One of the oldest grapes on the planet, Pinot Noir’s origin, while not unequivocally proven, is associated with France. Named after the pinecone shape of the grape bunches, Pinot Noir has been cultivated in Burgundy since the first century AD. However, the first documented mention of Pinot Noir as a named variety in Burgundy does not occur till 1345. As with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, as a still wine, finds its spiritual grounding in Burgundy's Côte d'Or, where a fine Vosne-Romanée, Clos de la Roche, or Echézeaux can bring tears to the eyes. To quote Tim Atkin, “… when Pinot Noir is great, it is to me, unmatchable. It transcends the idea of fruit and becomes an almost primal savory expression, connecting us to all that is ancient and of the earth.” Finally, like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir is a mainstay in the production of Champagne and sparkling wines around the world, contributing body and complexity, as well as abundant fruit and an intrinsic spiciness.
California Pinot Noir Timeline
While unclear, the first importer of Pinot Noir to California was either Frenchman Pierre Pellier, Colonel Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa, founder of Buena Vista Winery, or Charles LeFranc, who immigrated from France in 1850 and founded New Almaden Vineyards. (Source: North American Pinot Noir)
Gustav Niebaum planted Pinot Noir at Inglenook, the basis of the Martini clones. Inglenook made Pinot Noir-based wine labeled “Burgundy” before Prohibition.
Eugene Hilgard of the University of California planted Pinot Noir in the Sierra Nevada foothills near the town of Jackson, source of the Jackson clones of Pinot Noir.
Lucien Charles Tamm, a French homesteader, first planted Pinot Noir southeast of Soledad.
Fountaingrove Winery north of Santa Rosa grew (or is said to have grown) Pinot Noir. A 1935 vintage wine was labeled “Sonoma Pinot Noir.”
Chafee Hall’s Hallcrest Vineyards emerged as one of the first plantings of Pinot Noir in the Santa Cruz Mountains and soon became one of California’s leading boutique wineries at that time.
Louis M. Martini bought 200 acres of the Stanly Ranch in Los Carneros and with UC Davis’ Harold Olmo conducted extensive clonal experiments with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This research led to the UCD clone 108 for Chardonnay and UCD clones 12 and 15 for Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir vines were planted at the Chalone winery in southern Monterey County. The source and identity of the scion material are unknown. In the same year, Andre Tchelistcheff crafted the 1946 Beaulieu Pinot Noir, a benchmark California Pinot Noir.
Martin Ray, considered to be California’s first high-profile boutique winery, planted Pinot Noir at Mount Eden and made Pinot Noir throughout the 1950s and 1960s, becoming the first to produce a 100% Pinot Noir-labeled varietal table wine in California.
Harold Olmo visits Burgundy, France, to collect quality French winegrape varieties for the grape variety collection at UC Davis. Olmo selected four vines on October 11, 1951, from what he identified as the “Les Croix Vineyard, Pommard, France.” These cuttings were the basis for what became known as the “Pommard” clone. Prior to this trip, a total of 300 acres of Pinot Noir existed in California.
The Zellerbachs planted six acres of Pinot Noir in Sonoma Valley and produced the first vintage of Hanzell Pinot Noir in 1957. The original 4.04-acre Pinot Noir block, now called Ambassador’s Vineyard, is the oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) vineyard in California. The Pinot Noir scion is from Martin Ray.
The Bacigalupi family planted Pinot Noir on Westside Road in the Russian River Valley, using budwood from the Wente brothers. Also, Uriel Nielsen and Bill De Mattei planted Pinot Noir among more than 100 acres of vineyards known as the Nielsen Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley. This was the first commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County.
Joe Rochioli planted the East Block of Rochioli Vineyard in the Russian River Valley to Pinot Noir. The scion is unclear, apparently from a vineyard south of St. Helena in Napa Valley. Rochioli’s West Block was planted in 1969 using French clones from Carl Wente. In the same year, Wilton (Tony) Husch planted the first Pinot Noir in the Anderson Valley in Philo.
Joseph Swan ripped out his estate field blend vineyard and planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The property was in the Vine Hill region of the Russian River Valley, now known as Laguna Ridge. At least some of the budwood was from Mount Eden.
Carneros Creek Winery was founded by Francis & Kathleen Mahoney. Two years later, Francis Mahoney initiated the landmark Carneros Creek Winery Pinot Noir clonal trial, 1974-1985.
