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Pinot Noir - California vs. Oregon - Episode 2
updated: Oct 06, 2012, 11:00 AM

By Marc Liberts

Because Pinot Noir is so popular, the BYOB Wine & Dine series at Max's Restaurant & Cucina in Santa Barbara held two Pinot Noir dinners. The first occurred on September 23, 2012, and the second took place on Sunday September 30, 2012. The second event featured winemaker Dan Kessler from Kessler- Haak Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. As always, the BYOB sharing component of the event was paired with assorted gourmet cheeses from C'est Cheese and Dan Kessler shared his KESSLER-HAAK, 2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills to enjoy with the cheeses.

The first course of the dinner was Grilled Figs & Pancetta over Arugula Salad with Ginger-Pomegranate Vinaigrette. The first course was paired with the KESSLER-HAAK VINEYARD, Pinot Noir, Sta Rita Hills, Clone 2A, 2009. The main course was Fennel-Scented Duck in Sour Cherry & Sage Reduction over Roasted Shallot & Truffle Smashed Potatoes, with Sautéed Wild Mushrooms & Haricots Verts and was paired with the KESSLER-HAAK VINEYARD, Pinot Noir, Sta Rita Hills, 2009. And the final course was Mixed Berry Tart with Cinnamon-Clove Zabaglione. I thought the Duck and Truffle Smashed Potatoes were particularly good and paired nicely with the Kessler-Haak Pinot Noir that Dan Kessler shared with the participants.

This event was particularly successful because many of the participants brought excellent examples of both Oregon and California Pinot Noir wines. In addition, the Kessler-Haak wines showed extremely well and paired nicely with the food.

I was particularly impressed with the Kessler-Haak wines. Dan's Kessler-Haak wines show a precision that is rare to find in such a new winery. It is obvious that the Kessler-Haak wines are made with great care, and it is also obvious that Kessler-Haak's farming techniques and discipline are paying off. The Kessler-Haak wines that we tried at this event, the Pinot Noirs in particular, were excellent examples of Pinot Noir that represents the Sta. Rita Hills, and really ‘speaks to place' and exhibits excellent terroir- driven characteristics. If you bring a Kessler-Haak Pinot Noir to Thanksgiving or Christmas Dinner this year you will impress your guests and companions. By the way, I'm not a Rosé fan, and I've been hard on Rosé in the past. However, I am pleased to report that I really liked the Kessler-Haak Rosé that Dan brought for us to enjoy!

Dan Kessler was born in Lansing, Michigan and graduated from MIT in 1981. He spent the early part of his career developing state of the art semiconductor fabrication technologies for Hewlett-Packard in Fort Collins, Colorado. Kessler later moved to California where he joined Vitesse, a small high tech startup company, developing and manufacturing semiconductor technology for the supercomputer and telecommunications industries. For Dan, enjoying wine led to learning about wine; which led to learning about winemaking; which led to making wine as a home winemaker; which led to planting a small 200 vine vineyard in his backyard; which led to obtaining a Winemaker's Certificate from the UC Davis Distance Learning program; which led to falling in love with Sta. Rita Hills; which led to buying a 40 acre parcel and planting a 30 acre vineyard; which led to where he is today - actively involved in every aspect of growing and making wine.

I had the chance to interview Dan Kessler prior to the event, and below are the questions and answers.

QUESTION 1: What are your impressions of Oregon Pinot Noir generally, and how do you think they compare generally to California Pinot Noir? Is there a region in California that produces Pinot Noir similar to Oregon in your opinion?

