Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Pinot Noir is such an interesting wine.  Forget the praise heaped on it by Miles, the persnickety oenophile in Alexander Payne's movie "Sideways" if you can (his monologue about the notoriously difficult-to-grow grape was really about... himself) - with all of the Wineaux out there who love Pinot Noir, I've never heard one wax quite as rhapsodic.

You see, PN can be a bit of a conundrum.  First of all, there are the two main "styles:" Old World, like the Pinots from Burgundy with austere, elegant earthiness, and New World from the US and New Zealand which shower you with bright fruit; it is a grape that is known to reflect its terroir very specifically.  But you also have producers tailoring their wines to mimic different styles, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell a Pinot's precise origin from what is in your glass.

So can one generalize about Pinot?  Perhaps only to say that it is a lighter-bodied red (except when it's not) with a fair amount of acidity (except when it hasn't) that comes in a number of diverse styles but is often pretty darn quaffable.  Pinot is also a born 'food wine' due to its acidity and lighter weight.

At a recent Pinot Days event I sampled a number of wines from California producers of PN.  (The organizers crowed there was an array of Pinots from the Pacific Northwest and New Zealand on hand as well, but the majority were from CA.)  It always makes me laugh when trade event brochures have NO room to write notes, which explains why my following reviews are über concise.  I sought out some of my favorite producers, as well as a few new to me.  (Starred entries are standouts.)

Belle Glos is a perennial favorite - they make PNs from a number of standout sub-regions in California. You can't miss the distinctive wax capsules which actually meander down half of the bottle in a smear of luscious rich red.

*2012 Belle Glos Dairyman Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: lavender florals, strawberry, cherry pie - I wrote, "WOW - YUM."  ~$43

2012 Belle Glos Las Alturas Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands: Herby nose, velvety fruit, very spicy! Long length. ~$40

*2012 Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Pinot Noir Santa Barbara: Dark berry syrup, clove.  Outrageously smooth and elegant, yet rich.  ~$39

It is believed that Buena Vista Winery is the oldest commercial winery in the US.  (At least Wikipedia believes it!)  Located in Sonoma, CA - prime Pinot territory - they make a wide array of wines, from Chardonnay to Zinfandel and much more in-between, including these PNs with great quality at an affordable price.

*2012 Buena Vista Pinot Noir Sonoma: Light cherry berry, bright and pleasant, nice easy finish.  Super choice for those who crave a smooth, delicious wine without too much structure. ~$13

2009 Buena Vista Pinot Noir Carneros: Earth, bramble fruit, zingy acidity, elegant and crisp. ~$20

DeLoach Vineyards is a Russian River Valley producer who zeroes in on the three main grapes that thrive there - Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and our friend Pinot Noir.  

2012 DeLoach Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: Round fruit on the nose, sour fruit, good acidity. ~$19

*2010 DeLoach Pinot Noir Russian River Valley/Green Valley: Expressive fruit, lovely integrated components, good fruit/acid balance and nice weight. ~$39

2010 DeLoach OFS ("Our Finest Selection") Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: great nose, merdy terroir, darker berry fruit, clean, elegant. ~$33

Founded by the namesake Texan who played frontiersmen Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone in the 50s and 60s, Fess Parker has emerged as a pioneering winery in many ways.  Strong family lineage, entrepreneurial drive, and high quality earmark this winery.

2010 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills: Robust fruit and flowers, black raspberries, very smooth. ~$22

2011 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard: Super perfumey, little spice, juicy, not too long a finish. ~$48

*2010 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Ashley's: Lots of fruit, spice and earth, elegantly integrated, very lovely. ~$40

As a sucker for anything bubbly, I was hoping that I'd find one of their signature sparkling wines at the Gloria Ferrer table, but not this time!  (As you may know, Pinot Noir is one of the red grapes often used in making Champagne, and many US sparkling producers who make wines in the methode champenoise style use it to great success as well.)  However, I was very interested to try some of their varietal Pinots.

2008 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir Etesian: Styled for by-the-glass consumption, very earthy, light yet solid. ~$16

*2010 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir Carneros: Lots of floral perfume, little bit of earth, tasty in the mouth, nice balance, not too big. ~$20

A colleague insisted I go by the Hilliard Bruce Winery table.  Speaking with winemaker John Hilliard, I was impressed by his dedication to making his winery sustainable.  He mentioned that after transitioning from an Organic production to Certified Sustainable, he has actually reduced his emission numbers, and passionately stated, "Greenhouse gases are the biggest threat to mankind." (He was also a bit of a rebel, pouring a Chardonnay at a Pinot Noir event!)  But it was a great visit:

*2011 Hilliard Bruce Chardonnay Santa Rita Hills: Incredible nose, mountain florals, lemon curd, green apple, wow, very very crisp, low oak, pretty atypical Chard. ~$45

*2010 Hilliard Bruce Sun Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills: Blackberry stem and florals on the nose, lots of raspberry, smooth, elegant and rich but not overpowering. ~$55

Another well-respected winery is Landmark Vineyards, located in Sonoma.  They also have a wonderful Chardonnay and make some wines with Rhône varietals, but their Burgundian-style Pinots are standouts.  The cursive script on the label speaks to the bibliophile in me - I feel like these wines are about to tell me a story.

2012 Landmark Pinot Noir Overlook: Interesting lavender nose, violets too.  Tangy and rich, black fruits and spice.  ~$26

2011 Landmark Pinot Noir Grand Detour: Robust nose, berries and cola.  Lots of acidity.  Little unbalanced finish but lengthy with great acidity - needs food! ~$35

*2011 Landmark Pinot Noir Solomon Hills: Small production - 150 cases.  Noticeable earthy terroir, dense flavors, fruit, floral, cinnamon/clove, but still very very light and elegant.  Mmmm. ~$55

All in all, the variety and quality of PNs coming from California remain pretty consistent.  I find you do have to search around at a higher price point to really get good quality (many sub-$20 CA Pinots are one-dimensional, which is why the Buena Vista Sonoma was a nice surprise.) But if you're ready to browse around at that level, you will certainly find many exciting wines that definitely support Miles' ardor!


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