Carneros is a magical AVA that straddles both Napa and Sonoma Counties.
Many of my earliest memories of visiting Napa Valley was going through Carneros. Carneros is a gateway to Napa Valley for many visitors—especially those coming from San Francisco on the 101.
Carneros gave us the first cool climate Pinot Noir – the response is obvious – what hot climate Pinot Noir was the norm? Louis Martini planted Pinot Noir at Stanly Ranch in the late 1940s. Carneros Pinot Noir is thought of as lacking “richness, body and finesses” as Steve Heimoff says in Carneros: A Reflection. He states that since September 1, 2012 only 8 Pinots from Carneros had ranked above 90 points out of 173 – “…a pretty dismal showing” he says. The article is relatively negative and he ends with talking about his last six month score of 90 point and above Pinots… felt like a conciliation prize for Carneros and Pinot Noir.
Some people I know have been equally hard on Carneros especially the Pinot Noirs. Basically the overall message is that Pinot Noir and Carneros are a mismatch. There have been excuses for why “Carneros doesn’t do Pinot Noir well” and it has come to soil conditions. But the soil content is not uniform and wouldn’t explain that reasoning and also significant sloping and draining patterns.
When I have tasted Pinot Noirs—and especially if I have them on my tasting table and I am tasting many Pinots I am going to bring together regions and not mix and match. The reason is simple. Wine regions as it relates to Pinot Noir differ—I don’t want to be tasting Oregon and Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs at the same sitting or any other region. I think sometimes taster get influenced by one style and it may be at the subconscious level…. Perhaps someone has a preference for fruit intense wines versus leaner styles. As a wine reviewer, I do believe it is paramount to recognize style and to not punish one region over another. I do think it is essential to make the distinction. For me and over time I have truly enjoyed many Pinot Noir and have rated over 90 points not sparingly so but with true merit.
I have been searching for the reasons of Carneros differences for Pinot Noir might not just be soil but more than that—anecdotally every time I visit and especially during growing season there is an noticeable cool breeze—that cool breeze is from the San Pablo Bay. Russian River Valley doesn’t have a San Pablo Bay. Carneros is sunny but cooler than many Pinot Noir growing regions in California. Most Pinot Noir regions have a connection with the Pacific Ocean and that is the evening’s cool down treatment. Carneros has the cooler temps in day as well as evening. I do think this is particularly influential to the region. Please read into this that I never put down one region in favour or another—that would be a wine reviewers quick demise. I still love Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Santa Rita Hills, and my palette lives in the best of all worlds—enjoying all wine regions.
I thought it was about time to write a piece in defense of Carneros Pinot Noir—I do believe now more than ever Carneros producers are doing a very good job with their materials and brining to the market place a point of difference Pinot Noir. Give Carneros Pinot Noir a try—and when tasting use a different lens. I harken back to earlier memories of Carneros and think of the beauty, quality of light year round is amazing. I sometimes on my way back to San Francisco I go down a road to see and feel Carneros when most people are on a rush back to get to the City—it is magical.
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