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Pinot Noir - California vs. Oregon - Episode 1
updated: Sep 29, 2012, 11:00 AM

By Marc Liberts

In my never-ending quest to learn more about wine, I had the opportunity to try about 30 different Pinot Noir wines from California and Oregon on September 23, 2012 at Max's Restaurant & Cucina in Santa Barbara as part of the BYOB Wine & Dine series. The featured winery was Pali Wine Co., and their winemaker Aaron Walker. Pali Wine Co. identify themselves as Pinot Noir specialists who source their grapes from all over California and Oregon, and produce their wines at their facility in Lompoc.

For the evening, Aaron brought Pinots from Shea Vineyard in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, Durell Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast, and the Cargasacchi Vineyard from the Sta. Rita Hills region of Santa Barbara County to pair with the meal.

The initial wine tasting was accentuated by assorted gourmet cheeses from C'est Cheese. The first course was Grilled Figs & Pancetta over Arugula Salad with Ginger-Pomegranate Vinaigrette. The main course was Fennel-Scented Duck in Sour Cherry & Sage Reduction over Roasted Shallot & Truffle Smashed Potatoes, with Sautéed Wild Mushrooms & Haricots Verts. And the final course was Mixed Berry Tart with Cinnamon-Clove Zabaglione.

Aaron was pleased to announce that Pali Wine Co. just opened a tasting room in Santa Barbara. More information about Pali Wine Co. and their new tasting room can be found at their website here: http://www.paliwineco.com/.

I became acquainted with Pali Wines in 2007 when Brian Loring (who is now the winemaker of Loring Wine Company) was the winemaker, and immediately fell in love with their wines. Aaron Walker took over the winemaking duties at Pali in 2008 and has been at the helm ever since. I had a chance to meet with and interview Aaron about Pinot Noir. Aaron also gave a number of brief talks about Pinot Noir and his wines.

Q: What are your impressions of Oregon Pinot Noir generally, and how do you think they compare generally to California Pinot Noir? Is there a region in California that produces Pinot Noir similar to Oregon in your opinion?

A: Oregon is more Burgundian, with bright acidity and earthiness, and lots of pepper notes. California has more fruit driven and generally bigger in style. I think CA and Oregon are each very unique, like apples and oranges!

Q: Some enthusiasts think that aged wines can be far superior to young wines, and some wine enthusiasts bemoan the fact that the average consumer is going to open the wine he or she buys within hours or days of purchase. What is your opinion on this, and would you encourage consumers to drink your wine immediately, or wait and try and cellar it? If you suggest cellaring, what benefits can the consumer expect?

A: Our Cuvee wines are made for that 95% of people who are interested in drinking them now. They are approachable in flavor and price, and we want our fans to enjoy them with friends and family without pretention. On the flip side, our Vineyard Designate wines are meant for the collector and often have greater structure that will allow them to age very well.

Q: In the past, I've always loved Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills AVA. Can you share your thoughts about the Santa Rita Hills AVA and what makes it distinctive as it relates to Pinot Noir?

A: I think it is one of the best regions for growing Pinot Noir. The growing season is longer, so you get more hang time and more development of fruit flavors, while maintaining great structure; it is a cool growing region-much cooler than Sonoma, for instance, even though the region is in Southern CA. The orientation of the St. Rita Hills is interesting because it is along the only east-west mountain range in the United States. Cool ocean breezes come through and make it a very cool-climate growing region.

Q: In the recent past, I've also been enjoying Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria Valley AVA. Can you share your thoughts about the SMV ava and what makes it distinctive as it relates to Pinot Noir?

A: The Pinots from Santa Maria Valley are soft and very pretty. They don't have the same structure and tannin as Pinots from other areas, but are really delightful.

Q: Thinking of French Pinot Noir, which are your favorite(s), and what impresses you about them?

A: The history and lineage impresses me most. They French have had centuries to work with their vineyards and figure out what grows best in each plot of land, so the wines a very distinct from vineyard to vineyard. We're only starting to discover our own "grand cru" vineyards now in California and Oregon. It is really great to work with some of these elite vineyards in CA for Pali for our vineyard designates, such as Durrell and Fiddlestix.

Q: What first comes to mind for you when you think about Santa Barbara County wine-making and vineyards today?

A: It is an exciting time for Santa Barbara winemaking. We're just starting to get attention on an international level for the quality of our wines and vineyards. At Pali, we're currently developing 50 acres in the Santa Rita Hills AVA.


1. POPPY, Monterey County, Pinot Noir, 2010 - very light and syrupy. Not unpleasant but not great - 82 points.

2. ERATH, Oregon, Pinot Noir, 2009 - earthy and loamy. Well balanced but on the lighter side. Not bad for a $15.00 wine from Costco - 87 points.

