California pinot noirs

Col-head-ZalkinWe’ve talked about the pinot noirs of Burgundy and the pinot noirs of Oregon, but what about California?

California is one of the biggest wine regions in the U.S. In fact, if California were its own country, it would be the fourth largest wine producer in the world. California is a land of contrasts. On the one hand, you have the jug wine producers and then the high end, which is super expensive. California winemaking spans a wide range of grapes, styles and price points.

Pinot noir has always had a diehard fandom, as exemplified by the Oscar winning film Sideways, which followed two friends on a road trip around northern California as the protagonist searched for the perfect pinot noir and drew parallels between the elusive “heartbreak grape” and the tribulations of his own life.

It is a finicky fruit. Its “heartbreak” nickname was given by vintners who have tried to coax a beautiful wine from these sometimes sickly, often temperamental vines. At first, the climate in California would seem unsuitable for pinot noir, as wine grapes are not like almonds or oranges, which grow best with lots of warmth and sunshine.

To get good wine grapes, you have to torture them a little. Vines that are allowed to grow happily in rich, fertile soil will yield enormous bunches of sweet, watery fruit and that makes flabby, uninspired wine. Vintners look for rocky soil, which will force the roots deep into the earth, and good drainage to keep the grapes small and lean. They also want just enough sun to ripen the grapes while still leaving plenty of acidity.

California pinot noirs are built on a balance of sun and coastal fog. The resulting wines are a bit different from their cooler climate cousins, brawnier than Oregon and fruitier than France. They are bold, lush and fruit forward, prized for their depth and spice and for distinctive flavors of black cherry and cola.

California pinot noir is a great wine to bring to parties because it goes with nearly everything and drinks nicely on its own. Its easygoing tannins and forward fruit flavors are a delight for wine skeptics, and diehard fans will appreciate the particularly zesty, spicy character. With a road map to a good bottle, California pinot noir can be easy to drink and easy to love, despite its heartbreak nickname.

Here are a few featured California pinot noir wines for your enjoyment:

• Sonoma Hills. Bing cherry overtones, with notes of earthy mushroom, smoke and oak. Soft tannins play nicely with the bright-red fruit flavors of this rich and juicy wine.

• Paul Hobbs. A lush, deep violet wine, with a powerful bouquet of black raspberry, juicy red fruits and Earl Grey tea. Earthy aromas of clay play against violets and clove. A velvety, beautifully balanced wine, with a long finish.

• Orogeny. Bright cranberry and bing cherry play against spicy aromas of cinnamon and five-spice powder. Silky, vibrant and lush, with notes of toffee and blackberry.

• Norton Ridge. A perfect balance of spice and acidity, with lush cherry, and a touch of earthiness. A great value wine.

• Joseph Swan. A vivid red wine with juicy, penetrating fruit. Notes of cola, plum and raspberry, with a hint of sandalwood and star anise. Soft, appealing tannins and a refreshing acidity linger on the finish.

• Calera. Bright pomegranate, plum and boysenberry flavors, warmed by sweet oak and spice. An easygoing wine, with a tart, lively finish.

You can find all of these delightful pinot noir wines for purchase at our store, Old Greenwich Fine Wines & Cheese, located at 195 Sound Beach Avenue, Old Greenwich, or visit our website,, or call 203-990-3030 to place an order. When you stop in, we invite you to taste a number of our favorite wines while we help you find the right bottle for your palate.

Robert Zalkin is the owner of Old Greenwich Fine Wines at 195 Sound Beach Avenue. His column will be available weekly at

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