My eldest son is about to turn two years old. He is a beautiful, intelligent, energetic little tyke. He loves to run around, and often mimics things that he sees me do. For instance, he saw me hammering nails into a wall to hang a few frames. Moments later, he had a plastic toy hammer and dutifully whacked away at my knee caps and even more sensitive regions. He is also mastering the English language, and has perfected his pronunciation of the word “NO.” He even has a head shake that he uses to add emphasis. It’s quite cute. As any parent knows, though, along with adorable little anecdotes come countless tirades, episodes, and even a few hissy fits. Did I mention he is entering his terrible twos?
As my wife and I continue to parent away, we are faced with countless choices. Should we spank our kid? Should we allow him to run amuck? Should we yell? Should we try to reason with the young master? Should we simply turn our backs when he throws a fit? In every “terrible two” scenario, we are faced with a multitude of options, from each extreme to a middle of the road approach. Sometimes our decisions are ineffective, and sometimes they work wonderfully. But, in any event, we learn from each experience and are better off for it.
From a recent conversation with Brian Loring, of Loring Wine Company, it seems that winemakers feel the exact same way about the winemaking process, especially when working with the ficklest of grapes: Pinot Noir. Just like parents, winemakers have to make difficult decisions as they develop their wines, knowing that each decision will greatly alter their final product. In California, winemakers use a number of styles to produce a range of Pinot Noir, from syrupy, high-alcohol sludge, to wines built in the style of Grand Cru Burgundy. The same is true for Oregon. Oregonian Pinot Noir ranges from acidic, razor sharp low-fruit neo-Burgundies, to hugely structured, rich, succulent fruit-bombs. Similarly, producers of Burgundy are split over the use of oak, the inclusions of grape stems during crush and fermentation, and the ideal level of acid and fruit in the final product. Surely every winemaker wants their wines to turn out wonderfully and balanced, just like every parent wants their child to grow into a responsible and well-rounded individual. But, since there is – and always will be – debate about how to properly make wine (and raise children), the wines from each region lack stylistic unity.
Despite the fact that so many winemakers make different choices when crafting their wines, the wines from each region mentioned above have certain characteristics the set them apart. As a result, most serious wine drinkers develop a preference for a region based on their experiences and preconceived notions of regional style. I won’t, for even one second, act like I don’t have a preconceived favorite region for Pinot Noir (it’s Oregon). It’s safe to say that each of my wine-geek friends has a preconceived notion about what region produces the finest Pinot Noir too. To put those geeks’ preconceived notions to the test, I arranged a blind tasting of Pinot Noir from around the world. The goals of the tasting were to determine which style of Pinot Noir each of us truly preferred once the labels were hidden, and to see if we could identify the origin of each wine based on our notions of regional traits. We all knew that the tasting included one Pinot from Burgundy, one from Sonoma Coast, another from the Russian River Valley, and one from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. We also knew that one more wine was added to the mix double-blind. The results of the tasting were surprising!
The 2002 Marcassin “Blue Slide Ridge” from Sonoma Coast utterly dominated the tasting, and was my clear favorite. I thought it was Oregonian, given its wonderfully earthy flavor profile, red fruit, and acid. I was wrong. Only one of our six experienced palates correctly identified it as a product of Sonoma Coast. Of the other five votes, four concluded that Oregon was its birthplace, and one was absolutely determined the wine was Grand Cru Burgundy. In fact, the chap that concluded the wine was from Burgundy is a wine broker with a cellar full of Burgs. Another winner was the 2003 Domaine du Clos de Lambrays “Clos de Lambrays” which was a delicious, earthy, tar scented burgundy with a rich-but-not-sweet black fruit undertone. My third favorite wine, which I thought was the Sonoma Coast, turned out to be the Oregon Pinot that I brought to the tasting: 2008 Penner-Ash “Pas De Nom.” No one correctly identified the Pas De Nom as an Oregon Pinot.
Quite frankly, the Pas De Nom did not exhibit the earth and acid notes that made me fall in love with Oregon pinot. It was hugely framed, and so laden with fruit I would have bet the farm it was Californian. But, after all, winemaker decisions shape wine as much as anything else, and Penner-Ash clearly decided that their flagship Pas De Nom would push the boundaries of richness and structure in Oregon. It lacked the crisp acidity, earth, and spice that help make Oregon wines so special. As a result, the wine lost its sense of place.
