I wasn't raised around pinot noir or, for that matter, wine of any kind. My parents' libations were Johnnie Walker Red Label before dinner and water or reheated breakfast coffee with meals. On those occasions when guests or other circumstances seemed to require something special with the food itself, my father consulted his whiskey merchant. These interactions generally produced something like Mateus or a shipper's bottling of Médoc. Somehow, in the 1960s, it came to my father's attention that champagne had been served historically in tall flutes rather than shallow saucers. An architect by training, with wonderful taste and a keen interest in industrial design, he then applied himself to collecting antique champagne flutes. This passion occasionally brought sparkling wine to our table, but never an especially good label, since the bubbly's purpose was simply to illustrate the logic of the flute: the long, elegant ascent of bubbles from the top of the stem to the top of the glass.
In 1966, fresh from college, I left the East Coast for graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. Wine seemed to appear all around me. One fellow student worked weekends as a cellar rat for Napa Valley wineries. Another worked for San Francisco journalist Davis Bynum, himself bitten by the wine bug, who operated a retail wine store not far from the Berkeley campus, selling gallon jugs of Barefoot Bynum brand red and white table wine, and something called Dry Flor sherry. Barefoot Bynum was priced for an academic budget.
There was also Professor Carlo Cipolla. Cipolla taught courses in European economic history during each winter quarter at Berkeley, pursuant to some perpetual time-share arrangement he had negotiated with the University of Padua. He had a well-stocked cellar at home in Padua and was great friends with Louis P. Martini, the Italian vintner whose father had established one of Napa Valley's very best first-generation brands. When the so-called Navy Recruiting Table protest erupted on the Berkeley campus in the winter of 1967ña sequel of sorts to the Free Speech Movement that had shut down the politically sensitive campus in 1964ñCipolla was confronted with a dilemma: honor the strike proclaimed by the antiwar activists or continue teaching economic history? Announcing that as a "guest" in the States, he did not wish to penalize students who felt morally obligated to boycott classes, but that he simultaneously felt obligated to give lectures for students who chose not to strike, Cipolla compromised. For the duration of the strike, he lectured on the history of wine in Europe. So I learned basic politicoeconomic facts about wineñfor example, that the northern limits of the cultivation of vines in Western Europe coincide more or less with the northern boundary of the Roman Empire; and that wine being a luxury, vines are planted only where nothing else will growñwhile more conscientious students carried protest banners in the gray rain outside.
Then I bought my first book about wine, Frank Schoonmaker's A Wine Tour of France. Peers considered Schoonmaker the most influential wine merchant of the post-Prohibition era, but in truth there were not enough wine drinkers in 1960s America to sustain more than a handful of books about wine. I also purchased one each of every wine available in half-bottles from Jay Vee Liquors, a supermarket-size emporium exactly one mile from the Berkeley campusñthe closest proximity allowed under state law. As systematically as the few books and randomly selected half-bottles allowed, I began to read and taste my way through wine. I spent weekends visiting the dozen or so tasting rooms along Highway 29 in the Napa Valley. When I moved from Berkeley to Southern California in 1968 to take a job teaching Chinese language and history, my frame of reference shifted from California to European wines, thanks primarily to friendly mentoring from the wine manager at Jurgensen's Grocery Company in Pasadena (once a formidable institution but now defunct), who made my vinous education his personal project. Jurgensen's did a large business in Bordeaux, but also imported directly things like minerally white Cassis from Domaine du Paternel and spicy red Bandol from Domaine Tempier, which were then absolutely unknown in the States.
I wish I could say exactly when and where I first tasted pinot noir. It would be even better if I could say that my first pinot experience, whatever it may have been, was ethereal, transporting, and transformational. Notes and memory both fail me, however. Maybe the first pinots failed me too. There may have been a pinot noir or two among my initial purchase of half-bottles, perhaps at least a modest Bourgogne Rouge from Louis Jadot or Louis Latour. According to my oldest notes, I served a Davis Bynum pinot noir with something called boeuf en mars at a dinner party in the fall of 1970. The boeuf en mars was an obscure, tomato-enriched variation on beef bourguignon, but the Bynum pinot is mysterious. It must have been made from grapes Bynum sourced in Napa, because he had no access to Joe Rochioli's Russian River valley fruit until 1973. My notes say the wine was not vintage-dated.
In truth, I found my way to pinot noir slowly. I drank through a lot of Bordeaux and California cabernet first. I tried relatively obscure wines, like Château La Tour de Mons, Château Guionne, and Château Cantebau-Couhins, that fitted the budget of a young academic; some slightly more exalted properties like Château Gloria and Château d'Angludet; California cabs from Beaulieu, Heitz, and the old Souverain Cellars, before Lee Stewart sold the brand to Pillsbury; a good assortment of Italian varieties made in California by Louis Martini and Samuel Sebastiani; and Barbera and Grignolino. In the 1970s even zinfandel passed for an Italian variety. I drank Barolos from the 1971 and 1978 vintages for winter dinners at home.
One by one, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Burgundies show up in my notes. Gevrey-Chambertin Petite Chapelle from Paul Grillot. Nuits-St.-Georges from Jadot and Latour. Clos Vougeot Château de la Tour from Jean Morin. And a case of red Chassagne-Montrachet 1971 from Bachelet-Ramonet that turned more or less to vinegar in a closet while I waited for it to "mature." That red Chassagne was my occasion to discover that pinot noir is unforgiving of poor storage conditions and that spoiled wine is no better for cooking than it is for drinking.
In 1984 I made my wine writing debut, with modest chutzpah and no certifiable qualifications of any kind except that I spoke passable French, with an article for Connoisseur magazine about the cabernet-based wine being made 400 miles from cab's ground zero in Bordeaux, at the Mas de Daumas Gassac near Montpellier. "Who could have imagined," Daumas Gassac's eccentric proprietor admitted some years later, "that this unknown writer could get us four pages in America's snobbiest magazine?" But this first story led to a second, and to pinot noir. Connoisseur's editor in chief, the prolific and colorful Thomas Hoving, shared a literary agent with one Kermit Lynch, an ex-hippie and ex-musician who had built a business importing handcrafted wines from France and Italy. To promote Lynch's then forthcoming book, Adventures on the Wine Route, the agent persuaded Hoving that an article in Connoisseur about wine importers could be useful. I was asked to write the story. I rather quickly discovered that America's then handful of small-scale, hands-on importersñLynch, Robert Chadderdon, Robert Haas, Neal Rosenthal, and Martine Saunierñall had predilections for Burgundy. Rosenthal was at pains to explain to me, during a late-afternoon tasting in the back of his small retail shop on Lexington Avenue in New York, that pinot noir is "the most intellectual of wines." I imagine this appealed to the academic in me. Shaking off the memory of the spoiled red Chassagne, I bought more Burgundy.
