In defense of Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir has become the new poster boy for California wines you love to hate. Yesterday, Eric Asimov, over at The Pour, was only the latest to bash Pinot for being “simply too big” in his recent post, “What Pinot Used to Be.”
His beef is that in the past Pinot Noir was a “bridge wine” that spanned the spectrum between red and white, but that nowadays the wines lack “subtlety, finesse and restraint.”
Actually, Eric referred to “American” Pinot Noir, not just California. In fact, he didn’t mention California once in his post. The one Pinot Noir he had praise for was Eyrie, up in Oregon. So why do I think he really had California in mind? Well, most American Pinot Noir comes from California. And Eric has criticized California wines before. So I think he really was thinking of California.
Judging from the comments his blog received, many people agree with Eric — at least, many readers of the New York Times. “I couldn’t agree more,” wrote one. “American pinot noir has lost its roots,” wrote another. A third said “I trust [Pinot Noir] will come back…”.
Come back from what? Let’s get some history on the table here. What Pinot Noir used to be in California was a thin, simple wine that most probably wasn’t even made from Pinot Noir grapes but was Gamay Beaujolais or something else equally common. That’s why Pinot Noir took so long to achieve a reputation. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and 1980s that the likes of Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Sanford, Joseph Swan and a few others (not to mention oldtimers like Hanzell and Mt. Eden) came to critical attention, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that regions as diverse as Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley and Santa Barbara County were widely appreciated. So let’s stop this talk of “what Pinot used to be” and “trusting it will come back” because it used to suck and there was really nothing for it to come back to!
Now, if you read Eric’s post carefully, you’ll note all sorts of hedges. For example, when he says Pinot is “too big,” he adds, “not so much in alcohol but in body and sweetness.” That’s a testament, perhaps, to the fact that alcohol levels in California Pinot Noir actually have been dropping in recent years (even as they rise in Burgundy). [This is my observation only, but it’s based on my critical assessment of more California Pinot Noirs tasted than almost anyone else in America.] So that leaves body and sweetness to criticize. Well, I get to taste a lot of Burgundy in my job, including the wines from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and to my mind, as interesting as they may be, they taste tannicly hard and austere compared to the lushness of a great California Pinot Noir, and I don’t have the inclination to cellar a wine for 20 years before it’s drinkable. (Who does, nowadays?) I mean, the words “subtlety, finesse and restraint” can also mean thin, small and narrow.
I also take issue with the assertion that Pinot isn’t a bridge wine. It is. It’s silkier and smoother than almost any other red wine, and even a big, assertive Pinot Noir (like, say, anything from the Pisoni Vineyard) is going to be gentler on the palate than almost any Cabernet or Zinfandel you can name. I’ve enjoyed Pinot Noir with lighter things like ham, turkey, chicken, veal, sausages, mushroom risotto and salmon as well as with grilled steaks and chops, and it’s fine with them all. That seems pretty bridge-like to me.
So why the knocking? Maybe because it’s easy. Maybe because of the veneration of Burgundy (where Eric was traveling earlier this month). We’ve put Burgundy on such a high plane that anything that dares to be different from it must be, ipso facto, inferior. But consider this quote from Dan Kosta, of Kosta Browne, which I came across in an interview he gave to an online wine publication: “If Pinot Noir was grown in California hundreds of years before Burgundy, would Burgundy be comparing itself to California?”
Answer: Yup. Count on it. And the Californians would be calling Burgundy thin and tannic.
Eric is one of the best wine writers in America, but I think he’s wrong on this one.