If critics are going to pronounce on regions, they should at least know them in depth
I‘ve been enjoying Benjamin Lewin’s new book, In Search of Pinot Noir [Vendange Press, 2011], which covers the Pinot grape and wine around the world. It’s really one of the best wine books of the year. Lewin, an M.W. who writes in an accessible style, is largely free of cant. He doesn’t repeat stale old chestnuts, the way so many wine writers do, if he doesn’t believe them for a fact, which makes his reportage credible, and he obviously knows his stuff.
In his section on California, Lewin makes a point that cannot be emphasized enough. Because California’s top Pinot Noirs are produced in such tiny quantities, “A system of managed scarcity” prevents most people from ever tasting them, “unless you are in the magic circle of aficionados…And if you can only taste the generic appellation wines because the best wines are never available… how can you appreciate their potential quality…? Does this [difficulty], Lewin asks, rhetorically, hold back recognition of the full potential of the [California] regions?”
My answer is a full-fledged Yes. We’ve all heard and read the critique that California Pinot Noir is flawed, compared to the best of Burgundy and Oregon. Too fruity. Too high in alcohol. Too oaky. But I would argue that a lot of the people who make these charges simply have not had the opportunity to taste California Pinot at its top levels, which is to say the single vineyard or best barrel bottlings from the best wineries. I would scarcely dare to pronounce on the quality of, say, the Portuguese red wines of Alentejano, Alentejo or Bairrada, which my Wine Enthusiast colleague, Roger Voss, recently gave high scores to, because I haven’t had enough of them. But I wonder how it is that a wine writer not actually living in California (or visiting here frequently), and who lacks full access to the top Pinot Noirs tasted on a consistent basis, can make sweeping generalizations and expect to be taken seriously.
I guess you can just fly into California once a year, arrange a whirlwind tasting, and render a verdict.
Lewin, on the other hand, has plenty of opportunity to taste California Pinot Noir, presumably through his duties writing for the World of Fine Wine and Decanter, and that’s why I say his writing is largely cant free. He displays an even-handedness concerning California, even though it’s pretty clear that he is, at heart, a Bugundian. He gives more four-star ratings to the likes of Chambertin than he does for anything in California; but his ratings for Williams Selyem, Sea Smoke and Au Bon Climat, to mention but a few, are quite similar to mine [albeit that I use numbers, not stars), which means that Lewin is right on the money, as far as I’m concerned!
If I only tasted the basic appellation Pinot Noirs from California–those available at supermarkets and distributor tastings–no doubt my opinion of Cali Pinot would be lower than it is. I too would probably criticize them. And in fact, I do criticize even some of the expensive, hard to get Pinot Noirs for obvious faults: over-extraction, too much oak, too much alcohol and (more rarely noted by critics, although it should be), bizarre acidity that has been added in a heavy-handed way.
But fortunately, I get to taste almost all the rare Pinot Noirs in California, and believe me, there are some spectacular wines out there, which is why I feel on firm ground stating how world class they are, and how ignorant the anti-California critics are–using “ignorant” in the sense of not possessing the necessary information to come to an informed judgment. Maybe the next time a critic bashes California Pinot, he or she should tell us precisely how many he’s tasted over, say, the last year, and exactly which ones. That at least would put some context into his remarks.