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Pinot Noir in the Vineyard

June 11, 2013

Pinot Noir is this month’s varietal featured in Paso Robles. It is a wine grape that originated in Burgundy and one of the oldest of vines planted in France. Some experts refer to historic evidence for its existence some 2,000 years ago. It is deeply woven into the culture of Burgundy, as the food and wine from that area have been entwined around each other for centuries.
Pinot Noir was first introduced into the Paso Robles soils by Dr. Stan Hoffman, who established Hoffman Mountain Ranch (HMR) in the late 1960’s. Dr. Hoffman had recently visited Burgundy, and when he sampled the soil at HMR, he noticed the similarity of the rocky, calcareous nature of his land and that of the areas he had recently visited in France. He realized that this was an ideal area for the Pinot Noir varietal. So began the birth of “Paso Pinot” and the inception of Paso Robles’ best-kept secret.

Pinot Noir is named for its pinecone shape and its burgundy color. Some call it the “Heartbreak Grape” as it is thin skinned, early ripening, delicate in nature and therefore not friendly if pushed around. When many other varietals go astray in the process of becoming wine, they are easier to handle, and their bold fruit and tannins are able to deal with slight imperfections by overwhelming them with flavor. Not so with Pinot Noir. The soft tannins, delicate fruit, minerality and earthy undertones of the wine defy and rebel against the usual corrections employed in winemaking. Mess with Pinot Noir and you’re in real trouble, as the balance of the wine is easily destroyed by intervention.

Pinot Noir is a grape that loves calcareous soil, dramatic temperature swings between day and night and well drained and rocky sloping vineyards. Therefore, Pinot Noir seems to favor the cooler microclimates of the Paso Robles Appellation as witnessed by the vast majority of plantings closer to the Pacific Ocean’s influence. In addition, it is highly sensitive to becoming a less intense and expressive wine with increased yields per acre. It seems to show best when harvested around the two ton level per acre.

Following the international success of the Pinot Noir’s of the old Hoffman Mountain Ranch and due to the concentration of other varietals like Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot etc. that were being exported to other winery areas, Pinot Noir slipped into a quiet and comfortable niche and watched while the number of Paso wineries virtually exploded during the late 1980’s and through the next couple of decades. The success of the Rhône varietals in the area also served to obscure the quiet escalation of Pinot Noir production, and it was not usually included in the media’s coverage of the appellation’s most remarkable wines.
The 1990’s showed an increase in the production and sale of Paso Pinot thanks to winemakers like John Munch, Kenneth Volk, Steve Goldman and others who knew that there was great potential for Pinot Noir in Paso Robles. Their efforts began to popularize the varietal as one that was making an excellent wine in our area, helping to retire the popular myth that “Paso is too hot for Pinot.” Wild Horse Pinot Noir was selling big time for instance and then with the release of the 1993 Windward Vineyard Pinot Noir in 1995 the old myth began to evaporate and many new plantings of Pinot Noir began to be set in the area.

This movement really took off as we crossed the millennium, and there are currently over 25 wineries that produce Pinot Noirs that are grown in the Paso area, and the number continues to climb. In 2004, Windward Vineyard held a fundraiser for the Paso Robles Youth Arts Foundation called “Pinot and Paella.” It was a success that would better serve the Paso Pinot Providers and the community if we made it a collective effort. A loose association with the other Pinot Noir wineries become our entity, called the Paso Pinot Providers, and we have managed over the years to succeed in growing the festival into one that features and popularizes Paso Pinot Noir, as well as the growing number of local chefs that also support the event with their elegant vision of the classic paella dish. 2013 celebrates the 10th Annual Paso Pinot and Paella Cook-Off.

The future looks bright for Paso Robles Pinot Noir, and I hope that the readers of this blog will honor us in the month of June, the Pinot Noir month, by visiting our wineries and local restaurants and tasting the Pinot Noir of the Paso Robles Appellation. The cat is out of the bag, so join us in telling the world that Paso Pinot reigns along with all of the other diverse varietals that show so well in our wonderful wine country area.

Marc Goldberg
Windward Vineyard