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Is there too much Pinot Noir growing in California?


I drive down to one of my favorite events of the year today. World of Pinot Noir is still held at the Cliffs Resort, in Shell Beach (San Luis Obispo County), as it has been for the last eleven years. I went to the first one, fell in love with it on the spot, and have gone ever since.

In advance of going, I checked out some Pinot Noir statistics here in California. The Department of Food & Ag just sent out the 2010 crush report. There was actually a little less Pinot crushed in 2010 than in 2009, but if you go back just six vintages, to 2004, the number of tons crushed of Pinot Noir was less than half of what it was last year: 70,000, versus 147,000.

That’s a big increase, more than 100%. For comparison’s sake, in the same two vintages (2004 and 2010), Cabernet Sauvignon went up 23.6%, Chardonnay was up 24.5% and Sauvignon Blanc (the next most widely planted white grape after Chardonnay, excluding French Columbard) was up 30%.

Sure, Pinot’s tonnage started from a smaller base than did the other three, but the fact is (hold onto you hats) that Pinot Noir, in 2010, was the fourth highest red grape in tons crushed in all of California, beaten out only by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel (and again, excluding a grape nobody cares about because it goes into jug wines, Rubired). There was even more Pinot Noir crushed last year than Syrah. If crush increases at another 100% rate for the next six years, Pinot Noir’s numbers will soar, making one wonder if there are enough people to drink it all.

What about acreage? The Food & Ag people haven’t released the 2010 Grape Acreage Report yet, but we have 2009’s to go by. That year, there were more than 36,000 acres (bearing and non-bearing) of Pinot Noir reported. Again, that put Pinot #4 on the list of most widely planted red varieties (after Cabernet, Zinfandel and Merlot). Most of it was right where you’d expect: Sonoma County, where extensive plantings have gone into the Petaluma Gap region. Monterey County, too, has exploded in Pinot acreage, as has Santa Barbara County, Mendocino County and Napa, San Benito and San Luis Obispo counties. There are now 34 California counties growing Pinot,  more than half the state’s total of 58.

We all know that Pinot Noir is hugely popular. What the precise role of Sideways was will be debated forever: Was Pinot happening anyway? Yes. Did Sideways help? Yes. Would Pinot be where it is today without Sideways? Irrelevant. The real question is, is there a tipping point to how much Pinot Noir California can grow before there’s an oversupply, the way we’ve seen happen with other grapes, like Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel, forcing prices to fall?

Overplanting is one potential problem Pinot Noir faces. The other is pricing. Of all varieties, Pinot is the most difficult to produce inexpensively, which is why it is, on average, the costliest California wine, as determined by its weighted average dollars per ton. Pinot’s WADPT in 2010 was $1,641. No other major grape variety is that high. (Several rare varieties, such as Aleatico, Lemberger and Pinot Meunier, report higher numbers, but those must be based on extremely small deals between growers and buyers, and obviously do not reflect on the underlying value of those varieties, which at any rate are rarely bottled.) This means that Pinot Noir will always be an expensive wine, which is not a good thing when Americans continue to tighten their belts and look for values.

So we’re going to have to keep a close eye on the future of the Pinot Noir market, and that’s one of the questions I’m going to be asking producers at the World of Pinot Noir.

  1. While “too much” pinot noir means there probably is a lot planted where it shouldn’t be, it also means more choices for consumers to find something they like. And that is a good thing. More choice, more variety = overall positive for consumers.

  2. Colorado,

    I see the logic in your comment but sadly, I think what happens is that a lot of mediocre Pinot is flooding the retail shelves, mostly blended with Syrah or Mega-Purple to give it color and depth. Watch how fast those vineyards get grafted over when a new “darling variety” will appear. Funny, Merlot is in demand again….

    Steve, part of the price thing is folk that had “Acreage” contracts and got screwed on yield big time in 2010.

  3. James McCann says:

    Perhaps the issue is not in total tonnage, but rather the short amount of time in which it exploded. There is no doubt that some of it was grafted to inappropriate rootstock and that some growers are still working the kinks out of new vineyards.

