Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The perils of cheap Pinot Noir: notes from PinotFest

Ross Cobb makes some of the most elegant Pinots in California
PinotFest is one of the best annual wine tastings in San Francisco, with current-release Pinots Noir from throughout the West Coast, but usually I don't take a lot of notes. I'm too easily distracted: too many people I want to talk to. Usually I taste some Pinots I'm interested in, chat with a few folks, eat some duck gizzards (?? every year they serve these) and go on my way.

This year, after I had tasted about a half-dozen Pinots, I was thinking, wow, the West Coast is really doing great things with this grape. These are outstanding, terroir-driven, lively, pretty, not overdone wines that I wish I could spend an entire evening with.

Then I ran into a sommelier and wine instructor I have known for years, and she was shaking her head. "These wines are depressing," she said. "So much oak. So over the top."

How could we differ so completely?

It turns out to be a class issue, and a conundrum in talking about California and Oregon Pinot Noir.

Pinot prodigy Gavin Chanin
Because I wasn't planning to write anything -- not even this post -- I didn't bother to taste widely. I only tasted single-vineyard wines from wineries in which I had some interest. I rejected AVA-level wines -- multi-vineyard wines from Willamette Valley, Sonoma Coast or wherever -- that pourers wanted to start with, and just went right to the top. I didn't care about prices (which weren't listed) or availability. I tasted only the most interesting wines and was rewarded.

My friend, on the other hand, was looking for wines she could sell in a restaurant. Price points mattered. She tasted the AVA-level wines I ignored. I will have to take her word for how they tasted.

I could write a hand-wringing thing about how this is a problem for the wine industry: that consumers will only try the entry-level wines and never move up to the good stuff. But I'm not sure that's true.

Most people will only try the entry-level wines, sure. But maybe most people want oakier, heavier Pinot. Maybe Pinotphiles who like something more complex and lively, and who know what good Burgundy costs now, approach West Coast Pinots like I did, and will be willing to pay for them. You don't need that many well-heeled Pinotphiles to buy up wines of which only 200 cases are made.

Something else I learned, or perhaps verified -- taste Pinots made by people who you know to be great winemakers, and you are less likely to be disappointed.

Now comes the fun part of the story. I'm going to list some wines I liked a lot -- not "the best wines at PinotFest" because I'm not Alder Yarrow and I didn't taste everything -- and only after writing the notes will I go to Wine-Searcher to learn how much they cost. They're in alphabetical order.

Cobb Wines Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014: Made with 40% whole clusters, it's a little stemmy on the nose but light bodied and pretty. Not completely fruit-driven; it would stay interesting throughout a bottle. About $65 and well-worth it: buy it here.

Keller Estate El Coro Petaluma Gap/Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2015: Spicy, light, complex and fascinating. The 2014 is about $90 and that's pricey for California but not compared to contemporary top Burgundy. Buy it here.

LaRue Wines Rice-Spivak Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2014: Fresh and lively with pretty raspberry fruit. The winery, owned by young winemaker Katy Wilson, only makes about 500 cases a year total. About $75, pricey but what artisanal Pinot can cost. Buy it here.

Lutum Wines Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014: Pretty texture, lovely fruit, just delightful to drink. Gavin Chanin is one of the most talented winemakers in California, and the vineyard is one of the state's few Pinot vineyards that can be called "historic." Well worth $60. Buy it here.

Chad Melville
Melville Vineyards & Winery Estate Sandy's Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2015: From a spot of the vineyard with pure sand as soil, using 50% whole clusters. Pure, fresh red fruit with some savory complexity. Beautiful. Under $50 for this? A bargain. Buy it here.

Testarossa Winery Garys' Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2015: Intense fruit but with good freshness so that it just keeps going and going. No mistaking that it's a California Pinot, but it's a good one. The 2014 is about $65; buy it here.


The upshot is, these wines that I loved weren't cheap, but for good Pinot Noir I don't think they were too expensive.

But I get it -- if you don't want to spend $70 for a bottle of wine, West Coast Pinot Noir might not be impressive. I wouldn't spend that kind of money often if I didn't get to taste these wines for free. Maybe this is an issue for the wine industry. I'll let somebody else worry about it.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and Instagram @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


DMB said...

The only one you list that I have tasted is the Keller Pinot Noir and I whole-heartedly agree that it is an excellent, subtle, and complex Pinot. The Keller Estate winery that is at the Southern end of Sonoma Valley is well worth a visit; combining beautiful views and interesting wines.
We wrote about Keller Estate on our blog last year:

Andy said...

For whatever it worth, consumers like Meiomi (oak, sugar, high ETOH, etc) and it obviously sells. Your friend would be wise to put this on her list. That being said, I'd take the "entry" pinots from Melville, etc over that disgusting plonk any day of the week. I guess its all a matter of palate experience, wine geekiness and budget!

Bob Henry said...

From the PinotFest website (for the edification of your readers) . . .

Participating Wineries:

Alma Rosa, Au Bon Climat, Big Table Farm, Bonaccorsi, Byron, Calera, Charles Heintz, Chehalem, Cobb, Costa de Oro, Cristom, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, En Route, Ernest, Etude, Failla, Fiddlehead, Flowers, Foxen, Freeman, Gary Farrell, Gloria Ferrer, Handley, Hartford Court, Hitching Post, Joseph Phelps, Keller Estate, Kendric, Kosta Browne, LaRue, Littorai, Lutum, Marimar Estate, Melville, Merry Edwards, Morgan, Nicolas Jay, Paul Hobbs, Paul Lato, Peay, Radio Coteau, Saintsbury, Siduri, Sinor LaVallee, Soter, Talisman, Talley, Testarossa, Tendril, Thomas Fogarty, Twomey, Wayfarer, Whitcraft, WillaKenzie, Williams Selyem.

Pinot Noir Pop Up – Focus: New Zealand

Beyond our beloved California and Oregon, there is, perhaps, no place on Earth more exciting for pinot noir right now than New Zealand. With that in mind, PinotFest is pleased to present 16 delicious Kiwi wines from the North Island to the South: Lime Rock, Escarpment, Ata Rangi, Neudorf, Huia, Greywacke, Villa Maria, Giesen, Mt. Beautiful, Pegasus Bay, Amisfield, Loveblock, Mt. Difficulty, Felton Road, Burn Cottage, and Ostler. Called Aotearoa in the First Nations Māori language – The Land of the Long White Cloud – stop by the NZ Wine table at PinotFest and taste for yourself what's up way down under!

Bob Henry said...

The other Bay Area event of note . . .

13th Annual Pinot Days
San Francisco Grand Festival
Saturday, November 11, 2017
Bespoke at Westfield – 845 Market St #450, San Francisco, CA 94103
Public Tasting: 2-5pm, $75

Christopher O'Gorman said...

I wonder if your depressed somm/educator friend was one of those only/primarily Burgundy types?

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Chris, I know that type of somm, but that's not her. She carries a lot of California wine.