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Retrospective: World of Pinot Noir


Last Saturday morning’s seminar on “Terroir: The Soul of La Côte d’Or” was an absolute delight. It’s no easy thing to rouse an audience of several hundred at 9 a.m. in the morning of the second day of a major wine and food event, after a night in which most of them partied hard and went to bed late. But Don Kinnan did it.

John Haeger, who wrote North American Pinot Noir, used to have this time slot for his “Pinot Noir 101” seminar, which we always enjoyed (“we” meaning myself and all the other attendees; I haven’t adapted use of the Papal “We,” yet). But Mr. Kinnan, who appears to be of a certain age, was new to most of us, and we didn’t know quite what to expect.

Turns out he’s an ex-Kobrand guy, where he was director of education, and also holds the Certified Wine Educator certificate from the Society of Wine Educators. Don not only “knows his stuff” when it comes to Burgundy, but also made one of the greatest presentations (complete with Power Point) I’ve ever seen. He had everybody captivated with his graceful, informed and easy approach.

We tasted 9 wines, from 9 villages, 8 producers and 4 vintages, in order to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of terroir. Don explained how Burgundy is comprised of 3,800 estates, not to mention 250 negociants, spread over 101 appellations, which makes it a terribly complicated place. “It takes faith to believe in [the reality of] terroir, which cannot be proven by the scientific method,” Don told us. Of course, I’ve grown up with conventional notions of Burgundian terroir: Volnay delicate, Vosne powerful, Beaune elegant, Chambolle feminine, but unless you really drink a lot of these wines, you don’t know these things first-hand. Don wanted to show us how the old notions of regional differences are true, and he largely succeeded.

First, he tackled an issue I’ve written much about on this blog: “terroir” is the soil and climate, but the human element has to be considered, in the form of vineyard management and the winemaking process. The combination of the two is what I have called “cru,” after Emile Peynaud, but of course, as Don said, in Burgundy the idea is for the human to stand back and let terroir star. (His most controversial statement may have been, “In the New World there’s more human influence than in the Old World,” which, if true, would minimize terroir.)

I won’t go through all nine of my tasting notes, except to say that Don had us taste blind, and, based on his superb and clear definitions of what to expect in the wines, I got all of them right. This surely is the highest performance a wine educator is capable of: To describe wines in such chiseled detail, in a way that makes so much sense, that you’re able to identify them blind. For me, the stars of the show were a Clos de Vougeot, Domaine Hudelot-Noellat 2004, and a spectacular Volnay, 2006 Taillepieds from Domaine de Montille, that was so good, it made my seatmate to the left, Dick Doré, from Foxen, smile ear to ear. I can only say that wine gave me a permanent Platonic idea of Volnay.

After that peak experience, it was hard to go back to California Pinot Noir. But I made a valiant effort, and have to say our state has no reason to hang its head. To fall ever so short of a world class masterpiece like that Volnay is not embarrassing. I tasted a lot of wine that Saturday, under the white tents on the bluffs above the Pacific beach as the fog rolled relentlessly in, but I took no notes. I never take notes at crowded venues like World of Pinot Noir. They’re not conducive to thoughtful tasting, and even logistically, you can’t hold your glass, your spit cup and your pad and pen in two hands! Not to mention a lack of level surfaces upon which to write.

But I do enjoy visiting the various wineries, trying new things, connecting with old friends, making new ones, and deepening my understanding of things in general. I will add only that, late Saturday afternoon, the WOPN people arranged for a final pair of seminars, including a Talley one to which I went, Talley being an old favorite and Brian Talley an old acquaintance. Brian brought along his winemaker, Eric Johnson, and together they made a formidable presentation, and the wines, of course, were great. However, by 5 p.m., several of the attendees were obviously drunk, and while some of us tried to get them to shut up by polite requests and tapping silverware on our crystal glasses, alas, it was to no avail. The silent, respectful majority of us were irritated, and I think Brian was, too (although he’s too much the gentlemen to reveal such things). It is really awful how thoughtless and rude some people can be. The WOPN organizers may want to rethink these 5 p.m. Saturday seminars.

But that was a minor cloud on an otherwise fabulous World of Pinot Noir. Check it out next year.

  1. That 06 Taillepieds is a masterful Pinot Noir.

  2. Steve,

    Very impressive that Don could describe each wine in such clear detail that you could go 9 for 9 blind (deserved kudos to you as well for matching the descriptions to the actual wines). But here’s the big question..

    Let’s say Don’s expertise was in California Pinot rather than Burgundy. In your opinion, could you go 9 for 9 with California Pinot given the same excellent spot on descriptions or do our producers indeed introduce too much “human influence” to make that realistic?

  3. Bob, I should have more fully explained. It wasn’t all 9 wines in a row — there were 4 flights of 2 red wines each. I was able to determine the reds correctly based on Don’s descriptions.

  4. Don Kinnan says:

    Steve, I am humbled by your comments. My motivation, like most educators, comes from audience response. Like you, and all other wine enthusiasts, I am a student of wine, always learning and enjoying every moment of it. It was a privilege for me to have the opportunity to address such a distinguished and learned group.


  5. Dear Don Kinnan, thank you very much for all the contributions you have made to the world of wine and to people’s understanding of it.

  6. you mentioned that terroir “cannot be proven by the scientific method”. this might have been meant as a bit of poetry, so i hate to nitpick, but we actually had a seminar at the oregon wine symposium last week with a professor from uc-davis who is using dna sequencing to track the terroir of napa valley. according to his research, ava’s have distinct characteristics, although the influence of wineries can also be clearly tracked as the wine goes from juice to wine. you should look into it, since most of the research is being done in your neck of the woods.

    as always, great blog posts. thanks for keeping us updated on the wopn

  7. Gabe, one research finding proves nothing. Thanks.

  8. i dunno dude. dna sequencing is being used to cure diseases, i think it is a pretty reliable source

  9. Steve, Don is a treasure. I have had the great privlege of attending many of his his presentations at each years Society of Wine Educators conference.


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