For anyone who loves California wine it is an era of plenty. I realized that recently when I was thinking about single vineyards. 15 years ago, single vineyard designates were a rare thing in California. There were a few outliers, to be sure, but the majority of wines released were multi-vineyard blends, or at the very least, weren’t specified. My entry into the wine business, in the early 21st century, coincided with the rise of the California single vineyard. Thus, I have always associated California with specific ideas about terroir. I learned about California wine through the prism of single vineyards. And as I sought a deeper understanding, I thought to myself, “I’ll order a book about this. Surely someone has written a definitive account of the single vineyards of California!” Turns out, no such book exists.
So, I thought I’d do my part. I’m going to outline what, to my mind, are the Top Ten Single Vineyards in California. This time, it’s Pinot Noir & Chardonnay. We’ll get to Cabernet in a few weeks. Please keep in mind, these are based on my own experiences. I’ve been lucky enough to consistently taste some of the great Pinot and Chard produced in California over the last ten years. Based on that, these are the vineyards which make the wines which I consistently experience as profound.
So, without further ado, here is my Top Ten Single Vineyards for Pinot Noir & Chardonnay in California!
Cerise (Anderson Valley)
One of two Anderson Valley vineyards on this list, Cerise is located high in the hills around Boonville. Anderson Valley is an interesting appellation. Surprisingly cool, because of the influence of the sea, especially in the higher altitudes, it functioned as a secret enclave of top-flight producers looking to produce taut, refined Pinot and Chard. At the same time, there has been some stylistic flip-flopping, where some Anderson Valley producers have pushed for greater ripeness. In my experience, there is an enigmatic animale quality to Cerise when young. It is certainly a vineyard which rewards ageing. As the more savage elements subside with time, the elegant and supple fruit, which was always present, shows itself best with 3-5 years in the bottle, and you’re left with rustic beauty which has no need to shout.
Charles Heintz (Sonoma Coast)
Charles Heintz Vineyard upends what is traditionally viewed as the Sonoma Coast style. These are consistently big wines. Keep in mind, there was a time when Zinfandel grew very well here. The vineyard has been in the Heintz family since before prohibition. It went through a long period with no grapes planted. It was only the early 80s which saw Charlie Heintz planting Chard and Pinot. For me, it is the Chard which lands them on this list. Heintz is consistently one of the latest Sonoma Coast vineyards to be picked, generally leading to unctuous weight and tropical flavors, yet still retaining the pointed acidity for which the AVA is known. The Chards from Charles Heintz are gorgeous, curvy wines with just the right balance of hedonism and harmony.
Hirsch (Sonoma Coast)
Perhaps the most inarguable name on this list, Hirsch Vineyard is THE benchmark vineyard of the Sonoma Coast (and arguably the whole of California when it comes to Pinot Noir). David Hirsch essentially created the True Sonoma Coast when he proved, planting first in 1980, great Pinot Noir could be made in what was, at the time, thought to be a marginal climate. These are consistently some of the most cellar-worthy Pinot out of America, communicating with extreme precision the taut focus and mineral spine of this unforgiving landscape. Rarely particularly accessible whilst young, over time what Hirsch lacks in grace, it makes up for in sheer complexity.
Whenever I think of Hudson Vineyard, I think of Texas. Probably it’s the picture hanging up in the lobby of Patz & Hall of Lee Hudson in a cowboy hat (his family are oil men from the Lone Star State). But his Chardonnay has that Big Country feel to it. Lee was a UC Davis classmate of, amongst others, Randall Graham, John Kongsgaard, Tim Mondavi, and David Graves (Founder of Saintsbury). He planted in Carneros when Carneros barely existed. His Chard always puts forth a boisterous personality but with plenty of depth in the undergrowth. Depending on the producer, they can border on flamboyant but if there was an equivalent of a top Meursault vineyard in California, it would be Hudson.
Just down the road from Hudson, Hyde vineyard is one of the greatest vineyards in California which no one seems to talk about too much. Larry Hyde is a legend of viticulture. He helped to develop some of the clones of Pinot and Chard (Hyde-Wente & Hyde-Calera) which have served as the backbone of the 21st century explosion of quality in California. There is nothing flashy about his fruit but there is always sublimity. I consider great expressions of his Chardonnay to be quintessentially California. They veer towards the tropical/marmalade/candy-citrus fruit profile but then the acidity comes rushing forward to keep everything in check. His Pinot, which you don’t see very often, are the most underrated in California. They are lush yet quiet wines with soft tannins, stunning purity, and awesome cellar potential.
