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A PERFECT STORM OF PINOT
WE WERE STANDING IN A VINEYARD bathed in delicate spring sunshine. Its luminance covered the crest of a knob-like hill, contrasting the dark, brooding shoulders of Oregon's Coast Range, which towered nearby. Looking at the young Pinot Noir vines, with their newly sprouted leaves reaching eagerly toward the sun, the Oregon winemaker, Kelley Fox (of Scott Paul Wines), asked, "What's the old saying--'You know you're on to something when you get ridiculed'?" She was addressing Mo Momtazi, the Pinot's owner, who was relating the story of the conversion of his vineyard to the controversial system of biodynamic farming. One of his reasons for making the conversion was to try to save this very section of Pinot Noir, a weak area of land that hadn't displayed enough strength to ripen the grapes. "There were a lot of skeptics, a lot of people who wondered," Momtazi said, about the feasibility of farming his enormous vineyard, 95% Pinot, biodynamically, making it one of the largest such Pinot Noir vineyards in the world. In just a few years under the new method (composting, zero chemical inputs) his success is evident not only in his own richly colored, deeply flavored Pinots under his Maysara label, but in the twenty or so other Pinots made by all the people who buy his fruit.
Words like ridicule, doubt and risk come up frequently in tales of this perplexing grape. For years, the pursuit of Pinot Noir--unproven, unpredictable, uneconomical--was seen as folly on the grandest scale. Yet, Pinot is seductive in ways that other grapes are not, its elusive beauty leading to irresistible attraction. As wine critic Jancis Robinson has written, "It leads us a terrible dance, tantalizing with an occasional glimpse of the riches in store for those who persevere, yet obstinately refusing to be tamed."
Such was the experience of Andre Tchelistcheff, the revered Napa winemaker who claimed that the 1946 Beaulieu Pinot Noir was one of the greatest wines he had made in his life. And, despite 48 years of trying, he died in 1994 having never replicated it. As he famously proclaimed, "God made Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the devil made Pinot Noir."
Like so many beauties of literature--from sirens and mermaids to Lolita--that have led characters to their demise, the pursuit of Pinot Noir more than any other grape has inspired risky behavior. But, more often than not--at least in America--submission to the siren song has transformed lives for the better. The hero may have had to endure ridicule, skepticism, doubt and risk along the way, but the results cannot be denied.
Consider the doubt Josh Jensen inspired among family, friends, and investors when in the early 1970s his search for limestone soil on which to plant Pinot Noir (paralleling the ground of Burgundy) led him to a purchase a remote, desiccated rock mountain in a remote, sparsely populated section of California's Central Coast. Bucking drought, the elements, and the intransigence of solid rock, Jensen has made some of this country's greatest Pinots under his Calera label, indeed some of the finest ever made outside of France.
Not far away, Gary Pisoni endured ridicule for his decision to plant Pinot Noir in the benchland above the Salinas Valley. Known as "America's Salad Bowl," the Salinas Valley is some of the most productive farmland in the nation and thus not typically associated with quality wine. While some grape vines grew there before Pisoni arrived, they tended to be unripe Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But thanks to Pisoni's strange vision, what were once just rugged hillsides overlooking rich asparagus and broccoli fields are now the source of some of the most sought-after Pinot grapes in California.
Ditto David Lett, known as "Papa Pinot," whose decision to try planting Pinot Noir in Oregon's Willamette Valley was originally disparaged by his professors at the University of California at Davis. We know how that turned out.
These anecdotes are not by any means offered to suggest that planting Pinot Noir is any longer a fool's errand. Rather, they are meant to illustrate the compulsion, the near religious fervor that Pinot Noir can birth in people's souls. No grape has engendered so many stories of life transformation. No wine has so compelled people to suddenly uproot and dramatically change their lives.
Take winemaker Jamie Kutch, of Kutch Wines in San Francisco. For him a single bottle of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir was not only a wine, but also a summons--one that a few years ago he answered. A Wall Street trader at the time, Kutch was very into wine and drank a lot of it. It was, however, the taste of a single Pinot Noir, a 2002 Kosta-Browne Kanzler Vineyard, that caused him within weeks of the fateful taste to quit his job and move to California to make Pinot Noir himself. Still intoxicated less than a year later during harvest, he sent a diamond ring (in a box) down the conveyer amid the clusters of ripe Pinot Noir to his girlfriend of eight years who was sorting the fruit at the bottom. After the next harvest's fermentations were completed, they honeymooned in Thailand.
