Then as now, Cab was the main bag in the 1970s, when UC Davis graduates Richard Ward and David Graves came to Napa straight out of school. They worked the harvest at the area’s Cab greats, but for their own first batch, what was the point of doing like everyone else? They picked an underdog. “I think we’re contrarians at heart,” says Ward. “With Pinot, we could be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.”

Their fortunes rose with the Carneros region, which was recognized in 1983. If these days it seems that the region’s been eclipsed by others, among Pinot Noir drinkers, seeking bigger fruit, more power, it’s well worth taking another look. And not just a look back; Saintsbury says that 2009 is shaping up as their best vintage yet.

Unsigned, secreted away just south of the Carneros Highway, Saintsbury sells its bread-and-butter wines nationwide, and does a brisk business in new wine-on-tap programs. By-appointment tastings offer the curious consumer single-vineyard wines only available at the winery. Visitors may linger under shade trees out front in fair weather or sit down in a room adjacent the office, where they are free to quash the quiet by bowing a funky wine-barrel stringed instrument made by artist William T. Wiley.

What’s most striking about these wines is their common themes: potpourri, dried fruit and herb aromas, and fine tannins as gentle as sands falling in an hourglass. The 2008 Carneros Pinot Noir ($28) has a persistent, dusty aroma of sandalwood, the fruit wafting like incense out of the glass. The richer 2009 Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir ($45) and the 2009 Lee Vineyard Pinot Noir ($45) follow in a similar vein, again with the sandalwood and potpourri.

Almond tart and animal crackers dance around cherry fruit in the 2008 Brown Ranch Pinot Noir ($60), wrapped in heftier tannins. Since 2004, Saintsbury has explored the dark, savory joys of cool-climate Syrah. An antipasto plate in a glass, the 2008 Sawi Vineyard Sonoma Valley Syrah ($40) teases the nose with black olives and cured meats, but leaves the palate with stony finality, ready for a morsel of the real thing.

When Ward and Graves bottled their first wine, they lacked only one thing, a label. A friend brought up the name of George Saintsbury, an English classical scholar and enophile who, in 1920, wrote the definitive Notes on a Cellar-Book. Sounds good, they said. Although Saintsbury himself never got a chance to sample the Burgundian-styled product of the New World, I’ll bet that the old man of letters would approve.

Saintsbury, 1500 Los Carneros Ave., Napa. Monday–Saturday, by appointment only. 707.252.0592.