Promises to Keep


The Magazine for Restaurant Professionals
September-October 1997
Pages 30-31, 59-60

Promises to Keep

On the day of my twenty-fifth birthday, September 19, 1983, the Carneros AVA was born. I don’t remember the details of my birthday celebration, but I’m sure it involved plenty of friends drinking wine. The wine definitely was not Pinot Noir of this region. Wine coolers and cheap, umm, inexpensive, beer were more likely the quaffs of choice.

The history of Los Carneros (“the sheep”) stretches back a bit more than 14 years. With easy access to water transport and the proximity of San Francisco, the area was rapidly developed by sheep ranchers, following the annexation of the Republic of California by the United States in 1846. Farmers raised a wide variety of grapes and orchard fruits, and in 1870, William H. Winter founded the first winery.

carneros2In the late 1870s, phylloxera struck, and attempts to find resistant rootstock by Winter’s successor, James Simonton, and other growers were largely unsuccessful. By the time Prohibition was declared in 1919, there was little left of the wine industry.

Since Prohibition’s repeal, Carneros has flourished as a winemaking area. John Garetto reestablished his winery in 1935 (on the site of what is now Bouchaine Vineyards), and major investments by Beaulieu Vineyards and Louis M. Martini followed. By the late 1940s, Pinot Noir constituted a significant percentage of acreage. Plantings were increased, and new wineries were created throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. By 1983 (my quarter-century mark), Carneros had made a name for itself with quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.


General Characteristics
Pure sensuality; silky-smooth elegance with a core of black cherry and raspberry fruit and hints of exotic spice. Moderate alcohol levels and slightly high acidity, balanced by the depth of the fruit.

Often “dumb” when young, best when at least three to four years old. Acidity and concentration allow good aging potential. The best develop delicious leather and tobacco notes between five and ten years old and peak at 10 to 12 years.

Recent Vintages
– 1992, 1993 – Drinking beautifully now, but can age for several years.
– 1994 – Big wines, cellar until early 1998.
– 1995 – “Dumb” now, cellar until early 1998.
– 1996 – Excellent outlook, barrel samples show great promise.

Grace Notes or One Notes?
Black cherries, raspberries, berry jam and spice: these are the claimed hallmarks of the Carneros Pinot Noir style. In 1986, the fledgling Carneros Quality Alliance (CQA) set out not only to determine that style, but more importantly, to prove that there was a style. IN a series of now-famous blind tastings and chemical analyses, these traits were more marked in Carneros Pinot Noir than in those from other parts of Napa and Sonoma.

Carneros is situated in a unique area off San Pablo Bay, with the Sonoma and Mayacamas Mountains forming two natural boundaries that separate the appellation from the Sonoma and Napa Valleys to the north. Maritime influences are stronger here than in the rest of the region. Limited rainfall, night fogs, lots of drying sunshine and strong ocean winds create perfect grape-growing conditions with high stress factors on the vines. Because of its geography and climate, Carneros has a longer growing season, by almost a month, than nearby areas, such as Rutherford in Napa or Alexander Valley in Sonoma.

Carneros soils are of two predominate types: Haire and Diablo. The yellowish brown Haire soils, which began as shallow salt marshes, contain fossils, high levels of calcium, alkaline salts and a very high clay content. Diablo, by contrast, are more acidic soils that came from the deeper San Pablo Bay areas. This black soil is high in manganese, an essential grape nutriet, and is also very high in clay content. The soils help to produce vines with naturally low vigor and low yields.

The question that Carneros faces today is the divergence between promise and reality. Eleven years ago, when the CQA announced their findings, Carneros was the premiere Pinot Noir production area in the United States. No other region consistently produced high-quality Pinots. and the appellation name was virtually a guarantee of enjoyment in a bottle. Names like Carneros Creek, Acacia and Saintsbury have graced bottles of high-quality Carneros Pinot for years. But the last decade has seen the rise of quality and recognition for other regions – Russian River Valley, Santa Barbara and in the far north, Oregon.

Style and quality are now up for grabs in Carneros. It is only conjecture, but it is likely that the CQA’s findings brought about this divergence from past successes. The allure of a golden region attracted a wide variety of winemakers. Some have maintained the local style. Others grow or buy their grapes and vinify according to formulae that have yielded them success in other regions.

In tasting wines from the region, I found Pinot Noirs that ranged from thin, acidic and vegetal to heavy, oakey and tannic. In several cases, the wines were indistinguishable from any red grape and could probably have had the label of some other varietal slapped on without anyone noticing. On the other hand, I found some true gems – wines that no only fit the traditional profile of the area with its berry and spice fruit, but were silky, elegant and an absolute pleasure to drink. These wines are the perfect foil to today’s lighter cuisines. This is red wine for fish, pasta and white meats and red wine that cuts through cream and butter sauces and stands up to spicy sauces.

Carneros fog. Maritime influences here are stronger than in the rest of the region; Highway marker in front of Beaulieu Vineyards.

Carneros fo. Mariting influences here are stronger than in the rest of the region; Highway marker in front of Beaulieu Vineyards.

