The bad news about the surge of interest in West Coast Pinot Noir is that demand is driving prices up, up, up. For many wine lovers, high-quality Pinot is out of their financial reach, costing $40 to $60 per bottle. Even for people of means, purchasing the most desirable wines -- those receiving the highest ratings from critics -- is difficult if the wanna-be buyers aren't already on producers' mailing lists and/or willing to pay double or more in restaurants or at auction.
There is another downside to America's percolating passion for Pinot Noir, and that's the potential repeat of the mistakes made with Merlot. A decade and a half ago, trend-chasers rushed to plant Merlot, that easy-drinking wine consumers couldn't get enough of, yet too many growers put the vines in all the wrong places. The result: muddy, under-ripe, herbaceous wines that gave the entire Merlot category a black eye. Pinot Noir runs the same risk if late-in-the-gamers plant willy-nilly to grab a slice of the profit pie.
Adam Lee, owner/winemaker (with his wife, Dianna) of Siduri Wines in Santa Rosa, California, is one Pinot Noir maker who is worried about the future of his favorite grape, and is doing something about it.
'Pinot Noir is at a crossroads,' Lee says. 'Over the next few years we believe you will see a number of traditionally 'non-Pinot' wineries begin to produce Pinot Noir (in fact, you are seeing this already). Some of these new wines will be good, others not.
'(Pinot lovers) will be right to be skeptical of the passion for and dedication to the grape held by these newcomers, at least until it has been proven over a multitude of vintages. Other somewhat established Pinot Noir wineries will fall prey to the lure of the dollar. They will dramatically increase production and prices without a concurrent increase in quality.'
How refreshing to hear such frankness.
'This 'take-the-money-and-run' approach is certainly tempting and probably (at least in the short term) 'good business,'" Lee continues. 'And then there will be the 'true believer' wineries … (that) produce Pinot Noir because it is the true oenological love of their lives. They will remain committed to producing Pinot Noir that is reflective of both place and vintage. Many of them also believe that Pinot Noir should not be priced so extravagantly that it cannot be afforded by others affected with the same devotion to the grape."
There are dozens of inexpensive California and Oregon Pinot Noirs, yet relatively few warrant recommendation at under $30. Many are made by the newcomers to which Lee alludes, and others are created by negociants who buy grapes, juice or finished wine on the bulk market and bottle them under own labels. These folks chased the Merlot market, and they're now doing the same with Pinot Noir.
Too many under-$30 Pinots are thin, hard-edged, confected, cooked, overoaked and/or devoid of true Pinot Noir character, which typically combines elegance, suppleness, perfumed aromas, a slight savory earthiness and layers of cherry, berry, plum and spice.
Capturing the sensuous personality of Pinot Noir is beyond the means of the majority of American wineries, the primary reason being that the grape must be planted in chilly areas that have just enough warmth to ripen the fruit, and not an hour more. Such places are in Oregon's Willamette Valley, along the California coast and in the inland gaps that are fed by cooling breezes and fog from the ocean. Most of California is too hot or too cold for Pinot Noir.
The variety must be painstakingly tended in the vineyard, and as much as half the crop might be removed before harvest, to allow the remaining grapes to develop concentration. In the cellar, the fruit is handled with kid gloves, gently punched down by hand or pneumatic paddles during fermentation to keep the juice in contact with the skins, yet without breaking the bitter seeds.
Pinot Noir is a delicate wine and any blemish is hard to miss. With more dense Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, winemakers can cover up deficiencies with ripeness, residual sugar, toasty oak and monster tannins, but good Pinot Noir is too transparent for such smoke and mirrors. Making the wine is meticulous, expensive work, and there are no shortcuts; those who cut corners produce Pinots I don't want to drink; no Pinot is better than mediocre Pinot.
Siduri's Lee is among the small number of vintners who understand that the U.S. Pinot Noir category will survive only if there are tasty, varietally correct wines made at lower price points. Helen Turley's Marcassin Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs will always command whatever price her fans are willing to pay (they start at $75), and red-hot Kosta Browne will thrive as long as critics continue to adore the Russian River Valley- and Sonoma Coast-sourced wines. Yet the exclusivity and pricing of these stellar wines shut out all but a lucky few of the wine-buying public, so Lee has pledged to devote a portion of his Pinot Noir production to affordable wines.
'We've made it a priority to make good Pinot at a good price,' he says. 'We want to grow the business, get new people drinking really good Pinot Noir. Our $19, $25 and $29 ranges will help grow the business; if we don't do that, all of us Pinot producers are fishing in the same pond.'
The Lees, who buy grapes from dozens of vineyards from Oregon's Willamette Valley south to Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County, first concentrated on single-vineyard wines that reflected the personality of those sites, and also sell for $40 or more.
They haven't backed away from that focus, producing 17 vineyard-designates from the 2006 vintage, yet they've begun redirecting more grapes from these premium vineyards to their appellational series, blends from Sonoma County, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Lucia Highlands and Willamette Valley. The wines get better, volume increases, and more consumers can enjoy them for less than $30..
Siduri isn't alone in this mission, though the number of delicious, value-priced Pinot Noirs from California and Oregon is depressingly small. In addition to Siduri, look for: 2006 A to Z Wineworks Oregon ($20), 2006 Argyle Willamette Valley ($25), 2005 Belle Valle Willamette Valley ($22), 2006 Beringer Napa Valley ($25), 2005 Claiborne & Churchill Edna Valley ($20), 2005 Stoller JV Estate Dundee Hills ($25), 2006 Saintsbury Garnet Carneros ($20), 2005 Melville Santa Rita Hills ($28), 2005 Stephen Ross Edna Valley ($29) and 2005 Taz Santa Barbara County ($25).
Really good West Coast Pinot Noir will never be cheap -- don't expect any $8.99 specials at the supermarket -- but there is hope that more wineries will follow the Siduri model and make competent, price-conscious Pinots. And to those producers who aren't serious about producing quality Pinot Noir, please stay out of the game. Don't spoil a great thing.
Click here for Siduri Pinot Noir tasting notes.