I've heard winemakers and wine geeks say something like this: A pinot noir isn't wine until it's five years old. Before then it's like robbing the cradle.
This doesn't refer to those $5 and $10 bottles that say pinot noir on the label but are otherwise unrelated to real pinot noir.
Great pinot noir is a calling, a reflection of beneficent soil, weather and winemaking skill, and thus is a quest more than a definitive result of man's will. Mother Nature and Father Time factor in here in ways most mystical.
I have recently tasted many newly released 2010 pinot noirs, which may have been released as a result of an updated version of the old Orson Welles' ad for Paul Masson wines: "We will release no wine before our banker says it's time."
Tasting many of the 2010 pinot noirs, the one phrase that came to mind was, "They're not wine yet." Many are tasty (partially a result of the cool temperatures throughout California that year), but terribly backward.
In fact, some of the priciest pinots, selling for $60 or more a bottle, are so young that even these wineries' 2009's aren't yet developed to the point where they are drinkable compared with what they'll be in two to four more years.
So it came as a shock to me the other day when I visited Clouds Rest Vineyards, a tiny producer atop a west-facing ridge on Sonoma Mountain. The winery has just released its 2007 pinot noir, right on cue to be wine.
True, at $100 a bottle this is one of the priciest of pinots, but as owner John Saemann notes, had this wine been released three years ago (as many wineries did), it too would have been backward and hard to appreciate.
"The wine wasn't really ready to be enjoyed then, and we won't compromise on that," he said. In fact the winery's now-spectacular 2006 pinot noir, also $100, is still available from the winery.
Clouds Rest is a unique property in many ways, primarily because Saemann actually had a dream in which he imagined the property that he had not yet seen, and felt an instant connection to the land when he saw it.
The entrepreneur considers himself a wine lover who is more of a gardener, sheep rancher, and dog breeder than a vintner. To make his pinots, from 2-plus acres of vineyard, he hired Tony Austin, one of the most accomplished Burgundian specialists in California. (He worked in the 1970s with California's greatest wine maker, Andre Tchelistcheff).
Saemann's five-acre property technically is in the large, amorphous Sonoma Coast appellation, but really faces the famed Petaluma Wind Gap high on a ridge, and thus has weather conditions that are truly favorable toward a more refined style of pinot noir.
Austin, who says he "developed a taste for fruit, lower alcohol, and great acidity" years ago, adheres to that style of wine, noting that his 2006 wine is still a baby, needing at least another five years to show what depth of character is in the wine.
I loved the wines, and think Clouds Rest soon will join others who are rated highly for their pinot noirs. But the ratings this winery will get may be a lot less meaningful than simply tasting the wines.