Subscribe

The future of pinot noir? For Sonoma County vintner Adam Lee, it’s in the concrete aging

In Sonoma County, pinot noir is king.

It has been the grape variety central to the conversation in local wine circles for the past 15 years. Its popularity exploded after the attention received from the 2004 Academy Award-winning movie “Sideways.” The comedy-drama tracked two men, a depressed teacher and an unsuccessful, divorced, wine-loving writer, who took a trip to Santa Barbara wine country to celebrate the writer’s upcoming wedding. The writer’s fondness for pinot noir resonated in the movie, then captured the attention of wine drinkers.

The varietal typically garners the highest bid at the annual Sonoma County Barrel Auction, and pinot noir is the most expensive grape to buy here every harvest.

What does the future hold for this fruit known for its aroma of cherries and berries with light tannins and higher acidity - as well as the difficulty in making the finicky grape into wine?

To gauge where pinot noir goes next, we’re speaking with vintners who helped popularize the grape over the past two decades. First is Adam Lee, who founded Siduri Wines in 1994 with his wife, Dianna Novy Lee. The Santa Rosa-based boutique winery quickly gained attention for its single-vineyard pinot noirs.

After selling the winery to Jackson Family Wines four years ago, Lee has remained as the winemaker and now has become a pinot advocate within the company, the ninth-largest wine company in the United States. Meanwhile, he also has turned his attention to a new project, Clarice Wine Co. - named after his grandmother Clarice H. Phears - as well as another joint venture with French vintner Philippe Cambie.

In short, 54-year-old Lee is not resting on his laurels, and he believes pinot noir should not either.

“I think it’s become so popular that we have gotten to a point where it becomes a business, where we have not been pushing the envelope in the way we should,” Lee said.

He said when he started - with $24,000 in seed money and an idea to make great-tasting, affordable pinot noir - the varietal wasn’t “particularly popular” and there were too many bottles on store shelves that weren’t good.

Times have changed. The average price per ton in Sonoma County has gone from around $2,000 in 2003 to $3,904 in 2017, according to Turrentine Brokerage.

“I think of any business that matures in some way, it becomes more of a business. Not that it wasn’t a little bit,” Lee said. “But as it moves from passion to an established business … you start worrying more about market share instead of what is the next step.”

That type of existential thinking led Lee to create Clarice. It has enabled him to return to his roots with a small winery, where he has limited his wine club to 625 members. Subscribers pay $960 annually to receive a case of wine on three different selections with grapes from the Santa Lucia Highlands.

More than a winery

But Lee wanted more than just a boutique winery; he desired a community to engage with one another via a private online forum, and a place where he could help spotlight other winemakers who are also making great wine.

For example, Lee has had trade industry friends write articles on barrel making and winery economics for his Clarice web forum. His pinot customers “always ask incredibly geeky, specific winemaking questions” in a way that doesn’t happen with admirers of syrah or cabernet sauvignon. The forum is a place where members can ask for suggestions on what sauvignon blanc they should try at a restaurant, or for travel tips.

“All of the wineries have clubs, but we don’t allow the members to interact with each other,” Lee said.

Clarice also promotes other wineries. It held a wine party at Limerick Lane Cellars for Clarice members to introduce them to the Healdsburg winery that specializes in estate-grown zinfandel and Rhone blends.

“If you do a good job in promoting one another, that is helpful. It’s ridiculous to think people are only going to buy Clarice or only going to buy Siduri,” Lee said.

The result was that Limerick Lane almost tripled its biggest sale day ever, he said.

“Not a single Clarice member left Clarice because they got to go to another winery. I think we have made mistakes in that we are not promoting each other,” he said.

It’s a business perspective more collegial than cutthroat, as Lee can be comfortable with the $600,000 in revenue he generates annually. “I have no desire to try and grow this,” he said.

Lee also is pushing for new ways to make pinot from his perch at Jackson. He is under contract as winemaker at Siduri through next January, when a new winemaker will take over. But he also is looking to transition to a new role, a so-called pinot noir advocate, to help with all of the Jackson brands that use the variety - whether a big seller like La Crema or a smaller winery such as Copain Wines.

“By no means am I trying to do anything that dictates anything to anybody. I’m going to winemakers and saying, ‘Tell me what’s interesting,’?” he said.

Truth be told, Lee - a die-hard Dallas Cowboys football fan - has been doing that in an unofficial capacity for years.

“He’s always been a guy looking for a new approach or a new angle,” said Ryan Zepaltas, the winemaker at Copain, who previously worked under Lee at Siduri for almost two decades. “What will he come up with next?”

Experimental approach

As part of that role, experimentation will play a key part. For instance, Lee convinced Jackson to invest in a concrete tank to not only ferment pinot noir but to age it as well. Its first use is for the 2018 vintage. Three more tanks have been ordered to increase production of this pilot - which could prove to be more cost-efficient compared to barrel aging over the long term.

Lee also wants to investigate further clone selection to see what works well with different vineyards, especially with some of the newer properties Jackson has acquired in Oregon’s Coast Range. Pinot noir has dozens of clone varieties.

“Everyone ferments in them (concrete), but (they’re) not aged. When you go to the south of France, they will age grenache,” Lee said. “They say grenache is a lot like pinot noir, except it’s riper and it has more tannins, thicker skins - that kind of thing.”

The wine aged in concrete would give a more “pure expression” of the grape without the tannins from the oak barrel, Lee said. He is using more tannic clones of pinot noir in this winemaking.

The effort is parallel to a separate project on which he has teamed with French winemaker Philippe Cambie, who has worked with other U.S. wineries such as Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Washington. The two formed a winery last week to make wine in Sonoma County with fruit sourced from Soberanes Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. It will be Cambie’s first pinot noir project.

Most French winemakers who work with pinot noir travel to Oregon because they find the Golden State’s fruit too big and rich for their Burgundian taste.

“I decided: Let me find somebody from the south of France, where they say grenache is more like the pinot noir of the south of France. Let me find that person to work in California with me,” Lee said.

Competitive market

The activity comes as the local pinot noir market has become much more competitive over the past decade, making it much harder for an upstart to break through like Lee did more than 20 years ago. In fact, the last upstart local pinot producer to really take hold in the market was Healdsburg-based Banshee Wines, founded in 2010 and now controlled by Foley Family Wines of Santa Rosa.

There are many factors for the headwinds: new entrants and less retail space; higher grape prices; more competition from Oregon’s rising pinot noir industry; and fears of a forthcoming recession, said Gabriel Froymovich, founder of Vineyard Financial Associates in Healdsburg.

In addition, making quality pinot noir is difficult, especially at the lower end, Froymovich said. Those making bottles at $60 or above are much more likely to be recession-proof.

“Pinot really doesn’t perform well at the lower bottle wine compared to other wines,” he said. “Bad pinot is bad. Bad zin is OK.”

Nevertheless, Lee is bullish on pinot’s future and his own as a winemaker, after successfully battling prostate cancer.

“Pinot noir gave me this opportunity to have a life I never imagined,” Lee said. “I think I look at it and say it can still be more.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine