How California Pinot Noir Became a Global Phenomenon

Pinot Noir harvest at Small Vines / Photo by Dawn Heumann

Paul Sloan first fell in love with Pinot Noir as a busboy. It deepened in the early 1990s, when he was an assistant wine buyer at John Ash & Co. restaurant in Santa Rosa, California.

It was there that Sloan tasted the classics of California Pinot: Calera, Joseph Swan, Williams-Selyem, Dehlinger and Mount Eden, all passion projects devoted to small-production wines of place, with Burgundy as inspiration.

But when a customer invited Sloan to take a taste of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, considered among the finest Burgundian wines, he decided to make Pinot Noir his life’s work.

“Pinot is the best wine I’ve ever tasted, and also the worst wine,” says Sloan. “There’s not this great middle ground. The iconic California classics aged beautifully and went well with food, but what I noticed about the great French wines from Burgundy was a difference in concentration. The best wines had better concentration.”

Siduri founder and Winemaker Matt Revelette
From left to right: Siduri founding winemaker, Adam Lee, and winemaker, Matt Revelette / Photo by Jeremy Ball

This led to an epiphany. To grow and make Pinot Noir one day, it would be important not only to pick the right site with the right soils, but to aim for small yields from higher-density, European-style vine spacing.

Thus began Small Vines, the Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley Pinot Noir-based brand he launched with his wife, Kathryn, in 1998.

It took another seven years of planting and patience before the Sloans made a few barrels of their first wine. It was 2005, the year after the popular movie Sideways, based loosely around the wine industry, caused a cataclysmic jolt to California Pinot Noir that would change everything.

“I’ll always lament the effect of Sideways in crowding the space,” says Sloan. “It washed everything out. It was unbelievable. Pinot Noir producers [in California] went from 30 to 300 [cases], while some established players shot up from making a small amount to making 20,000 cases in a very short time.”

For the Sloans, the immense uptick in Pinot production meant it was difficult to get their name out, find distributors to work with them or get restaurant placements.

But despite the hardships, they survived and found their customers. Today, they farm 45 acres of Pinot and produce 2,500 cases per year.

Sorting grapes at Small Vines during harvest
Sorting grapes at Small Vines during harvest / Photo by Dawn Heumann

A slow and steady pace of growth and interest in California Pinot Noir had already begun, of course, in part to the pioneering efforts of Calera and its peers.

For years, Calera founder Josh Jensen searched for limestone in California, inspired by Burgundy. He eventually found what he was looking for on Mount Harlan in San Benito County in 1974.

In the Russian River Valley, Joseph Swan started to plant Pinot Noir in the late 1960s. Lovers of Burgundian Pinot Noir, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem, founders of Williams-Selyem, helped to make vineyard-designated California Pinots a thing with their first vintage in 1981.

An increased number of restaurant sommeliers became fond of the grape and its food-pairing abilities, which also helped spark consumer interest.

Many of these Pinot fans were beginning to be priced out of Burgundy. Global wine trade marketplace Liv-ex reports that its Burgundy 150 index, which tracks prices for the most actively traded wines on its platform, has risen 445% in the last 16 years.

This price differential is reflected in Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide as well, where it’s not unusual to see a 2018 Grand Cru Pinot Noir from Burgundy at more than $300. The highest price listed thus far for a 2018 Pinot from California is $150.

Paul and Kathryn Sloan of Small Vines
Paul and Kathryn Sloan of Small Vines / Photo by Dawn Heumann

Numbers compiled by the California Wine Institute claim that following the October 2004 release of Sideways, sales of Pinot Noir grew 18% in less than a year.

Today, Pinot is the No. 5 wine variety in the United States based on sales, according to research firm Nielsen for 52 weeks ending Dec. 1, 2019, when it accounted for just over $1 billion in annual sales.

“I think there’s no doubt that short-term, Sideways was a huge boon for Pinot Noir and caused Merlot sales to plummet,” says Adam Lee, founding winemaker of Pinot-focused Siduri, which he founded with Dianna Novy Lee in 1994.

“But longer-term, I do think that it led to a huge increase in Pinot Noir acreage,” he says. “In 2004, when Sideways came out, there were 22,645 bearing acres and 1,410 non-bearing acres of Pinot Noir.

“By 2010, there were 33,343 bearing acres and 3,947 non-bearing acres of Pinot planted in California, which ultimately led to more commercialization,” says Lee. “Wineries that weren’t into Pinot Noir felt like they had to make a Pinot, and that was an issue.”

In 2004, the amount of California Pinot crushed was 70,062 tons. In 2018, that total was 313,824 tons.

Sorting Pinot Noir grapes
Sorting Pinot Noir grapes / Photo by Dawn Heuman

The greatest amount of planted Pinot in the state during 2018 was in Sonoma County with 12,735 acres, according to California Agricultural Production Statistics. Pinot prices also average $4,000 per ton in Sonoma.

Looking back, Lee remembers the 2003 and 2004 vintages, released right as the movie was coming out, (2003 and 2004) as the hottest he has experienced in California.

“The sugars were higher in those years than any other vintage, which led to people expecting something really different from Pinot Noir than was the norm,” he explains.

Lee believes the problem with Pinot Noir is that it has gone mainstream.

People don’t push the limits and try new things like the early adopters did from the 1960s through the ’90s.

“There are more high-quality Pinots than ever, just pushing the boundaries and experimentation seems a bit lacking,” says Lee. “It’s not that we’ve reached the end. Quality limits are just the limits of our imagination, not of the grape.”

Sloan agrees: “Have we reached the peak? Absolutely not, we’re just scratching the surface.”

Published on November 3, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings