The Best Pinot Noirs from the California Coast
Much like Cabernets, Pinot Noirs come in all sorts of styles, from light-bodied to what I call are the “fruit bombs” where they are bold and in your face. If this is the style you want, you'll want California Coastal Pinot Noirs.
Growing up in the Napa Valley, I was exposed to plenty of the region’s Cabernet Sauvignons over the years. Most of my friends’ parents owned wineries and of course carried on the tradition. I have to admit that I enjoyed Cabernets in my 20’s and well through my 30’s but there was a moment as I “aged” that the varietal was just too much for me. My body one day said "no more big Cabernets please" and after a couple of those episodes, I started listening. Perhaps the quality of Cabernets I was drinking as I got older got “bigger” and “drier”, but eventually I started to seek out other varietals that my palette enjoyed more, Pinot Noir. I love drinking wine and you too will find out that you will grow out of particular varietals- embrace the transition and follow me on my journey.
And much like Cabernets, Pinots also come in all sorts of styles, from light-bodied to what I call are the “fruit bombs” where they are bold and in your face. The style of course is very much influenced on where the grapes are coming from and how the winemaker crafts the ultimate product that goes into the bottle. And much like Cabernets, Pinot Noir can be planted in many areas.
Given I lived in Napa Valley, I looked around of what wineries were producing Pinot Noirs and made a list of where to go wine tasting to get a better understanding of what style. I’ll have to admit, there’s not a whole lot of vineyards in Napa Valley planted with Pinot Noir since the area that the varietal thrives in typically coastal. So you will find most of the vineyards in the Los Carneros AVA where it gets the breezes off the San Pablo Bay. These wines are light-bodied and are great for every-day wines since they will pair with just about anything; we keep one in the fridge as a “porch pounder” on those hot summer days in St. Helena. These light-bodied Pinot Noirs are like a “black dress” for dinner parties as just about everyone will enjoy it.
Replacing Cabernet Sauvignon with Pinot Noir
As I jumped into Pinot Noir to replace my desire for Cabernets, I started to look at other regions that produce Pinot. I ventured off into Sonoma County, Mendocino, Monterey and Santa Barbara all because they were less than 3 hours from my hours. The exposure to these areas really opened up my eyes to how wide of a range this varietal can be- I was hooked on big jammy Pinot Noirs in no time. It makes sense since this was the style I climaxed with Cabernets, specifically Cabernets grown in the higher elevations in Napa Valley such as Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder.
By narrowing down the style of Pinot I really enjoyed, I thought for sure this was going to help me also narrow down the regions I would be looking to connect with. Boy, I was dead wrong as it turns out these types come from mainly the California coast; from Mendocino to Santa Barbara! Since I lived in St. Helena, it made sense to hop in the car for the 45-minute drive over to the Russian River Valley which provides all the terroir to produce the style of Pinots I love. And since it does check a lot of boxes, there’s a ton of Pinot producers in this region to choose from.
I’m going to be sharing with you my top picks, starting from the Northern California AVAs and on down through Monterey, Paso Robles and into Santa Barbara.
Mendocino Pinot Noirs
Starting the furthest north, we'll start our trek in a part of California that is just getting the attention in the last decade or so for producing stellar Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Mendocino County.
I'm heading out from St. Helena, which takes me through Calistoga and through Knights Valley and Alexander Valley. I pick up Highway 101 in Healdsburg and this is the drive I L-O-V-E! The scenery reminds me a lot of how Napa looked 40+ years ago- nothing but vineyards and wineries here and there..
I hop on the highway which is wide and comfortable and slowly gets more narrow as you pass by Geyserville and Cloverdale which have a lot of California history, but we're on a hunt for Mendocino Pinot so we'll keep trucking along at 65 mph. Cresting the hills just north of Cloverdale, you'll find yourself following the Russian River on your left which to me is made for river rafting and darn, that's another distraction as I love rafting too! A few minutes later we arrive in the quiet town of Hopland which is a great place to grab brunch on your way up.
