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In defense of Pinot Noir

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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.

  1. David Doyle says:

    I don’t think you’ll be able to get any sort of consensus on this one, because I’ve found that most people are pretty much are in one camp or the other when it comes to high alcohol or highly extracted Pinot Noir of the sort you find in California these days.

    I personally don’t like wines of the Kosta Browne ilk because they don’t express Pinot Noir to me. Maybe it is because I drink a lot of Burgundy these days and I prefer the body and texture of French Pinot.

    Who’s right? Nobody or Everybody, I suppose. To each his or her own.

  2. “I don’t have the inclination to cellar a wine for 20 years before it’s drinkable. (Who does, nowadays?)”

    Sad really that there are fewer and fewer advocates of cellaring wine. I agree with a lot of what you say, but this just makes me sad. The joy of enjoying well cellared wine is so wonderful, i hope we don’t lose that in favor of quick to mature treats…Time tastes wonderful

  3. Ryan, I think that many California wines are pleasurable early on, but they also have the ability to age well. Just to mention a few Pinot Noirs, there’s Hanzell and Calera. I’ve had 45-year old Hanzells that took my breath away.

  4. First, I think Eric is entitled to his opinion…he’s never pompous and didn’t say ALL “Pinot is “too big”. And, I have to agree with the “not so much in alcohol but in body and sweetness.”

    Second, I agree with you, the alcohol is coming down out here; winemakers have noted that not enough consumers are wanting wines that are high in alcohol.

    So, let’s cut to the chase: how would you describe a Kosta Browne pinot noir? (And how often do you have this style of pinot noir with food?)

  5. Jack, if you mean Pinots that are big bodied and sweet in fruit, I love drinking those with the foods I listed in my post (ham, turkey, chicken, veal, sausages, mushroom risotto and salmon as well as with grilled steaks and chops), as well as certain cheeses. I actually haven’t had a lot of Kosta Browne, though, so it’s hard for me to comment specifically on them. I just liked Dan Kosta’s quote!

  6. Well put Steve. I am so tired of the Burgundy vs California debate. Who cares. Drink what you like and stop putting down the other guy just to make yourself feel better.

  7. My take on California Pinots is that Russian River is just about as sure a bet for a good one as aywhere in the world.

    Two thoughts to add:
    1) I think high-end Oregon Pinots (like Domaine Serene Evanstad Reserve) tend to emulate the fuler style of Calif Pinots, ans like the Hanzell you mentioned, are prime for aging too. Whereas the “regular” Oregon bottlings can sometimes seems closer to Burgundy

    2) I saw an interesting post over at vintnersvoice.com decrying the blending of other grapes (main culprit Syrah) into Pinot. Is this prevalent in high-end (or perhaps high-slcohol) Pinots, or is it sporadic… and how can anyone really tell?

  8. I do not think you can assume that Eric was only referring to California pinot. There are plenty of Oregon pinots pushing 15% alcohol out on the market. I think it has truly been a American, not just California, issue. There are many California pinots on the market that are not as extracted as a lot of Oregon pinots. Now why in the world anyone would want to come to Oregon to make big pinot is beyond me.

    There has been little need to for anyone to consider adding syrah to Oregon pinot lately, although 2007 may be another matter.

  9. Syrah in Pinot! How bout that. Hermitagé…travail a l’anglais…been around for a long time. Considering you only need 75% of the grape to call it a varietal name, maybe some vintners are putting some Syrah (or Zin, or whatever) in the Pinots. But we’ll never know it because it’s a secret.

  10. Pinot is a “bridge wine”? What? Like Merlot used to be? There are a lot of ways to get from white to red, and there are enough soft, fruity, simple and inexpensive wines that say Pinot on the label to do that job.

    But for most of the people I know, Pinot is a destination – the answer to “OK I’m done with the high-alcohol, high pH, over-extracted, over-oaked juice, so what’s next?”

    That said, AFAIK the big Pinot is not really new – there’s always been guys trying to make Cabernet out of Pinot (or Chardonnay our of Sauvignon Blanc, or whatever) and there’s always been people to drink it. Good on them.

  11. Love the advice. Thank you.

  12. Tita, thanks.

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