Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Saintsbury Winery – The Home of World Class Pinot Noir in Carneros, California

A few weeks ago I visited Etude Estate Wines in Carneros, and while driving down Cuttings Wharf Road I noticed a very small and barely noticeable sign pointing out that there was another winery, Saintsbury, just down the road. So, I later went on-line, checked out their wine profile and decided to put Saintsbury Winery on my “soon to visit” list of wineries.

In my experience as a wine country traveler and photographer, there are three kinds of wineries that I frequently come across:

First, there are the “mom and pop” wineries that are family owned that make respectable wines that sell for reasonable prices. They’re rarely anything to rave about but when you visit the tasting room (if they have one) the person pouring the wine is also the wine maker, the cellar rat, the barrel manager, the salesperson… and they are generally enjoyable respectable wines.

Then there are the wineries that are big showpieces that produce a lot of wine and attract a lot of tourists. They have a long history and a prestigious biography but their claim to fame more often than not belongs to the previous owner who originally established the winery. From a photographer’s standpoint these are great as they provide a lot of “eye candy” for the camera – big chateaus, beautiful mansions, huge vineyards, breath taking vistas and eye-catching tasting rooms with a lot of chachkies, souvenirs and trinkets for sale. But, from a wine country traveler’s standpoint they are often very impersonal, frequently owned by a big conglomerate company and at times their large production results in “ho hum” quality, or because they get high-scores (“91 points by…”) they don’t have a high favorable quality-price ratio. According to them, a 91 point Pinot Noir should cost $91 even though they have a production 100K cases of that wine and there are many wines out there on the market of comparable quality and yet cost half the price.

Then there are the small, understated, humble wineries (that you rarely hear about in Wine Magazines and never in any advertisements), whose facilities are somewhat photogenically challenged and yet they produce absolutely mind-blowing high quality wines at relatively reasonable prices. These are the gems and rare finds of wine country exploration that are off the tourist trail and I love to find.

In short, Saintsbury is one of those rare off-the-beaten-path rare-find gems!

The road sign for Saintsbury is so small and understated that if you blink while driving down Cuttings Wharf Road you’ll drive right by it and when you turn down Los Carneros Avenue you better know exactly where you are going because the winery has no signs or any indication that IT is the winery you are looking for. In fact, since they are a “by appointment only” winery with no open tasting room (though they do offer tastings Monday – Saturday) you better have a reservation or there might not be anyone there to greet you. This is a very small operation with only a dozen or so full-time associates.

The winery is named after George Edward Bateman Saintsbury (23 October 1845 – 28 January 1933), who was a journalist and Professor of rhetoric and English literature at the University of Edinburgh and a noted oenophile (“wine lover”). In 1920, at the age of 75, he published Notes on a Cellar. This is an unusual collection of opinions and notes about wine and other alcoholic drinks as well as reminiscences about his wine cellar and wine dinners over the years. One of his famous quotes was:

“There is no money… of the expenditure of which I am less ashamed, or which gave me better value in return, than the price of the liquids chronicled in this booklet. When they were good the pleased my senses, cheered my spirits, improved my moral and intellectual powers, besides enabling me to confer the same benefits on other people.”

This book is for sale at Saintsbury Winery or on Amazon and along with a few bottles of wine I bought one to take home and add to my library of wine books.

Saintsbury Winery was founded by Dick Ward and Dave Graves who earned scientific degrees in structural engineering and biology and then met in 1977 while studying Enology at U.C. Davis. In 1979, they chose to make a Santa Barbara barrel-fermented dry Riesling as one of Saintsbury’s first wines. Then in 1981, they released their first 2,000 cases of Pinot Noir and two years later they essentially debunked the myth that quality Pinot Noir cannot be made in California:

“[Saintsbury] single-handedly demolished the old assertion that California cannot create Pinot Noirs of a Burgundian standard of delicacy and finesse... no winery has been more methodical in its investigation and pursuit of newly available Pinot Noir clones than Saintsbury.” — Wine Spectator

Saintsbury is a true pioneer in the wine world, particularly in the advancement of producing California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They limit their production to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and focus on only one appellation as Carneros became an AVA in 1983. In 1986 they were one of the first to plant the Pommard clone of Pinot Noir and they began using vertical shoot trellising in their vineyards when others used either head-trained or used two-wire California sprawl. They also planted the Brown Ranch Vineyard in 1992 (23 acres of Pinot Noir, 8 acres of Chardonnay) using the newer Dijon clones 115, 667, and 777 along with Pommard. They have also avoid filtering their wines since 1989, and were one of the first wineries to produce a vin gris (a white wine made from red grapes) of Pinot Noir.

In total, Saintsbury has about 13 acres of vineyard around their charming and unpretentious weathered barn-like winery as well as the Brown Ranch Vineyard nearby, but they source most of their grapes from Napa Carneros growers through long-standing relationships.

In the tasting room you can sample these wines, and see how each has a very distinct character display their fruit profiles in according to the type of clone planted and the character of the terroir of the vineyard.

