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America's Pinot Passion
By Paul Lukacs
Sep 2, 2014
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American Pinot Noir is hot.  Bottles fly off store shelves, and restaurateurs can’t keep the more popular labels in stock.  To meet the demand, wineries are releasing new vintages ever earlier, often well before they’re truly ready to drink, and charging ever-higher prices.  No matter.  The country’s Pinot passion shows no signs of abating.

Since few consumers cared all that much about domestic Pinot Noir until recently, America’s current obsession with this particular varietal raises a number of questions.  Most important, are the wines worth it?  Is their quality high enough to justify the hype?  But also, what does all the frenzy suggest about America as a wine culture?  How and why did we become so Pinot crazed?

Some people credit the movie, Sideways.  Released in 2004, it depicted a wine-loving, would-be novelist looking for love and Pinot perfection during a vacation in Santa Barbara wine country.  The film was both cute and clever.  Although it became something of a cult hit, it never was a true box-office smash, and lots of today’s Pinot devotees never saw it.  So by itself, it can’t account for the mania.

More important, I think, is the fact that American wine enthusiasts tend to follow fads, whether on a broad scale as happened a while back with Australian Shiraz and then Argentinean Malbec, or on a smaller one more recently with Austrian Grüner Veltliner.  This propensity to embrace new styles and types of wine so wholeheartedly (and in the process to dismiss or reject previous favorites) stems from the United States being a relatively young wine culture.  Unlike those raised in Europe or even South America, few of us have inherited an appreciation for wine.  Instead, we’re on our own, and so always seem to be on the lookout for something new and exciting.  We simply don’t have much experience with the tried and true.

Whatever the cause, domestic Pinot Noir, particularly wines from California and Oregon, the two leading sources, is riding a huge wave of popularity these days.  From New York to Los Angeles, Chicago to Dallas, it’s the trendy wine of choice.

Some of the wines are certainly very good.  Particularly with a few years of bottle age behind them, they display not only rich fruit flavors but also evocative secondary ones, along with the classic qualities of harmony and balance that distinguish any first-rate wine.  Producers such as Calera and Merry Edwards in California, and Domaine Drouhin in Oregon (to single out three personal favorites), have strong track records for consistently making delicious, distinctive American Pinot Noirs.   

Moreover, when considered as a general category, there can be little doubt that domestic Pinot has improved significantly.  Twenty years ago, most California Pinot Noir was planted in places that proved too hot for this temperamental grape, and many Oregon vintners were using clones that yielded comparatively unexciting wines.  As a result, domestic Pinots often tasted thin and washed-out, with sour, vegetal flavors.   At the time, American Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were proving themselves the equal of top European wines.  Pinot lagged very far behind.

It definitely has made up ground.  Growers in California today plant the grape primarily in areas near the Pacific, where the vines benefit from a cool, maritime influence.  Like their counterparts in Oregon, they also are paying much more attention to plant material, choosing particular clones and rootstocks that will produce fruit with more complex, compelling flavors than before.

The result should be literally scores of exciting, enthralling wines.  Sadly, however, my experience indicates that it’s not.   Over the few years, I’ve repeatedly been dissatisfied by even quite pricey American Pinots, and a recent tasting brought the point home.  Following it, I was forced to conclude that, with exceptions such as the producers noted above, American Pinot Noir as a category remains disappointing. 
To my palate, there are two big problems with many contemporary American renditions of this Burgundian varietal.  The first is that, again considered as a category, the wine has swung from one stylistic extreme to another.  Very few of today’s Pinots taste tart or weedy anymore.  Instead, far too many seem sappy and sweet, their intense ripeness leaving them unbalanced and unharmonious.  It is as if vintners, having learned at last how to get this grape ripe, have forgotten all about pursuing delicacy and finesse.

The second problem comes from many of these wines being released for sale too early.  They taste grapey and raw, and so lack the seductively silky texture that distinguishes good pinot noir, no matter its geographical origin.   You could find California and Oregon Pinots from the 2012 vintage in wine shops as early as this summer, a mere ten months or so after harvest.  Not surprisingly, they tasted unfinished.   

To be fair, Pinot Noir is a notoriously difficult grape with which to make good wine.  Even in Burgundy, its historic homeland, many more wines miss the mark than hit the bull’s eye.  What proves distressing about so many contemporary American Pinots, however, is not just the gap that exists between how people talk about them and how they taste, but the mounting evidence that overall quality has become stagnant nowadays.  The brief era of steady, sometimes spectacular Pinot improvement seems to be over. 

Few wines a decade ago exhibited the candied character that mars even quite expensive Pinots now.  And few were sold so long before their time for optimal drinking.  Sadly, the story of American Pinot Noir today is much like the old story of the emperor with no clothes.  There’s lots of flattery but not all much merit.

Pinot Noir is literally thin-skinned, which means that, when compared with other red grapes, it has naturally low tannins.  A grape’s skin also contains pigments, so unless the winemaker manipulates it so as to extract extra color, pinot naturally will produce light-hued juice.  Because its tannins tend to be so unobtrusive, the resulting wine should feel soft when you sip it, this varietal’s texture being a crucial component of its charm.  Yet without firm tannins to provide structure, pinot needs crisp acidity to give the wine focus and depth.  Otherwise, it will seem sappy, not silky.

In a recent lineup of some thirty California and Oregon Pinot Noirs, almost all priced over $30 (with some over $50), every single wine exhibited dark ruby color, and every single wine lacked acidity.  They all were rich and ripe, but their very ripeness robbed them of subtlety and harmony. 

None of these wines tasted much like Pinot Noir classically should taste.  That would not be a problem if they still tasted good, as there is no reason why an American wine need emulate a European one.  These wines, however, did not taste good, precisely because they were so evidently unbalanced.  They all seemed clunky, not classy, and not a single one merited a recommendation in a review on this website. 

The current consumer clamor for American Pinot Noir thus seems to be fueled by fashion much more than quality.  My tastings suggest that most of the hype surrounding these wines is just that -- hype.  The sad reality is that today’s Pinot passion all too often turns out to be unrequited love.