Deep Red

Six California Pinot Noirs to Try This Holiday Season

A number of California small producers are bringing back pinot noir's depth and richness.

By Bob McGinn November 21, 2022

Pinot noir wines are often some of the most enjoyable wines to drink. Unfortunately, they are also often the most expensive.

Burgundy, France, is the source of the finest pinot noirs in the world; it's a place where winemakers have honed their craft over centuries. Prior to the 20th century, Burgundy wines were considered the king and Bordeaux the queen of French wines.

At that time, Burgundies were deep in color and rich in flavor. As time progressed, and family vineyards were broken into smaller parcels and as each generation passed, the wines became thinner and lighter. Today, most Burgundies are medium-bodied, but the good ones still extoll a characteristic black cherry aroma and other enticing flavors. In fact, the finest wine I have ever enjoyed was a 1947 Auxey-Duresses at The Plaza Hotel in New York City.

Recently, a gathering of distant family members ended with a desire to celebrate Thanksgiving while we were all together, and our traditional meal was accompanied by a variety of California pinot noirs. It seems that a number of California small producers are bringing back the depth and richness that disappeared some time ago. Each showed well and made the meal a real celebration.

Pinot noir prefers a cool climate, and the first California region to focus on the grape was Carneros. Since then, the Russian River Valley has produced some fine examples and now winemakers in other regions are showing they can compete. Here are some to try:

Highlands 41 2020 pinot noir, $15

The most affordable of the group, this one showed a nice body and flavor, but the aroma was not very evident. Higher alcohol gives it a punch.

San Simeon 2021 Monterey pinot noir, $27

Has a robust mouthful, but the high alcohol content (14.9 percent) masks what could be a very elegant wine. A nice choice for those who seek a powerful wine.

Baileyana 2017 S-BAR Edna Valley pinot noir, $60

One of the nicest of the group, this starts with a Burgundian black cherry aroma that leads to a full-bodied, mouth-filling flavor of ripe fruit. Complex and elegant, the lower alcohol content (13.5 percent) allows a nice lingering finish. Although young, it has nice aging potential. Limited production.

Balletto Vineyards

Balletto has shown well in previous tastings and I was able to obtain two single vineyard wines: Sexton Hill ($55) and BCD ($58), both from 2019. Also, a generic Russian River Valley from 2020 ($34).

The BCD vineyard is in the Santa Rosa Plains and the extremely low-production wine shows the enticing black cherry aroma and layers of fruit common to a Burgundy. It's a well- balanced wine with a lingering finish.

Sexton Hill, meanwhile, embodies the effects of hillside vineyards versus plains and proximity to the ocean. The wine exibits a charming aroma and flavors of black cherry with structure and balance.

The Russian River Valley wine is the product of seven different vineyards and is a great example of blending that creates a vivacious and yet complex wine. All of the Balletto wines have that characteristic Burgundian style with flavors that continue to increase in the glass.

Bob McGinn has spent his entire career in the wine industry—forming wine clubs, working in wine sales marketing and engaging in all facets of the winemaking process, including vine management, fermentation and yeast analysis. He has developed wine programs for companies such as Marriott, Sheraton and Smith & Wollensky, and consults with local restaurants. You can read more of McGinn’s work at

Filed under
Show Comments