For the last seven years, pinot noir lovers from around the country have descended upon the shores of Shell Beach at the Cliffs Resort during the spring months to celebrate a varietal that is widely revered and loved. World of Pinot Noir (WOPN) is a wine festival that attracts not only devout pinot noir fanatics but also some of the best pinot noir producers in the world for two days of complete immersion in the great mysteries of this little grape.
I’ve had the pleasure of attending for the past three years, and have, in the process, discovered many great new pinot noirs, as well as tasted some tried-and-true pinots from America and France. Although this popular event is held on the Central Coast of California, it attracts legendary producers, including Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue, who this year hosted a symposium on its remarkable burgundies.
Of course, pinot noir is greatly enhanced when paired with foods that further draw out its complexities and hidden glories, so chefs like Mark Peel (Campanile, Los Angeles), Neal Frazer (Grace, Los Angeles), and Cal Stamenov (Marinus, Carmel) were on hand to create dishes that married seamlessly with pinot noir.
It’s always difficult to choose my top 10 pinot noir producers, as there were so many on hand that I found to be producing revelatory, graceful, and delicious pinots. Following, in alphabetical order, are the producers whose wines stayed with me even after the weekend faded and that I still can’t seem to get out of my head. Look for their pinots in finer retail shops and restaurants. You won’t regret a single sip.
Bonaccorsi Wine Company
Following the tragic passing of Michael Bonaccorsi, BWC continued to produce great wines, but none that lived up to the first vintages made by Michael and his wife, Jenne. Happily, with the arrival of Clarissa Nagy, the new winemaker at Bonaccorsi, the current releases are as glorious as those first vintages. Just look for that burgundy-colored, oval shaped label. It has come to be the imprimatur of quality in pinot noir. Jenne Bonaccorsi continues to be the director of winemaking, while the talented and meticulous Nagy assumes the title of winemaker.
Byron Vineyard and Winery
Coincidentally, two of my favorite pinot noir producers are also husband and wife. Jonathan Nagy, who is married to Clarissa Nagy, has breathed new life and promise into the Byron brand. Following Ken Brown’s departure, Byron seemed to struggle for a while, but Nagy has taken Byron wines to a whole new level. He has continued where Ken Brown left off-creating pinot noirs of elegance and beauty.
Peter Cargasacchi, the namesake for this brand, is a hardworking farmer, winegrower, winemaker, and cattle wrangler. Somehow, in the midst of being a gentleman farmer, he manages to create sublime pinot noirs from his estate vineyard. Though this brand is relatively young, it has already produced dazzling pinot noir and, from the looks of it, these wines will only continue to get better. Peter knows his vineyards inside and out, so his wines possess true varietal character and are as lovely as they are austere.
Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue
When it comes to Burgundy, Comte de Vogue is often synonymous with glorious, show-stopping wines. This is one of the oldest producers in Burgundy and its 31- acre estate is devoted mostly to grand crus. Heiresses Claire de Causans and Marie de Ladoucette oversee daily operations, while Eric Bourgogne, Fran§ois Millet, and Jean-Luc Pepin help to grow, make, and market the wines, respectively. These wines tend to be fairly expensive, depending upon the quality of the vintage, but they rarely disappoint. A bottle of this Burgundy during a great vintage equals near perfection.
The legendary Foxen vineyard has managed to accomplish the nearly impossible-it continues to get better each year and somehow compete with the newer, trendier brands of pinot noir that emerge on the market on an almost daily basis. I’m nearly speechless from the sheer beauty of some of their offerings. Winemaker Bill Wathen and his partner, Dick Dore, should be proud of their track record.
Winemaker Greg Brewer and assistant winemaker and vineyard manager Chad Melville were on hand with their latest pinot noir releases from this great Santa Barbara County property. The Melville estate has respectfully and mindfully built a legacy around pinot noir and how it manifests itself in the Santa Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara County. They produce some of the most stellar and fairly priced pinot noirs in America today.
The Ojai Vineyard
I have been a fan of Adam Tolmach’s for years. And his assistant winemaker Fabian Castel has also impressed me with his breadth of knowledge and deft approach to pinot noir. Quite honestly, I just can’t get enough of these wines. Ojai Vineyard sources fruit from Santa Maria and Santa Rita Hills and their Bien Nacido Vineyard-designated pinot noir is one of the best around.
Patz and Hall Wine Company
Wow, I love the pinots that James Hall and Donald Patz produce. Though they make their wine in the Napa Valley, they purchase fruit from vineyards in Carneros, the Sonoma Coast, the Santa Lucia Highlands, and Mendocino County. I was fortunate enough to try their wines during the Pioneers of Pinot seminar held at Laetitia Winery and Vineyard during the WOPN weekend. Their wines age gracefully; to experience a Patz and Hall pinot noir with 10 to 15 years of age on it is to nearly have a religious experience.
Paul Lato Wines
Once again, this Polish immigrant winemaker/gentleman has turned out pinot noirs of brilliance. Lato purchases fruit from vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria appellations and transforms this fruit into liquid gold. His wines are reminiscent of great burgundies I’ve had over the years. I can’t wait to see how the current releases age in the bottle. Lato is the prince of balanced pinots. There’s nothing heavy-handed about his approach to this varietal.
Saintsbury has been around for about 25 years, and they’re still producing great, great pinots. I’m partial to their Brown Ranch and Stanley Ranch offerings-two designates that really showcase the talents of winemakers/founders Dick Ward and David Graves, not to mention the terroir of the Carneros region. But even their modestly priced Garnet offering is one of the best pinot noirs out there in this price category.