Paul Sloan first fell in love with Pinot Noir as an assistant waiter. It deepened in the early 1990s when he worked as a wine buyer’s assistant at John Ash & Co. in Santa Rosa, California.
There Sloane got a taste of the classic Californian pinot: Chalera, Joseph Swan, Williams-Selim, Delinger and Mount Eden, all passionate projects dedicated to the noble wines of the place, with a Burgundian inspiration.
But when the customer invited Sloane to taste Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, considered one of the best wines in Burgundy, he decided to make Pinot Noir his life’s work.
Pinot is the best wine I’ve ever tasted, and it’s the worst, Sloan says. There’s no such centre. The famous Californian classics are beautifully ripe and can be combined with food, but what struck me about the great French Burgundy wines is the difference in concentration. The best wines had better concentration.
From left to right Siduri’s founders, Adam Lee and winemaker Matt Revelette/photo of Jeremy Ball.
It led to a revelation. In order to cultivate a Pinot Noir and produce it one day, it is important not only to choose the right area with the right soil, but also to strive for small harvests with a higher density, European style, with the distance between the vines.
In 1998, together with his wife Katherine, he started small vineyards, Sonoma Beach and the Russian river valley Pinot Noir.
It took another seven years to plant and have patience before the Sloans produced some barrels of their first wine. That was in 2005, a year after the popular film Sideways, which is mainly based on the wine industry, caused a cataclysm in California’s Pinot Noir that changed everything.
I’ll always scream for the side effect in a crowded room, Sloan. She erased everything. It was amazing. Pinot noir [in California] has gone from 30 to 300 [cases], while some famous players have drawn 20,000 cases in a very short period of time.
For Sloans, the huge increase in pinot production has made it difficult to get their name, find distributors to work with or find a place in a restaurant.
But despite the difficulties, they survived and found their customers. Today, they cultivate 45 hectares of pinot soil and produce 2,500 crates per year.
Grapes sorting in small vineyards during harvest / photo : Don Hoyman
The slow and steady growth and interest in pinot noir in California has of course already started, thanks in part to the pioneering work of Calera and his colleagues.
For years the founder of Calera, Josh Jensen, looked for limestone in California, taking his inspiration from Burgundy. Finally, in 1974, he found what he was looking for on Mount Harlan in San Benito County.
In the Russian river valley Joseph Swan started breeding pinot noir at the end of the sixties. Fans of Burgundy Pinot Noir, Burt Williams and Ed Selim, the founders of Williams-Selim, helped the Californian Pinots vineyard, known as the Californian Pinots, make a piece of wine with their first vintage in 1981.
More and more restaurant sommeliers love grapes and their ability to prepare meals for two, which also increases consumer interest.
Many of these Pinot admirers began to be appreciated from Burgundy. The global Liv-ex wine market reports that the Burgundy 150 index, which tracks the prices of the most actively traded wines on its platform, has risen by 445 per cent over the past 16 years.
This price difference is also reflected in the buying guide, where it is not surprising that the Grand Cru Pinot Noir de Bourgogne earned more than 300 dollars in 2018. The highest price so far for a California Pinot 2018 is $150.
Paul and Katherine Sloan about small vineyards / Photo by Dawn Hoymann
Figures from the California Wine Institute show that sales of pinot noir in less than a year since the release of Sideways in October 2004 increased by 18%.
Today Pinot is the fifth largest wine in the United States in terms of sales, according to the research agency Nielsen for 52 weeks ending December 1, 2019, when it had annual sales of just over $ 1 billion.
I think there is no doubt that Sideways has been a great blessing for pinot noir in the short term and has led to a drop in sales of merlot, says Adam Lee, founder of the pinot-oriented Siduri winery, which he founded with Diana Novi Lee in 1994.
But in the long run, I really believe that it has led to a huge increase in the Pinot Noir area, he says. In 2004, when Sideways came out, there were 22,645 hectares of pinot noir lower and 1,410 hectares of pinot noir non-bearing.
In 2010, California had planted 33,343 acres with grapes and planted 3,947 acres without grapes in Pinot Land, which ultimately led to greater commercialization, Lee said. Wineries that didn’t specialise in pinot noir thought they had to produce pinot, and that was a problem.
In 2004, 70,062 tonnes of Californian pinot were crushed. In 2018 this was 313,824 tonnes.
Pinot Noir Grape Sort / Photo by Dawn Hoyman
According to California agricultural production statistics, in 2018 the largest number of Pinot Scotlanders in the state was in Sonoma County, an area of 12,735 hectares. The price of pinot in Sonoma also averages $4,000 per ton.
Looking back, Lee remembers the period of the 2003 and 2004 films, which were released immediately after the film’s release (2003 and 2004), as the hottest of all the films he had seen in California.
The sugar in those years was higher than in any other vintage, so people expected something very different from Pinot Noir, he explains.
Lee thinks the problem with pinot noir is that it’s become widespread.
People don’t reach their limits and try new things, like the early adopters from the sixties to the nineties.
There are more high-quality pinos than ever before that just push the boundaries and experiment, says Lee. It’s not like we went all the way. The limits of quality are only the limits of our imagination, not the limits of the grape.
Sloan agrees: Have we reached the top? No, we’re just scratching the surface.