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Napa, Beaune and California Pinot Noir

Posted: Jan 18, 2007 5:49pm ET

I have been in Napa for a couple of days now, visiting the magazine’s office, and I have a strange déjà vu sort of feeling when I walk the streets of downtown, which is a rare enough activity for car-crazed Californians who seem to drive everywhere. But walking down the sidewalk in Napa reminds me of bright and brisk days in the winter in France’s Beaune, visiting négociants and just hanging out. Both cities run on wine. Day and night, it’s all about what goes in the bottle. That’s cool.

James Laube and I have walked to lunch each day to a local restaurant called Pearl that serves up hearty, simple dishes with glasses of fresh Zinfandels from Seghesio. I also had a glass, the other day, of 2005 Saintsbury Pinot Noir Carneros Garnet that was balanced, fruity and refined. Good price, too, at about $8 a glass. I would score it in the mid-80s, non-blind.

I have tasted, and drunk, a number of Pinot Noirs with Laube and I really have enjoyed them. I don’t understand the recent public discussion of California Pinot Noirs being overly alcoholic. I am sure a number of them are, but I found the ones I have tasted this week to be in balance for the most part. It seems to me that two styles are prevalent at the moment: One is refined and elegant, almost Burgundian, while the other is fuller, more opulent, almost flamboyant.

A 2003 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Kanzler Vineyard was certainly the latter. It showed amazing aromas of wild berries and spices with loads of chocolate. It was full, silky and superfruity. It was hard to put down. 94 points for me over dinner at Laube’s house. A 2003 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Klopp Ranch Méthode à l'Ancienne had an elegant, subtly fruity style, with pretty strawberry, raspberry and light vanilla aromas that followed through to a soft and supple palate. Lovely wine. 93 points.

Funny that I was thinking of Beaune. Maybe it’s because of the impressive quality of the Pinot Noirs I have been having over the last couple of days? And many of the best ones sell at relatively affordable prices. It’s good to be back in California wine country.

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  January 18, 2007 8:46pm ET
I didn't care for the 2003 Merry Edwards. Too austere, tannic, so I sold the rest of my allocation. I've had other vintages of her various vineyard-designate Pinots and found that I just don't care for her style all that much. I did like the 2004 ME Olivet Lane and RRV Pinots, though, so I'm keeping those.
I'm new to the Kosta Browne list and have my first and only allocation of their 2004 appellation wines resting in my cellar just a few feet away as I write this. Reading your description of the Kanzler, which I unfortunately don't have, I still can't wait to try a couple of bottles in the near future.

As far as prices go, I've only enjoyed a few well-rated Burgundies in the $50-75 range and have yet to be impressed at all. I haven't even finished the bottle on a couple of them! I think I'll take up Burgundy when I'm old and rich. Cali PN has a much better QPR in my opinion.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  January 18, 2007 9:20pm ET
Thanks for reaffirming Laube's ratings and feelings about the value/excitement level of California/New World Pinot. Now, just pick the best one in the next couple years for WOTY and I will be as happy as a clam. The world needs to know the value we have over Red Burgundy. Or Maybe they don't need to know so I can continue stocking up on KB, WH Smith, Kistler, etc in the $35-$75 range. I would hate to spend $300+ on any of these, even the Kister Cuvee's...
Guus Hateboer
Netherlands —  January 19, 2007 3:55am ET
James, what do you consider 'home': Tuscany, the UK, Japan, Nicaragua, Hong Kong, Bordeaux, the Douro, Cuba, or California? Seems like you're not spending much time in Tuscany these days... There must be a million bottles waiting for you when you get back.
James Suckling
 —  January 19, 2007 10:51am ET
Guus. I have a private plane very similar to Airforce One. The plane is fully equipped with a wine cellar and tasting facility so I can review wines on the road and bring you the most complete tasting notes from Italy and the rest of the world.
Robert Caruana Jr
East Islip, NY —  January 19, 2007 12:24pm ET
James, did you taste any Oregon Pinots while you were in CA? I understand that both the 2004 and 2005 vintages there were excellent. If so, how did you find them in general compared with the CA Pinots?
Berry Crawford
January 19, 2007 12:29pm ET
The wines I enjoy the most are RRV and Sonoma Coast Pinots. And we have had what, 4 good vintages in a row? Ive loved Pinot since I started drinking wine about 15 years ago and I for one am happy to see the rest of the country getting turned on to it too. It just means more acres will be planted and more talented winemakers will focus on it. The only downside is that prices are going up.
Joseph Tredici
Ramsey / NJ —  January 19, 2007 1:53pm ET
James,If you're in a "California Pinot" mood, see if you get your hands on any of the 2004 Sea Smoke Pinots.The "Botella" could be the best $35 bottle on the planet. Absolutely delicious. Enjoy your trip.
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  January 19, 2007 2:07pm ET
James, the streets of Napa may be like Beaune in January, but just wait until July!!

Although I usually filter thru an Oregon lens, the thing that I find appealing about RRV wines is the 'sweet' fruit and silky texture of the best examples. Some of the south coast pinots are a little over the top on the ripeness scale for me, losing the balance that makes pinot/Burgundy special.

I too would like to hear your take on 2004/5 Oregon pinots. If you get a chance please try the 2005 version of the Shea Pommard, as I think it is a notch better than the 2004 Estate (#15 on the top 100). Thanks for all you do to keep us informed on Bordeaux and Tuscany (the latter undeniably some of the finest real estate on God's green earth)

Charlie Stanton
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  January 19, 2007 2:38pm ET
Troy, I agree with you. I've tasted maybe 10-15 Burgundies that were supposed to be very good at $50-$125 a bottle, and have only been impressed by one of them. I think that you need to spend way too much to get the ones that are the great ones, which is where Cali Pinot's are headed as well. I still ask this question. How is it possible that Jacob's Creek can grow, harvest, sort, ferment, barrell, bottle, ship across the world, and then after all that, sell the wine for $10 (that is very good & rated by WS at 91pts)?? Meanwhile all the Cab's from right down the street in one of the greatest Cab regions in the world that are under $50 pretty much suck. Huh??

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