Back to the Future
“I think that ten years ago having Carneros Pinot Noir on your list was key; people looked for it. Now there are so many good producers from other parts of California and Oregon that it isn’t that important. Customers look for wines that they know,” says Cliff Batuello, until recently the wine director at New York’s Gramercy Tavern. He feels that the producer, rather than the producer’s origin, is of more interest to his patrons. Lisa Minucci, Sommelier at San Francisco’s Cypress Club agrees. “My customers look for quality producers that they know. They recognize that an appellation name is not a guarantee. What’s important to them is who produced it.”

On the other hand, perhaps it is just that wines, like other products, go through cycles. Jast we went from “Chablis” and “Burgundy”in the ’70s to “Chardonnay” and “Merlot” in the late ’80s and early ’90s, maybe “Carneros” was the Pinot of choice on the last trend wave. Greg Harrington, Master Sommelier at Emeril’s in New Orleans says, “I think that ten years ago you could sell anything with the Carneros label on it. At the time, almost all the wines were top quality. I don’t think Carneros lived up to its promise though; too many producers went with the market style instead of the Carneros style. Now, I could slap Russian River on anything and sell a ton of it. Maybe Château Lafite Russian River?”

The question that Carneros faces today is one that will force a choice for many producers. The promise of the region and its style is there. Those producers that hold true to it may find that, in the short run, they are a small slice of the market pie. Their loyal followers, however, will continue to buy and drink the identifiable quality found in these wines. In the long run, my bet is that “being true to your school” will win out over those who, like a leaf in the wind, twist and turn with each new shopping trend. At my half-century party and Carneros’ official quarter-century, I’d also bet that wine coolers won’t be the drink of choice.


Fleur de Carneros (Carneros Creek) / 1995
Bright cherry fruit, light spiciness and surprisingly good balance. Would make a great by-the-glass selection for those who offer something better than “house pour.” Match with fish or pasta.

Carneros Creek / 1995
A strong note of black tea and black cherries, with a deep concentration of fruit that shows the classic Carneros style. Will be perfect with red meat dishes in a year or so.

Cosentino / 1995
Classic Pinot Noir: black cherries, raspberries and spice, with a texture that is pure velvet now and will only get better. I’d drink this with anything.



Fleur de Carneros (Carneros Creek) / 1995
Bright cherry fruit, light spiciness and surprisingly good balance. Would make a great by-the-glass selection for those who offer something better than “house pour.” Match with fish or pasta. [Carneros Creek Winery, 707-253-9464, $90/case]


Beaulieu Vineyard / 1995
Black cherry fruit, spice, touch of black tea – all of the components that I look for in Carneros. Moderate tannins with slightly high alcohol that will balance nicely with any heavier dish that has a little fat in it. [Beaulieu Vineyard, 707-967-5204, $128/case]

Carneros Creek / 1995
A strong note of black tea and black cherries, with a deep concentration of fruit that shows the classic Carneros style. Will be perfect with red meat dishes in a year or so. [Carneros Creek Winery, 707-253-9464, $144/case]

Gloria Ferrer / 1995
Light spice and fresh strawberries with just a touch of bitter almonds on the finish had me thinking Italian Pinot Nero rather than California. I would sell as “the perfect lunch or fish red.” [Freixenet, USA, Inc., 707-966-7256, $144/case]

Fetzer / 1994 / Sangiacomo Reserve
Aroma of fresh raspberries practically climbing out of the glass. Light, simple, easily quaffable wine for lighter dishes, such as poultry and veal. Organic, no sulfites added. [Fetzer Vineyards, 707-447-1250, $116/case]

Charles Krug / 1995
Delicious, bright raspberry and red cherry fruit. A touch of light oak and yeast. Not particularly Carneros in style, but a delight to drink. Fish or lighter poultry dishes. [C. Mondavi & Sons, 707-967-2220, $132/case]

Schug / 1995 North Coast
Bright, spicy fruit that slides right down for a perfectly enjoyable glass of wine. The appellation is North Coast, but the fruit is all Carneros sourced. [Schug Carneros Estate Winery, 800-966-9365, $120/case]

Schug / 1995
Good solid fruit and a fair touch of oak give this wine a sense of sweetness. A great offering for people who don’t like really dry wines. A simpler style for easy drinking that will pair nicely with most lighter cuisine. [Schug Carneros Estate Winery, 800-966-9365, $124/case]


Acacia / 1995
Great berry character with a touch of graham crackers. Also, an unusual and highly attractive smokiness that works beautifully with grilled and broiled foods. [Chalone Wine Group, 707-254-4201, $152/case]

Acacia / 1994 / Reserve
Notes of tea, mint and a toasty quality reminiscent of crème brûlée. More depth and complexity than the regular bottling. The smoky quality is a perfect partner with the grill or broiler. [Chalone Wine Group, 707-254-4201, $224/case]

Beaulieu Vineyard / 1995 / Reserve
Like the basic BV, this is Carneros through and through. The tannin levels with the intense black cherry and black tea notes need time to soften. [Beaulieu Vineyard, 707-967-5204, $200/case]

