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Carneros Producers Focus on Terroir and Pinot Noir

Panel zeros in on what's unique about their region and the varietal
by Liza B. Zimmerman
January 10, 2018

The Carneros region—which covers territory in both Napa and Sonoma Counties—has been somewhat of a fog-shrouded mystery. It first came to light as one of the better cool-climate AVAs in Northern California and has long been known as a great growing regions for Burgundian-inspired Chardonnays. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay account for 90 percent of the grapes grown in the region with a touch Merlot and Syrah, according to 2015 data from the Vineburg, California-based Carneros Wine Alliance.

The panel of producers—including Ana Diogo-Draper, from Artesa Estate; Anne Moller-Racke, from The Donum Estate; Jon Priest, from Etude; Stéphane Vivier, from Hyde de Villaine and Kirk Venge, from Renteria Wines and Brown Ranch—at the Carneros-based Artesa to discuss how the region is evolving and what sets its Pinot Noirs apart from other California producers and appellations.

The discussion was moderated by sommelier Kelli White, who is now the senior staff writer at the GuildSomm. The panel touched on the varietal’s unique style and flavor, how these wines are marketed and the relative degree of value they represent on the market.

Carneros has long focused on producing sparkling wines, a factor that has left a bit of a need for consumer education about how good still wines from the region can be. Another challenge that the region has faced, according to both producers and operators, is the fact that the appellation lies squarely between Napa and Sonoma, so it is difficult for either appellation to stylistically define or promote it. What is more, it has long been only a first stop for visitors to Napa and Sonoma Counties and rarely the final destination, as it is lacking towns with major hotels and restaurants such as Healdsburg.

On-Premise Feedback

Restaurateurs interviewed for this story said that few of their guests know the difference between the style of Carneros Pinot Noirs and those from the better-known Russian River and Sonoma Coast appellations. A few added that these better-known California Pinot Noirs tend to dominate lists and command higher, albeit sometimes exaggerated, prices.

In terms of flavor profiles, almost all the producers as well as the sommeliers attending the tasting kept touching on their earth tones and herbal notes that these Pinots tend to have. That might include cardamom, clove and truffle.

Adam Snyder, owner of five San Francisco restaurants including Aventine and Redford, said that an earthy profile was number one characteristic that helped him define and track these wines against their Pinot Noir-driven competitors. Moderator White adds that these Pinots tend to have “a softness and generosity to their structure,” along with tannins and a ripeness that can feel softer than in wines from other regions.

The Geography and Pricing

Most of the speakers, producers and operators thought that the fact that region lies in the middle of the Napa and Sonoma appellations was more of a liability than a benefit. In the appellation-focused U.S. market it has long been hard for consumers to understand a region not-defined by appellation and wines from a nebulous area may not garner the same support as others carefully nestled in one perfect sound bite of a district or another.

White agrees that this AVA-overlap can be confusing for consumers. Producers in Carneros—noted Gillian Ballance, a master sommelier for works for the Napa-based Treasury Wine Estates as education manager—are also entitled to use either Sonoma or Napa Valley on these wines further complicating the situation. What is more the Pinot Noir category, she added, has become “over price shopped,” with Sonoma Coast Pinots coming in at $150 a bottle price tags.

Another issue for the region is that its Chardonnay has long outshone its Pinot Noirs for their Burgundy-like flavors and enduring acidity. The producers shared their hopes that Carneros Pinot Noir will gete its day in the sun, and that perhaps more exposure could lead to creating Burgundian-inspired Premier and Grand Cru-focus on the best terriors of the region.

However most of the producers were against adding greater legal restrictions to the way wine is produced in the region. Moller-Racke questions that “yes, my yields are low, but do we want to make that standard with Premier and Grand Cru [appellations]?” White adds that, “One of the strengths of the U.S. wine industry is that we don’t have those limitations.” She also questioned what entities would make the final decision as to which areas would be deemed Premiere Cru.

With many of the top Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs retailing for three figures, most of the operators said that Carneros Pinot Noirs continually over-deliver on value. Several of the producers noted that even though farming in Carneros is not inexpensive, Pinot Noir from the region is still a bargain.

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