Consider the story of Deb and Bill Hatcher. Visiting the Willamette Valley from St. Louis in 1985, they sampled wine at The Eyrie Vineyards and Adelsheim Vineyard. "It was love at first taste," Deb recalls. She was thirty-five at the time. Nevertheless, within three weeks they had quit their jobs, packed up and moved to Oregon. Both worked their first harvests that year. Now they own two brands, A to Z and Rex Hill Vineyards, and are, with their partners, the largest wine producers in Oregon.
Or take the example of Steve and Carol Girard, who owned one of the hottest Cabernet labels in the Napa Valley in the mid-'80s. Unbeknownst to the Cabernet, they had for several years been conducting a discreet but impassioned affair with Pinot Noir. Ultimately unable to stand their double-life, they sold their winery and their name and excused themselves from the sunny life of Napa, buying an unglamorous 2,000-acre sheep farm under the more tortured skies of Oregon's central Willamette Valley. The sheep farm became Benton-Lane Winery.
I believe the epigram Kelley Fox was trying to remember that day in the vineyard comes from Oscar Wilde: "Ridicule is the tribute paid to the genius by the mediocrities." I'm sure none of the people cited above and the many others whose lives have been transformed by Pinot Noir would call themselves geniuses. And certainly none would take such a bitter tone in describing their work. Rather, I think, they would say that all the genius is in Pinot Noir itself and that they are the ones merrily paying tribute.
The Time is Now
Pinot Noir is seeing its greatest ever popularity in the United States. According to Nielsen Company research, in the two years between May 2006 and May 2008 sales of Pinot jumped an astonishing 36%. Each year Pinot sales grew by around 20% over the year before, making it the fastest growing red variety in the country.
A seismic 18% jump in typically staid grocery store sales between October 24, 2004 and July 2, 2005 confirmed the trend. The significance of October 2004 is not lost on Pinot lovers. That is the month the movie Sideways was released. Though the bittersweet, tragicomic movie focused on a couple of complicated and generally unsavory characters, one could say that Pinot Noir was the supporting player. Taking place predominantly among the vineyards of California's south Central Coast, the film set its drama in a world of wine tasting and discussion. At one point, the main character Miles says of Pinot Noir, "Oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and . . . ancient on the planet."
Seeing characters, no matter how humiliating and self-destructive their actions might be, take such pleasure and interest in wine (much less Pinot) was thirst-inducing for many Americans. Remarkable was the asymmetrical effect it had on Pinot sales. While the movie was a surprise hit and won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, it nevertheless was a so-called Independent film and had nowhere near the box office numbers of, say, a Spielberg blockbuster. The relatively small audience, compared to its enormous impact on the sales of a particular wine, leads me to believe that rather than causing the Pinot Noir explosion, Sideways was merely the catalyst, the match thrown on a great pile of fuel. In a wine environment that favored bigger and in which most of the wines being hailed by retailers and the press weren't particularly versatile or friendly with food, Pinot Noir--lighter bodied and food friendly--was that fuel so ready to be ignited.
A Little Background
A possible reason for the tantalizing and fugitive nature of Pinot's beauty is that, as grape varieties go, it is one of the most ancient. Like other very old organisms (whales, platypuses), Pinot Noir is replete with mystery. Some of the earliest recorded descriptions of a vine resembling Pinot Noir appear in the first century of the Common Era, suggesting that its history likely dates back much further. Some speculate that Pinot Noir is one of the earliest wild grape vines domesticated by man. And if you have experience raising a wolf puppy adopted from the wild--or even just a stray cat--you understand the unpredictable and often unfathomable behavior that results from intelligence and instinct we don't fully understand. Pinot Noir, which we have been domesticating for at least 2,000 years, stubbornly retains its wily, opaque personality.
Pinot is the great red grape of Burgundy (and Champagne) and is considered one of the world's "noble" varieties alongside the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Riesling. In Burgundy, it makes some of the world's most sought-after wines, wines so hip that we just call them by name: La Tâche and Musigny, for instance. Of course, out of Pinot Noir, Burgundy also makes plenty of more humble reds of the Tuesday-night variety.
While there is no proof as to exactly how or when Pinot Noir first came to America, it's pretty clear that the grape arrived in the middle years of the 19th century. Evidence for its existence is strong through the 1880s and 1890s, when a mania took hold in California for growing as many of the diverse varieties of Europe as possible. Pinot Noir was undoubtedly a part of early California viticulture, but the challenges of growing and vinifying it combined with the overwhelming fame of Bordeaux relegated it to an exceedingly minor place. Despite the fact it was regarded with a sanguine attitude in some wine circles, Pinot-Noir-based wines between the 1890s and the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 largely fell into a void. Indeed, Prohibition severely derailed the evolution of American wine in general.