Dr Harold Olmo and the Department of Viticulture reported that UC Davis vines known as Gamay Beaujolais were in fact a clone of Pinot Noir. Olmo confirmed that "true Gamay" was a different variety growing irita hillsn California which he named "Napa Gamay.” Also in 1970, Santa Ynez Valley’s Sta. Rita Hills saw the first significant Pinot Noir planting at the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, planted by Richard Sanford from cuttings. While Sanford made a modest amount of wine in 1975 from these grapes, the first commercial Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills was the 1976 Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir.
New partners acquired the Martin Ray Estate, renamed the property Mount Eden Vineyards, and produced their first vintage Pinot Noir from 29-year-old vines. Merry Edwards made her first Pinot Noir at Mount Eden Vineyards in 1973.
1) The Pellegrini family’s Olivet Lane Vineyard was planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Russian River Valley.
2) Joseph Swan released his first Pinot Noir. 3) Davis Bynum released a Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir from vines Joe Rochioli had planted in 1968, becoming the first vineyard-designated wine made in the Russian River Valley. 4) Mike Bohan became the first winegrower to farm Pinot Noir in “The True” Sonoma Coast near Freestone.
Josh Jensen planted his first three Pinot Noir vineyards after establishing Calera Wine Company in 1974 on Mt. Harlan in Hollister, California. Calera lies just south of Chalone in the same Gavilan Mountain Range in San Benito County.
1) Kistler Vineyards launched in the Russian River Valley.
2) Williams Selyem was born from a “garage” winemaking project of Burt Williams and Ed Selyem.
3) With Larry Brooks as winemaker, Acacia Winery debuted in Carneros and bottled California’s first vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs.
David Hirsch planted his first three acres of Pinot Noir in Cazadero, close to Mike Bohan’s original plantings in “The True” Sonoma Coast. In the same year, the first plantings of Pinot Noir in Marin County were introduced by Mark Pasternak of Devil's Gulch Ranch in Nicasio.
Gary Farrell introduced his first commercial Pinot Noir, a blend of Rochioli West Block and Three Corner Block grapes from the Rochioli Vineyard. In the same year, Gary Pisoni planted Pisoni Estate Vineyards, including Pinot Noir, in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County.
The Los Carneros AVA was established as the first ever AVA based on boundaries defined by the extent of where Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) would perform well.
Dr. Raymond Bernard, one of the developers of clones in Burgundy and regional director of the “Office National Interprofessional des Vins” (ONIVINS) in Dijon, France, sent to Oregon Pinot Noir clones 113, 114, 115, followed by 667 and 777 in 1988. Collectively known as “Dijon” clones, all are descended from individual plants from vineyards belonging to Jean-Marie Ponsot of Morey-St.-Denis. Dr. Bernard’s donation had a significant influence on the success of Oregon and California Pinot Noir.
Founded in Carneros in 1981, Saintsbury became the first California winery to make Pinot Noir entirely from Dijon clones.
The former BATF (today known as the TTB) decided to phase out use of the name “Gamay Beaujolais” on wine labels in the United States. They noted that since the grape known as Napa Gamay and the UCD Gamay Beaujolais (Pinot Noir) were two distinct varieties, wine made from a blend of both should not be labeled with a single varietal designation. They ruled that, in order to use the name Gamay Beaujolais on a wine label, the wine must contain at least 75% “Napa Gamay” (or Valdiguié -- see below) and/or Pinot Noir grapes. The 75% rule was phased out by 2007.
The famous movie Sideways was released. The resulting Sideways effect increased Pinot Noir’s profile in the United States (while impacting Merlot sales negatively). Almost overnight, Pinot Noir became an American darling. At the time of the film’s debut, there were 24,442 acres of Pinot Noir grapes planted in California.
The term “Gamay Beaujolais” was no longer allowed as a designation for American wines.
Total plantings of Pinot Noir increased to 44,578 acres, making it the third most planted red winegrape after Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.
It’s curious that when one talks about Pinot Noir in California, or anywhere else in the United States, it’s time-stamped as “BS” or “AS,” as in “Before Sideways” or “After Sideways.” The Oscar award-winning film, released in 2004, including actor Paul Giamatti’s soliloquy on the topic Pinot Noir, changed American wine drinking habits. Pinot Noir had always been popular among sommeliers and other wine professionals, mesmerized by its often jaw-dropping complexity and incredible affinity to marry so harmoniously with food. And that was, well, BS! From the 24,442 acres of Pinot Noir grapes planted in California at the time of the film’s 2004 release, acreage more than doubled over the next fifteen years. Coincidence? $1,055-million worth of Pinot Noir was sold in the U.S. in 2018, ranking it just behind Cabernet Sauvignon as the number two red variety by value.
For a deep dive into the history and evolution of Pinot Noir please see UC Davis’s Pinot: A Treasure House of Clonal Riches.