Deep Diving into Pinot Noir with the Prince of Pinot, Dr. Rusty Gaffney

 

Greg M.

Hi, everybody this is Greg Martellotto with Big Hammer Wines Films, I'm here today with the esteemed Dr Rusty Gaffney of Pinot File, the Prince of Pinot noir. You and I are fellow Stanford grads.

 

Rusty Gaffney

That's right.

 

Greg M.

And I'm so excited to speak with you today. We had a conversation and we have a lot to talk about, we had a long conversation, so just let's jump right in. I gathered that in Orange County you have this wine tasting group called Le Grand Crew a group of professionals, and you had a passion for pinot noirs early as 1980's. Your basically self-taught based on the experience but through that original tasting group you had the opportunity to taste some of the great wines of the world. So after you retired in 2002 you started writing about pinot noir and basically became a second career. Why pinot noir?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Well, it's a good question. It’s just the wine that's always given me the biggest thrill, my epiphanies have all been pinot noir. I was introduced to pinot noir when I was a college student by a Dr. Collector. And he collected Burgundy and that's how I got first introduced to it.

 

Rusty Gaffney

But, through the years I've dabbled in all of the wines but I just always came back to pinot noir. I like pinot noir for a number of reasons. One thing that stands out is that it's a wine you can enjoy on its own and it’s a wine that's great with food, all kinds of food. There are other wines like that too, Chardonnay for example is good on its own, but Pinot noir is just, for me, more complex, more nuance, you can find more. It also can give you more disappointment because it's a very tricky blend to make.

 

Greg M.

I agree.  It’s a heartbreak grape.

 

Rusty Gaffney

It’s heartbreak grape, but when you get the right one that's really good, its really good. And after you've had the really good ones you just spend a lot of time seeking them out.

 

Greg M.

It's almost a masochistic pursuit, isn't it?

 

Rusty Gaffney

It is. You spend a lot of money. There's a lot of disappointment. But the thrill of finding really good pinot noir makes it worthwhile.

 

Greg M.

So you mentioned you had some epiphanies. Do you remember any of them?

 

Rusty Gaffney

One that really stands out was the Williams Selyem Rochioli pinot noir, in 1992. And it seems like I could almost taste that wine to this day it was just the most marvelous wine. The William Selyem Pinot Noirs really set me on a course of serious interest in pinot noirs because prior to that, there really wasn't much in California to get excited about.

 

Greg M.

And that was one of the early producers that was really focusing on vineyard specific production doing similar wine-making to each vineyard and showing amazingly different results.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Yeah. That's exactly why it’s probably one of the first that put the emphasis on vineyards, it only did vineyard designates with the vineyard reserve designation. And Burt Williams had a unique talent for finding the best vineyards in Sonoma County. That meant the best wines, they didn't have a lot of money, they didn't have any fancy equipment, it was all basic wine-making, started out in a garage. But, it was very hands-on and pinot noir seems to respond to that.

 

Greg M.

Did you taste those wines over years and time?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Oh yeah!

 

Greg M.

Do they stand the test of time?

 

Rusty Gaffney

They did stand the test of time. For sure. Yeah. Unfortunately, this generation never tried it, because they're pretty much all gone now. Either people drank it up or they are gone, but it's an important part of California wine history. Particularly with with regard to pinot noir.

 

Greg M.

Do you think Cabernet with a stiffer vineyard sites fermented it in a similar way shows the nuance and distinction. Or, do you think the Cabernet is just is more monochrome?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Well, people say that Pinot Noir and Riesling are the two grapes that reflect terroir more than any other grape out there. I think people with experienced with Cabernet they can detect differences, but maybe pinot noir was a little bit more reflective of the grapes.

 

Greg M.

So you had the chance to taste a lot of these great bordeaux...

 

Rusty Gaffney

Yep.

 

Greg M.

And other wines and top first grows, et cetera.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Greg M.

And you still chose pinot noir.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Greg M.

And then more specifically you chose to focus on west coast pinot noir and some chard.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Right.

 

Greg M.