ANSWER: One big difference between CA and Oregon Pinot Noir are the clonal blend in the wines. Oregon Pinot Noir tends to be built with Pommard, 2A (Wädenswil), 114, 115, 777. CA Pinot Noir tends to be built with 115, 667, 777. The flavor profile of single clone and blends from each region will be different. In my opinion, CA Pinot Noir does not have the vagaries of fall rains and stronger year to year seasonal variation. Thus, CA Pinot Noir tends to be more consistent vintage to vintage, while Oregon Pinot Noir has good years and not so good years. I am still learning about Oregon Pinot Noir. Overall, I have found the wines to be lighter in color and body than CA Pinot Noir, less fruitful and for me, less interesting. I would say they are more like Burgundy than CA but without the finesse and beauty that makes Burgundy Pinot Noir what it is. In my opinion, there is not a region in CA that produces Pinot Noir similar to OR.

QUESTION 2: Most wine enthusiasts would agree that aged wines can be far superior to young wines, and most wine enthusiasts also bemoan the fact that the average consumer is going to open the wine he buys within hours or days of purchase. What is your opinion on this, and would you encourage consumers to drink your wine immediately, or wait and try and cellar it? If you suggest cellaring, what benefits can the consumer expect?

ANSWER: Not all wines get better with age. I think outside of the Old World, a large percentage of New World wines are targeted for consumers who want to drink now. These wines should be drunk in 0 - 3 years after release. Often, I find they are geared towards the American palate of high levels of fruit and barrel components, higher levels of alcohol and higher pH (lower acidity). This style tends to produce an aromatically pretty wine with fruity/jammy flavors and a heavier/more lush mouth feel. It works well without food and, due to the lower levels of acid, not as well with food. With Pinot Noir in the US, you often find producers releasing their Pinots one year after harvest. Often (but not always - Loring wines for example), these wines are too young to be drunk upon release without a lot of decanting (I was recently told by one gentleman that he regularly puts his young wines in a blender and then decants them back into the bottle to open them up and improve their drinkability...). Kessler-Haak wines, because of our vineyard's cold microclimate generally have a pretty decent acid backbone. We hold them 2 years before release instead of one to allow that backbone to soften some and allow the wines to be more approachable. The higher acid levels of our wines when they are drunk young make them excellent companions with food (sometimes with a little decanting), and perhaps less approachable alone. Long story short, I would encourage consumers to enjoy our wines with food if they will be drunk young and to cellar them for a couple of years if they would like to be rewarded with a more sophisticated wine that can be drunk with or without food. As for cellaring in general.... We have only released 2 vintages from our vineyard (2008 was the first). Our '08 Pinot had a very strong acid backbone upon release (2010) which gave the wine a certain amount of angularity and a "components" feel. Two years after release the acid is slowly integrating with the tannins and alcohol levels and the wine's balance has improved. The initial high level of acidity in the wine has helped keep its flavors and aromas youthful and fresh. I expect with a couple more years of aging, we will see a very sophisticated Burundian type of character from this vintage. In general, I expect 2 - 5 years of aging (after release) for our wines will reward one with a wine with less angularity and better integration, more open aromatics and flavors, and softer, more integrated tannins.

QUESTION 3: In the past, I've always loved Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills AVA. Can you share your thoughts about the Santa Rita Hills AVA and what makes it distinctive as it relates to Pinot Noir?

ANSWER: Pinot Noir from Sta Rita Hills, in my opinion, is distinctive in three ways: intense color, great acidity and a spicy character. These characteristics are attributable to the region: cool climate, generally poor soils, generally windy conditions. The result is a long growing season resulting is physically ripe flavors at higher levels of acidity and lower levels of sugar. Berries and clusters tend to be smaller which results in higher skin to juice ratios. Since flavors and color all come from the skins, these components are more concentrated in this region's wines. Spice in our fruit is generally a result of cool climate growing conditions.

QUESTION 4: In the recent past, I've also been enjoying Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria Valley AVA. Can you share your thoughts about the SMV ava and what makes it distinctive as it relates to Pinot Noir?

ANSWER: I can usually distinguish Santa Maria AVA wines from SRH AVA wines. For me, SM wines are lower in acid and more drinkable upon release. SM climate is a key reason for this. The area is generally warmer than SRH.

