A Day at the Bacara: Ditching “Dot-Com” For Single-Vineyard Pinot Noir
If you’ve never been to the Bacara Resort & Spa, we suggest booking in early March, when the hotel holds its annual World of Pinot Noir festival. Enjoy some quality time on the beautiful Pacific and in-depth tastings, seminars, and wine dinners with some of the world’s hottest Pinot Noir-makers from California and Oregon to Burgundy.
Last March, as a cold front set over the East Coast, we caught a 9am flight and landed at LAX just past noon. We jumped in the rental car, rolled down the windows, and beat the L.A. traffic up the PCH to the 101 to bask in two glorious days in Santa Barbara.
More than 200 producers had descended on the beautiful Bacara Resort. The whitewashed walls shimmered in the sun in the company of purring Ferraris and Maseratis at the valet. We parked the rented Nissan and hustled down to the ballroom as the sound of waves crashing met with the “pops” of a thousand corks.
Elbowing our way past the nation’s top sommeliers, wine buyers, and giddy consumers among the finest American Pinot Noir producers, from Sea Smoke to Bergström, we stumbled upon an unassuming character behind a small table nestled between Bien Nacido Estate and Fiddlestix.
We discovered Ryan Cochrane — a former Silicon Valley guru who had recently ditched the dot-com scene. “Everything changed when the bottom fell out of the market in 2008. The advertising agency I was working at had just imploded,” he explained. “I reasoned that it was time to pursue a deeper passion.” He was smiling from behind his horn-rimmed glasses. “So I traded in my New Balance sneakers for a pair of Timberlands, with the intent to make world-class Pinot Noir. I’m grateful now, because I look around this room and it’s truly an honor to be among the folks that are more or less my heroes. As a consumer, this place is like adult Disneyland.” Cochrane — soft-spoken, yet full of geeky charm — was being modest. We exchanged cards and assured him we’d be giving him a call in the next few weeks.
Cochrane cut his teeth interning at Roger Nicolas’ RN Estate in Paso Robles, which focuses on producing small-lot wines. From the start he immersed himself in every aspect of viticulture, from precision pruning and canopy work in the vineyard during the spring and summer months to the hard labor of pressing and barreling down in the fall. In 2010, he came back and worked even harder, and the next year, Nicolas offered Ryan the position of assistant winemaker — a real coup for such a newbie.
In 2010, Cochrane had also experimented with a barrel of Pinot Noir he made on the side. One of the small lots coming into RN Estate came from the Solomon Hills, the coolest and most prized of all sites in the Santa Maria Valley, from which Bien Nacido Estate, Calera, Ojai Vineyard, Paul Lato, and Foxen Vineyard all source fruit.
We’d say Cochrane got lucky starting out with such outstanding fruit, but that good fortune came at a hefty price per ton. Cochrane’s lot was comprised of three clones: Dijon 115 and 667 with Pommard 5. The wine he produced was lighter in style — with bright, expressive, red-cherry fruit character, and alcohol levels creeping just over 14 percent — yet focused and sturdy.
A mere three years after ditching his corporate gig, Wine Enthusiast highlighted Cochrane’s efforts, calling the 2013 Solomon Hills Pinot Noir “evidence he made the right move” and awarding it 93 points. Translucent ruby with purple hues. Heady aromas of ripe cherry, smoke, and sage are complemented by a dazzling mineral thread. The attack is juicy, with bright cherry notes and lightly spiced eucalyptus character. Beautifully balanced by supple, refined tannins, mouthwatering acidity sings now and will gain complexity and focus in a year or two, as all fine bottlings from Solomon Hills do.
The best part? $43 at the winery. Just $28/bottle today. Shipping included on 4.