When California started getting serious about making fine wine, in the 1960s and 1970s, it had little experience inwhere to plant which grapes. So it made mistakes. One of the big ones was in failing to plant pinot noir grapes in cool areas.
And so for California growers it came to be called ‘‘the heartbreak grape'' because it was so hard to grow and turn into good wine.
They might have known; pinot noir is the chief red grape of France's cool Burgundy area, and it turned outto like the same conditions in California.
So when the root louse phylloxera devastated California's vineyards in the 1990s, forcing replanting of most of the vineyards, some saw it as a blessing in disguise. It let them replant their pinot noir on cool mountains, in valleys filled daily by the cool fogs of the nearby Pacific Ocean and other low-temperature locations.
Today California is making much better pinot noirs.
California's TAZ Vineyards chose a cool-weather location for its Fiddlestix Vineyard, the north side of an east-west valley in Santa Barbara County's Santa Rita Hills, where fog comes in each morning and tempera tures rarely exceed 75 degrees.
For its Cuyama River pinot noir, it grows grapes at 1,000 feet between Santa Barbara
and San Luis Obispo counties to catch ocean breezes.
"Pinot noir tends to bud and ripen earlier than other red varietals," says TAZ
winemaker Natasha Boffman. ‘‘Excessive amounts of heat and sun can produce sugar
ripeness without allowing the grapes to achieve full flavor ripeness."
Boffman divides the vines into 32 blocks that are vinified separately.
"As a bottling date approaches, the separate blends are tasted and assembled to create a final wine most expressive of the Fiddlestix Vineyard," she says.
Fess Parker Vineyard -- yes, owned by the actor who played TV's Davy Crockett --
turns to the cool Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills, also draped by fogs from the
Pacific, for its grapes.
Also seeking cool weather Lynmar Estate grows its grapes in Sonoma County's
Russian River Valley on its 47-acre Quail Hill Vineyard. It, too, divides its vineyards
into blocks and ferments them separately for later assembly.
When pinot noir grapes are to be used in sparkling wines, winemakers say cool
weather grapes are even more important, to preserve the acids that give bubbly its
crispness. Scharffenberger Cellars goes north of Sonoma County to the Anderson Valley and Mendocino County for its grapes.
• 2006 Ashley's Pinot
Noir, Fess Parker Winery,
Santa Rita Hills (single vine-
yard from Rancho Las Her-
manas, formerly Ashley's
Vineyard): intense black
plum and espresso flavors,
full-bodied and smooth; $50.
• 2006 TAZ Fiddlestix
Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa
Rita Hills: aromas and flavors
of red plums, cinnamon and
licorice, intense fruit, ripe
tannins, crisp acid, opulent;
• 2006 Quail Hill Vine-
yard Pinot Noir, Lynmar
Estate, Russian River Valley:
aromas of flowers and red
fruit, flavors of black cherries,
firm tannin, crisp; $60.
• 2007 Fess Parker
Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara
County: dark cherry and dark
chocolate flavors, crisp and
• 2006 Fess Parker
Bien Nacido Pinot Noir,
Santa Maria Valley: lively red
cherry aromas and flavors,
with hints of bitter chocolate,
crisp finish; $50.
• Nonvintage Scharf-
fenberger Cellars Brut
Sparkling Wine, Mendocino
County (65 percent pinot
noir, 35 percent chardonnay):
myriad tiny bubbles, bright
red plum flavors, creamy tex-
• TAZ Cuyama River
Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Val-
ley: flowery aromas, flavors
of black cherries and herbs,
soft and ripe, with bitter
chocolate finish; $28.