    For me, the question is whether the extra 70K tons will improve in quality as the knowledge base grows.

  4. It might be interesting to find out who is planting new PN and correlate that to who was already growing good PN. No doubt in my mind that there is alot of Follow the Money and Me Too thinking going on.

  5. Which varietal will be championed in the upcoming sequel to Sideways, Vertical?

  6. Tai-Ran, I don’t think any varietal is championed. I read the book. It’s more of a personal relationship story than about any one type of wine.

  7. gdfo, absolutely. Once the Pinot Noir train left the station, a lot of big interests decided to plant. This me-tooism always characterizes the wine industry.

  8. The high WADPT for Pinot is due to the fact that, unlike Cab, Zin and Merlot, it is not yet widely planted in the big valley where yields are high and costs are low. And that is a good thing, unlike what the wide plantings in hot climates have done to Merlot. Just like Merlot, there may someday be an oversupply of Pinot, but there will never be an oversupply of quality Pinot Noir.

  9. Morton – if I may, by one definition there is never an over-supply of quality anything. Like Napa Cabernet, the prices for some Pinot will simply continue to increase with time. Pricing on those vineyards is not affected by WAPT (though catastrophic collapse of the global economy might put a dent in the asking prices). Some vineyards will always be beyond the commoditization effects of overplanting a single variety.

    Every day, I have people come in to taste who are predisposed to be disappointed because of prior experiences they have had with Pinot. This tells me that there is already a lot of Pinot on the shelves that succeeds brilliantly in aiming low. Increased production of these wines will eventually result in the shine coming off the variety in the broader consumer demo, as it did with Merlot.

  10. Too much Pinot Noir planted in California? No, in my opinion there’s not too much of this variety that thrives near coastal regions where the foggy mornings and warm California afternoons make for the perfect recipe for this elegant variety.

    I do think there’s way to much crappola out there calling itself Pinot Noir but looking, smelling and tasting like non-nueanced syrah. Steve, I’ve recommended to you before about doing a piece on the “14.1%” phenomonon. That is, why are roughly 7/10 Pinot Noir’s labeled exactly 14.1% and why most of those labeled that aren’t in fact any where near that #. At least here in the RRV, most… yes most Pinot Noirs and whites grown, produced and bottled in this area have over the past decade been labeled… exactly… 14.1%. Either one of two things are happening. Either most Pinot producers are harvesting within the exact same days, thereby having a the same final alc, OR they’re playing the low alc card and labeling their 14.8% (or higher) wine 14.1. If it’s the first case, then the only way of distinction from one another is OAK profiles. Not good in an economy like this one.

    The only piece of tech data we as wineries give our clients on the label and we can’t even be honest (as an industry) with that. Now I know there are some wines that are actually what the label indicates, but how many? Not a lot. Unfortunately, 14.5% seems to be the new 14.1… This would imply that the alc’s are going up rather than coming into balance. In the 70’s 12% alc WAS PLENTY for world class dry red wines. In fact the Cab that put Napa and later the ret of CA on the enological map was 13% flat. The ’74 stagg’s Leap was that wine. How many Napa Cab’s are still in that original range? ZERO!!! If anyone out there can recommend a Napa Cab in the hugh 12 to low 13% range, please advise!

    Yes, Pinot Noir seems to have come a good distance since its boom in the mid-90’s, but the flat cherry cola meets liquid brown sugar thing really must stop… please. At least in my neck of the woods.

  11. Since “Sideways” if a Pinot were produced in Romania and sealed with a paper towel, it would be a hit.
    Americans have discovered PN is an easy drinking quaff with (usually) low tannins and, as Randy says, “cherry cola meets liquid brown sugar,” and they can’t get enough of it.

  12. I am a huge fan of quality Pinot. However, I think there is a market for cheap, valley produced pinot, especially for someone whe wants to enjoy an affordable, everyday light red wine. Pinot doesn’t have the “valley vegg” like cabernet or merlot grown in the same area.

  13. As a grower and purchaser, I am not seeing the glut in Sonoma for quality. If anything it is getting more competitive and harder to get and more expensive. On the sales side, perhaps there is too much being produced in the current market, but the data suggests people are trading up. Location is critical.

