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Low Intervention Pinot Noir from the New World

Winemaker Drake Whitcraft recommends three elegant California Pinot Noirs

Vicki Denig By June 11, 2021
photo illustration of Drake Whitfield
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

Drake Whitcraft always knew that he would follow his father into winemaking one day, but he had other dreams too — he wanted to be a history teacher. But when his father’s health declined in 2001, he immediately began work at Whitcraft Winery in Santa Barbara.  

He recalls that he learned winemaking from both his dad and Burt Williams, the legendary Pinot Noir pioneer from Williams Selyem winery. For this reason, Whitcraft is adamant about not changing the techniques he learned, apart from small creative tweaks. One of these minor changes includes being much more judicious with sulfur than his father, although he notes that neither his father nor Burt never added anything to their wines aside from sulfur dioxide. Additionally, Whitcraft also picks earlier than his mentors: “I like more acidity and less tannin,” he says.

Today, Whitcraft makes approximately 25 different wines, most of which are site specific and varietally pure. “I know the hip thing to do now is to coferment varieties, but I am not a huge fan of that,” he says. “My philosophy is to be as hands off as possible, and for me, that means adding nothing at all in the cellar, aside from a tiny amount of SO2 at bottling to help the wine live longer than a few years. In the vineyard, it means organic at minimum.”   

When not in the cellar, Whitcraft enjoys playing guitar, cooking, and being outside. And while he says that Santa Barbara will likely remain his home, he hopes to own his own land one day. “I’d love to farm and be in the vineyard all the time… maybe someday.”

Today, Whitcraft is putting out some of the tastiest, site-specific New World Pinot Noirs on the market. He recommends one of his own wines, plus two others that he loves.

Three California Pinot Noirs to Try:

bottle of Drew Family Cellars ‘Mid-Elevation’ Mendocino Pinot Noir

Drew Family Cellars ‘Mid-Elevation’ Mendocino Pinot Noir ($31)

Drew’s Mid-Elevation Pinot Noir is a cuvée made from grapes grown on slopes in the middle of the vineyard. “The wines he makes are very perfumed and pretty, and a little darker than mine due to longer skin contact,” says Whitcraft, noting that in addition to being organic and biodynamic, Drew implements a no-till mentality and dry farming at his estate. Whitcraft also produces a wine at his own winery with fruit purchased from Drew (Faite de Mer) that he deems to be the Grand Cru of his lineup. 

bottle of Whitcraft Winery 'Pence Ranch' Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

Whitcraft Winery 'Pence Ranch' Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($64)

“Like all of my Pinots, Pence Ranch is 100% whole-cluster fermented, and bottled unfined and unfiltered, with zero additives and only minimal SO2 at bottling,” says Whitcraft. The fruit comes from Pence Ranch Vineyards in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley. “This Pinot Noir is a little lighter in tannin, as it comes from the eastern edge of the Santa Rita Hills.” Whitcraft notes that because the area is warmer, the fruit doesn’t hang on the vines as long and preserves the acidity. 

bottle of Cobb Wines ‘Diane Cobb: Coastlands Vineyard’ Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

Cobb Wines ‘Diane Cobb: Coastlands Vineyard’ Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($120)

“Cobbs wines are usually lighter in style and are playful like mine, but being so close to the ocean, they are a bit more tannic,” says Whitcraft, citing similar aromatics of tart cherries, cloves, and cinnamon. “Our philosophy when it comes to Pinot is so like-minded,” he says. “I really enjoy their wines. The Diane Cobb cuvée comes from the estate’s oldest block of vines.” Diane Cobb Vineyard Pinot Noir is vinified with 60% whole clusters and spends 22 months in barrel, 30% of which are new French oak. Only 175 cases were produced.