What Makes a GREAT California Pinot Vineyard?

And your mission is, if you choose to accept it:

Create a criteria for choosing the top ten (the "Grand Cru") Pinot Noir vineyards in California.

Not Top Ten Producers, but Top Ten Pinot Noir vineyards.

This topic of building such a criteria came up today when I was speaking first with a pretty well known Pinot producer and it arose again when I was speaking with a very knowledgeable wine writer who has a real passion for Pinot.

All three of us agreed that the following criteria would be essential:

1. Wines produced from the vineyards should be highly rated, consistently, from a variety of critics.

2. The price of the wines produced from the vineyards should reflect the quality and demand.

3. The vineyards should be in production for at least 7 years.

But here’s where we got stuck: Should one criteria be that the vineyard’s fruit has been used by a variety of different winemakers? I personally say, Yes! In the first place, I think the endorsement of a vineyard by a variety of winemakers is an important indication of its strength and attraction. I also think that you control against a critic’s potential bias in their ratings for a single winemaker’s style of wine by demanding that the vineyard’s fruit has been used by multiple winemakers.

Now, excluding vineyards from which only one winemaker has successfully produced wine is a problem. This, for example, means that Marcassin and Kistler Estate vineyards are both out of the running for Grand Cru status. That sort of strikes me as wrong, but there are still the issues I brought up above.

So, again, here’s the question:


This is of course a game, similar to naming your all time baseball dream team. But, just like this favorite pastime, trying to name the Grand Cru Vineyards of California makes one think about WHAT MAKES a vineyard great. And this is a question any self respecting wine geek must be attracted to.

5 Responses

  1. Lar Veale - April 4, 2008

    I don’t know what criteria I’d use but I know what label I’d apply. With a nod to the great French vineyards, but with a more modern twist:
    Premier Crew

  2. Steve Heimoff - April 5, 2008

    Tom, most of the greatest California Pinot vineyards do sell their fruit to multiple users. The Kistler/Marcassin model is rare. Maybe in compiling the list you could do a Barry Bonds and put an asterisk next to the ones that are monopolies.

  3. Arthur - April 5, 2008

    In order to get points #1 & #2, you MUST have multiple producers sourcing from a single vineyard and demonstrating a consistent hallmark or character attributable to the vineyard from producer to producer (Dare I say, demonstrating a terroir?).

  4. Tom Wark - April 5, 2008

    I’m not sure the various wines produced from a single vineyard MUST have consistent character in order to receive excellent ratings from a variety of critics or to achieve a high price.

  5. Arthur - April 6, 2008

    I think we should change “consistently receiveing excellent raitng” with “consistently produce wines recognized by critics and other wine experts as complex and exemplifying the best possible varietal expression for the region and a character unique to the site”.
    Too many critics rate based on preference and, owing to their metodolog, their ratings are profoundly skewed by contast error.
    What does one base the price on? A name? A brand? Hype?
    If there is no common thread in the wines (across labels and vinification styles), then those paying more for “2005 Winery A Pinot noir, Fancyschmancy Vineyard” than those who buy “2005 Winery B Pinot noir, Fancyschmancy Vineyard” are paying more for the Winery A name and the demand for fruit based on hype.
    I’m not saying these wines have to be identical. They have to have some commonality attributable to the vineyard and not winemaker or anything else.

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