What Was The First CA Winery To ‘Get’ Pinot Correctly?

In the early 1980s, as a young man, I thought of CA Pinot as a pretty generic ‘red’, as many wineries were still producing Pinot the way they did with their other reds…
By the mid-1980s, I remember drinking an Acacia PN that had the ‘varietally correct’ Pinot aromas and flavors really down…with power AND elegance.
What winery, do you think, was the first winery to finally master Pinot, relative to the way it had been being produced?

Well, Berry… some would say MartinRay… but I’ve not had enough of his old ones to comment intelligently (as if that ever stopped me before!!).
My vote would go to Chalone/DavidBruce/KenBurnap of SantaCruzMtnVnyds.

Chalone and Mount Eden were the first Pinot Noirs that stood out for me, beginning in the late 70s. By the early 80s, Swan, Hanzell, Calera and Acacia joined the list of Pinot Noirs we were drinking regularly.

Calera and Mt Eden certainly got it right way back. Can’t say if they were the first though. Dunno if anyone in CA beat David Lett to it, either.

This question reminds me of how Columbus is credited as somebody who discovered America even though Basques and Scandinavians beat him to the punch. But he was the first to get credit because he opened his mouth.
Martin Ray did a lot of things right but kept it a secret. My experience with these wines in the '70s was that there was a lot of bottle variation. Supposedly he filled bottles without fining or filtration. Then when the wines were ready to ship he stood all the bottles up and cleaned things up. I got this third hand so who knows?? Maybe Peter Martin Ray or Doug Fletcher.

What does getting it right mean anyway?? The answer would have to combine the proper clones planted on the proper rootstock in the right place, followed by winemaking techniques being ‘just right’…The right answer is a continuum of improvements made by a bunch of people.

A few other wineries that deserve credit:
the old Sanford and Benedict…their first wine was a revelation
ZD…the '72 St Clair was wonderful…or was it '75??
Carneros Creek…the '76 made everybody salute…Frank Mahoney did a lot of important clonal work.

I have been posting pictures of the 1978 Wine and Cheese center catalog on Instagram. Beta Hyde noted that the chardonnays were about the same price as the cabernets. The pinots rarely made it to the catalog because they sold out so quickly. '75 ZD Pinot sold for $9.50…'74 Chappellet Cab for 10$. The '72 Mt Eden Pinot was $15!! '65 and '63 Martin Ray: $9.

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These were the very first names that came to mind here, also.

It is my understanding that the answer is BV, but I never had the legendary pinot made by Andre Tchelistcheff - was this the 1946 or so?

For me, I would say Williams-Seylem. There were good pinots before WS, but I think they were on a different level at least from what I have had.

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I have read many great reviews of the 46 BV but it seems that it was a fantastic wine that Tchelistcheff was never able to repeat. I think Martin Ray may be the correct answer. I believe he planted his vineyard in Saratoga from cuttings that Paul Masson brought over from Burgundy after he was forced to sell Paul Masson and founded his winery down the hill. Some other fine vineyards were planted such as the Ambassador vineyard of Hanzell, Bacigalupi in the Russian River and Rochioli also in the RRV. One name that was making really fine Pinot that hasn’t been mentioned yet is Gary Farrell. Gary consistently was nailing Pinot from his start at Davis Bynum.

I really liked Farrell’s 1990-1992 Allen Ranch pinots.

I’m absolutely no expert but I’ve been under the impression that the Pinot Noir lineage in CA would start with Paul Masson, then to Martin Ray, then Mount Eden and then Williams Selyem. Where it goes after Williams Selyem is probably up for debate…unless the answer is Willamette Valley. :slight_smile:

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I won’t argue that Martin Ray wasn’t a key figure in the lineage for Pinot Noir, but I question if he meets Barry’s criteria. I had only a handful of his wines (both Pinot and Cab) and probably most recently over 30 years ago, but my main recollection is they were weird, if not defective. They weren’t a “pretty generic” red wine, but neither were they what we would now think of as varietally correct. I just did some digging and there are 2 Martin Ray Pinot tasting notes in the volume of Vintners Club (of San Francisco) tasting notes that I have. One reads

“rich, oaky, Burgundy-like nose; high acid and alcohol; tart and vinegary; out of balance; withered” and the other

“dark, cloudy; hair tonic nose, rotten vegetal; cheesy, off, chlorine”

Neither sounds like what Barry had in mind …

Maybe if the question were changed to, “who was first to get pinot correctly most of the time” the answer would be different.

Chalone and Mt Eden would be at the top of the list followed by Acacia and Saintsbury.

Other than Joe Swan. and Dehlinger–both good answers–all the Russian River wineries started to make pinot in the '80s.

I’m in agreement.

Au Bon Climat. Since 1982, the best Pinot few have heard of.

The 1968 BV pinot by André Tchelistcheff was amazing and I was fortunate to go through 2 cases. Other than that I think Calera pinots from the mid 1980’s were outstanding.

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The 1946 BV was cited by many producers as showing them that great Pinot Noir was possible in California. The problem was the vineyard was ripped out not too long after. The 1968 was probably the last great one that Tchelistcheff made. The 1949 was also cited by many.


An early good example was HMR (Hoffman Mountain Ranch).

Sadly HMR went bankrupt around 1980.
Daniel Daou is resurrecting the place. When I visited the property a few years ago Daniel told me Dr Hoffman was still with us…around 95 yo. I see that he died age 97.
There was a period when people thought limestone soil was the sine qua non. (That was before Sine Qua Non was the sine qua non.) This belief led to HMR, Sanford and Benedict, Calera, and oif course, Chalone. Chalone was a big proponent of limestone soil until they got into business at Edna valley.

From my POV key factors in improving American pinot noir were
1/cooler planting sites…maybe planting cab and pinot side by side is not a great idea for one of them
2/clonal material…a book could be written about this and maybe somebody did and I missed it
3/winemaking…including barrels…very important for moi…Hanzell was the first to import French oak and tell people about it…Martin Ray probably the first.

What about Adelaida’s old planting?