Is California Pinot Noir turning lighter?
So Eric Asimov says over at the Times, a paper whose future is as unpredictable at this point as, well, the San Francisco Chronicle’s. Eric, who previously has argued the case for a lighter-style California Pinot, nonetheless engages in a bit of hyperbole when he affirms that “a rebellion is brewing” among the state’s vintners who are turning to “finesse…instead of a rich, mouth-coating impression of sweetness…”.
Rebellion: a journalistic word editors love. I wouldn’t call what’s happening with California Pinot Noir a rebellion. Thomas Jefferson fomented a rebellion when he planted grapes in Virginia he supposed would lead to an American wine industry. (He failed.) I suppose you could even say Robert Mondavi led a rebellion of (mostly Napa) vintners who felt they could usurp Europe’s place in prestige. (They largely succeeded.) If there were Pinot Noir rebellionistas, they were pioneers like Joe Rochioli, Jr., Joe Swan and Richard Sanford who dared tackle the grape, 35 and more years ago. To call anyone today making Pinot Noir in California a rebel is looking for someone to lead a cause of the writer’s own imagination. People are tinkering with style, not looking to overthrow basic concepts.
But that’s not to forswear the conversation — not an argument — between fans of a lighter style and those who prefer a riper approach. I was reminded of this on Saturday when I tasted his Pinot Noirs with Jean Charles Boisset. I had given his 2006 JCB Pinots good scores — 88, 89 and 90 — but Boisset felt these did not adequately reflect the wines’ qualities, and being in a compliant mood and liking JC, I agreed to retaste with him. Aside from the fact that they were now 7 months older in bottle, which improved them as time often does, they still seemed to me as I found them last summer: wines of great elegance, but light, and missing the stuffing I prefer, and which I reward with scores in the higher 90s.
I explained to Jean Charles that there’s a sweet spot in Pinot Noir that’s hard to hit. It’s not underripe or over-cropped, which gives minty, green and thin flavors, and it’s not extracted and super-mature, where the wines have a heaviness more like a Rhône wine. Instead, it’s right in the middle. Wineries that consistently exhibit this balance include Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards, Goldeneye, Testarossa, Siduri, Breggo, Marimar Estate, Melville, Hartford Court and Bonaccorsi. What they have in common — hard to put into words — is a rich deliciousness, and yet an elegant structure.
Jean Charles, being a Burgundian (he grew up in the Clos de Vougeot and his family owns the largest winery in Burgundy, as well as DeLoach) feels too many California Pinot Noirs are too heavy (here, he agrees with Asimov). There are certainly heavy Pinots out there. But let me try to put “elegance” in context. As much as I like his JCB wines for their racy elegance and Yves-St.-Laurent classicism, for me they could use a dose of California audacity. It was Jean Charles himself who raised the YSL metaphor with respect to Pinot Noir. He was thinking, I believe, of a classic men’s tuxedo, or perhaps Deneuve in a pants suit with trenchcoat — linear, austere, minimalist.
But I had serendipitously just happened to have come from the big new YSL exhibit at the De Young Museum, in Golden Gate Park, where Yves’ outrageous hommages and over-the-top exclusives for Euro-trash were on exhibit in all their gaudy flamboyance. Believe me, the designer could be outrageous, in a drag queen way every San Franciscan understands. And that made me realize something. A truly great California Pinot Noir needs not only a classic nobility of line, but a touch — nothing too heavy — of the flashy decadence of drag.
Oh, uh, and another celebrity is making wine
Now it’s Sting, who joins Madonna, or was it Mother Theresa, with a new wine line.
The flood of Time Magazine cover people jumping on the wine bandwagon is tidal. Soon we’ll have to re-jigger Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame to “Some day, 15 percent of all the people in the world will have their own wine brand.” Jean Charles asked me if I thought about coming up with a brand. Oi. I have enough tsouris not to have to worry about that.