The state of Pinot Noir

I attended the Pigs and Pinot event put on by Charlie Palmer and the Hotel Healdsburg. The annual event was a benefit for the Share our Strength’s, No Kid Hungry campaign.  I can tell you that no one went hungry at this tasting, or thirsty. There were over 60 Pinot producers mostly from California but also a couple of standouts from New Zealand, Oregon(including the Lenné Estate 2010 Pinot) and even a French Burgundy or two.


There was plenty of incredible food to match the plethora of wine, most of it pork based. I always hope to hit the holy grail at a tasting like this, find some incredible gem that turns my perception of Pinot Noir upside down, brings me to my knees and makes me have a religious moment. Of Course this never happens for a couple of reasons. The first is that it is incredibly difficult to really ascertain wine’s quality in a taste. The chances are improved if you are tasting it blind with producers from the same region and the same vintage. When you are comparing Pinot Noir’s from such disparate regions as Russian River and Burgundy it is nearly impossible to make any definitive judgements about one wine being better than the other. This is even more true when you are tasting 60 wines(I probably tasted 40 and spit the first 30).

But the other thing that struck me is that the real holy grail with Pinot Noir was right in front of me; the holy grail were the wines as a whole. Collectively it is astounding how Pinot Noir has evolved in the United States. My guess is that if you took any one of the wines(at least from about three quarters of the wines there) and went back 30 years in time, that wine would have become a cult wine. Today the wine is just more of the same.pig and pinot

Pinot has come a long way and that is true in California and true in Oregon. Thirty years ago I used to taste Oregon Pinot Noir and think, “so this is the mecca for Pinot Noir?” Back then only about 2 out of 10 wines intimated that the chalice of American Pinot Noir would be found in Oregon. Today I don’t question Oregon, it has become the mecca for American Pinot Noir along with the Sonoma Coast Appellation and a few other areas in California. With so many good wines, the trick now for consumers is deciding which ones to buy. But as wines become better so are the consumers drinking them and I hope more will discover real terroir in wines. It’s blended out of so many wines but there in others if you learn how to find it.

Regardless, there is no denying that the state of Pinot Noir has never been better.

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Are there any cult Oregon Pinot Noir producers?

I was thinking the other day about cult wineries and why I can only think of one Oregon producer who qualifies and they don’t make Pinot Noir. Okay, maybe I can think of one small Pinot producer in the Dundee Hills who is in the realm. But it got me thinking about the bias in mainstream wine media towards bigger, specifically Cabernet based wines. I think the scores in general for Pinot Noir don’t match the scores for bigger California Cabernets. Why is that? Is Cabernet better than Pinot?

Are California Cabernets better wines or just bigger wines? I am admittedly Pinot Noir biased and the fact is that even after a glass of really good Cabernet I once again turn my sights towards Pinot Noir. Most Cabernet drinkers eyes rolled after reading that but the fact is that my palate gets more satisfaction from Pinot Noir. Maybe I’m just not drinking enough Screaming Eagle.  Sure, the wine press gives cult status to Romanée-Conti  but what about Oregon? And haven’t you seen that Oregon winery who advertises that it routinely beats Romanée-Conti in blind tastings?

Maybe I am placing the blame in the wrong place. Maybe Cabernet is just the easiest type of wine to rally around. Lets face it, there is nothing subtle about the flavor explosion you get with the first glass of a California cult Cabernet. I just like the way really good Pinot Noir feels on my palate, dancing across it, really good ones stopping for a visit on the mid-palate, but never forcing you to sucumb to its power.  Apparently though, Cabernet is where the real demand is and perhaps why they get so much press and generate more cult brands. Give the people what they want? They are rich, bold, flavorful, full of alcohol, in your face and make a big first impression.

Lets face it, Pinot Noir is different and I say vive la difference. I don’t think I have ever heard it said much better than Miles to Maya, in the movie Sideways, describing his passion for Pinot Noir:

  “It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet.”

I guess thats the part I get, haunting, brilliant and thrilling. Now if we can only get the wine press and consumers to feel the same.



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Are wine critics still relevant or are you?

I have a simple rule for reviews of my wine; celebrate them when they are good,  ignore them when they are bad and never put too much stock in either. Fortunately the wine press has been kind to us with some very good reviews and no bad reviews only a few mediocre ones. I continue to send wines in or sit down to taste with reviewers and along the way I have learned a thing or two.


Most reviewers have palates just like you. They have likes and dislikes based on their body chemistry and life experience.  Most critics don’t taste wine blind in manageable flights comparing like vintages and regions.  Most wine professionals can’t predict the future in spite of their assurances of when to drink the wine.  Wine is not static and very few people can taste an Oregon Pinot Noir and see what will be there in two to five years. So make sure your wine is somewhat developed before you send it in for review. Many critics rate disparate regions and rate entirely too many wines. The good ones do have an advantage over you because they have been to the area they are reviewing, seen the lay of the land, talked to winemakers and tasted hundreds of wines making their context much broader than most of us. While that can make them more competent it doesn’t necessarily make them right.  Most of all I have learned that with wine, like art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


So are reviewers still relevant and who are the good ones?   Some are and I think it is important for winemakers to weigh in on who. You may think that is blasphemy because we are biased about our own wines. That is true but we also understand our wines and most of all our terroir better than anyone as we are around them on a daily basis.  I think that when winemakers read a review we turn the tables and rate the critics or at least their descriptions of our wine. Perhaps we are just giving credit to the reviewers who’s perception of our wine matches our own. But like the reviewers who have context because they visit and know an area, who has better context about a wine that the person who made it?