What about burgundy? Why didn't you want to focus on burgundy?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Well, there were a number of factors. I've been to burgundy. I loved it. I've had some of the great burgundies. Talk about epiphanies. Certainly, 1990, DRC Domaine de la Romanee Conti was...

 

Greg M.

Epiphanous.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Yeah.

 

Greg M.

Yeah.

 

Rusty Gaffney

I had a lot more exposure to west coast pinot noir than burgundy. There were a couple of gentlemen in our wine tasting group who were interested in burgundy and would occasionally host a burgundy focused tasting, but the king of shareholder in Chalone very early arrived and went to their shareholder meetings and got involved with that winery and that sort of set a course and then came, like I said, Williams Selyem and I just got wrapped up in the California and domestic pinot.

 

Rusty Gaffney

When I started writing about pinot, it was about the same time that Allen Meadows began The Burghound.

 

Greg M.

This is early 2000s?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Yep! And Allen was the expert in Burgundy. He spoke French. He spent months in Burgundy. There's no way you could really, I wouldn't say compete, but there's no way you could do a better job than he was doing. And, there was more potential and opportunity for domestic.

 

Greg M.

So you wanted to carve your niche?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Right.

 

Greg M.

Thinking about pinot noir and how the consumers make decisions because it is considered the heartbreak grape. It is wildly variable from vintage to vintage, from producer to producer, from place to place. Even in your own words you said, "Pinot Noir is a chameleon and it changes." The wines can change dramatically after being opened for a few hours or a day. How does a consumer make sense of that with so many wines in the world? How does a person choose?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Well, that's one of the reasons why you have resources like mine. I try to tell people to find a producer that you seem to like and stick with him. Don't chase scores. Don't chase individual wines. You can always find a wineery one year comes up with a special wine and gets a high mid-90s score, butwhat you want to look for are producers who have consistency, who show success over time. Sure, there will be some vintage producers that the first thing is this producer and then the second thing if you want to progress in terms of your knowledge is to focus on a certain region that you particularly like.

 

Greg M.

Sure.

 

Rusty Gaffney

And then we go beyond that and you focus on specific vineyards because we have enough history in California now that there are certain vineyards that stand out.It doesn't matter who the producer is, those vineyards seem to always produce better wines.So those are kind of the levels of interest and reputation that come with time and reputation. But over time there are some very reliable well known producers that people can start out with and stick with and have a good time.

 

Greg M.

Do you see a price point where quality pinot begins?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Price has become a real problem because it's gotten more and more expensive. I get asked all the time by people, "How can I find a good pinot that is $20 or $25?" That's a real challenge. Most of the wine I taste is premium wine. It's $60 to $90 dollars. But, I try to taste the so called supermarket wines, the lower price points so that I can judge what those wines have off and also the reputations there and it's become very hard to find anything that I find really typical of pinot noir that is not. Those wines tend to be over-oaked and tend to sometimes have other varietals other than pinot in there.

 

Greg M.

You remember that gallo?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Yeah.

 

Greg M.

Problem with the Bicyclette wines some years ago from Languedoc.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Yeah.

 

Greg M.

They were exporting more pinot than is planted in all of Southern France. It was clear they were blending what they found out was Grenache and other varietals.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Sure. Somewhere around $30, $35 dollars seems to be the point which you can find good domestic pinot noir, but even in that range, it's not a sure thing.

 

Greg M.

It's unfortunate.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Yeah.

 

Greg M.

That goes back to heartbreak. It's heartbreak for producers, heartbreak for consumers. It's a challenge.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Well grapes, you know, have gotten more expensive to produce even more grapes.

 

Greg M.

Yes.

 

Rusty Gaffney

And a lot, that determines a lot particularly for small producers and what they can charge. But the fact is that there has been an escalation in prices and wineries are charging a lot of money these days and worried sometimes the wines are deserving that price.

 

Greg M.

Right a high quality pinot noir should command a premium...

 

Rusty Gaffney

Yeah.

 

Greg M.