3. NEPENTHE CELLARS, 2010 Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills, LaFoud Vineyard, Martin Ray Clone - Very interesting wine. Tight with nice acid and a subtle cherry cola note. I liked it - 90 points.

4. BABCOCK, 2010 Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills - Plump and bold with nice red fruit and acid. A solid and enjoyable Pinot! 89 points.

5. SAGINAW VINEYARDS, 2009 Oregon Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley - Only 12% alcohol - light and earthy with herbal notes. Pleasant but not great - 86 points.

6. DOMAINE DROUHIN, 2009 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley - earthy and herbal with nice balance and good red fruit. Enjoyable - 88 points.

7. TORETTI'S FAMILY VINEYARD, Inocencio, Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley, 2010 - big hot wine with fun candy notes with plush fruit. A little off balance - 86 points.

8. MACMURRAY RANCH, 2008 Central Coast Pinot Noir - unstructured and undisciplined. Big fruit but a little sloppy overall. 83 points.

9. DANIEL GEHRS, 1999 Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley - A little too old and on the down-side of its life. Some fruit but out of balance. 83 points.

10. TOWER 15, Sunset Rose, 2011 - tart and pleasant with pretty raspberry & strawberry notes. Refreshing - 87 points.

11. TONDRE, 2009 Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, Tondre Grapefield Vineyard - creamy and well balanced. Nice deep red fruit and a hint of caramel. 91 points.

12. PUMA ROAD, 2010 Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands - ripe fruit but nice earth and herbs. Interesting and good! 90 points.

13. HELIOTROPE, 2010 California Pinot Noir - unbalanced and unstructured. Fruit abounds but too much sweet candy for an effective showing - 81 points.

14. AU BON CLIMAT, 2004 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir, Old World Rules - Nice older wine with good balance, raspberry and herbal notes. Solid - 89 points.

15. DEMETRIA, 2009 Pinot Noir, Cuvee Sandra, Sta. Rita Hills - plump and full-bodied with lots of ripe fruit and good acid. 90 points.

16. KENNETH VOLK VINEYARDS, 2007 Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Cuvee, Santa Maria Valley - very nice balance with soft cherry and cola flavors. Enjoyable! - 90 points.

17 KENNETH VOLK VINEYARDS, 2008 Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Maria Cuvee - well balanced with good red fruit and soft loamy earth notes - 87 points.

18. BERINGER, 2009 Pinot Noir, Napa Valley - plump candied fruit on the nose but slightly over ripe perhaps - 85 points.

19. TRADER JOE'S, 2010 Grand Reserve, pinot Noir, Russian River Valley - fresh and ripe with nice raspberry and herbal notes - 88 points.

20. PALI WINE CO., 2010 Pinot Noir, Shea Vineyard, Willamette Valley - demure fruit with nice spice and loam, woodsy. Good balance - 90 points.

21. PALI WINE CO., 2007 Cargasacchi Jalama Vineyard, Santa Barbara County - nicely aged with good fruit and balance - 89 points.

22. SEA SMOKE, 2009 Pinot Noir, Ten, Sta. Rita Hills - Very tight with big acid, distinctive fruit and assertive tannins. Probably needs 5 more years in bottle - 92 points.

23. PALI WINE CO., 2010 Pinot Noir, Cargasacchi Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills - earthy mushroomy and funky on the nose with nice red fruit and strong acid. Bold - 88 points.

24. CARGASACCHI, 2006 Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, Cargasacchi-Jalama Vineyard - fruity and funky with fun earthy notes and interesting red fruit characteristics - 87 points.

25. PALI WINE CO., 2010 Pinot Noir, Durell Vineyard, Sonoma Coast - Soft spices, pretty minerals, dark fruit. Intense, exciting, and beautifully balanced - 93 points.

26. ARCHERY SUMMIT, 2002 Oregon Pinot Noir, Red Hills Estate, Dundee Hills - Beautiful balance with soft fruit, earth, forest floor, loam, and spice. Great - 94 points.

27 THE CENTRAL, 2008 Late Harvest Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley - sweet and pretty with nice balance, candied orange blossom and honey notes - 87 points.

BEST WINE OF THE NIGHT: ARCHERY SUMMIT, 2002 Oregon Pinot Noir, Red Hills Estate, Dundee Hills - 94 points.

2nd BEST WINE OF THE NIGHT: PALI WINE CO., 2010 Pinot Noir, Durell Vineyard, Sonoma Coast - 93 points.

3rd BEST WINE OF THE NIGHT: SEA SMOKE, 2009 Pinot Noir, Ten, Sta. Rita Hills - 92 points.

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