Some of my best critics are regular customers and many have a better sense of my wine than the people who review it especially the arm chair critics that have popped up all over the internet. Anyone can right a blog and review a wine and finding relevance in them is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Of the bloggers who have reviewed my wine I will say there is one blogger who was more perceptive than most, Fredrick Koeppel who writes Bigger Than Your Head.

But in all the of the critical landscape there is one writer who’s reviews I could plagiarize and use in the descriptive section of my winemaker’s notes: Rusty Gaffney and his publication The PinotfileHe picked out the terroir of my vineyard in the glass and few do on the first run through, especially from the cooler vintage. Rusty primarily focuses on American Pinot Noir and is also one of the few reviewers who often returns to an opened bottle of wine a day later which is essential to understanding a vintage like 2011. He isn’t reviewing loads of varieties other than Pinot Noir.  His recent reviews of my 2011 Pinot Noir’s so fit my own perception that it was uncanny. But it wasn’t the first time I have felt that way reading his reviews even when I like one of my wines more than he did.  If you are a fan of Pinot Noir you can’t ignore The Pinotfile. In addition to the reviews, The Pinotfile has some of the most informative articles out there on American Pinot Noir.  A past issue had a cover article on the Coury clone that was the most in depth reference I have seen on the subject to date.

pinotfile logo

Perhaps finding a reviewer that you respect means finding one who’s palate is like your own. For a winemaker having a reviewer understand your wine is very satisfying, one who criticizes it not so much.  I have tasted with two different reviewers for The Wine Advocate, Jay Miller and David Schildknecht.  I had a really rewarding moment when on the third year Jay Miller visited a light went off and he totally got the soil driven, mocha aromatic which is a signature of my wines. David Schildknecht has had the unenviable task of rating two very cool Oregon vintages back to back.  I still haven’t figured out if his palate will warm up to our terroir but he is a very smart reviewer who does his homework. Finally I met Harvey Steiman this year who has about as broad a knowledge base as anyone and as comfortable and down to earth reviewer as I have met. He was in Oregon getting a feel for the 2012 vintage and probably got more of a feel for the 2013 vintage than we would have liked; it was pouring rain as he left my tasting room.

Maybe someday science will be applied to reviewing wines. Would that be interesting or ruin the fun and would it even be possible? I think it could be but don’t expect it anytime soon as the wine world is so much more vast than when The Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate started reviewing wines in the late 70’s. And how will Millennials get their wine information; will the normal channels still be relevant? I’m not so sure.

My advice is to keep an open mind and let reviews guide you to new wines. But in the end trust your palate. You are your own critic both of wines and the people who review them.

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A vintage only the parents could love?

We had a little dog that I loved dearly named Jackie. He was a little terrier-sheepdog mix and was as smart as they come. In his later years when he went deaf all I had to do is motion with my hands and he understood to come, to stop or to move away. He protected and loved us as any good sheepdog would do. We got Jackie at a terrier rescue shelter when he was about a year old.  Who knows what his first year of life was like but he had a bark that was much bigger than his bite. He was a little sweetie underneath but fearful, especially of men, and the fear often came out as aggression.

Needless to say he was hard to understand for most people who had just meet him. He would snarl his teeth, growl and scare the hell out of anyone who wasn’t a dog person.  We had to warn people as they came into the house, “don’t make eye contact with him.” That would be about all it would take to set him off and it was more than disconcerting to us who knew how smart, lovable and complex this little dog was. But our close friends, those who spent time with us, eventually all warmed up to Jackie and felt bad when we finally had to put him down last New Year’s Eve.

It took some time to appreciate Jackie but was worth it once you did and that reminds me of the 2011 Pinot Noir vintage in Oregon. It was a remarkable vintage, perhaps Oregon’s coldest ever, a vintage saved by a week of 90 degree weather in September and the fact that the rain stayed away until November. The wines have some sharp edges now and growl at you a bit and most consumers don’t understand them at the moment.

But we can look ahead. We know how cool vintages evolve and if you have forgotten get your hands on a Pinot from the 2007 vintage in the Willamette Valley. If you remember 2007 was warmer than the 2011 vintage but cooled down quickly when rain showers arrived just before harvest and persisted through most of October. The wines from 2007 started out lean just like the 2011 wines. In fact I don’t remember two vintages that were so alike upon release.2011LEPinot

Each night I sit with a bottle of wine from the 2011 vintage I get more enamored. I suspect by late spring the wines will be good and delicious by this time next year. The 2011 wines are changing rapidly like the 2007 vintage because of their relatively low tannin levels. The high acidity and low ph’s should keep the fruit intact for years to come and produce complex, delicious wines. Just like Jackie, the wines are making their way into my heart and for any Pinot Noir lover, should make their way into your cellar.

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Wheeew……just barely!!

We had record breaking rain at the end of September! But don’t panic, the season was early and much of the fruit was in before the deluge this past weekend.  At Lenné we were fortunate to have ripe, developed fruit that we harvested Thursday and Friday before the rain. We were also darn lucky to have enough pickers to harvest. The shortage of labor for picking is an ever increasing problem and one we will have to deal with. Most producers scrambled to pick before the weekend and I am sure some had to let fruit hang.haulinggrapes

And what about the grapes that weren’t picked? That is a good question and depends on the fragility of the fruit. If the fruit is intact and we get primarily dry weather for the next 10 days those wines will be good. It all depends on how much absorption and disease pressure exist in any given site. Part of our vineyard could have weathered the rain and been okay assuming we had 5 or 6 days of dry weather.mud

But I am glad we got it off. The flavors were good and I am optimistic about the vintage. The tricky part was getting the fruit out of the vineyard. In a wet year we fight slippery conditions on a steep hill which is a little scary. Try driving a tractor in that and you will know what I mean when I say………….wheeew! Somehow the wine gods smiled on us and we ripened our fruit and got it out of the vineyard, just barely.



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