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Hunting for a great Pinot Noir

Tantara’s ’02 ‘Garys’ Vineyard’ is exceptional. By Edward Deitch
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In the movie “Sideways,” which is not to be missed, life is like Pinot Noir. It’s hard to cultivate and is only rarely sublime, but when it is, the experience can be transcendent. Things seem better than they were; unpleasant memories of bad wine fade away.

The film, with the gifted Paul Giamatti as the quintessential and tragicomic wine nerd, is all about a road trip — more about personal discovery than wine, really, but set in some of California’s most serene Central Coast wine country. The vehicle is the eternal search for great Pinot Noir. Which takes me to the point of all this.

I stumbled across a superb California Pinot Noir recently — actually it stumbled upon me when the folks at the Tantara Winery in Santa Maria sent along a couple of their Pinots for review.

Now, if you’re a student of Pinot Noir, you probably know that those from California and Oregon are often quite different from those of Burgundy, the world’s Pinot Noir benchmark. The French Pinots tend to be leaner, less alcoholic, more subtle and delicate. The American wines are bigger, more fruit-forward, often spicier and heavier on the oak. It boils down to a matter of style and which one you prefer.

While my own tastes lean toward Burgundy, there are, of course, very good American Pinot to be found in a range of prices. Tantara’s wines are not inexpensive. Take its 2002 “Garys’ Vineyard” Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands south of Monterey, which has become a hot Pinot area. Yes, it’s $48, but it will quickly establish itself as the centerpiece of a special dinner (and certainly worth $12 per person if you want to cost it out on the basis of a dinner for four).

But enough rationalization. I simply loved the wine. “Gorgeous, big, bright Pinot Noir,” I wrote in my notes. “Concentrated strawberry, cherry, eucalyptus, earth, a touch of chocolate, moderately spicy” — all of it framed by a layer of well-integrated oak. The wine is full of character and complexity yet easy to drink. It is delicious now, if still a little young, and will continue to emerge over the next several years.

Tantara, by the way, makes 10 Pinots, all of them vineyard-designated, a practice in which wineries purchase exceptional fruit, in this case from Garys’ Vineyard, and credit the vineyards on their labels. Garys’ Vineyard is named after its partners, Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni; fruit from their 50-acre property has become sought after and is a source for at least 17 wineries, whose winemakers then produce Pinot Noirs with their own signatures.

Tantara’s wines have very limited production but are available for shipment to some states and are distributed in others.  Its Web site,, provides detailed information on where they can be found and how to order them. On the basis of its Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir, I would not hesitate to try Tantara’s other Pinots. It also makes a couple of Chardonnays.

Edward Deitch's wine column appears Thursdays. Write to him at