Vintners Find a Place for Pinot in Paso

Pockets of cooler weather and mindful grape growing help Pinot thrive in certain spots

by Jaime Lewis
Windward Vineyard winemaker Marc Goldberg in his cellar with vintage bottles of Paso Robles Pinot Noir.

Paso Robles, Calif.— “Pinot in Paso?!”

Winemaker Marc Goldberg has fielded this incredulous question since 1990, when he established Windward Vineyard, a brand exclusive to Pinot Noir grown in Paso Robles. Many consider the region’s climate too hot for Pinot Noir, but Goldberg and a growing number of Paso Robles producers are out to challenge that convention.

The concept of Paso Robles Pinot Noir is far from novel. In 1964 Dr. Stanley Hoffman, a cardiologist from Beverly Hills, planted the Hoffman Mountain Ranch (HMR) Vineyard to Pinot Noir on the recommendation of legendary winemaker and consultant André Tchelistcheff.

“He kicked the land with Stan and said, ‘You can do this here or this here, but really, this is a sweet spot for Pinot Noir,’” Goldberg said.

Tchelistcheff’s basis for recommending Pinot Noir in Paso Robles, according to Hoffman, lay in the complement of the growing conditions on the region’s West Side, particularly its hills shot through with calcareous soils, the cooling Pacific Ocean breezes that push through the Templeton Gap every afternoon, and deep diurnal swings of 20°F to 30°F degrees between night and daytime temperatures.

Hoffman’s wines enjoyed acclaim, with HMR Pinot Noir even included in the 1979 Les Olympiades Gault-Millau du Vin blind tasting against Burgundy wines, similar to the Judgement of Paris tasting three years prior. (Hoffman claimed until his death in 2017 that the 1976 HMR Pinot Noir beat revered Burgundian producer Domaine Romanée-Conti in a blind tasting in Paris, but records were never found to support evidence of that outcome, either at Les Olympiades or any alternate tasting.)

Eventually, however, Hoffman sold the vineyard and winery, which were not resurrected until 1994 under the Adelaida Vineyards & Winery label, where Pinot Noir from the HMR Vineyard is still produced today.

Find that sweet (cool) spot for Pinot
“Pinot Noir thrives in conditions that are just right for it,” said Christopher Taranto, communications director for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. “With the various meso and micro climates that Paso has, one just needs to seek out that cool spot to grow some great Pinot.”

For Hoffman, that mesoclimate was the Adelaida District, the westernmost of 11 sub-AVAs comprising Paso Robles’ 614,000 acres, ranked as Region II-III on the Winkler Scale with average precipitation of 25 inches annually and maximum elevation of 2,200 feet.

For Marc Goldberg’s Windward Vineyard, it is the Templeton Gap District, also on the west side, ranked Region II with 20 inches annual precipitation and 1,800 feet maximum elevation. Four clones are equally represented across the property, including the Hoffman Mountain Ranch clone (the “suitcase” clone sourced by Hoffman and Tchelistcheff from Chambertin-Clos de Beze), Sanford & Benedict (sourced from Vosne-Romanée), Clone 4 and Clone 13.

The Templeton Gap is also home to the Haas Vineyard, owned by the Haas family of Tablas Creek Vineyard, a label that is otherwise dedicated to Rhône-varietal wines. Called “Full Circle” Pinot Noir, the 300 to 500 cases of wine produced by the Haas Vineyard are a nod to the fact that, in his early career, proprietor Robert Haas imported Burgundy before partnering with the Perrin family of Beaucastel to promote Rhône wines from California.

“It’s been fun for us to work in what feels like a different language,” said partner and general manager, Jason Haas. “There are differences in site, of course, and the Templeton Gap ... is quite a bit cooler than where we are in the Adelaida District.”

In addition to the impact climate makes on Pinot Noir, Haas also points to differences in the variety’s own composition. “With Pinot you need to have a lighter touch in some ways (alcohol, for example, tends to show through more clearly, and it’s easier to have the weight of the fruit overwhelm Pinot’s structure than it is with Rhône reds) but in other ways you need to have your winemaking be a little more overt. You need a certain amount of stems to keep Pinot fresh. And you generally want a little more oak than you do with Rhône reds.”

Even on the ‘east side’
But Pinot Noir isn’t only produced on Paso Robles’ west side; winemaker Paul Frankel at Sculpterra Winery & Sculpture Garden farms the variety in the sub-AVA of the significantly warmer Geneseo District (Region III-IV) on the east side, too.

“The vines do well in the heat,” said Frankel, who has produced Pinot Noir at Sculpterra since 2008, noting that the vines are situated on the floor of a valley and in the shade by 3 p.m. “Also, we leaf-pull around clusters to expose the fruit to light and wind, but we leaf-pull only on the morning side of the canopy and leave the afternoon side un-leafed. That in turn will allow the leaves and canes to protect the fruit from excessive heat.”

Clonal selections at Sculpterra include 115 for color and structure, as well as 777 for fruit characteristics and aromatics. Frankel also swears by the use of 3001 yeast, a dominant natural strain that works well with warmer-climate Pinot Noir. “It ferments the wine slowly while keeping intact the fresh fruit taste but giving it that nice mouthfeel and texture.”

According to climatologist Dr. Gregory V. Jones, the temperature band for producing quality Pinot Noir ranges from 57°F to 61°F during an average growing season; but Pinot Noir producers in Paso Robles say they adhere to many best practices of quality control such as harvesting at 23.5°Brix or below, cropping at 2 tons to 3 tons per acre and keeping alcohol between 12% to 14% by volume.

Although Pinot Noir currently comprises only 2% of vines in Paso Robles, that number is sure to grow in tandem with consumer demand, as it already has across California where plantings of Pinot Noir increased 65% between 2006 to 2015, and the variety came in second only to Cabernet Sauvignon in total vine nursery sales in 2017.

This uptick bears out in sales to tickets for Pinot & Paella, an event organized by Goldberg and the Paso Pinot Producers that has sold out every year for 15 years, as well as in sales of Windward Vineyard Pinot Noir (of which each of its 25 vintages has sold out), Tablas Creek’s Full Circle Pinot Noir (all sold except the 2015 vintage) and Sculpterra Pinot Noir (third-best selling wine in the tasting room, according to Frankel). For the devoted band of contrarians who follow these labels, Paso Robles is indeed “an ecological jewel for Pinot Noir,” as Dr. Hoffman once declared it to be.

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