QUESTION 5: Thinking of French Pinot Noir, which are your favorite(s), and what impresses you about them?

ANSWER: I am probably not the best person to ask that question. I've only met a couple of French Pinot's I didn't care for. I think that was mainly due to their lower price point/quality level. I am in general a big fan of Old World wines, especially with food. What impresses me most about them is their structure, balance and precision.

QUESTION 6: What wines will you be bringing to the event? Please provide a brief commentary on each one.

ANSWER: I will be bringing our 2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir, 2009 estate Pinot Noir and our 2009 estate clone 2A Pinot Noir. Here's my (impressions) for each:

2011 Kessler-Haak Rosé of Pinot Noir - Estate grown fruit. Dry, with crisp acidity and notes of strawberry, sour cherry, raspberry and mineral flavors, this full-bodied Rosé makes a worthy companion to smoked meats, a hearty BLT, grilled burgers and even tuna tartar.

2009 Kessler-Haak Pinot Noir - Estate grown fruit, made in a style of dry elegance. This young, lovely full bodied Pinot Noir shows rich cherry, pomegranate, cola and mineral flavors with firm tannins. Try it with venison and sour cherry reduction, sautéed mushrooms of any type or herb roasted prime rib. Give it a short decant and enjoy it now or let it mellow in your cellar for a year or so.

2009 Kessler-Haak Pinot Noir, Clone 2A - Estate grown fruit. A lovely, delicate Pinot Noir with vibrant acidity that cuts across the palate and into the finish. Bone dry, with subtle flavors of cranberry, sour cherry and cool climate spiciness. A great wine to enjoy with food and a worthy match with such partners as: oven roasted vegetables, braised short ribs and herb roasted meats.

QUESTION 7: What first comes to mind for you when you think about Santa Barbara County wine-making and vineyards today?

ANSWER: SBC is a newer and rapidly growing wine region with unique climatic and soil characteristics. Vineyards are young as are many of the winemakers. One feels the high energy levels between growers and winemakers here as well as a more friendly/collaborative/experimental environment to nurture growth and the overall quality of wines from this region. Ellen and I are thrilled to be a part of it!


1. LACHINI VINEYARDS, Chehalem Mountain, Pinot Noir, 2009 - earthy nose with evergreen pine forest notes on the palate with pretty raspberries - 91 points.

2. ELK COVE VINEYARDS, 2009 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir - plump and earthy with delicate raspberry fruit notes - 90 points.

3. FESS PARKER, Santa Barbara County 2009 Pinot Noir, Bien Nacido Vineyard - deep dark blackberries and overt fruit - a little clumsy - 87 points.

4. WILD HORSE, Pinot Noir, Central Coast 2009 - Light but plump with loads of ripe cherry notes on the palate - slightly unbalanced - 88 points.

5. ARGLYE, Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley 2010 - earthy with pretty red fruit and nice fresh forest herbs. Well balanced - 89 points.

6. KESSLER-HAAK, 2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills - great hue with pretty and creamy cherry cola notes. Makes a nice statement - 91 points.

7. CHATTER, 2010 Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley - a plump and fat wine featuring big ripe bing cherries. Fun - 87 points.

8. MONTINORE ESTATE, Willamette Valley, Estate Reserve Pinot Noir 2009 - overtly earthy and out of balance. Slightly off somehow - 84 points.

9. ANNE AMIE, Yamhill Springs Vineyard, Willamette Valley, Pinot Noir, 2002 - a pretty wine that is probably too old. Soft - 87 points.

10. LANGE, Pinot Noir, 2009 Willamette Valley, Three Hills Cuveé - appealing raspberry and strawberry notes with nice loamy notes. Pleasant balance - 90 points.

11. KING ESTATE, 2010 Oregon Pinot Noir - light with soft fruit and some herbal notes. Good balance but light - 86 points.