My go-to is Bluebird Cafe which is right in the center of town. Heck, I would drive from St. Helena to Bluebird because I enjoy the drive in my sportscar and OMG, their basket of muffins and coffee cake is making my mouth water just writing this. This place gets busy fast, rightly so. So be sure to get there earlier than later or you'll be on the wait list.
We continue on our way, bellies full, back out on the old "101" heading north, passing more sleepy lumber towns which this area was infamous for 30+ years ago. Some of you are wondering why we didn't take Highway 128 out of Cloverdale, it was of course to hit Bluebird, but if you like curvy roads to carve up with your sportscar like I do, you are going to absolutely love Highway 253 that cuts through canyons and on over into Boonville which is where we're going to spend most of the day.
Boonville is going to be another place for food and provisions, so be sure to stock up here as there's not much past here to quench your thirst or fill up the car. Turning right on Highway 128, I consider this the "spine" of Pinot Noir country in Mendocino which is the Anderson Valley AVA. From here you can sample Pinots from a couple dozen producers without breaking a sweat.
Why I Like Pinots from Mendocino
Besides the stellar vistas that are experienced along the way, I love this area because everything is so close to get there, once you are there. In this case, it's all about the journey AND the destination. Once you head west on Highway 128, there are dozens and dozens of wineries and tasting rooms dotting the main road. This allows you to spend more time in the tasting room, getting to know the staff, the wines and less time on the road.
The downside is many of these tasting rooms are by appointment only, so be sure to book your reservations ahead of time.
Here's my top picks for Pinot Noirs produced in Mendocino.
Sonoma Pinot Noirs
I absolutely love the big, bold and jammy Pinot Noirs specifically from the Russian River Valley. The morning coastal fog allows the vines to relax overnight and soak in the moisture while allowing the vines to heat up slowly until about 10AM. By then the fog begins to burn off to reveal the bright California sun in all her glory. As the sun heads west, the afternoon temps cause the grapes to react and create its own natural form of sunscreen by producing a thick skin. The thick skin becomes an insulation barrier to protect the precious juice inside.
This diurnal growing environment that is unique to the coastal regions creates the rich, dark purple "inky" Pinots that I love. White table cloths beware, Pinot is in the house!
Heading straight on River Road, crossing Highway 101 takes you into the middle of the Russian River Valley which is my go-to region for Pinot Noirs. There are hundreds of Pinot producers that range from the boutique to the mega. The only challenge I have for this area is the options to actually stay within the area as they are only a couple and are spendy. You'll need to go south or north to find more of the bigger hotel chains that will be more budget friendly.
From the center point of the Russian River Valley, you'll want to tour tasting rooms to the south in Sebastopol and on up to the north in Healdsburg. And since this is such a massive growing areas, take your time and focus on a smaller region for a day, rather than bouncing around. Remember, you are on vacation to relax, not get stressed out spending all your time in the car. By all means, if you have the budget to hire a driver or transportation company, please do. There's dozens of options to choose from; some will even help you choose which wineries to visit and which ones to skip.
Why I Like Sonoma County Wine Country
Sonoma County wine country is massive (easily 3-4X bigger than Napa Valley) and some people I run into along my research trips is trying to visit all of it in one trip- major mistake. I recommend focusing on spending a day in each of the subregions like a day in Russian River Valley, another day in Sonoma Valley and so forth. The good news is that there's plenty of wineries and tasting rooms available to easily spend an entire day, let alone an entire weekend. Remember, you are on vacation, relax and enjoy the downtime sipping on wine and the vistas under an umbrella, not from car.
Since this is one of my favorite regions, you might run into me at one of the Sonoma County Pinot Noir producers featured in my list below.
Insider's Travel Tip
When touring through Sonoma County, be sure to dress in layers during the peak summer months (June - October). The mornings can range from the lower 50's with highs in the 90's, sometimes sneaking over into triple digits. You'll find yourself shedding layers as the day progresses.
