"Pinot Gris is a good cashflow wine, but its days in Oregon are limited," said Peterson-Nedry, right. "As a variety it's just not as great as Riesling or Chardonnay."
I agree. But some consumers love Pinot Gris precisely because it's less flavorful than Riesling or Chard. There are some times when people simply want a neutral wine; this is why Italian Pinot Grigio (same grape, different accent) is one of the most popular imported wines in America, particularly on the East Coast.
Pinot Gris is hugely important in Oregon. It's easily the second-most produced variety, behind Pinot Noir.
2009 Oregon wine grape production
Pinot Noir 53.1%
Pinot Gris 16.7%
Cabernet Sauvignon 3.1%
Pinot Blanc 1.4%
Everything else 7.5%
Pinot Gris also continues to be planted; production in 2009 was up 45% over 2003, though that's a bit less than the average variety, which was up 67.5%.
One damning thing about Pinot Gris, though, is that serious tastings exclude it. At the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Peterson-Nedry and Rollin Soles of Argyle led several of us through a 30-wine tasting of older Oregon wines in an attempt to prove the state's gravitas. We tasted Rieslings as far back as 1988 and Chardonnays as far back as 1998, but not one Pinot Gris.
Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I think most consumers cellar wines too long, not too little. If you have a nice tannic Fronsac, you want to put it away for a decade or more. But most American wines these days are made to drink now, and you're doing yourself and the wine a disservice by waiting five years.
What we tasted were the exceptions. These were the highlights (my tasting notes in italics):
* 1979 Ponzi Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, smokey catsup with raspberries and peppered pastramiYou'll note that there's not one Chardonnay on my list of favorites. I walked away from this tasting a believer in the aging potential of Oregon Pinot Noir, but despite the constantly drawn parallels to Burgundy, I don't think the older Chards are in the same league.
* 1985 Amity Winemaker's Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, bright and juicy cherry with charred steak notes
* 1988 Amity Oregon Dry Riesling, apricot and green apple with a hint of anise
* 1991 Argyle Reserve Oregon Dry Riesling, lime, peach and clay
* 1991 Ponzi Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, tart pomegranate with cherry tobacco
* 1997 Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, raspberries and cherries with a floral note
* 1998 Bethel Heights Southeast Block Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, juicy cherry with black pepper
* 1998 Seven Hills Winery Walla Walla Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, juicy black cherry with black olives
* 1998 Hamacher Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, raspberry and cola and spice
* 2000 Sinnean Columbia Valley Merlot, black cherry and violet with a savory finish
Oregon is a bit like New Zealand in that it doesn't get the attention of its larger neighbor, and its advocates are always worried about the wines' international reputations. Argyle's Soles believes this kind of tasting in California is necessary.
"Great wines age," Soles says. "We want to show the world that we are a serious wine region. We're trying to invest in future generations."
Which brings me back to Pinot Gris. Does it bring down the reputation of Oregon as a wine region when 16.7% of its wine tastes, essentially, like "white wine"?
I think not. If Oregon Pinot Gris tasted bad, maybe it would. I think New York state wineries' insistence on making Bordeaux varietals holds back their reputation for this reason. But there's nothing wrong with a wine that tastes like nothing, especially when you realize you're never robbing the cradle to drink it.