Page 5 of 6
NM: What are your objectives for the varietal in Benovia's Pinot Noir program and how close do you feel the current releases are to that?
MS: The Cohn site represents to me a more classic, Old World (or at least older California) style of wine. For me, it harkens back to wines that I cut my teeth with for William Selyem and Alan Rochioli in the '80s — wines that had an ethereal quality, very floral and delicate. I think that this site is pretty indicative of those wines. Now, our Bella Una Pinot uses newer selections with Dijon clones and more progressive viticulture, all organically farmed with very low yielding vines of an average vine age of about 18 years. It's a little more modern a twist on Pinot Noir, a bit more typically New World in style and really a standout on its own — the 'iron fist in the velvet glove' Pinot Noir. And then, with the Sonoma Coast Pinot, we're working with our estate property and learning more about this site, the Martaella vineyard. Although it's about 70% Russian River, I think its style is probably somewhere between the other two wines, with a foot in the Old World and a foot in the New; it still has structure and acidity but the wine has some nice ripeness to it.
NM: Looking at things more broadly, what's your take on what's been going on with Pinot Noir in the marketplace? And how do you feel that that affects you as a winemaker with a particular penchant for the varietal?
MS: Like anything that's become popular — although I don't think Pinot is quite at the height of its popularity but certainly has attained deeper levels of penetration into the market — a lot of new producers have jumped into the mix. Many of them have great aspirations, in some cases to be the domestic DRC, but quite don't have the experience and are really just getting their feet wet. And so, there's a penetration of wines in the marketplace that may not be a great reflection of the varietal. I think people are getting introduced to different styles of Pinot Noir that might not be long term representations of a region or of the varietal itself.
"There's a penetration of wines in the marketplace that may not be a great reflection of the Pinot varietal."
NM: Is there a danger of Pinot going into a similar direction that Merlot did in the '90s?
MS: I think anything that reaches a very quick ascension to popularity risks the pitfall of having that popularity taken away become it's become trendy. And there's certainly that potential for Pinot Noir domestically. I mean, they're planting Pinot in Lodi! It's become a commodity, like Merlot did. Merlot can achieve great heights, but it's in a relatively narrow geographical range. When it becomes a commodity, you've lost its potential.
NM: There's always going to be a segment of the market that views wine as a commodity and something that should be easily approachable. And that reinforces the market trends around varietals, making the commodity mentality almost inescapable. Now that we're seeing popularity at the more value-driven level of Pinot, do you have concerns about what that might do to wines made by quality-driven producers like yourself?
MS: If consumers were to encounter Lodi Pinot Noir and assume that was a definition of the varietal, an expression of what that varietal can attain, they're likely to discount Pinot as some kind of noxious, weedy plonk. I have no control over how the consumer views something like Pinot Noir, but my hope is that they have exposure to differing price points, quality levels, and wines that express what I think the varietal can attain. It's a really tough question, though.
Building a Knowledge Base to Further the Brand
NM: What have you learned in the process of making premium Pinot Noir, which has perhaps altered your earlier understanding of the varietal and the wines that can be made from it?
MS: I have a pretty broad perspective as to what the varietal can achieve and what it's definition is. I think that the Cohn vineyard is one definition of the varietal; I think Bella Una is a different definition; the Savoy is yet another definition. All are unique and expressive; all are wonderful wines in and of themselves. But I try not to shackle Pinot Noir. I think having one very finite objective as to what something is supposed to taste like really doesn't allow for creativity of expression. I've learned a lot and continue to learn where the varietal can go, but I'm not so sure that that has focused my objective.