  14. Randy.
    Philip Tongi is making what I consider to be great Napa Cab and (at least for the 05) is just labeling it as table wine because his alchols are that low.

  15. David Rossi says:

    Not too much yet, and the recent economic woes have slowed new plantings. Could it happen in the future? Absolutely.

  16. Pafos, maybe, but for me, in Pinot Noir you get what you pay for. The $15 and under market is pretty light, and some are downright awful.

  17. Randy, I don’t think we’re ever going to see accurate, pinpoint alc numbers of the label. Too bad, but that’s just the way it is.

  18. richard says:

    Are there too many acres of corporately planted Pinot Noir? YES.

  19. Oded, I don’t disagree with you… I’m just trying to see the forest through the trees.

  20. Is there too much Pinot Noir? Maybe in the wrong place, but obviously not in the right places. The analogy to Merlot is instructive, but not in the way people think.

    Merlot never lost a step because of Sideways. It just kept on selling. Rather than Merlot being back, it never left. Have a look at the sales figures over the years. There is no evidence yet to suggest that Pinot, despite rising production will find its prices going into a deep downward spiral, especially in those locations that can produce balanced, flavorful wines.

    On the other hand, Sideways did do a lot for Pinot Noir in the short run. And it might even be responsible for there being too much PN in the wrong places. But, as it stands today, Pinot in the right places is in short supply and any number of small producers are having to increase what they pay for Pinot or to cut back on their plans to make PN.

    Randy’s comments about alcohol are, as usual, totally misplaced. The conflating of 14% alc with brown sugar is simply wrong and incredibly simplistic. Sure, there are wines that go too far in that direction, but the suggestion that you cannot find one from Napa or beyond shows how little familiarity you have with wineries like Ridge, Dunn and and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Oh, and it was the 1973 SLWC, not the ’74, that won the Paris tasting.

  21. As a consumer I would agree that there are alot of Pinots to choose from. I can’t say there is too much, but in my opinion, quality ones are typically better when they are grown along the coast vs. the valleys.

  22. As a Sommelier, I’d like to steer this conversation down another route. Pinot Noir clearly is one of the most food flexible grape varietals in the world, and getting my customers to recognize that is part of my job. It’s really a shame to discover that very few “everyday people” realize this. I feel that the two most import words of wine wisdom I could ever whisper into a guests ear are Pinot Noir; and Riesling. Getting people to recognize these wines for their table fare sensibility is the first step I believe in winning people over with wine as a whole. Showing them this very basic example of how wine and food behave well together can illustrate that wine and food don’t just happen to match, just because you’re consuming them at the same time.

    I feel strongly that there is no such thing as over producing Pinot Noir, or Riesling for that matter. In my opinion there can never be too many options because it will ALWAYS come down to process of elimination by the consumer and the critics alike. It’s a good thing.

  23. Jerry, for sure the best Cali pinots are grown closer to the coast where the weather is cooler.

  24. Charlie and Steve; Two “gate keepers” who want the status que to stay where it’s at. “Never mind the man behind the curtain folks, nothing here to see”.

    If you guys think that making homogeneous Pinot Noir is somehow good for the variety and good wine and winemaking, I’d disagree. Obviously, was painting with a broad brush but purposfuly so- no , not all Pinots labeled 14.1 are flat and over oaked, but many are.

    Steve- For a guy who loves to stirr up Wine country with charged headlines on your blog, I’d think you’d be all over the 14.1% conspiracy, but alas you’re really nothing more than a tool in the toolbox of all things eneologically average. Good job. Why don’t you write about something really interesting rather than the same garble over and over only with different words and (same content).

    Try it, you might surprise yourself.

    Charlie, if it was the ’73, I’m not sure why they showcased an emply bottle of the 74 along the Monetlena Chard at the Museum of Modern Art 1976-present display.

    Marlene, you must be a retail sales lady.

    AB- I’ll be looking up Phillip Tongi- Sounds like this guys’ wine could be up my alley. Thanks.