Bouchaine / 1994
Lots of bright raspberry fruit, cloves and ginger. The higher acidity and lighter style will pair well with richer fish dishes and lighter braised meats. This one should age beautifully. [Bouchaine, 707-252-9065, $150/case]

Bouchaine / 1993 / Reserve
Everything in the basic Bouchaine is here and more. Elegance, bright berry fruit, black cherry jam and a touch of ginger. Roasted meats with a touch of Asian spicing. [Bouchaine, 707-252-9065, $200/case]

Carneros Creek / 1995 Signature Reserve
Deliciously spicy, with a strong black tea component. Pure Carneros style that will age beautifully. Cellar it for now and start to serve in about two years. [Carneros Creek Winery, 707-253-9464, $288/case]

Cosentino / 1995
Classic Pinot Noir: black cherries, raspberries and spice, with a texture that is pure velvet now and will only get better. I’d drink this with anything. [Cosentino Winery, 707-944-1220, $212/case]

Cuvaison / 1995
Solidly in the Carneros style. Berry jam, cherries, spice and chocolate on both the nose and palate. Match with simply prepared tuna or salmon or with your favorite poultry. [Paterno Imports, Ltd., 847-604-8900, $228/case]

Domaine Carneros / 1995
Delicate floral and honey aromas, with a light touch of raspberies and cherries that is overlaid by cloves, cinnamon and pepper. A slightly high-acidity level suggests pairing with fish and shellfish, and the flavors call for spicier dishes. [Domaine Carneros, 70-257-0101, $170/case]

Flora Springs / 1995
Silky, smooth and sexy. Black cherry and vanilla character are not strictly Carneros, but are high-quality Pinot Noir. Roasted meats, especially pork or veal roast with herbs. [Flora Springs Winery & Vineyards, 707-963-5711, $168/case]

Robert Mondavi / 1994 / Unfiltered
A nice touch of sweet oak and bright fruit. The style is not definitively Carneros, but it is classic Mondavi and classic California. Despite a little high alcohol level, a nice match with poultry dishes. [Robert Mondavi Winery, 707-226-1395, $126/case]

Mont St. John / 1994 / Madonna Vineyards
Delightful leafy, earthy notes, especially when joined with spice, strawberries and plums. Not a classic Carneros style, but definitely Pinot Noir. Not ready. [Mont St. John Cellars, 707-255-8864, $180/case]

Morgan / 1994 / Reserve
Spicy notes of cinnamon, clove and ginger are well balanced by good solid fruit. Though drinking well now, it will definitely improve with age. [Morgan Winery, 408-751-7777, $240/case]

Rasmussen / 1995
Classic Carneros style with all of the berries, cherries and spice that you could want. Also, a fascinating and fairly strong aroma of green tea. For menus with an Asian touch, I can’t think of a better Pinot for your list. [Kent Rasmussen Winery, 707-252-4224, $150-176/case]

Saintsbury / 1995
Rich cherry fruit and spice that fit perfectly the Carneros style. This wine is still a little young and tannic, but it will be a definite plus on any wine list. [Saintsbury, 707-252-0592, $168/case]

Saintsbury / 1995 / Reserve
Beautiful structure, ripe berry and cherry fruit and lots of spice and cocoa notes. Still closed and too young to drink. Cellar for a couple of years. [Saintsbury, 707-252-0592, $260/case]

Schug / 1995 / Heritage Reserve
Rich, chocolatey and delicious, this new top release shows everything that I want in Carneros Pinot. Let it sit for a few years. [Schug Carneros Estate Winery, 800-966-9365, $240/case]

Signorello / 1995 / Las Amigas Vineyard
Rich and elegant, with a full mouthful of fruit and spice. Probably the fullest bodied Pinot that I tasted from Carneros. A wine for roasted meats. [Signorello Vineyards, 707-255-5990, $300+/case]

Robert Sinskey / 1995
Elegant, lightly smoky and dry almost to austerity. For those looking for high-quality Pinot from California in a “Burgundian” style, this is it. Could easily pair with almost any dish. [Robert Sinskey Vineyards, 707-944-9090, $249/case]

Steele / 1995
A strong wave of earthiness is balanced by lots of jammy, berry fruit and black cherries. Righ tnow, a great match for heavier red meats with lots of fat. [Steele Wines, 707-279-9475, $168/case]

Steele / 1995 / Sangiacomo
OnNe of the vineyards that goes into the basic Carneros blend, this one carries the jammy fruit all the way. As with the other Stteles, the alcohol level says to wait it out in the cellar. [Steele Wines, 707-279-9475, $228/case]

Steele / 1995 / Durell
This vineyard clearly carries the earthiness and black cherries that work so well with the Sangiacomo in the basic Carneros. Confine this one to the back room for now. [Steele Wines, 707-279-9475, $240/case]

Santé is a glossy format trade magazine for restaurant wine buyers and educators. I wrote as a freelancer for them on and off from the first issue in November 1996 until November 2002 when they decided to stop using freelance writers.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *