Hosting “Pinot Talks”

Two weeks ago, I flew out to LA to host a blind tasting of 12 Pinot Noir-based wines with a group of 40 sommeliers, wine buyers, and other members of the trade. The tasting was hosted by Kosta Browne Winery, renowned for great Pinot Noirs from Sonoma County, California. The goals, stated by the winery, were not to compare their wines to other famous brands, but rather start a conversation about styles, practices, and the future of Pinot Noir not only in California, but around the world.

To get the conversation started I introduced our panel. 

Amy Christine became a Master of Wine in 2013. She and her husband, Peter Hunken, have been making wines since 2003 at Holus Bolus, their winery in the “Lompoc Wine Ghetto,” in Northern Santa Barbara County. Amy is also a partner at Wine Ring, a leader in personalization software in the wine and spirits industry, and she’s active in wine education, mentoring MW students, teaching WSET diploma level classes and writing articles for the Guild Somm Journal. Lastly, she directs sales for Kermit Lynch in LA.  

Chris Miller is a New Orleans native who worked his way through college at Emeril’s and the Brennan family’s restaurants. In 2008, Chris took the position of Wine Director for Wolfgang Puck’s flagship restaurant, Spago Beverly Hills, which is where we first met a decade ago. While he was working there, he earned his Master Sommelier diploma. In 2014, after 20 years in restaurants, Chris made the full-time switch to winemaking, founding Seabold Cellars in the Monterey Bay Area with Peter Figge. 

Nico Cueva is a winemaker who had his hands in the soil at Ampelos Cellars in the Santa Rita Hills, Moss Wood in Margaret River, Jaffurs Wine Cellars in Santa Barbara County, and at Vilafonte Vineyards in South Africa, where he worked with winemaking legends Zelma Long, Phil Freese, and Martin Smith. Nico joined Kosta Browne in 2009 as a full-time winemaking intern, and was hired as Cellar Master and Production Manager in 2011. Today, as Head Winemaker, he leads the team in the production of thought-provoking wines. 

After introductions, I instructed the tasters to taste at their own pace in silence, giving them 20 minutes to blind-taste the 12 wines, and guess which was Old World (France) or New World (California). Then, I reminded them that the goal was not to pit regions against one another, but instead to explore where they intersect, perhaps how they might inform or influence each other, and, of course, how they diverge.  

“Will California winemakers ever make Pinot Noirs that measure up to Burgundy…..”

When time was up, I asked for a show of hand whether they thought the first wine was Old World or New World. It was a lot of fun watching the reactions from these pros as they nailed or failed their guesses. What surprised us on stage was how nearly all of the wine garnered 50/50 splits between Old World and New, meaning at least half the tasters couldn’t tell whether or not they were classic Burgundy or a California Pinot. The exception was one Burgundy that nearly all of the tasters thought was absolutely Californian: 2016 Gevrey-Chambertin Domaine Lucien Boillot et Fils 1er Cru “Les Corbeaux.” 

Then we revealed the bottles and asked for reactions and comments. The conversation was super dynamic; lasting for nearly two hours as the tasters and the panel covered everything from winemaking, viticulture, fermentation vessels to ageabilty, facts, myths. We discussed climate change, of course, and the ever-shifting global economy and subsequent import/export challenges. 

The takeaway from my perspective is that the conversation about Old World vs. New World Pinot Noir has shifted greatly since I studied to become a sommelier 27 years ago. Back then the question seemed to be, “will California winemakers ever make Pinot Noirs that measure up to Burgundy.” Today the conversation seems to have shifted to, “now that we’ve learned from Burgundy and have applied it to our winemaking here, what do we do as well or better than Burgundy.” In other words, the consensus was that while there’s no doubt the French have been crafting great Pinot Noir for three centuries, California has made tremendous progress in the half-century that it’s been in the game.  

Here are the wines: 


Sta. Rita Hills 2016 The Joy Fantastic, Sta. Rita Hills, Pinot Noir – $50.00 

Anderson Valley 2016 Kosta Browne Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir – $110.00 

Mt. Harlen 2015 Calera Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir Ryan Vineyard – $60.00 

Monterey County 2017 Seabold Pinot Noir Chalone, Brosseau Vineyard – $50.00

Russian River Valley 2016 Kosta Browne Treehouse Vineyard Pinot Noir – $120.00

Sonoma Coast 2017 Raen Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Royal st. Robert cuvee – $65.00


Volnay 2015 Volnay Santenots Ballot-Millot – $65.00

Vosne 2014 Vosne Suchots Lucien le Moine – $200.00

Pommard 2017 Pommard Refene Latour-Giraud – $100.00

Gevrey-Chambertin 2016 Gevrey-Chambertin Domaine Lucien Boillot et Fils 1er Cru “Les Corbeaux” – $121.00 

Grand Cru Corton 2016 Corton Grand Cru Pierre Guillemot “Le Rognet et Corton” – $119.00

Grand Cru Vougeot 2013 Clos Vougeot “Musigni” Gros Frere et Soeur – $170.00