Collaboration creates a fine pinot noir

Many of the world’s greatest wines, which can be labeled ”estate bottled” according to US regulations, come from vineyards the winery owns. Vineyard ownership gives the winemaker control over two critical components that determine quality: grape yield and harvest time.

Wine quality falls as grape yields rise above a certain point, which is different for every vineyard. Waiting to harvest allows grapes to develop maximum flavors but, especially in marginal climates, risks ruin by autumn rains. But don’t be bound to an estate-bottled-moniker mentality.

Elmer Erwin is a longtime California farmer who lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco. As part of his home, he has an ideally situated 4-acre vineyard in which he planted pinot noir in the early 1990s. Its rocky soil provides good drainage so the grapes do not become waterlogged and their flavors diluted. The vineyard sits atop a ridge above the fog line, which means there’s lots of sunshine. The elevation provides a cooler climate that retards ripening and assures a late harvest.

In 1997, Bill and Brenda Murphy of Clos LaChance Winery, also located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, reached an agreement with Erwin to help upgrade and maintain his vineyard and buy all the grapes, according to Cheryl Durzy, a spokeswoman for Clos LaChance. It was an arrangement that worked well for both Erwin, who had no interest in making his own wine, and the Murphys, who, along with their winery, own a vineyard development company. As a result of this collaboration, Clos LaChance produces about 200 cases of exceptional pinot noir almost every year from grapes grown in Erwin’s vineyard.

Although they purchased all of Erwin’s grapes in 2000, they did not produce a vineyard-designated wine that year; they felt the grapes were not up to their expectations, so they used them for their regular pinot noir, labeled simply Santa Cruz Mountains.

The 2001 growing season put the Erwin Vineyard grapes back on track and Clos LaChance made a fabulous pinot noir from them — not heavy, yet with layers of flavors that explode in the mouth. It’s what makes pinot noir such an exciting type of wine.

Clos LaChance Pinot Noir, Erwin Vineyard, 2001 (about $35). Distributed by Classic Wine Imports, 781-352-1100. 

April 7, 2005.