There’s not much middle ground when it comes to pinot noir. When grown for quality in cool climates with rocky soils, the yields are shockingly low, meaning that prices are frighteningly high. When grown for quantity so that the rest of us can actually afford a taste, it usually tastes like grape punch. Then along came Pali Wine Co., which set up shop in Lompoc seven years ago and focused on making pinots that were both reasonably priced and solidly made.
“Those are the wines that have allowed us to grow,” said Aaron Walker, Pali’s winemaker since 2008, now overseeing the production of nearly 20,000 annual cases that are sold in 30 different states. “There is a niche there for sure, which we’ve found.”
In addition to the five regional blends that Pali sells for around $25 or less (sourced from properties in Santa Barbara, Sonoma, and Oregon), Walker also oversees a robust vineyard-designate pinot program, with $50 bottles coming from such renowned vineyards as Cargasacchi, Fiddlestix, and Windsor Oaks. “They are almost exclusively sold to our mailing-list customers,” said Walker, a San Diego State grad who fell for wine while working restaurant jobs. “Those wines rarely make it out of California.” Though the company recently planted 44 acres of its own pinot, plus six acres of chardonnay, on Highway 246 in the Sta. Rita Hills, Walker explained, “We’ll continue to source from those vineyards. They’ve become name brands.”
In the last year, Pali — which was founded by business partners Tim Perr and Scott Knight and named after Pacific Palisades, where they live — also created a second label called Tower 15, which is made from Rhône and Bordeaux varietals grown in Paso Robles and named after a lifeguard tower at Will Rogers Beach. And just this summer, Pali opened a stylishly stark tasting room at the Funk Zone’s newest address, the modernist, gray, mixed-use building at the corner of Yanonali Street and Gray Avenue, where Walker; his wife, Emily (daughter of Hitching Post II co-owner/winemaker Gray Hartley); and their new baby live in the apartment above.
A few weeks ago, the Walkers and I tasted through about 10 wines. Here are some highlights.
“Alphabets” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2010: An intriguing scent of cedar on the nose, followed by black pepper and spice. “There’s definitely a toastiness,” said Walker. $21; 1,700 cases.
“Bluffs” Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2010: “This one is super ripe, very fruit-forward,” said Walker. Tasted like grape punch but with the right amount of spice and acid. $22.50; 2,274 cases.
Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009: “This is softer and more floral,” said Walker. “It’s prettier. I love this one.” $48; 112 cases.
Shea Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2010: The maple syrup on the nose is probably due to new oak, and perhaps the extended macerations, said Walker, explaining, “That gives it a dustiness.” $50; 160 cases.
Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2010: Noticeable and fascinating black tar flavors, which Walker said are present every year, rumored, with a wink, to be from the nearby Sears Point racetrack. “We’ve got a really strong following for this wine,” said Walker. $52; 85 cases.
Pali Wine Co.’s new tasting room is at 116 East Yanonali Street in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone. See paliwineco.com or call (805) 560-7254.