My friend Archie invited me to join him for a tasting of California Pinot Noirs at the Vintners Club in San Francisco the other day. I gladly accepted. Little did I expect the astonishing range of opinions.
I mean, there was one wine I found so earthy I could hardly take a second sip. It got three first-place votes (from the 40 tasters in the room). Another wine had such strong green flavors (leafy, herbal, mulchy) that I couldn't give it a rating higher than 79. It got two first-place votes.
The one wine I liked a lot, Copeland Creek Sonoma Coast 2003, showed gorgeous plum and currant fruit, silky texture and a real sense of refinement and elegance as the finish lasted. That to me is what Pinot Noir is all about. I will accept a certain amount of earthy flavor if the texture is there and it has some fruit to balance. But I do not think Pinot Noir should have hard tannins. Those green wines did.
Some of the wines were also raisiny and alcoholic, qualities I have noticed in a lot of high-profile California Pinot. For me, Pinot Noir is about balance. If the first impression is overripeness, it's hard to find that balance.
The group awarded the Copeland Creek the most first, second and third place votes. Comparing our blind-tasting notes, Archie and I agreed on it, and we both hated the green wines and shrugged off the overripe puppies. Austin Hills, owner of Grgich Hills, who was sitting to my right, also was on the same page. But several of the others at the table actually dinged the Copeland Creek for showing too much fruit, and loved the green wines for their earthiness.
It also seemed as if the merest hint of oak was enough for some tasters to reject a wine. I could understand that, but I could not fathom how someone would prefer a wine to taste of herbs and tea leaves instead of fruit.
Love and hate, I guess that's Pinot Noir. Two brothers sitting across the table from me agreed on absolutely nothing. Any wine the first brother loved, the other hated. It was uncanny.
But I also think Pinot Noir is a hard wine to know. Good Pinot Noir masters a tricky sense of balance, packing lots of flavor into something that feels delicate, almost without weight. Great Pinot Noir creates a huge superstructure of flavor on a razor's edge.
I cover Oregon and, until recently, New Zealand, two regions whose Pinots are doing well. I try to keep up with Burgundy, at least to the extent of drinking a few favorites to cellar. But I see a fairly narrow slice of California. I have been impressed with some of the wines my colleague James Laube has ferreted out, as well as others that I have consumed in restaurants.
Tasting this bunch blind reminded me of a lesson I learned long ago: More than any other wine type, Pinot Noir polarizes wine drinkers. It has always been thus.
Karen P Jones — January 12, 2007 10:44am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 12, 2007 12:14pm ET
Stephen Symchych — Boston, MA — January 12, 2007 12:33pm ET
John B Vlahos — Cupertino Ca. — January 12, 2007 12:34pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento,CA — January 12, 2007 4:47pm ET
Frank L Hugus — Danville, California — January 12, 2007 11:36pm ET
Jennifer Awbrey — Austin, Tx — January 13, 2007 2:13am ET
Wes Sircable — Fullerton, CA — January 13, 2007 2:24am ET
Hoyt Hill Jr — Nashville, TN — January 13, 2007 2:23pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 13, 2007 11:07pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 13, 2007 11:09pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 13, 2007 11:13pm ET
Larry Schaffer — Central Coast — January 14, 2007 10:40pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 14, 2007 10:54pm ET
Dan Jaworek — Chicago — January 15, 2007 9:03am ET
Mr Tom A Hughes — Keller, Tx — January 15, 2007 11:03am ET
Wes Sircable — Fullerton, CA — January 16, 2007 3:41am ET
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