Monday meander: Pinot Noir and Lot18
It wasn’t inevitable that I could wrap my head around a low alcohol California Pinot Noir, for the simple reason that low alc Pinots historically haven’t been very good. They’ve been overcropped, thin little things, showing more tannins and tobacco than fruit. When California learned how to make Pinot Noir rich, it did so by making them ripe, hence my years of high scores for Pinot Noirs in the 14.5% and up category. I relished the richness and opulence of, say, Goldeneye, Merry Edwards and Lynmar, none of which have been shy in alcohol. I liked the weight, the velvety mouthfeel, the density, not to mention the marvelous fruits that rolled through the finish. These were Pinot Noirs I thought were serious, and they merited serious scores.
Then there is another expression of Pinot Noir that clocks in under 13.9%. Copain 2009 Monument Tree, many if not most of Au Bon Climat’s and Babcock’s, a Lioco 2009 Hirsch that’s a mere 13.5%, ditto for a Tyler 08 Clos Pepe. Yesterday I tasted and reviewed Ghostwriter 2009 Woodruff Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Santa Cruz Mountains, that was 13.5%. These wines are considerably lighter than the 14.5% and up boys. Paler, too. But they are very good and deserve their high scores. It made me wonder how one Pinot Noir could be pale and light-bodied and boring while another can be pale and light-bodied and scrumptious. It’s all about stuffing, isn’t it? And that’s the glory and genius of great Pinot Noir–how it can be the most ethereal thing you’ve ever tasted, and also at the same time be explosive. With Pinot Noir as with no other variety does my vocabulary struggle to come up with oxymorons: delicate power, airy potency, silky depth. I’m not saying my palate preference is moving away from the 14.5% crowd, as many other critics seem to be doing. I’m just saying I’m gaining a new appreciation for a lower alcohol Pinot Noir that manages to be at the same time complex and rich. These cool vintages we’ve been having may give us more of them in years to come.
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I’ve been keeping my eye on Lot18 lately. That’s the website that sells a handful of wines at deep discount for a limited period of time. I’ve been hearing about it, and then on Sunday (yesterday) Jon Bonné had an article on Lot18 on the front page of the Chron’s Food & Wine Section called “A wine site flexes its muscle.” Jon had generally good things to say about it, although he did point out that Lot18’s offerings can be “a release valve for inventory.” Jon also nailed something Lot18 does that only a practiced eye, like Jon’s, would catch: that the critical reviews may “bypass a rating for a blurb on the vineyard or winemaker–not the specific wine.” The example Jon uses is when he quotes Philip James, Lot18’s (and Snooth’s) founder, as claiming it’s okay to say a wine was made by “the same guy who made Robert Mondavi’s Cabernet” even though the wine in question isn’t a Mondavi. It’s almost like saying, “This Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is actually made within sight of the famous Williams Selyem Winery.” It’s glitter-by-association and has nothing to do with the actual wine in the bottle.
It’s also troubling to me that so many of Lot18’s reviews are by the wine’s winemaker–for example, Marco DiGiulio, on Hidden Ridge’s 2006 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon. I grant that $25 is a good deal off the wine’s release price of $40. But I reviewed that wine in April, 2010. Here’s what I wrote, in part: “It may be a little too ripe for its own good, though, as it’s pretty jammy. For some reason, the winery lowered the price considerably from the 2005, which was a much better wine.” Not having tasted the wine lately, I can’t say I like it or not. But I wouldn’t pay $25 for it without an assurance it was fresh and complex and has benefited from the extra 14 months in bottle. This does seem to be, to requote Jon, an “inventory valve.” There’s a place for such practices, but caveat emptor has to be the guideline for consumers.