But, as Brian Loring mentioned in our recent discussion, winemakers often push their wines to extremes to see precisely what kind of wine they can make. Only once they have reached their extreme can they truly know where their sweet-spot lies and harness back. Perhaps Penner-Ash will harness back a bit, and make a wine truly befitting their incredible location. In the meantime, I might be hunting for another 2002 Blue Slide Ridge, which truly stole the show as the ideal mix between Burgundian earthiness and acidity, and Russian River Valley richness and fruit-concentration.
— A special thanks to Brian Loring who graciously took the time to answer my questions about some of his fantastic 2009 Pinot Noir, making Russian River and Sonoma Coast wines, and winemakers’ struggles with making balanced Pinots in California. His insight was eye-opening, and his patience admirable. He did, after all, take time during harvest to respond to my inquiries.
TASTING NOTES (in order of tasting):
2003 Clos de Lambrays “Clos De Lambrays” (Morey St. Denis, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy): Obviously Burgundy. Dense and a bit shut down at first. After a bit of air, the Lambrays revealed blackberry and black cherry notes – but without apparent sweetness – loads of damp earth, and a hint of smoke. A loaded and structured wine, with prevalent but not unpleasant tannins. Delicious. 93
2008 Penner Ash “Pas De Nom” (Willamette Valley, Oregon): I thought this was Sonoma Coast. It has a nice blackberry and cherry nose with a hint of raspberry. Hints of allspice, but the fruit is clearly the star of the wine. Moderate to low acid, but nice sweet tannins. The wine is opulent, but not particularly heavy, which is why I guessed Sonoma Coast. I just didn’t get Oregon. Undeniably a well-made and delicious wine that I enjoyed, and one that can age. Unfortunately, it lacked the acid and earthy style that can make Oregon wine so special. 92-93
2007 Kosta Browne “Koplen Vineyard” (Russian River Valley, California): Halfway through I realized my tasting note resembled one for a Napa Cab. Plum, blackberry, and black cherry dominate the extremely rich and unctuous palate. The primary fruit palate is followed by hints of oak and vanilla. Bigger than Cyrano de Bergerac’s nose, and thicker than black strap molasses. I considered using a spoon. Tough to judge objectively, since
the wine is undeniably complex has a very long finish, is loaded with pure and sweet fruit, and decent tannic structure is there. On the other hand, it lacks acidity, shows big oak, is very unbalanced, and is leaden. I get why others like it, but it’s simply not my style. 90?
2002 Marcassin “Blue Slide Ridge” (Sonoma Coast, California): Stunningly complex and balanced. Cherry, blackberry, and wild raspberry explode on the nose, followed by damp earth and baking spices. The wine has perfect acidity that cuts through the richness of the fruit, creating a sense of balance that would make Mary Lou Retton jealous. A truly amazing pinot noir, regardless of region. 96
2001 Bouchard “Bonnes Mares” (Chambolle-Musigny, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy): Lighter in color than the Marcassin, and showing raspberry, tobacco, and earth notes. Its bracing acidity takes away from the otherwise pretty red fruit palate without adding to the wine. Lacks depth and complexity. 88
OTHER RECENT PINOT NOIR
2009 Loring Wine Company “Garys’ Vineyard” (Sta. Lucia Highlands, Central Coast, California): Wonderfully expressive nose of raspberry, blackberry, and cherry, mixed with a hint of violet, a splash of baking spices, and the faintest hint of oak. The wine is well balanced, and more so than past vintages. Just a touch of heat on the wine, but the wine is not thick, unctuous, or remotely heavy in texture. It’s Garys’ as opposed to Gary’s Vineyard, as Brian Loring politely pointed out, since it’s owned by Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni, hence the plural possessive. 92
2008 Charles Smith “Evergreen Vineyard” (Ancient Lakes, Washington): Bought this because I wasn’t aware that people were even making pinot noir in Washington. 14.1% abv. Rich baked cherry pie filling laden with cinnamon, nutmeg, and a hint of pine. Reminiscent of Oregonian Pinot, and specifically reminds me of some 2006 Cristom Pinots. Medium finish, acid, and moderate to approachable structure. Drinking pretty well right out of the gate. 91
1999 Vincent Girardin Chambolle Musigny “Les Amoureuses” (Cote de Nuits, Burgundy): Really beautiful tart cherry, fresh tilled earth, strawberry bramble, and burg-funk on this gorgeous mid-weight Pinot. Its expressive fruit is counterbalanced by nice acidity and some funky (in a good way) notes of game, truffle, and forest floor. Yes please, I’ll take another. 92-93