2008 Alta Maria Vineyards Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley

If I were doing now what I thought I would probably do with my life as a sophomore in college, I would be a photographer living in a tent or an old VW Bus somewhere, splitting my time between rock climbing and taking pictures of stuff that most people wouldn’t give a second glance. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but I offer it as proof of how little sense I had of what path my life would take.

James Ontiveros, on the other hand, was spending his sophomore year at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo going to classes during the week, and on the weekend, planting a Pinot Noir vineyard that now bears his family name. This wasn’t a little project to help out on his family vineyard, which can often be the reason that certain college kids find themselves putting rootstock into the ground in their spare time. While Ontiveros’ family has been connected to the Santa Barbara area for a staggering nine generations (which is why their last name is on everything from historic buildings to roads in the area) they were, up until recently, primarily cattle ranchers. But as the lands surrounding his family ranch gradually gave way to vineyards and more vineyards and more vineyards, the young Ontiveros began to think his decision to major in Animal Science might not be the most advantageous for the future.

By the time Ontiveros was a sophomore, he had switched to crop and fruit sciences, and had met Paul Wilkins. The two bonded over wine with some of the other students at the university.

While Cal Poly didn’t offer wine studies, that proved no impediment to Ontiveros nor Wilkins, both of whom landed jobs and internships in the wine industry while they were still in school. While he wasn’t busy helping Kendall Jackson manage its relationships with winegrowers in the area, Ontiveros was planting 8 acres of his family’s ranch to Pinot Noir. Wilkins, for his part, landed an internship at Alban Vineyards, and got the opportunity to learn winemaking at one of California’s most prominent boutique wineries.

Their careers in the wine industry diverged for several years, with Ontiveros doing stints at Gallo, and Wilkins becoming assistant winemaker at Alban. But in 2005 Wilkins left Alban and started consulting on his own, and one of his first clients asked him to see if he could track down some fruit from a vineyard named Ontiveros. Reunited, the two college buddies joined forces to make wine from Ontiveros’ property under the label native9, and shortly thereafter started another project that they dubbed Alta Maria.

The Alta Maria label offers four wines, a Cabernet, a Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc, and this Pinot Noir, each in quantities of a few hundred cases. The winemaking is done by Wilkins, whose training primarily on Rhone varieties clearly doesn’t keep him from doing very fine things with Pinot Noir when he wants to. The winemaking itself tends to be minimalist, using native yeasts whenever possible, and I’m not entirely sure about the filtering regimen. New oak is kept to a minimum, as well.

In fact, minimalism might be a defining characteristic of these wines in many respects, from the rather stunning image on the label — a cluster of ancient iron nails, the sort of which held together both the houses and the shoes of California’s earliest homesteaders — to the rather remarkable pricing of the wine. I’m not in the habit of regularly commenting on the price of wines, instead letting my readers decide what they think is value or not. However, a California Pinot Noir this good for $25 should not go unremarked upon. It’s exceedingly rare to find pretty good Pinot at anywhere close to this price point, let alone a wine this fantastic.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of the damp forest floor and the bright fruit of raspberries. In the mouth, tart, sour cherry and raspberry flavors have a silky coolness to them that is stunning and quite mouthwatering. Green herbs and willow bark mix with earthier tones as the fruit continues to vibrate thanks to excellent acidity. Fine grained tannins hang in the background as the wine lingers through a moderate finish. Quite elegant.13.9% alcohol.

Food Pairing:
What won’t this wine go well with? With low alcohol and high acidity, it’s a fantastic food wine that I’d love to drink while munching on a chantrelle and goat cheese tart, for instance.

Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5

How Much?: $25

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.