The Scene

Visionaries drive pinot noir to new heights

Inspired vintners move California wines from great to world-class

Uncorked: Ryan Prichard of Three Sticks

Cows probably outnumbered grapes when Carneros first became an AVA four decades ago.

Back in 2003, Todd Graff started making wine at Frank Family Vineyards, and recalls what the AVA was like.

“Carneros was pasture land with lots of dairy barns, sheep and cows,” Graff said. “There was not a lot of water out there. The invention of the drip system – which wasn’t common 40 years ago – you’d get a little water without overhead sprinkling or send it down a row which could keep the grapes alive. Since then, it’s kind of blown up to the point there’s not much left to plant. It went from open grazing lands to pretty much vines everywhere. Pinot and chardonnay are the main varieties, but with people looking at climate change with new vineyards, it’s not unusual to hear merlot going in; I even heard some cabernet franc has been planted in spots with sun exposure to see what it could do.”

As Carneros celebrates turning 40, its success and growth mirror that of pinot noir in California. Driving pinot noir to new heights are technological advancements and visionaries with an eye on a unique cool climate and dramatic elevation changes.

Ben Papapietro saw the expansion firsthand as a home winemaker in 1982. His friend, the late Bruce Perry, joined him in 1985 to make wines in his garage. Papapietro held onto his newspaper job: He’d worked in the industry since his first paper route at age 19, and became a Teamster who worked delivery in San Francisco Local 921.

With two kids to put through college, he said the wine gig was “just a hobby to keep … sane.” Then in 2003, when it looked like the winery would take off, Papapietro gave up his old career and dove into the wine business.

“I had two young kids I wanted to educate, and here we put our house up to get into this business,” Papapietro said. “In 1998, pinot noir wasn’t known at that time. It was a pretty big risk.”

Yet, it’s paid off for Papapietro, who was reached by phone while on vacation in Hawaii for a tasting, and who’s now winemaker emeritus. It’s impressive that Papapietro Perry has a lineup that is a comprehensive examination of the Russian River Valley. The three wines tasted for this report have a unique identity, yet hints of the same fruit, minerality and mouthfeel serve as a defining red line of the AVA.

When Ryan Prichard joined Three Sticks in 2015, he had to get acquainted with the winery’s notable collection of vineyards. He was named winemaker in 2017. Three Sticks was making great wines, yet it felt there was still work to do.

“Getting to know the vineyards is like starting a new sport,” Prichard said. “You learn what you like and what you can improve on. We only get one shot per year at this, and as much as I love the wines, I always say, ‘This could be better or look to express itself better.’ That takes time, it doesn’t happen in one year.”

It’s exciting that great wines have turned into world-class wines under Prichard’s watch. Every year, Three Sticks seems to top what was produced the previous year.

His goal is to accentuate a wine’s acidity and freshness, which should lead to the wine’s lifespan being longer. Prichard said he is “always threading the needle to make the wine delicious upon release and something that can be enjoyed for a long time. There’s always new and different ways to look at wine. I have to challenge myself in the way I look at wine year in and year out.”

That’s the spirit that has driven California pinot noir to greatness.


Davis Bynum Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2021 ($45): Bursting with red fruit of sweet cherries and strawberries. There’s a round mouthfeel with balsamic, sweet cherry.

Foxen Santa Maria Valley Riverbench Vineyard Pinot Noir 2021 ($58): Sandalwood, fall leaves and black cherry on the nose; there’s pomegranate, black cherry and loamy earth notes on a medium-bodied pinot.

Frank Family Vineyards Carneros Pinot Noir 2021 ($39.99): A collection of round red fruits on the nose; raspberry, strawberry give way to raspberry, cinnamon stick and tobacco spice notes, medium-bodied and well-balanced. Another great wine to be paired with food that got better with time; went well with carne asada tacos.

Lyric Monterey County Pinot Noir 2022 ($19.99): Loaded with strawberry and tart cherry flavors framed by a medium body, dried roses and a refreshing acidity on the finish. More delicate and nuanced with a light purple tone in the glass.

Papapietro Perry Russian River Valley Peters Vineyard Pinot Noir 2020 ($66): The winery’s first-ever, vineyard-designated pinot came from Peters, and this wine continues the tradition. Notable aromas of fresh cherry and nice concentration and complexity on the palate.

Papapietro Perry, Pommard Clones, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2020 ($82): A serious pinot with sweet tobacco pipe and Earl Grey tea on the nose. There was candied cherry, cherry, cinnamon and a deep baking spice and sassafras flavor collection that served as an undercurrent to the tart cherry and red fruit flavors that had a determinedly long finish.

Papapietro Perry, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2021 ($61): Rich red fruits on the nose; raspberry, strawberry and cherry, cherry cola, black cherry and a woodsy note on the finish. Well-integrated tannins on a wine that is easy to love for its collection of fruit flavors, full-bodied mouthfeel and extensive finish.

Ram’s Gate Carneros Pinot Noir 2020 ($85): Winemaker Joe Nielsen’s desire for harmony shows in a balanced pinot where fruit, tannin and acidity are aligned. Whole-cluster fermentation with native yeasts yielded a wine with blueberry, leather, blood orange and bay leaf hints.

Three Sticks' Gap's Crown Vineyard is in the Petaluma Gap AVA.

Three Sticks, Sonoma Coast Gap’s Crown Pinot Noir 2021 ($75): Ryan Prichard said Gap’s Crown is first in the direct line of “fog and wind that barrel into Sonoma.” Wind and fog off the Pacific Ocean and Bodega Bay enter the Petaluma Gap AVA from a hole in the coastal mountain range and race toward Gap’s, where there can be really warm days that help draw in more fog. “Our fruit sits on vine longer than many sites in Sonoma County; we grow thick skins, which protects grapes from the wind, and gives us a long ripening cycle. There’s a dark richness, a natural power and complexity from Gap’s Crown. Even from clones that are more elegant at other sites.”