Byron Nielson Vineyard Pinot Noir 1999
Byron was founded in 1984 by winemaker Ken Brown. With years of experience as a winemaker in Santa Barbara County, Ken recognized the Santa Maria Valley's potential for great wines in the Burgundian style, and was the first winemaker to introduce Rhone-style grape varieties to the area. The first crush at Byron Vineyard & Winery produced 7,600 cases, and Byron soon gained national recognition for high quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
In 1990, the Robert Mondavi family purchased Byron, and Ken Brown became Winemaker and General Manager. He and Tim Mondavi, Robert's son, set about designing the new Byron Winery as an expression of their shared belief in natural farming, experimental viticulture and gentle grape handling. They wanted to eliminate pumping, which shears grape stems, skin and seeds, allows tannins and other harsh elements into the juice and can make wine bitter.
With the aid of noted architect R. Scott Johnson, who designed the Opus One winery in Napa Valley and San Francisco's Transamerica building, Ken designed a multi-level winery that replaces pumping with gravity flow, resulting in more complex, dynamic wines. Byron's vineyards were also expanded and replanted as Ken Brown experimented with trellising systems, new rootstocks and clones, row orientation, and planting density in his quest for the perfect grape.
Let’s start with the obvious – Central Coast Pinot Noir is an incredibly broad category. This of course is because the Central Coast appellation is enormous, and it contains several stellar Pinot Noir regions within it, all of them kept cool by elevation or proximity to the ocean (or both). So we’ll break things down a bit with a brief look at each of these: Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey and the Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills. These are not the only Central Coast sources of good Pinot Noir, but they are the major ones. So let’s get started.
In the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, just west of Silicon Valley, producers craft excellent Pinot in spite of serious challenges. The land is mountainous, rugged and can be foggy, the topsoil is thin and poor and yields tend to be low. Yet Pinots from the likes of David Bruce, Martin Ray, Mount Eden and Thomas Fogarty exhibit undeniable quality, along with bright red fruit, minerality, earth and herbal hints.
Just south lies the large Monterey appellation. Monterey Pinot Noir is grown in coastal areas, taking optimal advantage of the cooling effect of the Pacific. The most highly regarded of these is the Santa Lucia Highlands. Situated on hilly benchlands south of the city of Monterey, this central coast region relies on a long growing season, night and morning fog and consistent afternoon winds to produce world class Pinot Noir. Attributes include intense, rich fruit, subtle earthy notes, spice and a silky texture. Look for producers like Siduri, Kosta Browne, Talbott and Lucienne.
The Santa Maria Valley in northern Santa Barbara County (a section of it falls into southern San Luis Obispo County) is also a haven for quality Pinot Noir. A mere 15 miles from the Pacific, the valley runs east-west, creating a natural tunnel through which ocean breezes and fog flow. This effect lengthens the growing season and promotes both ripeness and development of acidity, lending Santa Maria Valley Pinots their characteristic full flavor, balance and elegance. The famous Bien Nacido Vineyard is located here, and notable producers include Cambria, Foxen, Byron and Au Bon Climat.
Finally, we arrive at the Sta. Rita Hills, also in Santa Barbara County. Located in the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley, it too benefits from an east-west orientation that leads to the same conditions mentioned above. Once again the result is extended hang time for the grapes, which can be tasted in the vibrant, ripe red fruits evident in these Pinots, along with dense coloration and an impression of richness and intensity. Try wines from producers like Ken Brown, Ampelos, Fess Parker and Melville.
As you can see, California’s Central Coast offers a wealth of options for any lover of Pinot Noir. Cheers!