And there is a real difference, but we see that price escalation over time starting to mirror what we’ve seen in bordeaux or burgundy or Bolgheri. It's now in Sta. Rita Hills, Sonoma and Willamette.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Yeah, it's too bad because I know people for example the great burgundies. This generation will probably never have the opportunity to taste it because they've gotten so expensive. I know for me personally around 2005 I just quit buying Burgundy because the Burgundy I wanted to buy from top producers just got crazy expensive.

 

Greg M.

I think on our website we are offering current vintage La Tache at $2500 a bottle.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Yep.

 

Greg M.

Maybe more like $3000. Pretty expensive for a bottle of wine.

 

Rusty Gaffney

But that's what luxury brands demand these days, so you know they can get ugly. There are people who can afford it and can enjoy it, but it's a little bit of a shame that the general consumer rarely has access to those wines.

 

Greg M.

Is there a great pinot outside of Sta. Rita Hills, Sonoma, and Willamette on the West Coast?

 

Rusty Gaffney

On the west coast?

 

Greg M.

Yeah.

 

Rusty Gaffney

The Columbia Gorge areas divides Washington and Oregon. There are some good producers there, but most of them are on the Oregon side. Other parts of Washington are really not suited for Pinot. British Columbia if you go farther north. British Colombia has good producers, but we rarely get their wines here.

 

Greg M.

Yeah.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Yeah.

 

Greg M.

Cost. prohibitive after you include the tax.

 

Rusty Gaffney

And then when you go outside the west coast there are pockets in Michigan and Finger Lakes and a few areas that do see decent pinots, but it's not really those areas' focus.

 

Greg M.

So you started actually a compendium of wineries that produce pinot noir.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Greg M.

How many wineries are that list?

 

Rusty Gaffney

There's well over 2500.

 

Greg M.

2500.

 

Rusty Gaffney

That's California.

 

Greg M.

2500. That's a big number.

 

Greg M.

Looking at your career. You've really witnessed the evolution and the genesis of pinot noir on the west coast in California. From as early as the 70s to today and you told me that you're tasting upwards of 1800 wines per year focused on pinot and chard from California and Oregon. What have you seen as the stages of evolution over these decades you've been tasting all of these wines?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Well, number one is the advances in viticulture have made a big difference. All the techniques related to growing Pinot Noir.

 

Greg M.

Who are off the top of your head, some of the top producers that you go to?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Oh gee.

 

Greg M.

Who are those consistent people you graded over these years?

 

Rusty Gaffney

People ask me that. Names that come to mind with that would be Littorai, mostly it's the vineyards of Sonoma coast and Anderson Valley.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Williams Selyem is still a good producer, but not quite the same as it was because their...

 

Greg M.

Ownership has changed.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Yes.

 

Greg M.

Production is down.

 

Rusty Gaffney

If you go down Westside road you can name off quite a few top ones. Rochioli, Gary Farrell, now Macrostie. There's a number of good ones there. Anderson Valley is probably one of the best areas for Pinot Noir but not as well known to most consumers. A lot of producers of Anderson Valley pinot are not in Anderson Valley, so they don't associate the producer with the area. I happen to like some of the wines made by Fel, F-E-L, from Anderson Valley. If you go further south to Santa Lucia Highlands, of course the Pisoni family and the people who have worked with the Pisoni’s, the Francioni’s, Roar, those are top-notch. And then you go further south to Santa Maria Valley, Paul Lato is one of my favorites in the area. And then Sta. Rita Hills there are a number of good producers there.

 

Greg M.

What about whole cluster? Are you a fan?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Oh I love whole cluster. Love whole cluster! When it's good, man it's great! Because it..

 

Greg M.

Adds another layer of depth.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Another layer of aromatic and flavor and textural change. It's tricky though. It's a gamble.

 

Greg M.

It is.

 

Rusty Gaffney

That wine makers might because there's always a risk of green flavors, herbaceous flavors, too much tannin. Consumer doesn't like them initially because sometimes the have a lot of tannin is not as friendly to drink. But there are advantages to it.

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