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A Sunday Filled With Pinot Noir

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 23, 2007 12:39pm ET

On Sunday, I joined a group of Pinot Noir lovers in Danville, an East Bay suburb. They were gracious, congenial folks who either don't own TVs or don't have an obsessive interest in football.

They were, to be sure, more concerned about the future of Pinot Noir than who will be tackling whom in Miami in two weeks. Right priorities, I say.

The tasting featured wines from 11 wineries, each of which provided three vintages of the same wine, from 2003, 2004 and 2005. (One winery had two sets of wines.)

Wineries included Siduri, with its Cargasacchi Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills; Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast, Loring Clos Pepe Santa Rita, Pisoni Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands, Roessler Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley, August West Rosella’s Vineyard Santa Lucia; Arista, a Ferrington Vineyard Anderson Valley; Russian River Valley Toboni Vineyard, A.P. Vin Santa Lucia Garys’ Vineyard, Freeman Sonoma Coast, Abiouness Stanley Ranch Carneros and Alcina Sonoma Coast Sangiacomo Vineyard.

The tasting was double blind, that is, we knew these were California Pinots (and most of the winemakers were seated among us trying to figure out which flight had their wines), and each had a lineage, coming essentially from the same vineyard.

But we didn’t know which wines or appellations or vintages were in front of us, which is fine. That’s the beauty of assessing wines on their own merits, without names, reputations, prices and whatever abstract nonessential factors might otherwise persuade critics.

One thing the event’s host, Greg Piatigorski, owner and winemaker of Alcina, had in mind was testing how the new ‘05s compared with the two earlier vintages. As a whole, the 50 or so tasters preferred the 2005 wines to 2004 and 2003.

On my scorecard, 2004 and 2005 were a dead heat. The 2004s were richer, more complex wines with greater dimensions overall. The 2003s hung in nicely as well, sharing with 2004 a greater density and firmer tannins.

The 2005s were fresh, flashy, vibrant and thoroughly tempting. I expect that for most Pinot lovers, and even critics, this will be a pleasing year. The wines avoid what some consider overripeness, excessive power (and alcohol) and gridiron tannins. Instead, there’s an emphasis on the more delicate, fragrant side of Pinot Noir, which needs to express itself when possible.

Overall, I rated seven '05s as outstanding, six '04s as outstanding and only a couple of '03s as outstanding. (I had trouble with four flights due to either off or corky bottles, which skewed my rankings.) I gave my highest marks to August West Rosella’s Vineyard, with all three wines showing amazing complexity, depth and length. I also gave high marks to the Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast, Roessler Savoy Vineyard, Pisoni, Loring Clos Pepe (despite one off bottle) and Alcina Sangiacomo.

It was a good Sunday workout, with plenty of exciting wines, and despite a few flawed bottles, no one got hurt.

Jason Kadushin
Seattle, WA —  January 23, 2007 1:40pm ET
Jim - sounds like a great tasting. Quick question though. As you know one major issue with high quaility pinot is that it is often made in VERY limited quantities.

While I've enjoyed some of the wines above and some great Pinots from Oregon as well - I was wondering what (US) producers you consider to be among the best of widely available Pinot?
Arshavir Kouladjian
Los Angeles, California —  January 23, 2007 1:44pm ET

Hi Laube It is with great pleasure to admit that your Pinot Noir palate is by far the leader of all critics.

I would love to hear what you have to say about Pinot Noirs outside of the U.S? Good Job!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 23, 2007 2:03pm ET
Jason, I'd start with our cover story on Pinot Noir last year: (http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Archives/Show_Article/0,1275,5800,00.html)You can also use our database; choose advanced search and go back a year; then reset the vintage bar to sort by year.Some that didn't make the list then that are worth it: Saintsbury, Rochioli, Calera, Acacia (the Carneros bottlings), Etude, Sanford, Badge, El Molino, Alma Rosa and a few I mentioned in the blog: Alcina, Roessler and August West.
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  January 23, 2007 2:35pm ET
James--I can think of worse ways to spend a Sunday! When are your tasting notes on the wines coming out? Thanks, Tim
Berry Crawford
January 23, 2007 2:59pm ET
I agree with Arshavir. Ive never completly disagreed with a Laube numerical review over the last few years. Sometimes I get much different flavor profiles though.

