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North American Pinot Noir

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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.