  25. Dave, for some reason “everyday people” take longer to understand drier, more transparent wines like Pinot and Riesling than big ones, like oaky Chardonnays and Cabernet. There will never be enough great Pinot Noir, but I wonder how much average Pinot Noir the market can absorb and still keep prices high — especially in light of the point you made, that “everyday people” don’t drink Pinot.

  26. There is still strong competition for Pinot in prime locations. And the new plantings in west Sonoma have been planted by those who have a need for grapes so those of us buying on the open market really haven’t seen much benefit. So my opinion is there is not too much planted but it is tempting to try cheaper grapes from a fringe region. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When quality producers play with new sources we get a true reading on what the region offers.

  27. Steve (et al): great to see such vibrant discussion…one salient point to add – high-quality variety! I love PN’s wide range of styles…that’s the beauty of Burgs, and with the broad spectrum of land/climate in WA/OR/CA, what a wealth of PN diversity! Just as in Burgundy, there is no one definitive “best” style, and I’ll swing all over the map depending on my food match and mood – and still find great quality.
    I’m not concerned about the quality of crap PN beginning to flood the market – just like other varietals, consumers will begin trading up as they learn and experiment. And one could argue a good case that PN is amongst the most flexible of wines in terms of food compliment…we’re entering a new age of Pinot Noir in the US, and it will be good for all, esp. consumers.

  28. zoeldar, I share your passion for the great Pinot Noir grape and wine! I too love the different styles and interpretations. I will probably have a lot more to say here on Monday, when I return from World of Pinot Noir.

  29. Alan, I wonder if there are any new Pinot regions in California worth exploring. Humboldt County? San Diego? I don’t think so.

  30. Randy, flat cherry cola would be an improvement on many of these new mass-market pinots. Food friendliness is grossly overhyped with most new, non-VD “value” CA & Oregon pinots I’ve tasted. Given their flavor and alcohol levels, consumers may as well be pairing their wild Alaskan salmon with Robutussin.

  31. Randy, LOL!
    I am a former sommeliere, head up the wine certificate program at UC Irvine and am wine columnist for Chef magazine. I also freelance for Somm Journal, Int’l Sommelier, Andy Dias Blue’s Tasting Panel, yada yada yada…

  32. “The high WADPT for Pinot is due to the fact that, unlike Cab, Zin and Merlot, it is not yet widely planted in the big valley where yields are high and costs are low.”
    Actually, a lot of the new planting IS in the Central Valley. It’ll be interesting to see how that turns out. The last time people made Central Valley Pinot in any quantity it was grim indeed. But winemaking has become a lot more clever, if less transparent, since then.

  33. Christian, I think we all know who most of that Central Valley Pinot is grown by!

  34. Randy, wow. Take a nap.

  35. Randy asks “Charlie, if it was the ’73, I’m not sure why they showcased an emply bottle of the 74 along the Monetlena Chard at the Museum of Modern Art 1976-present display.”

    Good question, Randy. But the winning red wine was the 73. Try a search for Paris Tasting and see for yourself. I kid you not, Randy.

  36. Hey, Randy. You know what I like most about the status quo. It’s always changing.

  37. My worry, Steve, is that while there will be an increase in sub-$15 Pinot Noir and a glut of the bad stuff, this will make it harder for quality Pinot producers to invest in the good land and quality techniques that produce the better more expensive Pinot.

  38. Wow! Just discovered this blog! Awesome!

    I’m no sommelier, but I do love Pinot Noir, and I think there’s so much out there to discover. The variety is what makes tasting the various Pinot Noirs on the market so fun – at least to this “everyday person.” 🙂

    Besides, cheap wine is well… cheap. If you have any care for good quality wines, you’ll definitely trade up. With Pinot, you definitely get what you pay for…

  39. Coming back to this late, but as a guy who worked for SLWC for half a decade – like Charlie says, it was the ’73 that won the Paris tasting of ’76. I drank my last bottle in 2000 or 2001, and it was delicious. But then I had picked up my bottles from a case on the inside of the pallet.

  40. Steve, I feel my acrerage is in a new Pinot region in California worth exploring. I think so. The micro climate seems perfect.

  41. Dawn, where is your vineyard?


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