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A great Pinot Noir tasting



Farallon, the popular seafood restaurant in San Francisco’s Union Square, is having their annual PinotFest taating of Pinot Noir this November 20, and I’m already champing at the bit. Look at this list: Alma Rosa, Archery Summit, Au Bon Climat, Bonaccorsi, Byron, Calera, Charles Heintz, Chehalem, Cobb, Costa de Oro, Domaine de la Côte, Domaine Drouhin, Drake, En Route, Ernest, Etude, Failla, Fiddlehead, Flowers, Foxen, Freeman, Gloria Ferrer, Greenwood Ridge, Handley, Hartford Family, Hendry, Hitching Post, Joseph Phelps, Keller Estate, Kendric, Kosta Browne, LaRue, Littorai, Lutum, Lynmar, Marimar Estate, Melville, Merry Edwards, Morgan, Patz & Hall, Paul Hobbs, Paul Lato, Peay, Radio Coteau, Reuling, Saintsbury, Siduri, Sinor-LaVallee, Soliste, Soter, Talisman, Talley, Tendril, Testarossa, Thomas Fogarty, Twomey, Wayfarer, Whitcraft, WillaKenzie, Williams Selyem.

Wowee zowee. That is Pinot heaven. I might have added some more wineries, but hey, you can’t have everything.

I asked myself, What if I’d been invited to a similar tasting, but of the best California Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends instead of Pinot Noir. Would my enthusiasm be as high? And the truth is, I had to answer in the negative. Sure, I’d go to a great Cab tasting—happily, willingly—and I’d have a ball while I was there. But, somehow, my excitement wouldn’t be as great.

Why is that? Well, it’s just me, of course: Maybe you, or someone else, would be more turned on by a Cab tasting than a Pinot tasting. As I scrape my brain trying to understand why the Pinot event is more exciting for me, I keep returning to the word “delicate.” To say that Pinot Noir is a more delicate wine than Cabernet Sauvignon is obvious. Is that what the explanation is? Maybe it’s because I can anticipate tasting through a few dozen Pinots without palate fatigue, as might be the case with Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol level tends to be lower in Pinot, the tannins certainly are, and the acidity tends to be a little higher. Pinot Noir is never, or should never be, full-bodied, as Cabernet always should be. Maybe my palate just doesn’t want to do all that heavy lifting anymore.

And maybe part of my excitement is because I’ve been witness to the rise of Pinot Noir in California. What a thrilling ride it’s been! What a privilege to have been here “at the beginning” (well, since the late Seventies, anyway) and been able to see, and participate in, this amazing evolution, from a starting point where everyone—and I do mean all the then-important critics—insisted that fine Pinot Noir was impossible to grow in California. Everybody believed that—except for fanatics like Dick Graff, Richard Sanford, Joe Rochioli, Jr., Josh Jensen, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem (am I missing anyone?), true believers who refused to be deterred from their vision quest. Mazel tov to the Pinot-neers! (I just coined a neologism that deserves to be quickly interred.)

It’s very important for people who want to keep up with the evolution of our wines in California to go to tastings like this. It’s so easy to develop a cellar palate. It’s true that I work for a wine company, Jackson Family Wines, that produces a range of Pinot Noirs from different wineries; but I don’t always get to taste them all, nor do I get to taste any California wines with the breadth and depth I used to, when I was the wine critic at Wine Enthusiast, and the wines came cascading in every day. So I’m very grateful to Farallon for hosting this annual event. I’m assuming that “everybody who’s anybody” in San Francisco is going to be there. I’ll be looking forward to seeing some old friends, and making new ones. But you know what? I’ll also be missing the many faces that aren’t there, because they’ve passed onto that Great Big Tasting Room in the sky.

Well, that’s making me a little weepy, so let me just wish you all a pleasant weekend. I’ll be right here next week.

  1. You missed the most important one, Joseph Swan. His pinots have aged better over the years than anyone else in California.

  2. Mat, you are so right! The great Joe Swan. It’s ironic, because I devoted so much space to him in my first book.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    “. . . since the late Seventies . . . the then-important critics . . . insisted that fine Pinot Noir was impossible to grow in California. Everybody believed that — except for fanatics like Dick Graff, Richard Sanford, Joe Rochioli, Jr., Josh Jensen, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem (am I missing anyone?) . . .”

    I concur: don’t overlook Joseph Swan.

    But go back even earlier to André Tchelistcheff (B.V.) and James David Zellerbach (Hanzell) and Martin Ray (eponymous/Mount Eden).

    But the earliest pioneer/champion was possibly Agoston Haraszthy at Buena Vista.

    (I defer to California wine historian Charles Sullivan, California wine reviewer Charlie Olken, North American Pinot Noir historian John Winthrop Haeger, and California Pinot Noir reviewer William “Rusty” Gaffney, M.D. for fact-checking on Haraszthy’s contribution to bringing the grape from Europe to California.)

  4. Bob Henry says:

    For those whose residence is near Los Angeles, or whose business/personal travels will take them ti our “fair city,” one can attend Pinot Days on Saturday, November 21st.


  5. Tom Dehlinger

    Gary Pisoni

    Davis Bynum

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