Spectator 92pts and the Rule of the Thumb
At the end of 2010, with the crisis still in full swing, members were filling our inboxes with requests for inspired under-$30 Pinot Noirs. You couldn't blame them for asking. With the economy in free fall, the prices of Napa Cabernets were plummeting. Why wouldn't the same be true of top-shelf Pinot Noir?
The answer, in short, is farming costs. While Napa's valley floor pushes out 4-6 tons per acre of workmanlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir is far less forgiving. Top Pinot Noir sites in the colder microclimates of Sta. Rita Hills, Sonoma Coast and Russian River barely eke out 2 tons per acre, doubling, if not tripling, production costs.
Then we dug deeper and applied the Rule of Thumb, a quick way to translate production costs into bottle prices. First you take the cost per ton. Then you drop two zeros. This was our 2010 Pinot Noir arithmetic.
Assume it costs $5,000 to farm an acre of vines, but that almost all properties are tended by vineyard management firms that charge landowners $10,000/acre. Assume Pinot Noir yields are two tons per acre, while Cabernet yields are four. The cost of the Pinot Noir, then, is $5000/ton, which converts to a suggested retail price of $50/bottle. The cost per ton of Cabernet is just $2500, allowing the winery to go out at just $25.
If we were to satisfy the needs of bargain hunters, the math dictated the direction of our search. It would take the better part of two years. But eventually we hit paydirt in the form of two blue-chip farming families, each of whom farms their vineyards (cutting production cost in half!), and keeps world-class Pinot Noir for themselves. The first discovery was Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande. The second was Ron Melville's 139-acre spread, set on the chilly slopes in of the Sta. Rita Hills.
From 2004-2010, Melville Vineyards turned out the highest rated estate-grown under-$30 Pinot Noirs in America. Both Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar rained a steady stream of 90-92 point scores on these stunningly complex, high-toned, red raspberry Pinots -- all crafted by the brilliant Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton fame.
"When I talk to consumers about grape growing in Santa Barbara County, most people think of palm trees and surfboards," Chad Melville laughed. "But, if you're coming out here to surf, bring a thick wetsuit. Our summers are cold, and 2010 was the coldest to date."
Flowering occurred in February, and while the spring and summer were dry, the winds off the Pacific blew steadily. After the fog burned off each summer morning, the skies turned blue. Still, barely a summer day topped 70 degrees! "By September, we were a couple weeks behind, but the crop was beautiful and perfectly clean. When the Santa Ana winds finally started blowing all that hot desert air, we knew we had something fabulous on our hands. But we never imagined anything like the Pinot Noir we'd harvest in late October."
Brilliant ruby red in color. Complex aromas of sweet spice, pine needles, cherry and anise, lightly laced with raspberry preserves. At first, the attack is restrained and finally honed, but after a half hour in oversized Riedel, this one really opens up, revealing a juicy, sappy core of crushed red fruits and black tea -- all buttressed by the riveting backbone that distinguishes all of Brewer's whole-cluster Pinot Noirs. 14.5% alcohol. Given the freshness and wild-berry sophistication, that's hard to believe.