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Bold and brassy doesn’t go over in NYC? That’s weird

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There’s something ironic about the fact that the New York contingent of wine writer/critics hates brash, in your face California Pinot Noirs. After all, isn’t that the essence of New Yawkahs–brash and in your face?

The latest would be John Mariani, writing this piece in Bloomberg decrying “blockbuster,” “fleshy,” “muscular,” and “hedonistic” Pinot Noirs, as though his delicate sensitivities as a Big Apple denizen allow him to covet only wines of timid, tremoring restraint. It’s passing strange.

But enough of the snark, let me defend why some of these high alcohol Pinot Noirs merit their place in the pantheon. Consider, for example, Armanino’s 2010 Amber Ridge Pinot Noir, from the Russian River Valley ($55). It clocks in officially at 15.1%, which in reality means the actual alcohol level may be slightly higher.

The overwhelming fact of that wine is deliciousness. In my review, which will be in the May 1 issue of Wine Enthusiast, I called it “vastly rich.” Amber Ridge Vineyard, which was planted in 2000, is just west of the 101 Freeway, near the town of Windsor and south of Healdsburg, making it somewhat warmer than, say, areas further west and south, such as Green Valley or the Laguna Ridges. That extra kick of heat no doubt accounts for the ripeness that translates into alcohol.

Yes, this region doesn’t yield your typical Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. The same vineyard, Amber Ridge, has been source to excellent Novy Syrah. But the Lees, who own Novy, also make an Amber Ridge Pinot Noir from their Siduri brand, with excellent results. And just to the south of Amber Ridge is Starr Ridge, a rather famous vineyard in its own right due to Gary Farrell’s consistent production of rich, ageworthy Pinot Noirs. So it’s not like this is no-man’s land for Pinot Noir. There certainly are cooling influences, from gaps that allow maritime air to filter in from Guerneville as well as the last punch that comes up through the Petaluma Gap. (Things heat up quickly as you cross the 101 and move into Chalk Hill, where the heat bunches up against the 1,500-foot Coast Ranges.)

Isn’t diversity of style a large part of the charm of Pinot Noir? Burgundians rave about the spectrum of wines within the Côte de’Or, everything from a big, sappy Vosnes to a lighter, more delicate Beaune. If there’s room for a spectrum in Burgundy, why not in California? That Armanino, and Pinots like it, shouldn’t be mindlessly thrown under the bus just because it doesn’t conform to a “Burgundian” template. Nor, I should add, ought a wine like the Patz & Hall 2009 Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast, $55), with its alcohol level of 15.8% (another producer Mr. Mariani picked on). These wines may not be for everyone. But I’d like to see critics who don’t like that style at least credit them for being high-level examples of that style, instead of saying, “They’re not Burgundy.” They’re not supposed to be Burgundy. Their creators don’t want them to be Burgundy. They are legitimate expressions of their terroir, and they reflect house styles that have proven to be popular with many wine consumers and critics–including me.

  1. I’m not an expert here nor do I pretend that I am. I’m just wine enthusiast (no pun intended) who loves pinot. The Bloomberg article simplifies the debate but so do you.

    I agree with you that 14% alcohol level shouldn’t be the line of demarcation. I disagree with you about the big, bombastic, heavily extracted CA pinot style. When it comes to pinot our taste profiles are significantly different. I personally find way too many CA pinots reminiscent, to me, of Napa-style Cabs. I tend to stick with Calera, Anthill Farms, Peay, & Williams Selyem, which are all balanced wines.

    But why the jab at NYC? Nowhere in the article does it mention NYC. Is it because the article was published by Bloomberg? Why are you trying to incite controversy when none exists? I think you are doing a disservice to your argument.

    FYI – I’m not sure the last time you spent any significant time besides the occassional visit, but we have a significant and varied wine culture in NYC. The ability to find new & exciting wine, or just your old reliable favorite, has come a long way in 15 years. Whether it’s at a restaurant, wine store, or wine bar, you can pretty much find anything here. Even “bold & brassy” CA pinot.

  2. Isn’t diversity of style a large part of the charm of Pinot Noir? YEs!!!! Embrace them All : P

  3. Brian M, I poke fun at NYC because I was born and raised there [17 years in the same Bronx apt.]. The city is in my blood and in my heart and always will be.

  4. I am not a fan of the style, but I agree that no matter what It is important to celebrate wines the exemplify a style.

  5. Steve,

    Good call on the Patz & Hall Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir. I think it is just about my favorite from this negociant. (plus I don’t know anyone who tastes more Burgundy than Anne Moses!)

  6. Katherine says:

    Hallelujah!

  7. Steve: That big and brassy Pinots can be representative of terroir, I don’t think anyone can argue with.

    But just because something is representative of terroir doesn’t make it good.

  8. Blake: same goes for thin, austere Pinots.

  9. I was also born in New Yawk – right in the heart of Greenwich Village to be exact. Which has nothing to do with the fact that the New York cohort of wine critics are clearly anti-West Coast. They are like a high school clique that we poor Left Coasters can only aspire, never belong to. They honor third rate blogs and fourth rate wines and take great pleasure in bashing the wines that typify America. Why? Because all they have is Long Island, Virginia, some so-so Rieslings in upstate New York, and a huge pile of also-rans. They are not, never were, and never will be able to compete with the West Coast for quality wines. And it sticks in their snotty little craws. So they snipe at us. Simple as that.

  10. Paul,
    Step back. Just because certain wine writer do not go in for the overblown “California” style does not mean they are jealous. It is a preference, one which I share. There are some great Cali Pinots without a question, Windgap, Joseph Swan, …. but stop trying to create an East Coast West Coast thing. Cali has wine locked up. You guys won, but you were from here you know that NY is still the undisputed King.

  11. There is a definite anti-California bent to some wine writing from New York (Do the initials A.F. mean anything to you?), but not in this particular article.

    I’m always irritated by East Coast writers who write something like, “California Chardonnays are too big and buttery,” leaving no possibility of exceptions.

    In fact, the Pinots that Mariani recommends are almost entirely from California. He’s merely expressing a style preference, which critics are entitled too: Steve likes big Pinots, Mariani doesn’t.

    I gotta say, though, I question Mariani’s taste if his favorite wine is a Forest Glen California-appellation Pinot Noir beefed up with 20% Syrah.

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