We met Leslie Sisneros at the 2016 Family Winemakers of California Grand Tasting (in the interests of full disclosure, we got into this paid event for free in the hopes that we’d get around to writing something about it or the presenting winemakers sooner than we did). This is a great event, by the way, especially if you’re new to wine. The $75 for the ticket might seem like a lot, but we’ve seen smaller tastings that cost a lot more, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a greater breadth of wines. Plus, you’ve already paid for them all, so you might as well try even the ones you don’t think you like.
But back to Ms. Sisneros, of Murder Ridge Winery. She’s been making wine for over 20 years, but actually fell into making pinot noir.
“It wasn’t my choice,” she explained. “Because I started out at Kendall Jackson and I was assigned the variety. Actually, zin’s pretty hard, too. I guess it’s good when you start out with the hardest wine to make. But I’m always up for a challenge, so I just took it in stride.”
Pinot noir is a notoriously finicky grape and can be very hard to make well.
“There’s all kinds of different pinots,” Sisneros said. “It can go from the lowest priced ones to the premium ones. You’re looking for something that’s fruity and not overly tannic.”
But when you hear people wax eloquent about pinot noir, you’ll often hear them going on about the clone of the grape.
“There’s more people who talk about pinot in terms of clones than any other variety,” Sisneros said. Many grape varieties have their own specific clones, but it’s more of an issue with pinot noir. “It really does make a difference in what clones you plant and where you plant them. It determines the winemaker’s fingerprint.”
She explained that cloning is sort of like taking the natural process of evolution the next few steps further.
“In nature, everything generally mutates so the strongest survive,” Sisneros said. “What the people do is they’ll select a particular plant or several plants in a vineyard. They’ll take a bud culture and they will keep making it genetically the same and it will take generations and generations.”
She said that after individual clone, the other thing that really makes a difference in a pinot noir is where it’s grown.
“You can certainly tell a Russian River pinot noir,” she said. “To me, they’re like night and day. Mendocino pinot is more delicate. Russian River is dark and moody.”
Murder Ridge Winery is in Mendocino County, in a largely wilderness area known as Mendocino Ridge. The winery gets its name from the infamous murder of Joseph Cooper in 1911. Sisneros partnered with wine grower Steve Alden to form the label after having worked with his grapes for several other wineries for whom she’s worked as a consulting winemaker.