New World pinot, I have to admit, is a far more recent discovery. I reassure myself that there wasn't really much to discover until quite recentlyñbut this perspective, I realize now, maligns a generation of New World pinot pioneers. Awash in red Burgundies, I missed David Lett's early successes with pinot at The Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon. This is puzzling, because I lived for two years in the mid 1970s in McMinnville, just blocks from Eyrie, and even worked occasional weekends at Sokol Blosser Winery's new tasting room, in exchange for an employee discount on its young-vines pinot, sold as Pinot Noir Rosé. I was only dimly aware that Josh Jensen (Calera), David Graves (Saintsbury), Joseph Swan, and Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat) had begun to make some very good pinots in California. Or that Davis Bynum, who had crafted my grad school jug wines, was now ensconced near Healdsburg, California, and had made the first pinot noir to carry the words "Russian River Valley" on its label.
It was 20 years later that several revelations struck in rapid succession. A sommelier at the Auberge du Soleil in Napa, young enough to have been barely out of college, sent me in search of El Molino's pinot noir, made by Reg Oliver at a tiny winery just north of St. Helena in the Napa Valley; and Marcassin, the now ultrafamous and unobtainable cult wine made by Helen Turley almost within eyeshot of the Pacific on the Sonoma Coast. In the El Molino I found, more or less to my astonishment, the hints of leather, animal, and forest floor I liked in red Burgundies. I never located the Marcassin, and now I know why. Then there was Iron Horse Vineyards, predominantly a producer of Champagne-method sparkling wines. Iron Horse produced a still, vineyard-designated pinot called Thomas Road in 1996, whose cherry fruit and smoke flavors became a personal favorite. In the course of research for a story on Mendocino's remote and cool Anderson Valleyñwhich I imagined at the outset to be about "endangered" white grape varieties like riesling and gewürztraminer, now mostly driven out of expensive grape-growing areas like Los Carneros by chardonnayñI was amazed by the fine quality of two pinots from Pepperwood Springs, where a former publicist for Southern Pacific railway taught herself, very much on the job, to make wine. And then there was Littorai, the label launched by Ted and Heidi Lemon. A decade earlier, Ted Lemon had been a French major at Brown University studying in Dijon when he became enamored of and inspired by wine. The only American to have become winemaker for a reputed Burgundian producer, Lemon returned to the States in 1990 with a French wine education and matchless Old World experience. He sourced fruit from the California's coolest coastal microclimates (including Anderson Valley) and began making tiny quantities of awesome pinot noir.
And so, in 1999, the idea for this book was born. There was too much activity, scattered in too many spots from Santa Barbara to Oregon, to be summarized in an article. Too much progress with a grape of almost mythic difficulty to be dismissed as a fluke. Too many new plantings in promising areas to suppose that pinot noir, in North America, was simply a fad. Too many peopleñnot making a lot of money, nevertheless devoted absolutely to succeeding where others had failedñto be written off as cranks. And too much smart, serious money following in the footsteps of the pioneers, planting large spreads of expensive vineyard in the cool climates where, according to fairly new wisdom, pinot would thrive.
Pinot noir is the latest of the great European grape varieties to achieve distinction in the New World. The two c grapesñchardonnay and cabernet sauvignonñcame first. Cabs and chards from California's Napa Valley outplaced a list of classified Bordeaux and well-regarded white Burgundies at an infamous blind tasting in Paris in 1976. Syrah, the grape responsible for the great reds of the Rhône Valley, was then successfully transplanted (as shiraz) to Australia. And merlot, the primary grape in Pomerol and St.-Emilion, achieved dubious distinction in the New World for rapid consumer acceptance, a lower price point than cabernet, and a breathtaking growth rate measured in acres planted, tons harvested, and bottles sold.
The evidence that New World pinot noir must now be taken seriously may still be anecdotal, but the anecdotes are ubiquitous. In a 1998 tasting staged by the editors of Wine Spectator, the world's largest-circulation wine magazine, three American pinots from the 1994 vintage were bested only by the 1990 and 1993 vintages of Méo-Camuzet's fabulous Richebourg, prompting editor at large Harvey Steiman, a veteran commentator on red Burgundies, to observe that "pinot noirs of the United States are fast closing the gap" with Burgundy. On her first trip to the California vineyards, in 1999, Irish Times wine correspondent Mary Dowey, well acquainted with the major wine regions of Europe and plied with every outstanding cab and chard California's wineries could muster, wrote that pinot noir was "the grape that stole my heart." Dowey's "special treat" wine from ten full days of tasting was Saintsbury's 1996 Brown Ranch pinot noir. And in February 2000 Joshua Greene, Wine & Spirits' editor in chief, tasted no fewer than 94 newly released American pinots, scored 19 of them 90-plus, talked about the "rush of joy" he got from the best wines he tasted, and observed that while the American equivalents of Burgundy's grand cru vineyards are still being discovered, "there is no question that several already exist."
At the beginning of the 1990s, restaurants could barely sell the few pinots they deigned to list, usually in categories headed "Miscellaneous" or "Other Reds." By 2000, pinot had been transformed into every sommelier's dream of the food-friendliest wine on earth. Wine & Spirits's 1999 restaurant poll found pinot noir gaining ground against both cabernet and merlot as the wine of choice with red meat, and ranking second to chardonnay as an accompaniment to fish and shellfish. In fact, more pinot noir was ordered to accompany seafood than sauvignon blanc! From Everest in Chicago, chef Jean Joho reported to Wine & Spirits that his pinot noir sales doubled in the late 1990s and that it was now ordered by a younger clientele. At Heartbeat in New York City, wine director David Gordon picked Flowers' 1996 Camp Meeting Ridge as his single favorite among the 75 wines of all types and regions on the restaurant's list. Of the pinot noir served in America's restaurants, 81 percent was American made. By 2002 almost 10 percent of the top-selling wines in American restaurants were bottlings of pinot noir.
Just 25 years ago, only a few North American winemakers were nutty enoughñor passionate enoughñto mess with pinot noir. In the 1970s just a handful of pioneers persevered. Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, pinot specialists and "Burgundy" specialists dedicated to the combination of pinot and chardonnay began producing mostly tiny lots of promising wine. For a time, a surplus of fruit from plantings originally intended for sparkling wine encouraged new efforts with still pinot. Almost suddenly, in the 1990s, American pinot noir became not just salable but "hot." Shipments of California pinot noir doubled from 300,000 to 600,000 cases. Supermarket sales of pinot noir from all sources (including Burgundy) surged from $10 million in 1993 to $34 million in 1998. The growth rate (measured in cases of varietal California wine shipped) for pinot rose to nearly 15 percent, second only to the growth rate for the endlessly popular merlot. Harvested acres of pinot noir in Oregon tripled between 1989 and 1998. Some pinotsñsuch as Williams Selyem, Rochioli, and Dehlingerñachieved cult status, selling out to restaurants and to mailing lists so popular that the lists themselves were forced to close.
