In Search of the Best Pinot Noir in California

As wine connoisseurs know, regardless of one’s taste preferences, the most coveted wines in the world hail from the comparatively tiny region in France called Burgundy.  The red wine from Burgundy is made from the notorious and mysterious Pinot Noir grape.  No California Pinot can truly be compared to the most famous Pinot on the planet, Domain Romanee Conti, which is also known as DRC for short  Having said this, DRC, in my opinion, may have a California counterpart – none other than Marcassin.  Marcassin, which means young wild boar in French, is arguably the most coveted and most expensive New World Pinot Noir.  However, before we get to the story of how Marcassin came about, we ought to take a brief survey of what Pinot Noir is all about.

Pinot’s New World (as opposed to “Old World” wines such as those hailing from Europe) resurrection may have been triggered by thecultish 2004 film Sideways, where the film’s protagonist, Miles, extols the virtues of the Pinot Noir grape, as he deals with personal and professional challenges while wine tasting around Santa Barbara, California.  Pinot Noir wines are generally paler in color than other red wines.  They are often referred to as translucent and their flavors are more subtle than the typical cabs or merlots, or any other reds.
 
The Pinot Noir grape itself is weak and fickle; it struggles and suffers from a variety of ailments, and its genetic makeup causes it to be highly susceptible to mutation.   Despite the difficulty in growing the Pinot grape, prices for a bottle of Pinot Noir are generally more than a similar quality red wine from other grapes.  Typical Pinot Noir taste is cranberry, cherry, raspberry, vanilla, clove, licorice, mushroom, wet leaves, tobacco, cola, and caramel.  It is often considered a wine suitable for virtually any food, but many purists would submit that the best Pinot should be consumed on its own…or with very lightly flavored foods, such as Gruyere de Comte cheese.
 
Unlike stoical Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot is, indeed, temperamental and oscillates from perfection to disappointments.   As perhaps the most fickle grape, Pinot can have a range of flavors depending on the region that it is from, how it is produced, and how it is stored.  The wine’s vintage also matters, of course  In Burgundy, the Pinot Noir wine is typically herbaceous with aromas of earth, mushrooms, wet leaves, with notes of roses, fresh cherries, and various light floral hints.  As with cabs and other wines, California Pinots are bigger than those of the Old World.  They are fruit forward, offering flavors of sweet black cherry, raspberry, with secondary aromas of vanilla, clove, and caramel – just to name a few.  Incidentally, Oregon Pinots are lighter and more tart with flavors of cranberry and truffle mushroom.   Oregon Pinots are considered more austere than those from California.

Having tasted many of California’s high scoring Pinots, I have settled on Marcassin as the best expression of Pinot. It just so happens that Marcassin is also the rarest and the most expensive of California’s top Pinot Noirs.  
 Like most rare and expensive wines, Marcassin is often criticized as overrated and overpriced.  There is often some truth to this blanket criticism when it comes to any high scoring and tightly allocated wine made by a famous wine maker – regardless of whether they are the First Growths from Bordeaux or hyped up “Cult” wines from Napa.   I would agree thatMarcassin may be at times only marginally better than the runner ups, which I believe to be Pinots from Sea SmokeKistlerPeter Michael, and Aubert.   However, this marginal difference is what sets Marcassin apart.  Great wine often dwells on subtle differences and refinement.
 
Getting on the allocation list at Sea Smoke isn’t as difficult today as it once was.  Sea Smoke’s wines , (“Southing,” “Botella” or “Ten”)– are rich and concentrated, lacking the refinement of Marcassin. Viticulturist Mark Aubert has worked at Peter Michael and alongsideHelen Turley, but he is best known for his work with the producers of the extraordinarily expensive Napa Cabs: Colgin and Bryant Family. The wait to get on Aubert’s mailing allocation list is alsolong.  Peter Michael makes a great Pinot, but is best known for its dainty, Burgundy-styled Chardonnays, which have price tags similar to top-tier Burgundies.  Some of the lesser expensive and more accessible California Pinots worth drinking are Kosta Browne, Lynmar, Pahlmeyer, Rochioli, Skywalker, Williams Selyem.
 
These wonderful California Pinots are significantly less expensive per bottle, but as I pointed out, the so-called “marginal difference” in taste and character is actually substantial in the sense that it truly matters and sets Marcassin apart from other top tier California Pinots.  Price and value become somewhat relative when we look at top wines from Burgundy.  The restaurant retail for a bottle of Marcassin is a fraction of what you would expect to pay for a rare Burgundy.
 
High profile California winemaker, Helen Turley, made Marcassin into California’s first highly allocated and truly expensive Pinot Noir.  Even after the 2008 market collapse, the Marcassin mailing list is not easy to get on, and the secondary market prices for Turley’s Pinot are about $400 to $600 per bottle, depending on the vintage and where or how the wine is purchased.  Turley was arguably responsible in creating the cult wine phenomenon in California, with highly acclaimed wineries such as Aruajo, Grace Family, Bryant, Colgin, Screaming Eagle, Harlan, and a number of others.  In fact, just as influential in Napa as David Abrue, Turley has been the consulting winemaker for some of the best wineries in the country – Peter Michael Winery, Pahlmeyer, Colgin, Bryant Family, and many others.
Marcassin is Turley’s own label, which she owns in partnership with her viticulturist husband, John Wetlaufer. Together the couple produces just under 3000 cases of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with approximately 80% of the wine sold to the privileged mailing list clients. The waiting list to join the allocation group is long, and is rumored to be near 5000 people.  After 2010, Turley has only produced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from her estate 20-acre Marcassin Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast which came into full production in 2009.  Prior to that, Marcassin was made at the Martinelli winery in the Russian River Valley.
The winery is very private and is not open to the public. Turley is said to plant her vineyard very densely, severely limit yields. In her winemaking Pinot Noir clusters are de-stemmed, cold soaked with one pump over per day.  Turley uses natural yeasts, mostly new oak, and leaves the wines on the lees after fermentation.  Typically, the wines are aged five years before they are released.  Stylistically, Marcassin is rich and opulent with noticeable sweetness reflecting generous alcohol. Notwithstanding, the wine tends to show more balance than its California competitors.  Marcassin has a reputation for aging beyond what one would expect from California Pinots.

(Yuri Vanetik is a private investor and wine collector based in Southern California.)