Actually I just though of a numerical profile i disagree with. I seem to like Martanelli Pinots more than he does.
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  January 23, 2007 3:17pm ET
James, awesome tasting!! How do you determine which Pinots will age well? I struggle with this. I used to think that only Bordeauxs and big Cabernets aged well, but am recently discovering some Pinots that have aged beautifully. Is it tannins, acidity, alcohol level, concentration of the wine, or something else that makes wines age?? What is it exactly??
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 23, 2007 4:10pm ET
Paul, the first consideration is the producer and whether it has a track record for making ageworthy Pinots (or whatever wine you're considering). Next would be vintage and vineyard. Some years and sites produce more long lived wines than others. Wines that are rich, complex, intense, balanced, with good acidity are good candidates. Tannins are much overrated. You don't need lots of tannins for a wine to age. And don't overlook storage. If you want to age wines, make sure they're properly cellared. Before you go to the trouble, though, make sure you like aged wines and make a point of trying a few. Today's wine styles are made for immediate enjoyment and I doubt many wines will get much better than they are on release. I typically prefer mine younger, when they're closest to the vine, so I don't cellar many. If you get a great aged wine, though, the it's worth it. I count on my wine buddies for that! Good luck.
Rebecca Root
Sonoma County —  January 23, 2007 5:58pm ET
Jim- I suppose the "Badge" Eric Clapton-George Harrison connection was fairly obvious, hence I feel I have no right to claim first dibs on the concept...however...do you know that the Mexican Bandito in "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" was played by Alfonso Bedoya...and it was this very same character who uttered the much maligned and misquoted line "We don't need no Badges...I don't have to show you no stinking Badges"...Bruno D'Alfonso/Alfonso Bedoya...Badge/Badges...The mystical connection of the Badges has taken a new and unexpected turn my friend...the world is spinning out of control! What does it all mean? -Paul Root
Gib Masters
Portland, —  January 23, 2007 7:47pm ET
For my money, Ken Wright produces consistly top-notch and age-worthy pinot noirs that don't shock the pocketbook.
Paul Anderson
Longview, TX —  January 23, 2007 8:20pm ET
James, I apologize that this is in the style of an all too frequent whine on wine but...I am continually amazed at the frequent absence of Foxen Winery Pinot Noirs from lists of the best made in CA. I find them exceptional and on par with several mentioned above which I also like. But that is just my taste speaking.
I hold your opinion very highly on California wines and you seem to be the only one on WS that frequents the wines of Central Coast regions.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 23, 2007 8:28pm ET
Paul, that's no whine. Foxen has been hot and I loved the 2004 Sea Smoke Pinot. It was on the cusp of my list and candidly, there are many others that are close; picking 30 or 40 wineries always leaves someone out.
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  January 23, 2007 8:29pm ET
Jim,I heard that a few of the wines poured were quite oxidized for 2003's. . . Is there anything you believe caused this? Curious to hear. . .
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 23, 2007 8:50pm ET
Larry, I overheard the guys opening the bottles say at least one wine was corked and I came across six or seven that were either corked or suspect. I also heard (though others would know better than I) that perhaps synthetic corks were to blame for some of the oxidizied/volatile wines. One Loring Clos Pepe '03 was oxidized and may have come with a synthetic; I'm not a fan of those closures. So, seven of the 36 wines I tried were off, for one reason or another, including two corked bottles from the same winery. Not a good showing for closures, which is sadly about what I've come to expect.
John Stuart
Halifax, NS, Canada —  January 24, 2007 11:45am ET
Hi James. Great blog! Just out of curiosity, what information is given to you and other tasters when you review wines at the office for the magazine? Are you aware of the price? Age? And in the case of many of the California pinots, site? Thanks!
Richard Hirth
Michigan —  January 24, 2007 12:19pm ET
One question many of may share is how well these new wave CA pinots will age. 03 and 04 seem like relatively similar vintages (with the lower alcohol 05 differing from both 03 and 04), so they might provide a fair comparison. I was curious about your take on what the showing of the 03s says about ageability. Thanks.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 24, 2007 12:40pm ET
John, for a more complete explanation, see our new Jan./Feb. issue and the section on how we taste. (This information is also online: www.winespectator.com/Wine/Free/Wine_Ratings/About_Tastings/0,4634,,00.html)Briefly, we know the vintage, appellation and varietal and the wines are grouped by the same, so wines are evaluated in peer groups.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 24, 2007 12:43pm ET
Richard, I didn't draw any conclusions from this tasting, since most of the producers don't have track records for making ageworthy wines. That said, I think the '02s, '03s and '04s should age well, provided they are cellared properly. Most California Pinots reach their peak early on and it's best to drink them (or at least some) by age six. If they're holding up at that age, they should make it to 12 or 15 years.
Michael G Hennigan
Chicago —  January 25, 2007 9:54am ET
It's not Pinot Noir OR Football. It's Pinot Noir AND Football. Go Bears!
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  January 26, 2007 11:39pm ET
I just finished a WHOLE bottle of 2004 Kosta Browne RRV by myself and I don't even feel guilty. I evaluated it over a 3 hour period, both with and without food. There is something cosmic to having this wine with a dish that's called Albaloo Pollo. It's a Mediterranean dish of seasoned chicken kabob with cherried rice. My favorite place to get it is at Cafe Elegante in Burbank, CA, just down the street. It's a little strip mall dive, but this dish is absolutely mind-blowing with the right PN. I just had to post this somewhere.... :-)
James Salvito
Santa Barbara —  January 27, 2007 4:40pm ET
James,Since we're talking Pinots I'm curious about why I've never read any reviews by WS on August Briggs. Every time I visit Napa Valley I make a point of tasting their offerings, including their Pinots which I think are pretty nice. They also make a couple decent Cabs and an OK Zin and Petite Sirah.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  January 27, 2007 11:50pm ET
August Briggs ROCKS! Love the barrel tastings (tasted around 5 wines in the tasting room, then Joe Brigg's father gave us about 10 barrel tastings afterward!). We were buzzing, so be careful....
Nick Ortiz
March 12, 2007 10:12am ET
James, Since these were tasted double blind, will you be posting your tasting notes and scores anytime in the near future? Thx.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 12, 2007 11:33am ET
Nick, I'll only publish my final blind tasting scores/notes, some of which have already been printed and/or reported online...in tasting highlights.

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