These successes attracted widespread attention. Dan Duckhorn, who had built his reputation on merlot and sauvignon blanc in Napa, bought the old Obester property in Mendocino's Anderson Valley. Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards, another terrifically successful cabernet specialist who had renounced pinot noir two decades earlier, planted a nine-acre pinot vineyard in western Sonoma and contracted to manage one of the oldest pinot vineyards in Santa Barbara County. Beringer, Cakebread, Patz & Hall, and Simi all released pinots for the first time (or for the first time in a long time) in 1997. Sparkling wine houses like J Wine Company, Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer, and Codorníu Napa embarked on programs to make still pinot noir. Napa's Steve Girard, who was known for fine cabernet and chardonnay, sold out, moved to Oregon, and launched himself into pinot. Gary Andrus, the former Olympics skier who had founded Napa's Pine Ridge Winery in the 1970s, bought land in Oregon for a new venture focused on pinot noir. Even small-scale specialists in other varieties, like Dry Creek Valley's Doug Nalle, could not resist the temptation to make a barrel or two of pinot. Wine giants like Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, and Mondavi made huge acquisitions of cool-climate land and planted pinot aggressively, though admittedly a bit less aggressively than they did chardonnay. The land rush drove prices for unplanted potential vineyard land to unprecedented heights.
Bottle prices for New World pinots edged up too. At the end of the 1990s, prices in the $30 to $50 range were common, especially for limited bottlings; a few wines, like single-vineyard releases from Williams Selyem and Saintsbury's Brown Ranch wine, were priced between $75 and $100. While such prices were modest by comparison with those asked and paid for California's cult cabernets and for the very finest examples of premier cru and grand cru Burgundy, it remains that pinot noir is, in general, an expensive variety. Wine Spectator's calculations showed that the average bottle price of pinots scored 90-plus was about $32 in 1998, versus an average $24 for similarly scored cabernets or chardonnays. The average production for pinots scored 90-plus was also fewer than 600 cases; for cabernets in the same range, the average production was almost 4,000 cases; and for chardonnay, nearly 8,000. So-called supermarket pinot noir barely exists. Good cabernets and chardonnays priced from $6 to $8 exist; good pinots in the same price range do not. The absence of "entry-level" wines among New World pinotsñor among red Burgundies, for that matterñmeans that pinot lovers are almost always converted from another passion, not made from scratch.
This book is not intended as a hymn to the wondrousness of pinot noir, nor as a recitation of its vagaries. All the prose we need about the fragrance, finesse, delicacy, sensuality, and magic of pinot noir has been written already. A lot of it is true; some of it is silly; but there is enough already. Nor is this book a claim of victory for North American pinotña sort of flag raising by victorious winegrowers in a newly conquered land. Only publicists for large wineries and their trade associations make such claims with apparently straight faces. California, Oregon, New York, Ontario, and British Columbia have not overtaken Burgundy in their few years of effort, however concerted; but neither is it the case that pinot in North America is so fundamentally a different beast that comparisons to Europe are irrelevant. Nor will this book argue that North American pinots are always better value than red Burgundies. A decade of relative price stability in Burgundy and huge progress to reverse a generation of ruinous farming practices have revived Burgundy since 1988 and substantially re-equilibrated price and value. Finally, this book is not primarily a buying guide. There are no scores, stars, or puffs. Tasting notes on individual wines are intended mainly to illustrate the properties of terroirs and the stylistic choices of winemakers, and to provide a prose description for consumers.
This book is intended as a survey of the landscape. I describe those areas where, as of the date of writing, the best pinot fruit is grown. As far as possible, I try to say why particular sites have distinguished themselves. A great deal of fascinating evidence exists because, at least in California and Oregon, many of the very best pinot makers own little land. For many reasons, they buy in most or all of their fruit and make small lots of vineyard-designated wine. Conversely, many growers sell fruit from a single parcel to several winemakers. Even when pinot makers own a vineyard, they often choose to sell part of their harvest to other makers of high repute, or to trade fruit, simply to gain experience with terroir (which can be defined as all of the physical properties of a site). This non-estate approach is, for the moment at least, much more widespread with pinot than with other varieties and contrasts rather markedly with the largely estate-based practices that prevail with high-end cabernet sauvignon. Whenever possible, I cross-reference sites and makers so that stylistic proclivities, winegrowing choices, and the mark of terroir can be recognized and compared.
The book does not shrink from comparing North American pinots with red Burgundies, and sometimes also with pinots grown in Alsace, Switzerland, the Loire valley, Italy, Germany, or Austria. With most of a millennium's experience in making pinot in Europe and barely a generation of serious effort thus far in the New World, with winemakers now traveling more like jet-setters than peasant farmers to exchange their experience, and with identical plant materials being introduced in both theaters, it is scarcely credible to pretend that the quest to produce great wine from the pinot noir grape is just a disconnected array of purely local efforts, subject to evaluation by local standards only. At the same time, I do not assume that "Burgundian" character (whatever the term may actually mean) defines great pinot or that a New World pinot is unsuccessful simply because it does not taste like a Burgundy.
This book seeks to identify trends, both promising and worrisome. Pinot noir in North America is nothing if not a work in progress, but pinot noir in Burgundy is also, to some small but important extent, reinventing itself. Some of the change has a "back to the future" character, in which it is difficult to tell progress from degeneration. Critics will argue that it's much too early for a book about North American pinot. The fundamentals aren't sorted out yet in North America, they will say; the ostensible best sites have been planted for only a decade or two; the cast of winemaking characters changes constantly; everything will be different in five years. They are right, of course. But change is not peculiar to pinot noir. Of the 3,000 entries in the first edition of Jancis Robinson's landmark Oxford Companion to Wine, half were updated for the second edition five years later and 500 brand-new entries were added. From the historian's perspective, the value of a snapshot is enhanced, not eroded, by change.
