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The Crunchy Delights of Whole-Cluster Pinot Noir

New York sommelier Kenneth Crum explains what makes whole-cluster Pinot Noir so seductive

Vicki Denig By June 1, 2021June 8th, 2021
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

Kenneth Crum wants to make the wine world a better place, one cork-pop at a time. After a brief stint acting in LA, Crum moved back to his native New York to help his family open their Brooklyn-based restaurant, Ode to Babel. While managing the bar program, he also pursued other behind-the-bar gigs across the boroughs, namely at Bar Corvo and Lupa Osteria Romana, where he discovered a love for wine. 

At Lupa, Crum worked his way up under his first wine mentor, sommelier Jeff Porter, and eventually took over as the restaurant’s beverage director. “Learning from amazing people like Jeff allowed me to look at wine differently: as art, history, and so much more,” he says. From there, Crum helped open the critically acclaimed Red Hook Tavern as general manager and beverage director. 

A thirst for new adventure pushed him to Sonoma, where he joined winemaker Matt Taylor at his eponymous Sonoma-based project. There he earned experience in viticulture and vinification, including working with whole-cluster Pinot Noir. In this technique, the entire grape cluster is crushed and fermented, stems included, which adds tannin and structure plus attractive floral and spice aromas. Crum cites learning from Taylor as one of the most pivotal moments in his career. “Once I tasted Taylor’s wines, I knew I had to learn from him,” says Crum. “They were, and are, unlike any Sonoma Pinots I know.” 

Today, as the beverage director at New York’s Tokyo Record Bar, Air’s Champagne Parlor, Special Club, and Niche Niche, Crum feels a refreshed passion for hospitality. “The biggest and most exciting project is getting Air’s Champagne list back to being as amazing as it was pre-COVID,” says Crum, noting it was the restaurant group’s hardest hit establishment during the pandemic. “Now the weather is getting nice and our Champagne customers are back!” he says. 

Outside of wine, Crum has a love for fashion and passion for history. “If I’m not reading about wine, I’m probably reading about fashion. I feel like it’s as important to my self expression as wine is,” he says. “I also got into classic French baking during quarantine. I make a mean cannelle.” 

Crum recommends these three whole-cluster Pinot Noirs:

Nathan Kendall Pinot Noir 2017 ($30)

Nathan Kendall is a New York native like Crum, with roots in the state’s Finger Lakes. After working harvests in Sonoma, Oregon, New Zealand, Australia, and Germany, Kendall returned to Seneca Lake to create Old World-style wines using minimal intervention. His Pinot Noir is produced using some whole clusters and the wine ages on lees for one year in neutral French barrels to enhance the texture. “This wine is probably the cleanest and least crunchy of the bunch,” says Crum, “The nose is so pretty and floral. There’s this amazing orange zest note on the finish that makes it great with most food.”

Sylvain Pataille Rouge Le Chapitre Bourgogne 2018 ($57)

Based in Burgundy’s highly underrated appellation of Marsannay, Sylvain Pataille is working to put this often overlooked appellation onto consumers’ radar. Pataille farms all of his fruit organically and is transitioning to full biodynamic production. Le Chapitre is fermented using ambient yeasts and 100% whole clusters, and the wine sees 18 months of aging in old barrels. It’s bottled unfined and unfiltered with a minimal sulfite addition. Crum says the wine is perfect “for the Burgundy drinker who’s ready to have fun,” because it’s “ripe, delicious, and just serious enough.” Crum also notes that the wine can be enjoyed at a variety of temperatures: chilled or not, depending on the mood.

Matt Taylor Komorebi Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($80)

Five miles inland from the Pacific, in western Sonoma, Matt Taylor produces small-batch Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from organic and biodynamic fruit. The grapes benefit from the cooler temperatures, morning fog, and tempering ocean breezes that help keep acidity high, and Taylor uses a light hand to retain that freshness. The wine is 100% whole cluster and is bottled unfined, unfiltered, and with minimal sulfites. As a former colleague of Taylor’s, Crum says that “Naturally, this wine will always have a place in my heart,” adding, “It’s so fun to taste people on this for the first time and watch their facial reactions.”