Three bottles of pinot noir from the wine cellar that are sure to please guests. (Special to S.F. Examiner/Lyle Norton)

Three bottles of pinot noir from the wine cellar that are sure to please guests. (Special to S.F. Examiner/Lyle Norton)

Finding pleasure in pinot noir for its versatility and compatibility

Now that winter is upon us, an assessment of my small wine cellar is an essential step in planning our holiday entertaining. Checking out the pinot noir inventory is a priority because of its flexibility to pair with salmon and pork dishes as well as a good cheese plate that includes Pleasant Ridge Reserve (cow) and Monte Enebro (goat).

According to the recently revealed Wine Spectator magazine Top 100 wines of 2018 worldwide, pinot noir had a good year. This year’s list includes 10 pinot noir releases divided between California, Oregon and New Zealand. It is typical for California’s “Big Five” appellations, the Russian River Valley, the Carneros, the Anderson Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands in the central coast and Santa Rita Hills, north of Santa Barbara, to earn high accolades. However, the 2018 list includes four releases from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and three from the Central Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island. Of note, all but one of the seven releases from Oregon and Central Otago were ranked among the top 50 wines.

Known as the world’s southernmost wine growing region and New Zealand’s most scenic, Central Otago has emerged onto the global stage for its production of pinot noir. With increased plantings in South Africa and Chile, the new universal diversity of pinot noir has Burgundy, France looking over its shoulder. No one can rest of their laurels with the New World order of pinot noir.

The new year will provide ample opportunity to explore other regions, but for now, I will focus on some of the releases from California and Oregon that have been lying in wait, starting with a Kosta Browne Pinot Noir

Rosella’s Vineyard 2012 from the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation in south Monterey County.

Based in Sebastopol, Kosta Browne has long been producing award-winning pinot noir from select vineyards in the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Santa Lucia Highlands including, but not limited to the Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2009, Wine Spectator’s 2011 top wine.

Pioneered by a partnership of childhood friends, Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni, pinot noir production in the Santa Lucia Highlands can, in good vintages, be California’s best. Single-vineyard releases from Garys’ and Rosella’s Vineyards have been most notable and the 2012 vintage was produced hands-on by co- founders, Dan Kosta and Michael Browne.

I will also open up the Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2013, both because it is the right time and Sonoma Coast is one of my favorite appellations.

Wine is always the best when it is shared. My guests should be thrilled with the Rusack Pinot Noir Santa Catalina Island Vineyards 2014 (Bottle No. 1274) and the rare Sea Smoke Pinot Noir “Ten” Santa Rita Hills 2014, adding some flair from great vineyards in southern California.

Three bottles of pinot noir from the wine cellar that are sure to please guests. (Special to S.F. Examiner/Lyle Norton)

Several years ago, Santa Ynez Valley producers,Geoffrey and Alison Wrigley Rusack divided five acres into chardonnay, pinot noir and zinfandel vines on the island’s old Rancho Escondido property, owned by the Wrigley Family. This bottle has hibernated for three additional years and should be ready.

The Sea Smoke Estate Vineyard, considered as one of California’s finest, sits on a bluff in the hills that separate the towns of Buellton and Lompoc. The “Ten” consists of the first-growth grapes of their three

pinot noir wines, that include “Southing” and “Botella” releases.

Out of respect for Oregon’s latest showing, I plan to serve my last bottle of 2014 Lemelson Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Thea’s Selection, a wine included on Wine Spectator’s 2016 list.

Not to exclude Mendocino County, I can uncork a 2014 WALT Pinot Noir “Blue Jay” Anderson Valley from a vineyard just outside of the town of Booneville. WALT sources pinot noir grapes from the Willamette Valley to the Santa Rita Hills and the “Blue Jay” is always welcome on my palate.

Speaking of being welcomed on my palate, no season would be complete without the 2015 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Foss Vineyard Russian River Valley, which is vintage to vintage, one of my favorite choices.

The unique climate that surrounds the Foss Vineyard evolves into a unique complexity and lushness to the wine. Among many excellent vineyards, the wines made from Foss Vineyard grapes stand above others sourced by Williams Selyem.

There are many significant things to be grateful for like family, friends, health and humor. Further down the list, there are times throughout the holidays, or any other season, that I smile and silently give thanks for the pinot noir in my life.

Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at or email him at He is a guest columnist. Food and Wine

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