This book is for red Burgundy drinkers who have wondered what sort of wine pinot noir might give if its makers were liberated from a few regulations and relieved of annual autumn anxiety over rain and ripening fruit. It is for cabernet drinkers who have allowed themselves to lust for a kinder, gentler mouthfeel and for wines better adapted to savory pork, woodsy mushrooms, and grilled salmon. It is for merlot drinkers, seduced by the promise of "soft" wines, who got mostly insipid wines instead. It is for pinotphiles curious to know more about wines they like and about other wines related by style or provenance; for connoisseurs frustrated by the short supply of a few cult wines, seeking terrific alternatives; and for consumers wondering if those easy generalizations about the "cherry" in Russian River valley pinot, the "strawberry" in Los Carneros pinot, and the "tomato" in southern Central Coast pinot really stand up. It is for any wine drinker who has had a first bottle of pinot from someplace in North America and has been tempted to try another. And it is for everyone interested in the epic evolution of wine culture in the New World.
The names of wine grape varieties, from albariño to zinfandel, have become the bedrock vocabulary of wine talk worldwide. Nearly everyone who buys or drinks wine in the New World knows the names of ubiquitous varieties like cabernet, chardonnay, and merlot. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB; formerly the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), which regulates the labels of wine sold in the United States, recognizes about 260 varietal names, but its rather odd list includes quite a number of names that are not true varieties, as well as many hybrids. Spain, a country of surprising varietal idiosyncrasy and diversity, claims more than 600 varieties under cultivation. Botanists and viticulturists estimate up to several thousand varieties worldwide, grown in some 25 million acres of vineyard. Many more varieties have come and gone over the centuries, leaving just documentary traces. Even in those Western European wine lands where wine nomenclature is still rooted firmly in geography, nearly all producers and many consumers can recite, more or less without hesitation, the varietal identities behind the wines of Sancerre and Hermitage, the Rheingau, and the Rioja.
The plethora of wine grape varieties is believed to be descended from a single plant species, identified botanically as Vitis viniferañthough some knowledgeable viticulturists have been known to wonder if certain additional species, now extinct, might not lurk in the pedigree of some modern varieties. Vitis covers a group of thornless, dark-stemmed, shreddy-barked plants, most of them grapes of some sort, sporting stem tendrils opposite the set of their leaves. They grow as climbers on other plants and manmade structures, not unlike Virginia creeper and Boston ivy, to which the genus is related. Vinifera, the wine-worthy species, is a deciduous plant, tending toward thicker shoots and more deeply indented leaves than other grapes, and is generally more vulnerable to fungi and parasites. It is distinguished primarily for its fruit, which is thinner-skinned than other species of Vitis. Its fruit is also more tender, sweeter, and more delicately flavored than other grapes, but needs more heat and sunshine to ripen.
The varieties of vinifera are largelyñperhaps entirelyñthe product of cultivation. Varieties are thus often described as cultivars, which is simply a contraction of the English words cultivated varieties. Before humankind intervened, sometime between 10,000 and 7000 b.c., all vinifera grew wild, and identifiable varieties, for all practical purposes, did not persist longer than the lifetime of a single vine plant. In fact, stable varieties could not exist in the universe of wild vinifera, because the wild species is dioeciousñmeaning that unisexual flowers grow on separate male and female plants. Since fruit is thus produced only by the female plants, and then only when a female flower is cross-pollinated by some helpful insect, every instance of cross-pollination between wild grapevines is a matter of what geneticists call obligate outcrossing. This process inevitably reshuffles the genes in each resulting seedling, guaranteeing that every new vine is genetically different from its parentsñperpetuating heterogeneity in the population of wild vines, and effectively precluding persistent varietal differentiation.
The domesticated version of vinifera, by contrast, is a reliable hermaphrodite. Its bisexual flowers are capable of self-pollination, and every flower can produce fruit. For at least 7,000 years and perhaps longer, domesticated vinifera has been propagated vegetatively. People, interfering with nature, have taken buds or cuttings from individual vines, and grown new vines from the cuttings. In this process, no genes are reshuffled. Instead, each new plant is a genetically identical copy of its individual parent. Genetic consistency and varietal identity have thus been maintained, with help from human beings, across multiple plant generations, as long as the relevant vine population was derived from a relatively small number of parent plants, which were chosen with an eye to similarity of leaves, clusters, and berries.
Pinot's Earliest Traces
No one knows how early vinifera vine populations displayed recognizable varietal character. Although archaeologists have been able to assemble a good many facts about the early history of wine production and consumption, early viticulture is stubbornly obscure. The paraphernalia of prehistoric wine production have been unearthed, primarily in the form of pottery wine jars and drinking vessels. Grape remains have been found at various Neolithic sites around the eastern end of the Mediterranean and along several tributaries of the Tigris River in modern Iran and Iraq. Chemical residues in wine jars, dating to the fourth millennium b.c., have been positively identified as fermented grape juice. But the growing of grapes has left fewer traces than the making and consumption of wine. In Egypt, hieroglyphic writing from the third millennium gives us an isolated glimpse into contemporaneous vineyards. The glyph for grapevines is the recognizable image of a vinelike plant trained along something resembling a trellis or arbor. Otherwise our first insights into early viticulture come from Greek and Roman documents of the first millennium b.c. It is certainly fair to presume that the first evidence of substantial, regular wine production cannot antedate the first cultivated vineyards. It is, however, an open question whether vinifera was domesticated once, and cuttings of domestic vines then carried, carpetbag style, around the ancient world; or whether a ubiquitous wild vinifera species, widely distributed throughout Europe and western Asia 10,000 years or more b.c., was the object of multiple domestications.
For most of the twentieth century, the accepted opinion of most wine historians and paleobotanists was that all vinifera had a common geographic originñin Transcaucasia, between the Black and Caspian Seas, where modern Turkey, Iraq, and Iran share borders. This view, which originates with the work of Russian botanists at the end of the nineteenth century, was embraced by French viticulturist Pierre Viala, whose Traité général d'ampelographie was published in 1909 (ampelography is the science of vine description and identification). It is repeated in Jancis Robinson's classic Vines, Grapes, and Wines, which recasts Viala's work for an anglophone readership. Viala believed that vinifera had been transported, presumably along the same vectors traversed by other cultural indicators, across the ancient Near East to both Egypt and Greece, and thence to Rome and Western Europe. The picture of Greek and Roman settlements along the western Mediterranean littoral, with its well-known legacy of ceramic wine jars, is consistent with this scenario, and with much of what is known about the spread of both wine and culture into Western Europe.