Napa Valley Pinot Noirs
As I mentioned earlier, there's not many vineyards dedicated to Pinot Noir in Napa Valley, though many Napa-based wineries produce it. If they are not sourcing from the Los Carneros AVA, they are most likely sourcing this from other coastal regions. So pay close attention to the back of the bottle label. Northing wrong with that, but I like to award my business to those that not only grow in the region that the varietal does best but also has a tasting room in the region in which the varietal is grown.
The Los Carneros (often referred to as Carneros to us locals) traditionally produces a lighter-bodied Pinot Noir because of the soil and sun exposure. Being that this region is right on the north end of the San Pablo Bay (San Francisco Bay) and is flat, it gets a lot of wind and fog exposure.
If you are finding Pinot Noir that is darker in color from the Los Carneros AVA, you are most likely drinking a bottle that is sourced from vineyards planted further away from the bay. Doing so, the temperatures are higher and the soil composition is significantly different.
Though I love the dark and jammy Pinot Noirs, there's nothing wrong with a light-bodied Pinot Noir from Napa Valley. I tend to buy bottles of Pinot when we're entertaining guests with appetizers, where I would serve a bigger Pinot if we were having a dinner party.
If you have not sampled Pinots that are produced by Rob Lloyd who's become a rockstar vintner in the last decade, I'd strongly recommend checking out the labels he works for; Lloyd Cellars, Jessup Cellars, Handwritten Wines and there's a few others out there.
I've known Rob for at least two decades as we were roommates when he was studying at UC Davis. He's been the assistant winemaker at Stags' Leap, then winemaker at Rombauer before setting off on his own, launching Lloyd Cellars.
It's great to see friends achieve major success, especially Rob as he's always been dedicated to his craft of making award-winning wines. We've shared plenty of wine-filled nights play SuperNES and Road Rash on Sega Genesis. So when you run into him somewhere, see if he remembers the tricks to get all the Road Rash weapons on your first lap, I'm sure he'll giggle about it.
Monterey County Pinot Noirs
Moving south to Monterey, you probably noticed that I skipped the Santa Cruz Mountains region and there's a reason for it. Honestly, this is an area that produces Pinot Noirs, but I've not yet had the opportunity to do a deep dive and taste through the Pinots from this region. The urge is getting louder as the area is becoming really popular, so it's on my wish list of regions to visit in 2023. I'll update the article after my research is complete.
When it comes to plotting your Monterey wine country itinerary, you'll need to make a decision whether you want to visit the actual winery or the tasting room as they are typically 20-40 miles apart. Many have tasting rooms in Carmel, downtown Monterey or in Carmel-by-the-Sea. You'll not want to bounce back and forth all day, so it's best to choose a day where you will be out in the actual growing region and then if the winery doesn't offer a tasting room in the region, see if they have a tasting room in one of the popular nearby towns towards the the Monterey Bay.
You are going to want to spend plenty of your time in the Santa Lucia Highlands for Pinot Noir. Also know as "SLH", this region provides the ideal growing conditions for medium-bodied Pinot Noir. Some of my go-to Pinots come from this region, but are produced by wineries that don't have tasting rooms in the region. You'll find them in tasting rooms in Napa, Sonoma and beyond.
The good news is that getting here is pretty easy for me. Once I'm south of San Jose, you stay on the same Highway 101 I took to go north to Mendocino, but heading south. Now many of you know of all the tasting rooms in downtown Monterey, Carmel Valley and Carmel-by-the-Sea, but as I mentioned earlier, I like to visit tasting rooms that are actually situated amongst the vineyards. It somehow gives me a connection of the bottle I'm drinking to feeling the energy of the vineyard it may have come from. And yes, I know the vineyards I'm looking at may be a totally different varietal, but I'm quirky like that.
The roads out here are rough- they are absolutely ruled by tractors and buses moving farmworkers. This is not a destination where you want to bring your fancy supercar to impress as the roads have potholes, lots of mud at times and not that exciting to drive. So leave the Lamborghini at home and bring the SUV or any other reasonable mode of transportation.
