Napa Talk Winemakers

Napa Talk with Scott Kelley

Scott reveals his long love affair with Napa’s forgotten first grape — Pinot Noir.


1. What was your path to becoming a ‘Pinot Expert’?

I had my Pinot moment at Bistro Jeanty in Napa on New Years Eve 1998, when a good mate of mine stuck a glass of DRC La Tache in front of me. I was busy talking up a girl and after one smell and taste I was in love…..with the wine that is! It was intoxicating, silky, complex and evolving as the evening went on. It was a truly sexy wine that has been my muse ever since.

2. Why do they call Pinot the ‘heartbreak grape’?

Pinot Noir is known as a tough wine to make for several reasons. I feel it shows its flaws more than any other variety. Too much tannin? Not enough natural acidity? Over/under ripe? Over oaked? All of these can throw the wine grossly out of balance and show like a sore thumb in Pinot Noir. The great Pinot Noirs of the world need to grow in cool climates where you have to ride the line of getting ripe or not. And, it’s a thinned-skinned grape and really susceptible to rot — it’s not for the faint of heart! To me, those vintages you have to fight for somehow always work out to be some of the best!

3. When everyone else went Napa Cab, why did you choose the Pinot route?

I moved to Napa Valley because at the time that was where the best winemakers were and I was eager to learn from the best. At first, I made a lot of Cab but ended up working with Italian varietals which taught me a lot about a whole new style. While working for Robert Mondavi, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to our Italian joint venture. That experience in Italy opened my eyes to the benefits of dry farming — which I started exploring when I came back to Napa with a focus on Pinot Noir. 

Dry farming yields wines of great balance with lower alcohol, better natural acidity and incredible complexity. It was a great first experience and helped me to carve my path in the Umpqua Valley of Oregon today!

4. Now that you live in prime Pinot country, what are some differences you’ve found between Napa and Oregon Pinot?

The level of phenological maturity (fancy terms for ripeness of skins, seeds and flavors) in Oregon comes at much lower sugar levels and higher natural acidity levels. What this means is we are able to achieve perfect ripeness through dry farming at a much lower sugar level than I was used to in California. It was a learning curve!

 A good friend once told me that good wines taste like a grape and great wines taste like a place — dry farming allows us to let the terroir truly shine through!

5. What life lessons has Pinot taught you?

That sometimes less is more. When I was a young winemaker I thought every wine had to have tons of color, lots of extract, alcohol, oak and be super expressive. Pinot Noir has taught me the benefits of nuance. the beauty of a wine that doesn’t show you all of it’s cards the first time you take a sniff but opens up over time, the surprise of a wine that looks like a rose in the glass but has incredible texture and length, and just how damn sexy a great wine can be when we get it right!

6. What’s your perfect pairing for Pinot?

I love pigs and Pinot, so pretty much any pork dish works great with a bottle of Pinot. I make my own bacon so I love to find ways to utilize bacon into non-pork dishes. One of my favorites is perfectly cooked Salmon on a bed of lentils cooked with a bit of that smoky bacon.

Follow Scott Kelley on Naked Wines

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