Two Voices of Pinot Noir

I suffered cognitive dissonance a few weeks ago over pinot noir. I lunched on Monday with Richard Sanford at his Alma Rosa Winery
in Santa Barbara County over beef stew and his 2006 and 2007 La
Encantada Vineyard pinot. He had just driven me around the Santa Rita
Hills in the Santa Ynez Valley, an appellation he pioneered by planting
Sanford & Benedict vineyard in the 1970s and creating Sanford winery
in 1980. He explained how the hills running east-to-west €“ unique in
California, where most run parallel to the Pacific €“ channel the ocean
breezes and fog into the valley and moderate the temperatures. Despite
being just a two hour drive from Los Angeles, the Santa Rita Hills
region counts as a €œcool-climate€ for winegrowing. Ideal for pinot
noir, in other words. Such geography is easy to read about, but seeing
is believing.

The Alma Rosa La Encantada 2007 Pinot Noir ($45) is rich and spicy,
and tightly focused in a way that draws you closer with every sip. I
gave it three stars (€œexceptional€) when I profiled Sanford
in the Post last August. It has what I love about California pinot noir
€“ delightful floral aromas, good acidity and balance, and a
lingering, silky finish. And it does not have what I hate about
California pinot noir €“ excessive alcohol that leaves a burn across
the palate, or a cloying, brown sugar taste. The 2006 was even better;
Sanford described its aroma as €œa day-old rose, just at the height of
its power and on the edge of decline.€ I couldn’t disagree.



Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa Winery from Dave McIntyre on Vimeo.

Two days later, back in snowy Washington, D.C., I had lunch with
Becky Wasserman, her husband, Russell Hone, and two of the many Burgundy
producers she represents. Wasserman, an American who lives in Burgundy,
is an influential broker and exporter of fine French wines, primarily
from Burgundy. She was here as part of a U.S. tour celebrating her 30
years in business. She is as petite as Sanford is tall, but they seem to
share a similar aesthetic €“ a preference for wines grown organically
and manipulated as little as possible in the winery in order to achieve
the purest expression of the fruit. Only Wasserman’s pinots speak
French, while Sanford’s speak ‘Murrican.

And that’s where the dissonance came in. After five days in Santa
Barbara County, sampling dozens wines in various styles, my initial
taste of Burgundy was a shock. It was a Domaine Alain Burguet 2006
Gevrey-Chambertin €œClos la Justice€ ($70), and at first sip it
seemed unpleasantly astringent. Where’s the fruit? I wondered. But my
palate was attuned to California pinot noir; after a few sips, the fruit
emerged, then the Burgundian earth and finesse that characterizes the
French expression of pinot noir.

As we tasted the Domaine Michel Lafarge Volnay 2006 ($55), with its
subtle, silky texture €“ for lack of a better word (pinot noir at its
best is all about texture) €“ I thought of my lunch two days earlier
with Sanford. Back in the 1960s, when he was looking to use his geology
degree after a stint in Vietnam, it was a bottle of Volnay given by a
friend that inspired him to plant grapes. He told me he does not
remember the producer, but he recalls the flavors, the texture, and the
inspiration it gave.

Is the Alma Rosa La Encantada the equal of the Domaine Lafarge
Volnay? Yes €“ and here’s why I say that. The Alma Rosa is not and can
never be a Volnay. But it is a beautiful expression of the Santa Rita
Hills and of California pinot noir, just as the Lafarge is a beautiful
expression of Volnay. Burgundy will always have an advantage in that no
one dislikes a good Burgundy, while Burgundy fans will discount
California for not having the right soils or climate to make a Burgundy.
Sanford has every reason to be proud of his pinot. And if, as he savors
his wine and thinks of that day-old rose on the cusp between glory and
decay, his memory wanders back to that long-ago bottle of Volnay, who
can blame him?

This entry was posted in Burgundy, California, Food and Drink, France, Organic, Pinot Noir, Terroir, Wine and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Two Voices of Pinot Noir

  1. Tim says:

    Great comparison and good on you to point it out!

  2. Great article on Alma Rosa and Richard Sanford. We’re a member of their
    wine club and we greatly enjoyed the recent 2007 La Encantada Pinot
    Noir club offering. Tasting Room Manager Chris Burroughs was also very
    helpful and friendly on our visit there last November for our honeymoon.
    One small request: if Richard or anyone from Alma Rosa is reading
    this, we hope you can get your Virginia wine shipping documentation
    sorted out soon so we don’t have to have our shipments sent to our
    friend in DC. He says he isn’t a wine drinker, but I suspect if he ever
    samples any of our shipments he might start. Good for my friend (and
    Alma Rosa) but bad for us! Thanks again for the article Dave.

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