Patz & Hall
Marcassin (Sonoma Coast)
I struggled with whether or not to put monopole vineyards on this list but then Jean-Luc made a great point. “Not putting Monopoles would be like ranking Burgundy vineyards without including Romanee-Conti”. Which is a good point and a good comparison. Marcassin is the vineyard (and winery) of all-world winemaker Helen Turley and titan of viticulture John Wetlaufer. Around 20 acres of land, 2/3 of which is planted to Pinot, 1/3 to Chardonnay, make up the entirety. Helen and John keep a lot of the details to themselves, and they don’t sell on any of their fruit, so there is only the wine to judge the vineyard. With that in mind, these are stupendous. They are undoubtedly some of the most magnificent wines made in California. They aren’t shy in style, as anyone who knows some of Helen Turley’s former gigs (Bryant, Colgin, Peter Michael, etc.) could probably guess. But Wetlaufer prefers extremely dense plantings, creating very low yielding fruit, with late harvest times in a cool climate. Ms. Turley takes over and crafts wines which are powerful, rich, and gorgeous.
Peay (Sonoma Coast)
Peay is the vineyard equivalent of the hotel from The Shining. My lady and I visited last September and after driving up for nearly two hours, we reached one of the most challenging, and potentially profound, vineyards in California. Andy and Nick Peay re-purposed an old apple orchard on the FAR Sonoma Coast to mostly Pinot and Chard about 15 years ago. In the coldest years, they struggle to ripen their grapes fully but the rest of the time they are consistently producing, to use a sorry cliché, the most Chablisian style of Chardonnay in the state. We were fortunate enough to have Nick Peay (the viticulturalist) and Vanessa Wong (the winemaker, formerly of Peter Michael) in for a dinner last year, and we tasted through some older vintages. They age with the slow grace of traditional Burgundy but with the joyous roundness of California.
Ritchie (Russian River)
Ritchie is a wonderfully old-school Chardonnay vineyard. Planted in 1972 by Kent Ritchie, the vines are widely spaced, which was the fashion at the time though these days closer spacing, creating naturally lower yields, is in vogue. Fortunately, the vines at Ritchie are averaging 30+ years at this point so the yields keep themselves in check. If you’re looking for proto-typically Russian River Chardonnay, this is the spot. The Goldridge Soil creates the unique mineral-driven finish of RRV but, unlike some of the lesser vineyards in the appellation, there is a strong coastal influence which keeps ripeness in check. The specific fruit flavor profile varies slightly from producer to producer (with always a nod towards the green orchard side of the spectrum) but what is always consistent is the wonderfully dense extract and the great natural acidity. I haven’t been lucky enough to taste many older bottles of Ritchie but everything I know tells me these are built for the long haul and deserve a place in any great cellar.
Sanford & Benedict (Santa Barbara)
Like Hyde and Ritchie, Sanford & Benedict is a trailblazer. Like Hirsch, it essentially created an appellation (Santa Rita Hills AVA). Like every vineyard listed above, it lies in a small, cool micro-climate, supremely influenced by the ocean. Sanford & Benedict consistently defies my expectations. Perhaps I have a skewed understanding of Santa Barbara but I’m always expecting a lush, fun and fruity wine. What I have consistently experienced is restraint, grace, and sublime femininity. I will say, in my experience, it doesn’t take well to new American oak. Fortunately, the new wave of producers now making fruit of S&B are from the less oak is best school of winemaking. Of all the Chardonnay focused vineyards on this list, Sanford & Benedict is the most delicate in delivery.
Au Bon Climat
Savoy (Anderson Valley)
Last but not certainly least, Savoy is a personal favorite. Planted in the mid-90s by Rich Savoy and none other than Ted Lemon, of Littorai fame, Savoy, for me, is one of the most consistently delightful sources of Pinot Noir in California. No matter the producer, I respond viscerally to this particular terroir. One of the hidden little secrets about modern California viticulture is the “By the Acre” contract. Basically, a high-quality producer comes in and says, “I’ll pay you the same amount of money per acre, no matter how many grapes I end up getting, as long as we can farm to my specifications.” Rich Savoy was one of the first farmers to really get hip to this idea. He has embraced multi-clonal selections, depending on the micro-block terroir. Very recently, Savoy was purchased by top-tier Napa producer, Cliff Lede, but none of the long-term contracts seem to be affected. Savoy is consistently rich, with chewy fruit, soft yet potent tannins, and bright acidity. Basically, everything you’d want if you’re hoping a Pinot will go the distance. Expressions of Savoy are hauntingly delicious when young (requiring a great deal of discipline to give them time to age) but anyone who puts top level Savoy down for a long sleep will be treated to a profound experience.
What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Did I leave anything off? I’d love to hear from you. Have a great holiday and thanks for listening!
With High Regards,