12. WBW WALTZING BEAR WINES, Cargasacchi Jalama Vineyard, Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir, 2005 - a strange wine with big acid, taut fruit, and vanilla. Funky - 90 points.

13. MELVILLE, 2009 Pinot Noir, Estate, Sta. Rita Hills - nice cola and bing cherries on the palate, but a little strange. Something not quite right - 87 points.

14. CRIMSON CELLARS, 2008 Pinot Noir, Jalama Vineyard - surprisingly woody and herbal with nice fruit and good balance. A pleasant surprise - 88 points.

15. DONOVAN-PARKE, Pinot Noir, California, 2010 - funky and out of balance with light fruit. Not recommended- 78 points.

16. BEARBOAT, Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley - funky and musty with decent fruit and an interesting caramel note. Not a winner - 84 points.

17. MICHAEL POZZAN, 2010 Russian River Pinot Noir - decent balance with pleasing fruit and decent herbal notes. Not bad - 86 points.

18. KENDALL-JACKSON, Vintner's Reserve Pinot Noir, 2010, California - out of balance but fruity. So-so - 85 points.

19. LA CREMA, Sonoma Coast 2010 Pinot Noir - decent cherry cola and ripe fruit with some balance. Above average - 86 points.

20. MARK WEST, Pinot Noir, California 2010 - stinky nose with light fruit and little weight. Not recommended at all - 72 points.

21. RANCH 32, Pinot Noir, Monterrey 2010 - sulfery and unpleasant from start to finish. Avoid this one - 73 points.

22. 75th ANNIVERSARY TREK, Pinot Noir 2003, Edna Valley - a coy wine that takes a minute to ramp up with even fruit and decent balance. Interesting - 88 points.

23. WILD HORSE, Pinot Noir, Central Coast 2008 - plump with prunes and ripe dried fruit. Big and fruity - 86 points.

24. RANCHO SISQUOC, Flood Family Vineyards, 2010 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir - light and pleasant with decent balance. No vices - 83 points.

25. AUGUST BRIGGS, 1997 Napa Valley Pinot Noir, ‘Dijon Clones' - smelly and funky and just not enjoyable. Too old - 79 points.

26. CHARACTER, Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley 2009, Amber Ridge Vineyard - nice fruit with good balance and poise. A good character - 89 points.

27. REATA, Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, 2010 - bacon on the nose with strong fruit and acid and decent balance overall. Something to try - 89 points.

28. RIVERS-MARIE, Summa Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2008 Pinot Noir - explosive and sparkly on the palate with bright, tightly wound fruit components and tight acid. A wow wine - 94 points.

29. KESSLER-HAAK VINEYARD, Pinot Noir, Sta Rita Hills, Clone 2A, 2009 - tightly wound with intense fruit, spices, balance, and great integration. A very smart spicy wine - 93 points.

30. ARCHERY SUMMIT, 2002 Pinot Noir, Red Hills Estate, Dundee Hills - beautiful older wine with great earth, pretty fruit, and impressive balance. Impressive - 92 points.

31. SEA SMOKE, 2009 Pinot Noir, Southing, Sta. Rita Hills - pretty color with nice red fruit and big acid with a hint of spice. Substantial - 91 points.

32. KESSLER-HAAK VINEYARD, Pinot Noir, Sta Rita Hills, 2009 - cherry cola with nice balance and bold acid. Classic SRH - 92 points.

33. DOMAINE SERENE, 2000 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Evenstad Reserve - pretty forest and evergreen notes with sultry raspberries. Great balance - 92 points.

BEST WINE OF THE NIGHT: RIVERS-MARIE, Summa Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2008 Pinot Noir - 94 points.

2nd BEST WINE OF THE NIGHT: KESSLER-HAAK VINEYARD, Pinot Noir, Sta Rita Hills, Clone 2A, 2009 - 93 points.

3rd BEST WINE OF THE NIGHT: DOMAINE SERENE, 2000 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Evenstad Reserve - 92 points.

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