After Prohibition it still took another two generations for Pinot to find its foothold. While Cabernet Sauvignon ascended as California's most prominent red variety, Pinot Noir was being made, albeit in very small quantities, right beside it by most of the major producers. Quality seems to have severely lagged, though, as reports describe wines that were oxidized, herbaceous, lacking color and otherwise unpleasant. According to John Hager's indispensable book North American Pinot Noir, the unfortunate quality of those Pinots likely resulted from crude winemaking technique. At that time most red wines were made using a uniform, brusque process that, while acceptable for tougher varieties like Cab and Zinfandel, was perilous for Pinot. It would be like a chef employing the same touch when making both sausage and soufflé. Many well-known Napa brands--Caymus, Sterling, Louis Martini and others--stopped producing it altogether. As Hager writes, the message was clear: "Pinot Noir could not be made well in the New World, it was said--and repeated--over and over." Witness the birth of an underdog.
As is the case with most underdogs, the hopeful and stubborn pushed back. A response was brewing in the collective consciousness of disparate individuals, all Burgundy lovers, who felt that with proper care, Pinot Noir could flourish. Theirs were small operations, the products of individual effort and inspiration, rather than strategic corporate expansion. It started with a vineyard called Hanzell, specializing in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, planted by James Zellerbach in 1952 in the hills above the town of Sonoma. (Early on, the Chardonnay fared better than the Pinot, which had its first vintage in 1956. However, the early Pinots were, and still are distinguished. I recently tasted a 1968 Hanzell that was remarkably youthful and delicious.) In the mid-1960s, Chalone began production from an old vineyard in the desolate foothills of the Pinnacles Range outside the town of Soledad in California's Salinas Valley. Joe Rochioli planted Pinot in the Russian River Valley in 1968.
In 1966, David Lett, smitten by Pinot and looking for a climate similar to Burgundy, moved to Oregon's Willamette Valley and planted its first acres. Within a decade, he was producing wines that were competing with top Burgundies at blind tasting competitions in France. He was, over the course of the next decade, joined by other Pinot lovers Dick Erath, Dick Ponzi, Myron Redford, Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol Blosser, and David Adelsheim. Likewise, in the 1970s other inspired Pinot operations such as Calera, Carneros Creek, Husch, Navarro and Sanford settled up and down the California coast. These first seeds were all it took to create the vast Pinot Noir garden we have today.
Thoughts About the Grape and the Wine
"Pinot Noir, more than anything, should tell the truth," says Scott Wright, founder of Oregon's Scott Paul Wines. "And it does that very well. But you have to take a risk in order to hear the truth and then you might not always get what you expect."
Pinot's reputation for confounding and frustrating even its most ardent fans is well deserved. Indeed, along with its truth-telling comes a bewildering propensity to speak in riddles, to defy conventional wisdom, and to willfully stray from the best-laid plans.
"You never know exactly what you're going to get," says Tony Soter of Soter Vineyards. As we walk his beautiful hilltop vineyard off of Mineral Springs Road in Oregon, he says, "With thirty years of experience, we didn't know when we planted here how well it would turn out. We hoped. We believed. But it's like having a kid--you put everything in place, give it what it needs and then sit on the edge of your seat, waiting to see it develop a personality." Sometimes it works out wonderfully, as it has so far for Soter's young vineyard.
And sometimes, success can be elusive, as with Josh Jensen's most recent planting at Calera--a small strip of vineyard that connects two well-established and hallowed single vineyards. "We call it our problem child," says Jensen, confiding that the wines from the new plot have been aggressively tannic. "We can't figure out why it's turning out this way. The soil and exposure are the same as the neighboring vineyards." That's unpredictable Pinot Noir in a nutshell. The vineyard is only a few years old, though, and Jensen, with his decades of experience will no doubt bring it around.
"Fickle" is often the word used to describe Pinot Noir in the vineyard. As the character Miles cogently observes in Sideways, "It's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. Pinot needs constant care and attention." While all this is true, says Victor Gallegos of Sea Smoke Cellars (whose wine had a cameo in Sideways) in California's Santa Barbara County, "What's most important to remember is that like a person it reacts to everything you do, both in the winery and out. You have to make sure you think about exactly how you're going to act and then perform every action gently and precisely."
Pinot Noir can be as perplexing in the bottle as it is in the vineyard. While the general description of Pinot Noir wine usually includes words like silky, elegant and feminine, in practice you'll find all sorts of styles--from massive and tannic to delicate and light. Pinot can be bewildering during its maturation in the bottle as well--shutting down one month, blossoming the next, and then shutting down again. As Mark Vlossak, of St. Innocent Winery in Oregon's Eola Hills, says, "You never know how a bottle of Pinot's going to be showing at any point in its life. You can only open it and hope."
Clearly a vital trait for the intrepid grower of Pinot Noir, hope, as we shall see, when combined with ingenuity, care and hard work, can yield stunning results.