This view of events is not, however, without problems. There is some evidence to indicate that grapes were cultivated and wine made in some parts of France before the first Greek settlements could have had any impact. Several varieties of vinifera grown during the Middle Ages in northern Europe, including pinot noir, seem not to have resembled the grapes grown in the southern parts of Europe. In addition, there is the inconvenient fact that Vitis vinifera grew wild throughout the Mediterranean basin, as far north as Belgium and Luxembourg and east into Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania as recently as the end of the nineteenth centuryñbefore it succumbed to phylloxerañand that small populations of wild vinifera persist today in the Pyrenees, as well as in parts of Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Iran. Since it is not likely that migrants from the eastern Mediterranean would have transported wild vine cuttings in their saddlebags, the extensive and persistent populations of wild vines throughout large parts of Western Europe may be one more indication that some wine grape varieties were not imports at all, at least in the sense that we usually think about imports executed by the known couriers of classical civilization. "It is not unthinkable," writes Raymond Bernard, longtime chief of the Office Interprofessionnel des Vins in Dijon, "that wild vines could have existed in the vast forest of Gaul" long before the Greeks or Romans arrived, and that "local Vitis vinifera silvestris" could have become "Vitis vinifera sativa" in situ, with a bit of human intervention. If this is true, pinot noir is a likely candidate for indigenous European origin, and perhaps even Burgundian origin, for reasons we will see momentarily.
Searching across the centuries for the first traces of modern grape varieties is treacherous business, given the imprecision of textual descriptions and the lack of detail in early drawingsñwhen drawings of any kind have survived at all. There are indications that vineyards may have flourished in what is now the Côte d'Or at least as early as the second century b.c. The earliest surviving description of these plantingsñand this may be a secondhand reportñis found in De re rustica by one Lucilus Junius Moderatus Columella, a farmer's son from the area around modern Cadiz, in Spain, and dates from the first half of the first century of the common era. Columella, who was knowledgeable about viticulture, insightful about matters of quality, and an early student (it appears) of Italian grape varieties, describes "the smallest and best" of three grapes types found in Burgundy in terms that are not inconsistent with the properties of pinot noir. This type, according to Columella, had "the roundest leaf of all," was "tolerant of drought and cold," and produced an age-worthy wine. For no less an authority than Jacques Lavalle, whose classic Histoire et statistique de la vigne et des grands vins de la Côte d'Or was published in 1855, Columella's description was sufficient evidence that something akin to pinot existed in the northern half of France at the beginning of the common era. In fairness, however, vastly more detail would be required to clinch the case objectively. Additional documentation does accumulate during the medieval period, as the monks of Cluny gained control of most of the vineyards in modern Gevrey-Chambertin and the monks of St.-Vivant acquired and cultivated vineyards in modern Vosne-Romanée. Noirien and morillon seem to emerge at this time as the monikers of choice for the local pinotlike red wine grape.
The first mentions of pinot by nameñsometimes spelled pynos or pineauñshow up during the last quarter of the fourteenth century in actes and other civil documents associated with the dukes of Burgundy. The first, widely cited by wine historians, was an acte of Philip the Bold ordering the shipment to Flandersñwhich Philip had acquired by marriageñof "six queues and one poinçon" (about 11 modern barrels) of "vermilion pinot wine" in 1375. Even better known is a second acte, dated 1395, in which the same Philip orders gamay vines, which he describes as "vile and noxious," uprooted from the Côte d'Or in favor of "pinot."
The great French wine historian Roger Dion believes that "pinot" was used to designate wineñin fact, Burgundy's best wineñbefore it was accepted as the name of a grape variety. Dion found its first application to grapes in 1394, two decades after Philip's "vermilion pinot" was sent off to Flanders, in the pardon of a maître de la vigne who beat to death a child who had failed to keep "pinots" separate from other grapes at harvest. Dion then found numerous references to "morillon dit pinot" and "morillon appelé pinot" in documents from the first quarter of the fifteenth century, as if pinot were being used to denote a subset of some larger type or class of red grapes. Some of these references imply that the pinot vines were newly planted. Dion permits himself to hypothesize that pinot was used to denote a grape variety or subvariety somehow superior to other related cultivars, that Philip the Bold may have coined the new name personally, and that Philip may also have been the patron of this instance of subvarietal selection. However that may be, the name pinot coexists persistently, following its first appearance in 1375, with a host of apparent paranyms (variant names, including nicknames, for what appears to be the same grape variety): noirien, franc noirien, plant à bon vin, plant fin, plant noble, franc bourgignon, franc pinot, petit pinot, and always morillon. Many of these names remained in common use within the memory of living Burgundians. To this day, there is special fondness for the morillon moniker in the commune of Morey-St.-Denis. Locals, who call themselves Morillions, like to assert that the name is evidence that pinot itself originated in Morey. They do not say why pinot is also called morillon in the department of Loir-et-Cher, 200 miles to the west.
What DNA Reveals
It is not likely that a complete genetic tree for Vitis viniferañbeginning with one or many instances of domestication and then traversing vine generations to the varietal population with which we work todayñcan ever be reconstructed. Written descriptions and surviving images, as we have seen, are insufficient for conclusive varietal identification, and many varieties crucial to the species tree have disappeared entirely in the course of time, leaving what amount to blank spaces in the pedigree of modern varieties. Carole Meredith, a viticulturist and plant geneticist recently retired from the University of California, Davis, has nonetheless pioneered techniques that have revolutionized our understanding of wine grape varieties. Since 1996, Meredith has used DNA fingerprintingñthe same technology that is used to connect criminals to crime scenes and to establish paternity among humansñto determine the correct identities of modern grape varieties that have come to be known under multiple names, and to identify the parents and even grandparents of some varietiesñat least where the parent varieties have themselves survived in cultivation or in collections. Meredith's extraordinary work has established, inter alia, that petite sirah is not syrah but durif; that zinfandel is identical to Croatian crljenak kastelanski, and that cabernet sauvignon, the most respected grape in Bordeaux, is the offspring of sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc.
Meredith's DNA-based work on northern French varieties has recently established that pinot noir is one of the genetic parents of chardonnay, gamay, aligoté, and at least 13 other varieties, including melon, the grape of Muscadet, and auxerrois, sometimes described as the "true" pinot blanc of Alsace. The other parent of all these progeny is gouais, a white variety once widely grown in northern France but now almost extinct except for a few specimens that survive in plant collections. This finding is hugely significant on several counts. First, and tantalizingly, the finding suggests that, for some unknown reason, pinot and gouais were an uncommonly "good parental combination," perhaps because they were relatively genetically dissimilar. Conversely, none of the progeny of pinot and gouais seem to have spawned successful progeny of their own, perhaps because they lacked the genetic distance necessary to birth stable offspring. Could this be evidence that vinifera was in fact domesticated several times over, in quite different locations, birthing "families" both closely and distantly related? Second, given that textual mentions of chardonnay and gamay occur as early as the thirteenth century, it is possible to conclude with certainty that both pinot noir and gouais are older, at least, than that, and conceivably as old as the dawn of French viticulture. Finally, that no cultivar has yet been identified as a parent of either pinot or gouais at least leaves open the possibility that the parents of one or both may have been wild vinesñperhaps the Vitis vinifera sativa about which Bernard has speculated. Beyond any doubt, Meredith's DNA work leaves intact the conventional wisdom that pinot noir, whatever its origins, is very old indeed.
