California Pinot Noir Steps Up Its Game

Angeline Pinot Noir
Angeline Reserve Pinot Noir, 2014
California, $13.99

As recently as five years ago, if you wanted the best Pinot Noir made in the United States, merchants would refer you to wines produced in Oregon, and it was difficult to find anything wonderful for less than $25.

Oregon still makes excellent Pinot Noir, perhaps still the best, but now California has picked up the ball.

Winemakers there are producing well-crafted, complex Pinot Noir at reasonable prices, and there seems to be an abundance on the market on both sides of the Upper Valley.

Angeline Reserve, with its distinctive black and gold label, is one of them, and although its price escapes the $10 range that’s covered by this column, the wine is a great bargain and one that I reserve for special occasions.

(Also on the market is Angeline California Pinot Noir, with a white label, which sells for quite a bit less and is not in the same league as the Reserve. I’m not recommending that wine here.)

The Angeline wines are produced by Martin Ray Winery in the Russian River Valley by Courtney Benham, a sharp entrepreneur who consistently makes high-quality wines at affordable prices. In addition to Angeline, Benham also makes the award-winning Courtney Benham and Martin Ray lines that sell in the $15 to $20 range.

Benham is a third generation California native who grew up working in his father’s vineyards and almond orchards. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1980s, he groomed his skills for eight years by working in every division of his father’s winery.

In 1990, Benham was knocking around in an old wine warehouse in San Jose, Calif., when he discovered 1,500 cases of library wines — older vintages that had been put into storage — produced by legendary California wine pioneer, Martin Ray, the company’s website says.

Ray, who is credited with being the first producer of varietal wines in the U.S., was a protege of Paul Masson and started Mount Eden winery. Ray, according to The New York Times, was more of a visionary than a businessman and had lost most of his property by the time he died in 1976.

Benham contacted the Ray family and acquired the Ray label, and unlike Ray, Benham is more pragmatic and less romantic in his approach to the wine business. Instead of trying to make the finest wine in the world, like Ray, he’s trying to “raise the bar on everyday value wines.”

Somewhere along the way after buying the Ray label, Benham hooked up with his brother Derek Benham to develop the line of Blackstone Merlot wines, which they sold to the world’s largest wine producer, Constellation Brands, in 2001 for $140 million. Derek hit it big again a decade later when Constellation bought his Mark West wines for $160 million.

A couple of years after the Blackstone sale, Courtney Benham opened Martin Ray Winery with the stated goal of crafting affordable wines that would make Ray proud, and he’s keeping the prices down by not growing grapes. Benham and his winemaker Bill Batchelor carefully source the grapes for the wines from contract growers and devote more business resources to production and marketing.

The Angeline Reserve Pinot Noir is made from 100 percent Pinot Noir grapes with 40 percent coming from the floral, spicy grapes that grow in Mendocino County, 35 percent from the bright red fruit in the Russian River Valley and the rest from the long-growing, dense grapes in Monterey County, the website says.

I’ve never been lucky enough to taste any of the wines Ray made, but I think that Benham is producing very good wine for the money, so good that Ray would have been proud to have his name associated with it.

Making the 2014 Angeline Reserve Pinot Noir was a challenge because of the California drought, winemaker Batchelor says in his tasting notes. The grapes had smaller clusters and lower yields, which produced fruit of high quality with intense flavors, a point that adds further evidence that good wines come from grapes that suffer.

After the initial fermentation, the Reserve is aged in French oak barrels for the next year, and the result is a wine with aromas of fresh strawberries, wild raspberries and spicy cherry cola with a smooth, clean taste and creamy caramel finish, Batchelor says.

Two nice things about Pinot Noir are that the wine bridges the seasons, it’s wonderful in cold and warm months, and it pairs with a wide variety of food. We had the Angeline Reserve with grilled spicy chicken one night and with lightly breaded, sauteed Swai (a delicate Vietnamese catfish) on another occasion. The wine also is fine on its own or with appetizers.

Angeline Reserve Pinot Noir is widely available, and although the suggested retail price is $18, I’ve found it at $13.99 and I’m told it will be going on sale in the coming weeks for $12.99.

Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at raiseyourglassofwine@gmail.com.

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