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Destination Pinot Noir

An impressive tasting in California shows why so many people are heading toward this variety

Daniel Sogg
Posted: July 21, 2006

I always enjoy new events. Much as with blind tasting, the most accurate impressions come unburdened by preconceptions. That was the case June 24 and 25 in San Francisco at Pinot Days, an ambitious two-day gathering, sponsored by Wine Spectator, of 148 producers pouring nearly 500 wines. Most of the Pinots were from California, but a smattering came from Oregon, New Zealand, Burgundy and even Germany.

Why the lack of preconceptions? Well, large tastings of this ilk seem better suited to Zinfandel, Rhône varieties and Cabernet. For all the excitement triggered by Sideways, it's easy to overlook a basic truth: Pinot Noir is not really cut out to be the popular kid. It's too soft-spoken, and its virtues are too subtle to maintain lasting mass appeal. Rarely does it deliver the heft and power of Cabernet, Syrah or Chardonnay. Even the riper bottlings currently coming out of California are for the cognoscenti; they're made in tiny volumes—often just a couple hundred cases, if that—and tend to be priced accordingly.

Pinot Noir, much like Riesling, is what I think of as a Destination Grape. Plenty of wine lovers end up there, but it's not the standard departure point.

So I was interested to see who would come to Pinot Days. It turned out to be a formidable gathering of nearly 3,000, practically double the attendance of last year's inaugural event. About 500 were from the trade, and the average age, according to the event organizers, was around 40. Older, certainly, than one sees at ZAP or Rhône Rangers, but there were plenty of twenty- and thirtysomethings attesting to the variety's broadening appeal.

In less than 24 hours, I tasted about 130 wines and was impressed by the consistent quality of the wines and the infectious enthusiasm of the producers. Festivities began Saturday afternoon at a sit-down blind tasting of 19 wines, mostly 2004s, from 18 producers in the Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley appellations. Certain common denominators came through. Although the Sonoma Coast is an oversized, unwieldy AVA, many of the wines shared flavors of mouthwatering sour cherries, as well as lively, supple texture. The Russian River Pinots tended to be fleshier, with darker fruit flavors of Bing cherries and blackberries. Highlights included Kosta Browne's Sonoma Coast 2004 and Sonoma Coast Kanzler Vineyard 2004 bottlings, as well as the 2004 Dain American Beauty Russian River Valley.

That evening there was another sit-down tasting comparing 17 wines from three vineyards in Monterey's Santa Lucia Highlands: Rosella's, Garys' and Pisoni. Nearly all of the vintners were there, as were growers Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni.

Pisoni is a memorable character. He reportedly started his now 50-acre vineyard with cuttings smuggled into the United States from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's renowned La Tâche vineyard (smuggled in his pants, no less). And frankly, he looks a little nuts, with a wild mane of hair and intense eyes. If Pisoni were approaching after dark, many people would consider crossing the street. He has a gravelly voice, and a breathless way of speaking, but there's no mistaking his energy. "I'm not kidding (gasp) when I say (gasp) I want to invite everyone here to Pisoni Vineyard (gasp) and we'll do a vertical, a horizontal and (gasp) a diagonal," he told the guests.

The main event took place on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The winemakers or owners poured most offerings, though a few retailers and distributors manned the booths. Paige Granback and Chuck Hayward, from San Francisco retail store the Jug Shop, poured 11 New Zealand Pinots to a predictably appreciative audience. "[New Zealand Pinot] is out of control the last two years," said Hayward. "Sales are exceptional, and it's definitely the hottest growing category in the store."

But California Pinot held the day. For two hours, attendees could sample wines grouped according to the vineyard. I tried, for example, four 2004s from the Keefer Ranch, a 40-acre site in the Russian River Valley, then four '04s from the 16-acre Cargasacchi Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills. Keller Estate presented six bottlings, all 2004s, made from different clones planted on its property in the Sonoma Coast.

In short, it was an unusually informative event. (An added pleasure was the Pinot Noir-appropriate stemware). There were, honestly, too many impressive wines to mention them all. But a few highlights included the '04 Cargasacchi Vineyard bottlings from Siduri and Cargasacchi, a lovely B. Kosuge Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast 2004 and the Alma Rosa Santa Rita Hills 2004, the new label from Richard Sanford. Kosta Browne poured three 2005 barrel samples, from Keefer Ranch, Garys' Vineyard and, my favorite, the Koplen Vineyard in Russian River.

Event organizers Steve and Lisa Rigisich are considering adding a second day of Grand Tasting next year. That makes sense, because there are far too many wines to try in just five hours. They also hope to expand the range of offerings beyond California. "We don't apologize that we're focusing on California, but Pinot Days should represent Pinot in all its forms: Burgundy, New Zealand, Oregon, Chile and everywhere," said Lisa.

They say they don't want to increase attendance much, but that could be difficult, given the demand. Events such as Pinot Days are likely to convince plenty more wine lovers that they have reached the right destination.

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