After an unnecessarily ostentatious day-long tour from Mt Veeder to Howell Mountain with Cardinal (read P1 here read P2 here), we somehow wake up early. Our mouths blackened and livers tested by endless Cabernet, Merlot, and Malbec, we rejoice knowing that today, after four days of monster reds, we try Napa Valley Pinot Noir.
We bomb down to Carneros, Napa’s most southerly AVA.
The hills flatten into green plains. Small lakes, rivers, and marshes punctuate Carneros. Bay fog still clings to the ground. Burgundy, this is not. Heck, our home in Oregon is miles more misrable. But if you plan to grow Pinot Noir in Cali, Napa’s coolest, wettest spot makes sense.
17 acres surround their winery.
These odd white vines remain because the winery still retains its original distillery function as well.
Tony Soter founded Etude in 1982. His goal was to plant Pinot Noir clones matched to microclimates. In 2000, he sold it Beringer (aka Treasury, aka Fosters), who brought in John Priest and Rob Fischer as consultants in 2005.
Our guide Angel sets up their six wine “Study of Pinot Noir”.
We start with Etude’s mainstay “Estate”: a blend of vineyards and clones at their Grace Beniost Ranch, which they have a 90 year lease on. Fruit goes whole cluster for an extended cold maceration.
Etude, Pinot Noir, Estate Grace Benoist Ranch, Carneros 2013 $45.00 Retail
The APPEARANCE looks a medium intense ruby with a clear rim (thank the gods, no more ink). Proud AROMAS smell of cherry juice, pomegranate, and clove. The dry PALATE, has much longed-for medium plus acidity, medium tannins, medium body, a dusty texture, although the warm 14.4% alcohol bothers us. FLAVORS show up the fruity palate with a touch more pepper, clove, and light bubblegum, the length is medium plus. An approachable, albeit warm and muddled, Pinot Noir meant for drinking over the next five years: very good 4 of 5.
From aptly named vineyard on a fault line: Tremblor, 2013 Etude Pinot Noir Grace Benoist Ranch $75.00 Retail
Tremblor’s APPEARANCE has a medium ruby core with clear purple rim. AROMAS of pepper, light toast, slight earth, red fruits, and cherry skin make for a more serious nosing. The PALATE feels softer, bight but silkier, fuller bodied than the Estate. FLAVORS taste of bright cranberry juice, raspberry. Tremblor is an elegant, round, lengthy Pinot: 5 of 5 outstanding drink now to 2025. I vote it #1 of the tasting.
Next, Etude’s big gun, “Hierloom” vineyard: the oldest planting of Pommard and Dijon clones on rocky soil, 600 fasl, where fog burns off faster.
2013 Pinot Noir, Heirloom, Grace Benoist Ranch, Carneros $95.00
The APPEARANCE looks a medium intense purple. AROMAS smell stronger, riper, lusher with a floral, grapefruit, dusky, earthen element. The PALATE feels richer, yet tart, with intense, grippy steel hooked tannins. FLAVORS match with earth, grapefruit acidity, red cherry fruit leather. But Heirloom seems tight, closed, but ageable and maybe ready in 5-10 years. It is outstanding 5 of 5 material, but ranks 3rd of the six.
Now for something odd: an Oregon Pinot Noir.
Yes, fruit grown on Yamhill Vista Vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton, Willamette Valley, Oregon gets shipped overnight in refrigerated trucks to Etude for fermentation, barrel aging, and bottling. This seems to be something of a trend with multiple Californians (Siduri, Copper Cane, etc.). Maybe, these Cali winemakers are bored. Maybe, they fear climate change and hedge their bets. Most likely, this is a way to diversify their portfolio and grasp a bit of market share around the Pinot buzz growing around Oregon over the last few decades.
2013 Etude Pinot Noir, Yamhill Vista Vineyard, Yamhill-Carlton, Willamette Valley, Oregon $60.00
First up, $60.00 is asking a bit much. This looks only a shade paler than the others. AROMAS and FLAVORS pounce with raspberry, red cherry, straw, folded with tobacco and iron oxide. PALATE: You cannot hide the acidity. This Oregonian emigre has a tart, lean quality the other CA wines lack. Etude’s stamp is still on this, smoothness, fruitiness, and some oak being hallmarks. It is very good 4 of 5, if young and will age well enough over the next decade but beyond an interesting exercise, I’m not sure why.
We shift from Napa and Oregon valleys to California’s coast.
2013 Etude Pinot Noir, Ellenbach Vineyard, Sonoma Coast CA $60.00
Named for the Hell and Back drive, Ellenbach APPEARANCE: A clear, purple core leads to ruby trim and waxy legs. AROMAS smell of Orange peel, juicy strawberry, and fruit salad. The dry PALATE has appreciated highish acidity, medium body, plush velvet tannins, with a light dust. FLAVORS: show serious black cherry skin, tobacco dust, floral perfume, tightened by a tart, white strawberry pith. Ellenbach is outstanding (5 of 5), complex, and shows ample aging potential with that acidity. I rank it #2 of my top 3.
We head south to Santa Barbara with a two vineyard blend.
2013 Etude Pinot Noir, Forte and Fiddlestix Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills, CA $60.00
Looks familiar. AROMAS glow with strawberry jam, cola, vanilla, clove, and graham cracker. The PALATE feels soft, overly well rounded, with medium acidity and a dusty textured finish. Very good (4 of 5) but very Santa Barbara, this lacks Sonoma’s brightness and show more alcoholic warmth.
To overgeneralize, Etude’s 2013’s Pinots are graceful, fruit focused, and well manicured. Terroir variations show but seem sublimated by a similar yeast, oak, tank regimen (even when from Oregon). I expected more difference from so many single vineyards. Alcohols push a touch high, but do not destroy the experience. They have decent ageability but will show best in their early years. The Tremblor, Ellenbach, and Heirloom we found most expressive, complicated, and interesting. Maybe the others will strut more with time.
Just as pleasantly wrapped our Pinot Noir break, Angel sends us to the bar, for, yes, more Napa Cab.
The 2010 St Helena Shoenstein Vineyard Cab $110.00 is another ruby ink, loud plump syrup, treacle, cinnamon, fig newton, with extra tannins and alcohol, and meaty, peppery, boisennberry skin flavors that last a long length. Sure, it is outstanding (5 of 5), but because it is the loudest voice in the room.
Etude 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville $110.00 Another monster, opaque ruby, raspberry, blueberry jam, caramel, tobacco, massive iron dust tannins. Outstanding again (5 of 5).
We miss the silken Pinots already. We have to leave. By now we are running late anyway. Check back next Monday as our Napa Valley trip tests out things other than Cab.