Conventional field observation and DNA fingerprinting both indicate that pinot noir has a strong proclivity toward spontaneous mutation in the vineyard. Pinot gris and pinot blanc, the red-grayish and green-yellowish versions of pinot, are generally grown as distinct varieties, but their DNA profiles are genetically indistinguishable from pinot noir, and they almost certainly originated as spontaneous field mutations from red-berried vines. In 1936, according to Clive Coates, Nuits-St.-Georges grower Henri Gouges noticed that some of the old pinot noir vines in his Clos des Porrets vineyard had begun to produce white grapes. Having propagated cuttings from these mutated vines and planted them in the nearby Les Perrières vineyard, Gouges began making (and still makes today) several barrels of white pinot noir. Now Gouges has propagated this white pinot, which Coates calls "pinot Gouges," back into the Clos des Porrets vineyard where he first found it, so there is now also a dribble of Clos des Porrets blanc, and he has shared cuttings of pinot Gouges with other vintners in the Côte de Nuits.
Pinot meunier, the staple grape of Champagne, which is occasionally made into a still wine, is taken to be a "chimera." "A mutation exists in the outer layer of cells," according to Meredithñcausing the distinctive "floured" leaf that gave the variety its nameñ"but if you isolate an inner layer of cells and regenerate a plant from those cells, the new plant resembles a typical pinot noir." One Austrian scientist advances a different view, however. Ferdinand Regner, of the Federal College of Viticulture in Klosterneuburg, published research in 1999 claiming that pinot meunier (known in German-speaking countries as schwarzriesling) is actually a parent rather than a mutation of pinot noir, and that pinot noir represents the crossing of schwarzriesling with traminer. This research is not accepted outside Austria, and Regner's results have not been replicated in other studies. The mutability of pinot noir is generally thought responsible for the profusion of its clones, sometimes called stable mutations (of which more in chapter 5).
Pinot's Habitat Expands
Whether pinot noir arrived in France with the Romans or the Greeks, or was domesticated in situ from indigenous Vitis vinifera, and whether its first appearance is put as early as five or six centuries b.c. or as late as the European Middle Ages, there can be no doubt that pinot made Burgundy famous, and vice versa. Many wine historians believe that the alliance of pinot and Burgundy was an explicit policy of Burgundy's Valois dukes, whose duchy extended from the Alps to Flanders, and whose power and influence rivaled those of the kings of France until the seventeenth century. Roger Dion in particular, extending his hypothesis about Philip the Bold's seminal role in the propagation and promotion of pinot noir, argues that the reputation of Beaune wines as "the finest in the world" was a "propaganda triumph of the Valois dukes of Burgundy." In any case, as the variety was transported northward to Champagne, west to the Loire, eastward to Alsace and Germany, and southward across what is now Switzerland to Italy, its Burgundian pedigree was respected. The name pinot took firm hold in France, and the grape emerged in Italian as pinot nero. In German-speaking areas, it became known as Burgunder, Blauburgunder, and Spätburgunder. When pinot gris and pinot blanc emigrated to Germanic lands, they were dubbed Grauburgunder and Weissburgunder, respectively, testifying to the presumed Burgundian origins of these color mutations as well. In parts of France, pinot was sometimes mistakenly applied to unrelated varieties, as in pineau de la Loire, a paranym for chenin blanc; we are told that the pinot spelling was not made official until the end of the nineteenth century, and then only to protect the word from mispronunciation by Burgundian peasants, who had a tendency to render pineau as something like "peen-yew."
Today there are about 11,000 acres of pinot noir in the Côte d'Or, the celebrated strip of east-facing slope between Dijon and Chalon-sur-Saône that is home to Burgundy's finest wines. There are another 10,000 acres in southern Burgundy, in the districts called the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais, where no small quantity of pinot is blended with gamay to make Bourgogne Passetoutgrains. But Champagne is home to more pinot noir than the Côte d'Or, and more pinot is crushed for champagne than is made into still red Burgundies. Pinot noir is also grown and made as a varietal wine in Alsace and Sancerre, and grown primarily for blending in Lorraine, the Jura, Savoie, Menetou-Salon, and St.-Pourçain. Pinot noir is the fourth most planted variety in Germany (after riesling, Müller-Thurgau, and sylvaner), mostly in Baden, but also in the Pfalz and the Rheingau, and in pockets like Assmannshausen and the Ahr, near Bonn, where it has been a specialty for a century. It is Germany's only significant red variety. In Switzerland, 1,500 acres of pinot are grown in the Valais, where it used to be blended with gamay to make Dole but now stands increasingly on its own; near Neuchâtel, where it accounts for half of total vineyard surface and makes mostly a pale red wine known as Oeil de Perdrix; around the lakes southeast of Zurich; and in small appellations (like Bündner Herrschaft) near the border with Liechtenstein. In 2000, Austria accounted for just over 1,000 acres of pinot noir, about evenly divided between Niederösterreich and Burgenland. In Italy, there is pinot in Breganze, the Alto Adige, and Friuli, as well as in isolated vineyards throughout the country's northern halfñnotably in Oltrepo Pavese and the Arno valley, downstream from Florence. Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary all grow pinot noir. In at least one case, a Burgundy négociant, Charles Thomas of Nuits-St.-Georges, has become involved with a Franco-Romanian venture to produce pinot noir in the appellation called Dealu Mare.
In the nineteenth century and with some gusto in the twentieth, thanks to immigrants, plant collectors, and a growing number of serious vintners, pinot was also transplanted to various parts of the world outside Europe, including South Africa, North America, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand. North America is now home to more pinot noir than Burgundy. Somewhat confoundingly, especially for those who believe that grape varieties have well-established terroir preferences, pinot is successfully grown alongside chardonnay in Burgundy, alongside sauvignon blanc in Sancerre, alongside chasselas in Switzerland, cheek-by-jowl with riesling in Alsace and Germany, and not far from syrah in some parts of California and Australia.
