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In a Pinot Noir frame of mind

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It happens every year. With anticipation of the World of Pinot Noir, a wine lover’s thoughts turn to–Petite Sirah? Mais non! Le Pinot Noir!

This is WOPN’s twelfth year. Wine Enthusiast has been a sponsor for many of those years; I forget just when it was that I persuaded the magazine to ally with WOPN, but I just knew, from the moment the event began, that it was going to be big and important–the same way I felt about The Chardonnay Symposium, which the magazine now also co-sponsors. I love these consumer events that focus, at a very high level, on specific varieties. Of course, the wines have to be good enough to warrant public interest; otherwise, people wouldn’t pony up the [sometimes considerable] bucks to go. For example, I can’t image a World of Chenin Blanc, at least in California. Maybe in the Loire Valley.

Recently I was looking through my wine reviews over the past year or two to find “new faces” in Cali Cabernet Sauvignon, but I ran into a wall. The young, hip winemakers today who are just starting out aren’t turning to Cabernet. No, it’s Pinot Noir they want to break into. At first, I was surprised, but the more I thought about it, the more obvious the reason became. Why would a young, ambitious winemaker begin with Cabernet? That’s the hardest field to break into. You can’t, really, unless you start with a zillion dollars. Money will buy you great grapes: Beckstoffer, for instance. But most young winemakers can’t afford to buy Beckstoffer, much less plant their own vineyard. And it doesn’t make sense to start up an ambitious Cabernet winery unless you’re in Napa Valley. That’s not because I say so, it’s because the market speaks for itself. People just aren’t interested in expensive Cabernet if it doesn’t bear a Napa Valley address.

But Pinot Noir? Totally different story. Supplies on the bulk market are less than they used to be, due to a series of light vintages, but still, it’s possible to strike a deal with some famous vineyards out there: Bien Nacido, Pisoni, Keefer Ranch, Monument Tree, Fiddlestix, Garys’, Hirsch, Stone Corral, La Encantada, Clos Pepe, Saralee’s, Ferrington, Sierra Madre. And you’ll notice that these Pinots are from up and down coastal California. One of the lucky historical breaks Pinot Noir has enjoyed, as opposed to Cabernet, is that it never got pigeon-holed into one region. Napa Valley is super-great for Cabernet, obviously, and it’s far from clear that no other region in California could succeed at Cab, but there are so many reasons why it’s unlikely that it may never, in fact, come to pass.

Pinot Noir’s luck was that nobody got really serious about it, throughout California’s 200 years of wine cultivation, until the modern era, when the state had become very diverse, and wine cultures were springing up everywhere. Because of this democratic (with a small “d”) opportunism, talented growers and vintners could succeed wherever terroir conditions were right for Pinot Noir. They did; consumer interest and confidence leapfrogged, and World of Pinot Noir was born.

If you’ve never been to WOPN, the main tastings occur on two consecutive days, beneath huge, white fluffy tents set on a bluff just about the beach at The Cliffs Resort, in Shell Beach, which is about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, conveniently located (as they say) just off the 101 Freeway. When you check in, a valet takes your car, and you don’t see it for days. Nice, because you can drink to your heart’s content and not have to worry about driving.

I like to wander the tents, not to taste so much as to schmooze with old winemaker friends and make new ones. There is much trading of business cards. For serious tasting, WOPN has set aside a private media room that has duplicates of every wine being poured under the tents. The public is not allowed in, so you can sample quietly and with concentration. Of course, this isn’t blind tasting, so I won’t be formally reviewing the wines, but it’s educational nonetheless; and if I come across wines I’m unfamiliar with that strike me in particular ways, I can always ask the winemaker to send me a bottle in Oakland.

A few other things I like about WOPN are John Haeger’s annual presentation on Friday morning. John is of course author of the notable book, North American Pinot Noir. Then, Allen Meadows, the famous Burghound, always hosts a seminar. Allen’s the smartest guy I know when it comes to Burgundy. It’s all he does: 24/7/365, it’s Burgundy, Burgundy, Burgundy. I swear, the guy could tell you the exact latitude and longitude of every square inch of the Cote d’Or, who owns it now, who owned it 100 years ago, and what the rainfall was in every vintage inbetween.

I’m bringing Gus with me, which should be interesting. I will report here on Friday morning after getting to Shell Beach. In the meanwhile, enjoy a good bottle of Pinot Noir tonight.

  1. We’ll have LuLu, our Papillon, with us so Gus can made a new friend who won’t spook him…well, actually, with her big ears and tiny self, he might wonder what the heck she is. See you there my friend.

  2. How have I missed the media room in the past? Thanks for the tip. I may check it out, but I do like being in the tents if possible despite the crowds. I am always amazed by the crush of tasters at the Kosta Browne table but I know I shouldn’t be. I’m just happy I have already tasted the 2009 vintage. What is your impression, Steve? See you there!

  3. Curious if your personal tastes gravitate towards a particular Pinot Noir style?

  4. Dear Wandering Wino, “Balanced” is the best I can do.

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