Tasting Notes: Pinot Noir @ Failla Wines, St. Helena

Despite its spike in popularity over the last several years, Pinot Noir remains rather uncommon here in the Napa Valley. With the exception of the Carneros District — which is the coolest and southern-most region in the Napa Valley — Pinot Noir proves ill-suited for our warm Mediterranean climate. But even if this fickle Burgundian varietal could somehow become more adaptable to Napa, Cabernet Sauvignon has long staked its claim here in the valley, and no other varietal can ever muster a challenge for the crown. Since capturing the world’s attention with the Judgment of Paris in 1976, not only is Cabernet the main event here in the Napa Valley, it’s practically become the only show in town. Searching for Pinot Noir in Napa remains a fool’s errand, no questsion. That is, unless the discussion involves Failla Wines in St. Helena.

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The hook here is quite simple: Failla is that rare Napa Valley winery that produces noteworthy Pinot. Of course, there’s an obvious caveat to this scenario: Failla’s grapes are sourced exclusively from Sonoma County, where coastal climates offer Pinot Noir a relatively cool growing season. For what it’s worth, sourcing fruit has always remained a common aspect of winemaking, and it’s not a trend that should be considered either positive or negative. It’s just how things happen to be. After all, many wineries in the Napa Valley will source their grapes from other areas throughout the county, whether they own these vineyards or not. However, the overwhelming majority of Napa’s purchased fruit is Cabernet, with Chardonnay ranking a distant second. What really sets Failla apart, therefore, is not only the fact that the winery focuses primarily upon Pinot Noir — it’s that Failla leaves Cabernet completely out of the equation, as well.

To be sure, any Napa winery that doesn’t feature Cabernet had better excel in other key areas. Fortunately, Failla winemaker Ehren Jordan has developed a deft touch with Pinot Noir, and Failla has thus carved its own unlikely niche in the heart of Cabernet country. Long before Jordan had launched the Failla label with his wife, Anne-Marie Failla, he had served as the winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars, a position he has held for 15 years now. The well-informed reader might note that Turley Wine Cellars is located just south of Paso Robles, meaning that Jordan will sometimes have to make frequent trips between the North Coast and the Central Coast, especially during key times of the season. Of course, none of this jet-setting would mean anything if Failla’s wines weren’t consistently terrific.

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Over the last few years, those who have been paying close attention to California Pinot Noir will acknowledge the importance of the Sonoma Coast appellation, which offers wines that easily rival those of the more famous Russian River Valley. I would argue that, vintage for vintage, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir actually trumps Russian River Pinot Noir, at least among the top producers. Even among Failla’s portfolio, I much prefered the Sonoma Coast Pinot to the Russian River Pinot. That said, my favorite wine of the tasting was the 2007 Failla Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir, which for me was just slightly more dynamic than the 2007 Failla Occidental Ridge Pinot Noir, also from the Sonoma Coast. Personally, I enjoyed the additional element of fruit within the Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir, although the 2007 vintage had certainly been kind to each of these Sonoma Coast wines. I definitely wouldn’t kick the 2007 Occidental Ridge out of bed.

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