The Good, Bad, Ethereal, and Perverse
As a vining plant, pinot noir is not especially vigorous and has a tendency to throw relatively slender trunks and willowy branches. Its leaves generally measure about five inches in each dimensionñslightly larger than syrah but smaller than cabernet sauvignon. Leaves are usually three-lobed but only slightly indented, and thicker than some varieties, with a surface that is sometimes described as bubbly. Viticulturists observe, however, that pinot noir actually exhibits a wide variety of leaf shapes. Sometimes the leaf is lobed on one side only; sometimes it is grossly asymmetrical; sometimes the lobes are so understated that the leaf seems almost round, or even square. The ripe fruit cluster is typically small, compact, and almost cylindricalñlike the pinecone for which it is presumably named. Individual berries also tend to be small, almost perfectly round, and the color of midnight blue. Cluster morphology and berry size vary by clone, however, with some highly regarded clones distinguished for their comparatively smaller berries and tighter structure. And despite the recurrent description of cylindrical clusters, pruning in the vineyard to remove "wings" and "shoulders" from clusters is a common practice, so not all untrimmed clusters look very cylindrical to the untrained eye.
Pinot noir has the reputation of being fiercely difficult to grow, and many growers who have experimented with pinot in the New World have abandoned it. Robinson calls pinot "a minx of a vine" that "leads [growers] on a terrible dance." Burgundians admit that it is delicate, needing in Henri Jayer's words "sunshine but not too much and water but not too much," but spend relatively little time cataloging its liabilities. Among the common varieties of vinifera, pinot does seem especially susceptible to mildew and botrytis, as well as to several viral diseases, including leaf roll and fanleaf. Because it buds early, it is often at risk in cooler climates from spring frosts, though some sources indicate that it resists cold temperatures tolerably well. Like wild vinifera, and possibly testifying to a close relationship with wild vines, pinot appears sensitive to hard rain and abrupt temperature changes after budbreak, birthing clusters with a large percentage of stunted grapes or clusters that fall from the vine unfertilized. Pinot is a relatively shy-bearing variety under most circumstances, so fecundation failures can cause catastrophically small harvests. In addition, pinot noir's small berries have relatively thin skins that are easily broken by rough handling at harvest. The thin skins' tannins comprise only about 1.7 percent of the grape's weightñas compared to 3 percent to 6 percent in most red varietiesñand pinot's anthocyanins, the soluble pigments that give most red wines their color, are present in less than half the quantity as in, for example, syrah. Serious winegrowers in all areas are now meticulous about their pinot noir, lavishing it with intensive, vine-by-vine attention throughout the growing season, and (when their experience permits) contrasting it with syrah, which some say more or less grows itself. "God made cabernet sauvignon," André Tchelistcheff, the father of modern California winegrowing, is supposed to have said, "whereas the devil made pinot noir."
No variety of vinifera has a more exalted reputation for making fine wine, howeverñwhen all has gone well in both vineyard and cellar. "Good pinot noir," say Wall Street Journal wine columnists Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, with a fair degree of objective sobriety, "has an elegant, velvety taste that tends to be less intense, less tannic and more berry-like than cabernet sauvignon." An "official" description by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board involves "elegant, soft tannins [and] a very fine bouquet which is difficult to describe [but is] reminiscent of raspberries and almonds." Attempting in 1981 to capture pinot's "personality," veteran California wine critic Robert Finigan allowed that pinot is "at once elegant and earthy, musty and fresh, pungent and expansively fragrant." Visually, it is neither thick nor dense, and black is not its color. "You must be able to see through a glass of it," explains Henri Jayer, who has made some of Burgundy's most respected exemplars. "The Pinot has a pretty robe," he continues, "glistening and shimmering like a cat's eyes, [and] sparkling like a diamond."
Many Burgundians insist that pinot's greatest appeal is aromatic. The smell of a fading rose is one classic description, but the spectrum of floral properties associated with pinot noir is actually quite broad, ranging from rose across lavender and lilac to violets, in combinations that sometimes remind people of potpourri. Fruit-driven examples of pinot noir can display everything from raspberry and strawberry to cherry, cassis, plum, and various black fruits. In North America, a variety of intense local berries joins the list, including lingonberry, whortleberry, and gooseberry. A host of tarlike, resiny, woody, and woodsy smells and flavors (including mushrooms and truffles) are common and wholly acceptable, as are overtones of meat and animal, ranging from charcuterie to wet fur and leather, and sometimes extending into the realm of organic wastes. Minerality is common, and usually appreciated. Still, Jayer insists, "the wine must be clean and pure." In fact, it must be "full and fleshy, fat and concentrated, but discreet, supple and soft at the same time, and it must have definition." For Anne Gros, a generation younger than Jayer, the model is not hugely different. "Harmonious, balanced, ample and concentrated," she says, "but also elegant." Ken Burnapña onetime restaurateur who has made some excellent pinots at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyardsñsaid to Connoisseurs' Guide in 1977, "Pinot noir is the only red grape variety that is totally honest, totally clean, no gimcracks; no little fancy hints and fringes that never come through. Pinot noir is a strong, hard-hitting, clean red wine. In my experience of drinking wine, it is the one wine that keeps your taste buds alive and perking through dinner. It cuts through all the cream sauces and thick tastes."
Pinot's fans are so enthusiastic about "their" variety that efforts to create straightforward description often turn poetic, and are sometimes transformed into panegyrics. Contrasting pinot with "blockbuster versions" of syrah, cabernet, and merlot, Sarah Kemp, publisher of Britain's Decanter magazine, likens pinot noir to a Merchant-Ivory movieñ"refined, beautiful, ethereal and intellectually appealing." Its flavors, according to wine writer Oz Clarke, "are sensuous, often erotic, above rational discourse, and beyond the powers of measured criticism." Joel Fleischman wrote ten years ago in Vanity Fair, "At their best, pinot noirs are the most romantic of wines, with so voluptuous a perfume, so sweet an edge, and so powerful a punch that, like falling in love, they make the blood run hot and the soul wax embarrassingly poetic." California wine writer Richard Paul Hinkle talks about pinot's "raw, succulent and fleshy textural sensuality" balanced with "inherent elegance and grandeur." Pinot is "a righteous grape," according to Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon, director of wine and beverages for Unique Restaurant Corporation, "chock full of incredible texture and hedonistic pleasures"; it is "sex in a glass," so seductive that "it's very, very hard to say 'no' to." "The king of natural wines," concluded George Saintsbury, 80 years ago, in Notes on a Cellar-Book, reflecting on the red Burgundies it had been his privilege to enjoy.
