Kent Rasmussen on Pinot Noir and Carneros (Two of His Favorite Subjects)

by Kent Rasmussen

In the tradition of Peter Wellington and Scott Harvey, please welcome another occasional Wine.Woot guest blogger. Kent Rasmussen of Kent Rasmussen Winery has graciously agreed to share his insights into the winemaking life. Thanks, Kent!

Once upon a time, when the Boomers were young, the mere mention of “California Pinot Noir” would make a wine-geek go running for a bottle of Burgundy (there weren’t many wine-geeks in America back in those days). Pinot Noir just didn’t do it in California. We were making great Cabernet and Zinfandel, and if I am not mistaken, Louis Martini had just bottled the first varietal bottling of a grape called Merlot (in 1968?) But Pinot just hadn’t arrived. When Pinot was good it was usually because it was half Petite Sirah (in those days varietals only had to be 50% of the named variety) and thus not really Pinot. Pinot Noir, the ultimate cool weather grape was grown in such not-so-cool climates as Calistoga—and Fresno! Winemakers felt that a good Pinot could be made just like a good Cabernet; heat it up, put it in the percolator, and extract, extract, extract. The results? Well . . . we were not making much of a name for ourselves—more of a groan.

But there where Pinot Noir visionaries back in those early days of California viticulture. They understood what a great grape it is—probably the greatest of all grapes…and that something had gone horribly wrong with it in California. They saw how wonderful the Pinot Noir was in Burgundy and they knew they could change it all and make California the greatest place on earth to grow the greatest grape on earth. And they were right!

The first thing those folks realized...

...was that Pinot Noir needed cool weather.

In the mid-60s, these pioneers looked south in the Napa Valley to the cold windy fringe at the top of the San Francisco Bay, to an area called Carneros. Others called them crazy, but they went ahead and planted a few Pinot vines amongst the failed orchards and lonely dairies of Napa’s poorest corner. And it happened—suddenly, California Pinot Noir tasted good! From this rather late beginning, Pinot Noir took off in California—suddenly the rush was on to identify all of California’s cool winegrowing regions. More were found; Santa Barbara, Anderson Valley, parts of the Russian River area, and more recently, the Sonoma Coast and the Santa Lucia Highlands all started to be planted to Pinot Noir with great results (oh, and did I mention Oregon?) Today, all of these areas make many good Pinot Noirs, but Carneros still shines as one of the best and distinct in its own regional character.

Carneros is a strange place. It is located on the big gentle sloping plane that rises up out of the San Francisco Bay at the southern tip of the Napa and Sonoma Valley appellations. It runs from the Napa River on the east to the base of the first hills in Sonoma on the west and from the water on the south to the base of the Mayacamas Mountains to the north. All in all, it’s about 3 miles from north to south and maybe seven miles east to west. Not a large area, but wide open and directly exposed to the cold, ceaseless tidal winds coming through the Golden Gate and over the San Francisco Bay. Honestly, having lived in Carneros for years back in the 80's and 90's, I can tell you that wind doesn’t make it much of a fun place to live! (In the many years that I lived there I doubt that I had “dinner on the deck” more than half-a-dozen times.)

Like many cool windy places, Carneros seems a very deserted and lonely place, like it may be full of ghosts. I have never actually seen one, but the area definitely had its share of hard-luck farmers who could never seem to make as much as their cousins just a couple of miles further north in the lush Napa and Sonoma valleys. To make life harder, Carneros has next-to-no water in the ground and the “soil” is mostly solid clay—brick-like and brittle in the summer and viscous enough to suck your boots off in the winter. Many of you may have heard Mark Twain’s famous quote: “the coldest winter he ever spent, was the summer in San Francisco.” Carneros has a lot of that same weather (while it takes an hour to drive there, Carneros it really is only a few miles from San Francisco as the crow flies). In the summer the fog rolls in and some days the sun doesn't come out until after noon. I make it sound charming, don't I? But it is also a very beautiful area, with huge open skies and wonderful clouds to the south and pretty mountains to the north.

All that said, you are probably thinking, “Yech—what grape would want to grow THERE?” Grapes are odd. Their “perfect world” is one of deep rich soils, good water and lots of sun (read: Fresno). Problem is, when you make wine out of grapes grown with such privilege you get character-less, insipid, uninteresting stuff. It seems that the more a grapevine suffers, the greater the wine it produces. (Is that why Russia has produced so many great writers?) So Carneros is perfect—just enough to keep the vine alive, but not enough to let it thrive (Gulag grape-growing!) Cold, dry, windy, bad soil . . . beat me, beat me! And thus the perfect Pinot Noir!

I should mention that once great Pinot Noir was “discovered” in Carneros, and the old guard had to admit that a bit of viticulture vision was a good thing, growers started to plant other varieties there, just to see how they came out. The results? Carneros Chardonnay is wonderful: lots of apples and mineral characteristics. Funnily enough, Merlot from Carneros is really good (although why one would waste good Pinot Noir land on Merlot is an unfathomable question in my mind) and so does Syrah (lovely red-fruity flavors). While a few growers grow Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon there, I think that they are on a bad road, its like growing Pinot in Rutherford; sure it will grow . . . but why?

So ends today’s musings. Talk with you again soon.