The Saintsbury lineup of Pinot Noirs has included the Garnet Pinot Noir, the Carneros Pinot Noir, the Reserve Pinot Noir, and since 1996, Brown Ranch Vineyard Pinot Noir. The Chardonnay program has consisted of a Carneros and in some vintages a Reserve Chardonnay.

In 2004, French winemaker Jerome Chery joined Saintsbury succeeding Brian Kosuge. Chery has a well-traveled background including apprenticing with Littorai’s Ted Lemon from 2000 to 2004. In that same year Saintsbury ceased their reserve bottling, and transitioned to producing a series of vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs from Napa Carneros.

The real magic of Saintsbury is that they remain a small premuim quality winery and yet they now have a production of about 40,000 cases which puts them at a higher level than the “mom and pop” winery but much smaller than the aforementioned big showpiece wineries. 

Today Saintsbury remains at the forefront of California’s growing reputation as a world class-wine producer that may one day rival that of Burgundy, with “Carneros” one day becoming synonymous with “Pinot Noir.”

While visiting I tasted the following wines:

My first wine was the 2009 Carneros Chardonnay. This wine is aged in 20% new French oak and undergoes 100% full malolactic fermentation. On the nose I picked up a  combination of green fruit (apples, pears) and stone fruit (peaches, apricots) followed by crème brûlée and a hint of nuttiness. On the palate the wine it has a slight granny-smith apple tartness, crisp acidity and yet also has excellent body and a full creamy mouth feel. Overall I describe this wine as a balance between the super buttery and oaky style chards and the austere stainless-steel Chards. An excellent wine for only $20, I brought two of them home.

My second white wine was the 2008 Brown Ranch Chardonnay. The grapes for this wine come from their estate vineyard and it also undergoes 100% full malolactic fermentation but is aged in 40% new French oak. This wine is very distinct from the first one, as it displays aromas of canned pears, lemon pie, and custard and on the palate it displays a tropical rather than green fruit profile. On the palate it is creamy without the granny-smith apple tartness of the previous wine. Whereas the total production of the previous is around 13,000 cases only 1,200 cases of this wine were produced. Both are of similar quality and yet very distinct in style and profile. This wine sells for $40 a bottle.

My first red wine was the 2008 Carneros Pinot Noir which is a blend of grapes from various vineyards and was aged for 10 months in 30% new French oak. On the nose I picked up dark plums, black cherries, cola bacon and some smoke followed by a hint of cinnamon. This wine sells for $28 at the winery and I brought one to take home but I later discovered that K and L Wines sells it for only $15!

The next wine in the line-up was the 2008 Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir. In contrast to the previous wine, this one is fresher and more fruit forward, less earthy has a bit more tannin and is full bodied and a wafting perfume nose. On the nose and palate I picked up raspberry jam, strawberry preserves, black cherries and it has a medium length finish. A really nice wine that sells for $45 a bottle at the winery and I brought one home to add to my collection.

The third red wine was the 2008 Lee Vineyard Pinot Noir. This wine displays a similar fruit profile as the previous wine but is more sharp and focused, intense and concentrated on the nose but on the palate it has a cherry crème character that reminds me of the filling of a Sees chocolate. Another great wine for $45 a bottle

At this point, tasting a lot of Pinots they can begin to taste very similar and it takes a lot of concentration and thought to find the subtle differences. But such differences are important to not for whereas the previous wines were all from Carneros in the southern portion of the Napa Valley, the next in line was the 2009 Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley.  The Cerise Vineyard is located between 800 and 1200 feet above the floor of the Anderson Valley looking down on the little town of Boonville. The vines are planted on a series of steep slopes facing South, each vineyard farmed organically. There are a total of 40 acres, scattered on a series of small, clonal blocks; generally no longer than a few acres. The vines are exposed to both fog and rolling breezes from the Pacific Ocean. This wine was aged 10 months in 24% new, 27% 1 and 2-year-old French oak barrels. Like many of the previous Pinots, I picked up aromas of fresh and vibrant fruit - strawberries, black cherries and blackberries but also a hint of cocoa and mild earthy undertones. On the palate this wine displays supple tannins and a medium to lengthy finish. Another great Pinot for $45 a bottle.


My final Pinot was the 2008 Brown Ranch Pinot Noir. At the first whiff I immediately responded, “WOW!” This wine is big, bold, intense and sharp and yet displays a very lush yet elegant and well-balanced profile of strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, black cherries, a hint of tea and spice. The immediate and powerful impact this wine has on the senses sets it apart from all the others and there is no wonder why this is Saintbury’s flagship wine and sells for a bit more at $60 a bottle – which is still $30 cheaper than some of the neighboring wineries top Pinots. I’d buy this one over theirs any day.

My final wine of my visit was the 2008 Sawi Vineyards Sonoma Valley Syrah. This wine has a very distinct peppery nose which is rather up front and in your face and then it gives way to a beautiful nose of blackberries, herbs and some savory notes which is then followed by more pepper. On the palate the fruit and pepper notes carry on with very soft mid palate and yet pronounced drying tannins. If you like your Syrahs on peppery side, this one is for you at $40 a bottle.

For more information or to visit:


1500 Los Carneros Avenue

Napa, CA 94559

Phone: 1-707-252-0592 

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