We are often asked who the best California Pinot Noir producers are. While Pinot Noir originally hails from the Burgundy region of France, the varietal has for decades been just as commonly associated with California. From the cool, rugged Sonoma Coast to the sun-kissed foothills in Napa, there is no shortage of unique Californian regions making their own style of world-class Pinot Noir. Encompassing a variety of styles, the following are a few of the state’s finest Pinot Noir producers:
Driving north from San Francisco, veering west for Sonoma, one passes many wine hub towns. Drive past these. Past Santa Rosa, past Healdsburg, past the shiny wine trail tasting rooms, and you will eventually reach Cloverdale; “Where the Vineyards Meet the Redwoods”. Even the locals here poke fun at how remote the town is. Take the first left after the gas station, look for the hidden red barn, and you have found the unassuming winery of Peay Vineyards.
With no formal tasting room and appointment-only tours, the focus here is truly on making the best, most carefully attended-to site-specific wine. Another winding, back-road, hour-and-a-half drive toward the coast will take you to the estate vineyard.
The source of the balance of these wines becomes apparent in the vineyard when one observes the morning fog, so thick you can see but ten feet, followed by the welcome warmth of the midday sun. Husband-and-wife team Nick and Vanessa Peay paradoxically “get out of the way” of the grapes by being as immaculate and attentive as any team in the industry. Grapes are monitored regularly to optimize ripeness; hours each day are spent hand-sorting at the winery; every fermentation is tasted every morning.
Tellingly, the entire vintage team spends plenty of time calibrating their palates by blind-tasting global wines at family dinners during the long days of harvest. That's what makes this winery a consistent producer of the best California pinot noirs.
Located in the newly-minted region of Fort Ross-Seaview within the Sonoma Coast, Hirsch Vineyard itself is anything but new. In fact, the Hirsch Vineyard is one of the oldest in the region, planted by David Hirsch in 1980. For 22 years Hirsch focused on growing grapes, selling to some of the most legendary producers in California including Kistler, Williams-Selyem, and Littorai.
Desiring to oversee and learn from the whole process from vine to glass, Hirsch built a winery and began to make his own wine in 2002. The wines are a study in balance through contradiction; their rich palates are both succulent as well as bright and clean; the wines are at once focused and complex. A linear minerality permeates the bright red fruit. All their vineyards are biodynamic and that may be part of the reason they are one of the top pinot noir producers in California.
Littorai is synonymous with its founder Ted Lemon, known as one of the fathers of biodynamics in California. Utilizing sustainable methods that view the vineyard as a symbiotic part of the larger ecosystem, Littorai makes single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from coastal Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
Ted received his enology degree from the prestigious University of Dijon in France in the early 80s and founded Littorai in the early 90s. With experience making Pinot Noir from France to California to Oregon to New Zealand and beyond, Ted and his wife Heidi consistently craft award-winning Pinot which is true to its origins and kind to the earth.
In the larger Santa Barbara region, in the small Sta. Rita Hills appellation lies Brewer-Clifton. Their winery is in Lompoc, near the so-called “wine ghetto” (don’t let the name fool you; this warehouse-district collection of tasting rooms boasts an impressive concentration of fine Santa Barbara wine), while their tasting room is in the mind-bogglingly quaint town of Los Olivos (recognizable from the movie Sideways).
The best of California Pinot Noirs produced by Brewer-Clifton have a kind of undefinable uniqueness; bright, juicy strawberry mingles with a fresh-earth savory-ness. Texturally, the wines feel lithe on the palate but still have a certain white chocolate-esque palate-coating quality. The wines are at once quintessentially Santa Barbara while also being distinctly Brewer-Clifton.
Upon returning from Burgundy, Josh Jensen spent years searching California for the perfect limestone soil in which to grow Pinot Noir. In the mid-70s, Jensen finally found the perfect spot—a high-elevation site in the Central Coast of California. Convinced limestone is the perfect soil for Pinot Noir, even the name “Calera” means “limekiln”, as an old limekiln stands on the property dating back to the site’s days as a limestone quarry. A true pioneer in the region, Jensen made Pinot beginning in the 70s; Chardonnay beginning in the 80s; eventually experimenting with varieties from Viognier to Aligoté. While many Pinot Noirs are meant to be consumed relatively early, the Pinots of Calera are notably age-worthy; bottlings dating all the way back to the original vintage are still fresh, complex, and structured.
A relative newcomer on this list, FEL represents the northerly and remote Anderson Valley region. Founded by Cliff Lede (renowned for his namesake winery in Napa), FEL boasts as its trophy the epically famous Savoy as its Estate Vineyard.
Cliff Lede purchased Savoy in 2011, and while he built FEL around this flagship vineyard he still also sells the Savoy fruit to the many reputable wineries which made it famous. The estate is committed to sustainability, dedicating over 20% of the property to thrive as unplanted wild habitat. The Pinot Noirs here have savory black fruit with a haunting, floral fragrance and a lingering finish. FEL stands for Florence Elise Lede; Cliff Lede’s mother and an oenophile herself who fostered Cliff’s love of wine.