Now when it comes to weekend getaways, one of the challenges of touring through Monterey wine country (besides the roads) is the lack of lodging options where most of the wineries and tasting rooms are located. You'll need to head to Salinas, Monterey, Carmel Valley or further to find lodging and accommodations. And since these hotels also serve all those that are visiting the area, expect to pay a premium in the summer months as the weather is absolutely stunning July through October, attracting everyone to visit during the summer months.
Why I Love Visiting Monterey Wine Country
This area is huge and offers plenty of things to do other than wine tasting. So if you have the kiddos along, there's the Monterey Bay Aquarium to the north there's the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk that I've spent plenty of days whirling around on their old-school roller coasters and log ride. There's of course plenty of beaches, golf courses, day spas and the downtown culinary scene is divine. Don't forget to add Carmel Valley to your itinerary as you cannot consider your trip to Monterey complete without it.
I am to visit in October as it's well past the busy season, hotel rates go down and I've spent plenty of days racing at Laguna Seca over the years.
Santa Barbara Pinot Noirs
Our last region on the California Coastal Pinot Noir tour takes us down the scenic California coastline and into Santa Barbara wine country. Though it's a little confusing since the actual region that you'll be visiting is the Santa Ynez Valley that is about 40 miles north of downtown Santa Barbara. For a long time this region has been known for luxurious equestrian centers and Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch. Today, it's reached cult status and continues to redefine itself as more premium wines get high scores in national wine competitions.
My happiness scale is found here as like Sonoma County and Mendocino Pinot Noirs, you'll find big, bold and jammy Pinot Noirs in this region. This is because the same growing conditions related to sun, wind and soil are nearly identical. The coastal breezes and foggy mornings provide the diurnal conditions that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive in, which this region has built a reputation on.
And since this region grows the style of Pinot Noirs I love, you'll find me visiting this area often as new tasting rooms and wineries are popping up all the time here in the Santa Ynez valley and in downtown Santa Barbara. If you love Sushi, please be sure to add Aru to your itinerary. This plays has some of the highest quality sushi that I believe rivals Morimoto Napa.
Getting here is pretty simple as you'll hop on Highway 101 until you enter Buelton, California which is about 60 miles south of San Luis Obispo or 150 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. There's only a couple of major hotel & lodging options here, so be sure to book early, or you'll have to either find something north or 40 miles back to downtown Santa Barbara. I'd recommend splitting up the two regions as you'll definitely want to spend some time in Santa Barbara proper, especially if kids are in two as there's beaches to spend some "off" time.
It's going to require many trips to Santa Barbara wine country to taste through all the wines and I'm up for the challenge. So far, these are my top pics for of Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara wineries and tasting rooms.
Why I Love Visiting Santa Barbara Wine Country
Well first of all, I went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and over my college years spent plenty of time on the California Central Coast and all around the Santa Barbara wine country in it's early days. The Santa Ynez Valley for a long time was known for Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch, equestrian ranches for miles and some vineyards. As more winemakers developed their craft and understood how perfect the growing conditions are for Pinot and Chardonnay, this area only really started to grow its reputation in the last 10-15 years. Sure it got some media bump from the movie Sideways (2004), it wasn't really until years later that the region started to take off.
Today, there's an abundance of wineries and tasting rooms in the region and with that success, the area has been broken into subregions which you'll need to visit them all to hone in on the growing regions that resonate with your palette. You'll want to check out the "Ghetto" which is out west on Highway 246 in Lompoc. Here you'll find many of the smaller, one-person-show wineries that may not have fancy estates, but can appreciate their passion and attention for making the best Pinots on the Central Coast.
About The Silver Fox
For those that don't know me, I've had several careers over the years before starting CellarPass with my wife Sarah. No my LinkedIn profile is not updated because half the jobs I've had, no one will believe me. Many family members swear I work for the CIA, which I would love to admit, but can't for tax purposes.
I hope you enjoy my stories about my interesting journeys through wine country just as much as I have enjoyed living it.
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