
2013 Masút Vineyard and Winery Pinot Noir Two Barrel Mendocino
A wine with a focused fragrance redolent of pomegranate, spices, and something dark but glowing, too, like the embers of a midnight fire. The ruby body has a demure pink rim and a texture like velvet, with a counterpoint of juicy red fruits and strands of glittery acidity. This is a ripe, plush Pinot with a lot of youthful verve (and alcohol). Like its sister, it would benefit from cellaring.
15.1% abv | $60
2013 CrossBarn Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Anderson Valley
Aromatically this wine offers a curious but compelling mélange of red berries, sweet tomato, cinnamon, wet linen, and cold steel, but the body feels straight-ahead: juicy, spiced, with sweet red fruits. There’s a faint but alluring savory edge, and the finishing effect is nervy youth.
14.1% abv | $35
2012 Trombetta Family Wines Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County
A tangy scent suggests tangerines muddled with currant and cranberry. There’s a pleasant hit of salty hay and top notes of allspice, white pepper, and anise seed. This wine manages to be somehow both plush and sharp. Give it three years in bottle to settle down.
14.2% abv | $45
2013 CrossBarn Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County
Tapestried and just off-sweet, the wine’s red fruits are embroidered with filaments of cinnamon and tangerine, sweet tomato, field herbs, and straw. An admirable and prismatic—if young—Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.
14.1% abv | $35
2012 Anaba Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County
A fragrance like red plums warmed by the sun, with a quiet hiss of grass and mint. The wine feels like late summer: ripe, smiling, but not without complexity. Drink it now with salmon, pork loin, ripe young cheeses, or poultry. Hold it for five years to see summer turn into autumn.
14.3% abv | $34 (sample)
2012 Ron Rubin Pinot Noir Green Valley of Russian River Valley
Savory, earthy, and dark aromatically—dark, but not brooding. It has top notes of cypress and minty herbs, and a blush like red clover. The palate mingles red fruits with savory low notes of cedar and tea. This wine feels ample but not luxuriant—not too ripe, but not unripe. It’s rounded, meaty, enduring.
13.7% abv | $40
2013 Ron Rubin Pinot Noir Russian River Valley
Dark and savory aromatically, with spiced currant, ripe tomato, herbs, and woodsy berries. It’s brighter on the palate, with sharp red fruits and a foundation note of allspice and cedar. Simpler than the Rubin Green Valley Pinot, but still nice, and food-friendly.
13.7% abv | $25
2012 Emeritus Pinot Noir Hallberg Ranch Russian River Valley
Pale ruby red with spice-tinged aromas that offer sweet tomato and strawberries. The palate is juicy and lean, ripe but not too, with touches of green fruits and herbs complementing its tart berry notes. High-pitched but not angular, it’s a vivacious Pinot Noir that partners amicably with food.
13.8% abv | $42
2013 Lutum Pinot Noir Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County
This wine has everything going on: earth, depth, savoriness, complexity, structure, acid, interestingness. The scent is somewhat animal, somewhat fruit, and the palate is bitter and savory and curious, with an herb-steeped meaty edge and a body that finishes in a rain shower of steely minerals. Surprising, unorthodox, almost unlikeable, and singularly compelling.
14.1% abv | $60
2013 Lutum Pinot Noir Gap’s Crown Vineyard Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County
A whiff of baking spices complements berries, mint, red earth, and rhubarb. On the palate the wine is zingy but also elegant, with brilliant acidity, brambly fruits, and a glittery finish. This is a shimmery wine with great clarity, deriving its structure is from acid, not tannin. Young but it might cellar well; I’d love to see what happens to it in five years.
13.9% abv | $60
2012 Trombetta Family Wines Pinot Noir Gap’s Crown Vineyard Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County
Cooling and herbal, like a freshet above notes of rhubarb, cassis, and iron minerals. There are dark fruits on the palate plumped by ripe tomato—to me a hallmark of California Pinot from a warm vintage. Medium tannins flood the finish, and spices tip in at the finale. A wine with lovely multivariate complexity.
14.2% abv | $65
2012 Bouchaine Vineyards Pinot Noir Carneros, Napa Valley
A wine with a fragrance that mingles sweet pink fruits and flowers with smoky tobacco. It’s fine-grained, spicy, and glistening on the palate. Seriously made but smiling and approachable, with a gamine, good natured countenance.
13.8% abv | $35
2009 Rhys Pinot Noir Horseshoe Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains
Ruby color with aromas of sweet black bramble fruits tinged with something earthy like iron, green like thyme, and spicy and sweet like a pomander. The palate is sweet-seeming, too, with abundant baking spices and red cherry fruit. It feels ripe and abundant and at the same time forthright, candid.
13.3% abv | $69
2013 Lutum Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley
A wine with a clear garnet body and a wildly floral perfume of beach roses, lily, and jasmine, with top notes of fresh fennel and thyme. Taut on the palate, it offers tart red raspberry fruit and almost indiscernible tannins. This wine feels mostly about acid, berries, and a fragrant, breezy freshness. It’s youthful, naive, unstained.
13.4% abv | $50
2013 Lutum Pinot Noir La Rinconada Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills
The limpid body has a surprising black-earth fragrance of plum skin, brambles, and brown spices. There’s a dark, sylvan redolence here, like the scent of red berries growing in deep woods, lit by sunlight. The fruit and spice mingle on the palate, complementing the wine’s rounded tannins cut by clean acidity. The lasting impression is juicy, peppery, rubescent—and a little bit opulent.
14.5% abv | $50
All wines except the 2009 Rhys were samples for review.