Skeptics would be right in expecting an ’01 to be over the hill. But this classy bottle still had life in it. (photo by Renee Wilmeth for Wine and Whiskey Globe)

New world pinot lovers have endless debates: Do American Pinots age? Some argue they’re made to drink young, while others feel they can cellar as well as 1er Cru Burgundies. No matter which side of the debate you support, we can all agree that every once in a while, you come across an aged pinot that delivers pleasure and is worthy of discussion (or, as the other camp would put it, you find a unicorn).

Last Sunday, my host asked me to choose the wine from an array of bottles he had recently brought up from the cellar. Perhaps it was the passing of Tony Terlato, Sanford’s current owner, that made the wine catch my eye. Perhaps it was the age—quite possibly the oldest Santa Barbara Pinot I’ve ever seen, let alone tasted. (So old, the label says “Santa Rita Hills”, the pre-lawsuit, pre-AVA spelling of the Sta. Rita Hills region.) Either way, it was worth a try.

The 2001 vintage wasn’t particularly notable. Wine Spectator says it was “a solid year with elegant, delicate, concentrated wines.” Even so, Terlato clearly saw the potential, buying into Sanford in 2002 and becoming the controlling investor in 2005.

The bottle had come up from the cellar in the past few days and showed heavy sediment down the side.  The cork was slightly depressed and so dry and crumbly it broke off halfway through pulling it. (It happens to everyone sometimes.) Lacking any appropriate tools for extraction, we just pushed it in and hoped for the best. We strained it into a decanter, something I’d normally never do for a pinot this old. I was worried the wine didn’t have much life left in it.

Certainly, this wine was fully resolved; I wouldn’t have held on to the bottle any longer. On a first taste, I feared it would have a short life, especially with the decanting, but I was never more happy to be proven wrong. This wine just kept delivering, down to the last sediment-filled dregs.

It was the brick-color in the glass you’d expect from a wine this old and, on the nose, it was the essence of an old Pinot. More impressively, it continued to open up. Over an hour or so, the wine I’d expected to just fade away became more expressive. On the palate, stone, wood, and loads of spice. There was even still a bit of fruit reminding you that this wine had once danced with dark plum, apricot pit, and red fruit.  The earthiness, oak, and mushroom underpinned it all, right where you’d want it to be.

The debate will still rage about how long to age these well-made California pinots. (One ought not hold one 19 years, as a matter of habit.) But the winemaker from 2001 (and I’m sure Tony Terlato) would be pleased to know we were able to share the last of this wine’s well-lived life with friends, unicorn or not.