Etude Wines: The Pursuit of Pinot Noir Perfection

Pinot Noir, for many serious wine lovers, is “lo maximo” (which in my homeland of Argentina means: the maximum/best) when it comes to red wine, with Burgundy, being the pinnacle or the most pure expression of the grape. To be transparent, I have not enjoyed as much Burgundy as I’d like. Newsflash: good Burgundy is expensive, and that’s just not how I roll. I tried a couple pricey Burgundies in my WSET Diploma class, but other than that, my Burgundy exposure has been basic Bourgogne Rouge and maybe a handful of Village level selections.

At the Wine Bloggers Conference last year in Sonoma, I attended a Wine Discovery Session on Pinot Noir with Jon Priest, head winemaker at Etude Wines since 2005. Priest’s winemaking is not heavy-handed, as he wants the fruit and the region to shine. This session did not feature any Burgindies, but I was eager to explore a grape that is not readily on my “go to” list.

“Etude was founded on the philosophy that winemaking begins in the vineyard long before harvest, and that superior grape growing allows our winemakers to craft wines of exceptional varietal expression and finesse. This remains our approach today as we continue to build the Etude legacy.”

-Jon Priest

Jon Priest

Grace Benoist Ranch which spans 600 acres and several vineyards is Etude’s estate flagship property in the Los Carneros AVA of Sonoma. It was developed in 2000 with seven Chardonnay clones and 17 Pinot Noir clones. The first harvest was in 2003 and since 2004, all Pinot Noir for their wines is sourced from these estate vineyards. Sustainability is an important part of Etude Wines. Native Oak and Bay trees onsite protect nearby waterways, 12 miles of wildlife corridors were incorporated in the vineyard to preserve the natural migration of wildlife, wetlands are protected, and an erosion control plan was implemented. In the winery, solar panels supply about a third of Etude’s energy needs, recycled water is used for landscape irrigation and employees manage a composting and recycling program which diverts a large percentage of waste away from landfills. The Etude team also manages an onsite garden, with a portion of the produce donated to the Napa Food Bank.

Grace Benoist is at a higher elevation and close to the Petaluma Gap in a cooler growing region. The fog and maritime breezes off the Pacific Ocean and the Bay keep daytime temperatures low, creating the perfect environment for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The property has three distinct soil types: the Petaluma Formation (coarse sand and gravel deposited through moving water), the Sonoma Volcanics (rocky), and QTU (young bedrock; volcanic pebbles and boulders).

Let’s get to the wines! Pinot Noir is well-known for expressing the place and terroir in which it was grown to a degree that no other wine varietal can. Here we will explore seven Etude Wines, all Pinot Noir.

Wines Tasted:

2015 Etude Grace Benoist Ranch Estate Grown Pinot Noir Carneros $47

Jon’s notes include: turned earth, dark fruit, with quenching acid. My notes: This wine is medium ruby in color, with strong notes of earth and forest floor (VERY Pinot Noir), red/blue fruit (cherry, blueberry), baking spice, pepper, medium + acid, and medium – smooth tannins. This wine is a bit earthier than the next wine coming up.

2015 Etude Heirloom Grace Benoist Ranch Estate Grown Pinot Noir Carneros $95

These grapes are not certified “heirloom” or “heritage” but they do know that the vine has been passed down from vigneron to vigneron. This wine is more delicate (floral/perfumed) on the nose than the first one. It is a baby at the moment and will only improve in the bottle.

2014 Etude Yamhela Vineyard Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton District Willamette Valley $65 (current vintage 2015)

This is a youthful wine with red fruit (cherry, plum), though this fruit presentation is a bit more demure than the Carneros fruit. Grainy/powdery medium tannins.

2015 Etude Ellenbach Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast $65

This vineyard is 4.5 miles from the ocean with the vines sitting just above the fog line, meaning they see vibrant, bright sun and also get the cool ocean breeze. Red fruit jumps out of the glass with this wine.

2014 Etude North Canyon Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley $55 (current vintage 2015)

Deeper, darker fruit than the others, though the fruit is not quite black. A slight perfume with a higher alcohol than the others at 14.1%. These vines are in Santa Barbara County in an area cooler than some of the other expressions presented here. Santa Maria Valley is a transverse valley with long arroyos that run E/W versus the more common N/S. This wine is soft and delicate on the palate.

2014 Etude Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills $50

This wine is nervy! It has youthful fruit with a graphite/minerality note. The soils are on ancient seabeds in the Santa Ynez Valley between Buellton and Lompoc. This is a cooler area that is defined by the ocean influence.

2014 Etude Bannockburn Pinot Noir Central Otago, New Zealand $60

Central Otago is unique in that it is the only continental climate in New Zealand. It is very dry there with flinty, loess soil. Funk prevails with this wine. Savory, umami notes and a meatiness with minerality/iron due to the soil.