The 1994 vintage was the type of year California winemakers would take every time if they could — a long, mild growing season nearly free of extremes of temperature or rainfall. The good conditions resulted in beautiful, ripe, and powerful wines with superb concentration, depth, richness, and balance. Twenty years on, the best are still in their prime.
One of the only minor concerns was during a period of hot weather in early August that caused some uneven clusters at veraison, but the problem was solved by careful crop-thinning to remove them. As harvest approached, beautiful Indian summer conditions settled in, prolonging hang-times and allowing the grapes to achieve fantastic levels of physiological ripeness. A tremendous year of classic, powerful yet balanced wines that have stood the test of time.
Bud break off to a late start, but days were sunny and dry
Snowstorm hit North Coast late in the month, and hail in Napa Valley; no damage, because flowering had not occurred yet
Heavy rains (Carneros and Central Coast)
A two-week period of hot weather at the beginning of August created some uneven coloration during veraison, and growers compensated by thinning fruit to allow only the best grapes to reach maturation
Tony Soter, who now makes excellent Pinot Noir in Oregon under his Soter Vineyards label, laid the groundwork at Etude before selling it to the Beringer-Blass conglomerate. Current winemaker, Jon Priest, continues to make velvety, suave, immediately enjoyable Pinots that are characterized by red fruits, spices, forest floor scents and particularly fine-grained tannins. Grapes are harvested from the Etude Estate Vineyard in Carneros, a patch of rocky, well-drained soil of volcanic origin, unusual for the region. Pinot Noir for the Heirloom release comes from specially planted old Burgundy clones and is a step up in intensity and density from the regular bottling without the loss of elegance. For years, Etude has been one of America's favorite Pinot Noirs on restaurant wine lists but don't sleep on the Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Merlot, which are catching up.
Pinot Blanc Facts
Rich and medium bodied, with hints of honey, tropical fruit, and smoke
Poultry, seafood and pork
Pinot Blanc may not receive the same respect given to noble varieties like Chardonnay and Riesling, or even other Alsatian whites like Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. But at its best, with grapes from low-yielding vines, Pinot Blanc can produce exciting values: creamy, medium bodied wines, with honey-like aromas and flavors.
A relative of both Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc is grown in a number of countries under a variety of names. In Germany, it is Weisseburgunder, while in Italy, it is called Pinot Bianco.
Still, the fact that we are most familiar with the grape as Pinot Blanc is a dead tip-off that the best examples of the grape come from France. In France, Pinot Blanc is most notably grown in Alsace, where it is either bottled on its own, used as a major component in the sparkling wine Cremant D'Alsace, or blended with other varieties in the region's traditional wine, Edelzwicker. We don't see much Edelzwicker, since the export market for this wine is virtually non-existent. But we're happy that we can get a decent amount of single-varietal Pinot Blanc from Alsace; the wine is made in some form by almost every Alsatian winery. These can be rich, sometimes tropical, smoky wines that are low in acidity. Look for offerings from Domaine Marcel Deiss and Domaine Schoffit.
In the U.S., some California vintners are producing Pinot Blanc with the same techniques used to make expensive Chardonnay, including new oak and malolactic fermentation. We're not convinced that this is the best way to showcase the grape, and lean more towards the wines being made in Oregon. Here, vinification techniques more closely follow the model established in Alsace, with fermentation in stainless steel or older oak leading to wines that are rich and smoky. Consider wines from Amity Vineyards and Elk Cove.
Pair Pinot Blanc with poultry, seafood, and pork.