The enthusiasm for pinot noir qua wine is far from universal and unqualified, however. Makers and commentators articulate their models and pen their descriptions, but pinot's broad range of acceptable hues and color density, and its wide organoleptic bandwidth (the range of sensory impressions it conveys to the nose and the palate), still generates confusion even among experienced tasters, whether the wine was grown in Burgundy, North America, or somewhere else. For Jayer, thinking only about Burgundy, "the diversity of styles from one cellar to another" is an essential part of the genius both of grape and of place, and he has professed concern lest the diversity be lost to "vins standards" that are "perfect and perfectly neutral," which he sees looming on Burgundy's horizon. Some winemakers on this side of the Atlantic seem to agree with Jayer, arguing that pinot is the only varietyñthus farñto have escaped being "defined" by wine critics, and therefore to remain a safe haven for a relatively broad range of interpretations and styles. But others find that mischief lurks in diversity. John Baxevanis, in Wine Regions of America, blames the "passionate opinions" and "lack of consensus" about pinot noir's ideal expression on pinot's intrinsic "lack of varietal identity." This diversity has the baleful effect, he argues, of making pinot "the subject of considerable manipulation either through winemaking processes, or by the addition of other wine to add color, flavor, alcohol, longevity, etc." For wine writer Norm Roby, charged to create tasting panels on a variety-by-variety basis for Vintage magazine in the early 1980s, the lack of consensus emerged as a practical problem. He cited major intrapanel rifts over acceptable levels of body, tannins, and volatility, with some tasters preferring a light, delicate style while others privileged intensity of flavor. "For many pinot noirs," Roby reported, "two tasters loved it, two hated it and two felt it was just average in quality." Similar results are reflected in the published notes of San Francisco's Vintners Club, covering tastings held over a 14-year period between 1973 and 1987. Repeatedly, only two or three tasters out of a dozen could agree which wine in each flight was the "best" pinot, and some wines emerged from the tastings ranked simultaneously at the top and the bottom of the heap. Although genuinely pathological disparities of opinion about pinot are less common today than they were 20 years ago, wine juries are rarely unanimous in their assessments of pinot noir, winemakers themselves often disagree on qualitative issues, and individual wines are still rewarded, in the same tasting, with both rave reviews and punishing scores.
Critics and consumers, and sometimes even pinot noir's most avowed fans, complain that pinots can be stubbornly inconsistent, unpredictable, and often downright disappointing. They contrast this misbehavior with the better "manners" shown by fine Bordeaux, syrah-based wines, and reds grown in Northern Italy. These brickbats are cast equally against red Burgundies, North American pinots, and pinots made elsewhere. Several hobgoblins are at work. First, pinot noir makes an unstable wine. There is no nice way to say this, though adjectives like moody and capricious take off some of the edge. Pinot can show beautifully from barrel and then suffer an acute case of bottle shock. It can taste ethereal one day, but then close down to a shadow of its former self. California wine writer Dan Berger calls pinot "enigmatic," complaining that the same wine is "flamboyant and engaging" at one moment and "acerbic and angular" at another. Pinot is certainly more susceptible than gutsier varieties to damage from excessive heat, and it can be traumatized by rough transport.
Kermit Lynch, the California-based importer of fine Burgundy, remembers his experience with the 1972 vintage of Hubert de Montille's Volnay Champans, which arrived dumb in California, having suffered from its oceanic traverse. "Put it in a cool cellar for six months," de Montille counseled the worried importer. Lynch did, and the wine recovered, but Lynch wisely used refrigerated containers for future shipments, in an effort to mitigate pinot's mood swings.
Conversely, pinots can improve spontaneously and unpredictably when they are three, five, or eight years old. Five years after the vintage, Iron Horse Vineyards' first edition of vineyard-designated pinot noir, from the Thomas Road Vineyardña slightly lightweight but very charming wine in its youthñinexplicably put on weight in the bottle and gained layers of complexity not at all associated with age.
Second, there is substantial discontinuity between really good pinot noir, wherever it is grown, and lesser wines made from the same grape. Everything short of really good seems irretrievably mediocre. This curse, which may be rooted in pinot's legendary transparency and fragility, along with its extreme sensitivity to being overcropped, explains why so much Bourgogne Rouge offers only the palest hint of a fine Gevrey, Echézeaux, or Volnay, and why large lots of industrial North American pinot noir echo fine vineyard-designates and microblends only faintly. It also explains why so-called entry-level pinot, priced inexpensively, is so hard to find. It is also the best available answer to Jim Clendenen's otherwise reasonable plaint, in a 1998 address to the Napa Valley Wine Library, that consumers and critics reserve a special onus for pinot noir, demanding that all pinot noir be conceived as "the ultimate in greatness." Consumers permit a majority of cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, syrah, and nebbiolo to exist respectably as "delicious, serviceable, and tremendously versatile wines," Clendenen observed accurately, while they obstinately hold pinot to a higher standard. The inconvenient fact is that when pinot noir is not held to a higher standard, it is usually much less than delicious. Serviceable pinot noir is not quite an oxymoron, but it comes close.
Finally, pinot noir, in all its manifestations, suffers from the scarcity of individual wines. The total acreage planted to pinot noir in the Côte d'Or is not much less than the total vineyard acreage in the Haut-Médoc and St.-Emilion combined, and there is only a little less grand cru Burgundy made in an average year than there is first-growth Bordeaux. But of each first-growth Bordeaux (except Château Ausone) 12,000 to 33,000 cases are made, against a paltry couple hundred (and sometimes less) by most producers lucky enough to own a slice of Le Chambertin, Bonnes-Mares, or Clos du Tart. Burgundian patterns of landholding do not constrain the North American scene, but individual benchmark pinots on this side of the Atlantic are very often produced, with uncanny similarity to grand cru Burgundy, on an almost Lilliputian scale, usually because the output of a small vineyard is deliberately divided by its owner among several client wineries. In Burgundy, the multiplicity of small producers leads to huge differences between the best wine made from Bonnes-Mares (for example) and the worst, and to disappointed consumers who forswear Burgundies entirely after mistakenly spending a lot of good money on the worst. North America largely escapes the good-and-bad Bonnes-Mares problem, but increasingly shares with Burgundy the downside of very many wines produced in very small quantities of each. The basic law of very small supply and modestly large demand sends prices soaring and creates offensive discontinuities between price and value.
Under the circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that wine literature is awash in bittersweet love-hate vocabulary about pinot noir. For every superlative, there is a countervailing reservation; for every rapturous evaluation, there is somewhere an angry critic or disappointed consumer. Burgundians have lived long enough with pinot noir to have become accustomed to its ways and to accept its foibles as the price of sometimes stunning wine. But on this continent, aspiring winemakers and unhappy critics have embraced an odd vocabulary redolent of epic strife and operatic drama without which, it seems, no story about pinot noir is ever complete. The variety is said to be capricious, petulant, tantalizing, and even quixotic. Dan Berger says it is "cursed with a personality so sour it would make the grinch look like Santa Claus." Its makers are said to be "lunatic-fringe" questers after "the Holy Grail." Marc de Villiers's book about one of North America's pinot pioneers is titled The Heartbreak Grape. This is all good fun, but in the following pages, I will attempt a slightly more sober approach.