Growing up there were really only ever two kinds of wine to be found in our kitchen – Beaujolais Nouveau during the holidays and Kendall Jackson Chardonnay (which my mother, whose penchant for abbreviation was far ahead of her time, affectionately referred to as KJ). My childhood memories are peppered with the image of the wine’s label – a singular grape leaf perpetually in the midst of its autumnal color change.
Even as a teenager, I learned early on to avoid pinching the KJ and opted instead for the Kettle One in the freezer, surreptitiously replacing it with water that, whoops, froze after too may refills.
The one night a friend and I snuck off with a bottle of KJ, we only got about halfway through before we both started to feel sick – something I would much later attribute to the wine’s shockingly high sugar content. I couldn’t understand how my mom and her friends could knock the stuff back like juice – we were better off with vodka that we could dilute enough to be tolerable.
Fast forward a few years – my mom and her friends have, thankfully, graduated from KJ (though, I still see a bottle in the fridge every now and then) and have started to drink more and more pinot noir. My mom, who never thought she liked red wine had finally found one that was light enough for her palate and wasn’t of the same family as the monster reds my dad always drank that triggered her killer migraines.
They’ve found some good stand-by pinots that are good to grab for a pot luck or dinner party, but leaving these lovely ladies to their own devices, they’ve still brought plenty of bottles that evoke memories of retching after gulps of KJ. They’ve moved on from the big Chardonnays that came of age with them in the 80’s but with little direction.
My mother aches for a good every-day bottle of Pinot that’s on par with her beloved and not-quite-abandoned KJ, and has asked me to offer some helpful advice on finding the bottle whose image may grace the next chapter of my life’s memories.
Where to Start: Region
As I’ve said before, Pinot is a tricky grape to grow – she’s a diva who is inclined to give a less-than-thrilling performance if not pampered and indulged. Pinot had a sudden surge in popularity (thanks to, I wish I were kidding, the movie Sideways) that left a lot of winemakers, who had no previous experience with the grape, scrambling to cash in on the new market and bottle their own. Needless to say, for a long time, the result of all this inexperience was a lot of cheap Pinot Noir that really didn’t reflect the finesse and poetry for which the wine had been so celebrated in the movie that made it so popular.
This wasn’t, of course, the rule and luckily, in the past couple years, both veteran Pinot producers and some newbie game changers have stepped up their game to bring consumers some really stellar Pinot Noirs that are delicious and placed squarely within the everyday price range.
In particular, producers in California, Oregon, and Chile have some exciting wines that run the gamut of styles and flavors. Generally, finding a region that matches your particular preference for a certain kind of wine (assuming its one that grows in a wide array of places) is a good idea – knowing the basic qualities that come out of specific regions can help you to, time after time, pick the wine that’s right for you.
Sonoma, Sonoma Coast: Sonoma provides the perfect micro-climate for growing Pinot Noir. Pinot noir likes cooler regions and benefits from growing in a region where it is exposed to fog. Growing it in a coastal region known for its thick coastal fog makes perfect sense for Pinot.
What to expect: delicate, light, bright red fruit, floral aromas
What to try: Sebastiani Sonoma Pinot Noir 2008 ($13/bottle), Blackstone Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007 ($10/bottle), Heron Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2009 ($12/bottle), Purisma Canyon Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2008 ($14/bottle)
Looking for a splurge? Try Russian River Valley – the most highly regarded appellation within Sonoma County. It’s hard to find anything under $25 a bottle from this region but if you do stumble across anything from this region that’s on sale or otherwise affordable, give it a try!
Try: Willowbrook Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2008 ($20/bottle), Joseph Swan Cuvee de Trois Pinot Noir 2006 ($25/bottle – this is one of my favorites with a tawny color in the glass, really nice nose of strawberries, and a slight earthiness that makes it stand out)
What to expect: Because this is a traditionally Chardonnay-growing region, wine producers are keen on oak in this area and love to imbue their Pinots with its smoky and full-bodied characteristics. Look for bigger pinots with medium bodies, creamy red fruit, and a touch of oak, smoke, or spice.
What to try: Castle Rock Winery Pinot Noir Carneros 2008 ($13/bottle), Annabella Pinot Noir Special Selection Carneros 2008 ($13/bottle), La Crema Pinot Noir 2007
Looking for a splurge? Fleur De California Pinot Noir Fleur de Carneros 2007 ($16/bottle), Etude Pinot Noir Carneros 2007 ($18/bottle), Acacia Pinot Noir Carneros 2007 ($20/bottle)
Monterey: Coastal, with cool afternoon sea breezes that keep Pinot nice and chilly.
What to expect: The watch-word for Monterey Pinot Noir is balance. More fruit-forward than upstate Pinots and with a tighter structure to support all that bursting fruit.
What to try: Irony Pinot Noir 2007 ($11/bottle), Poppy Pinot Noir Monterey County 2009 ($12/bottle – and one of my favorites for easy drinking), Estancia Pinot Noir Pinnacles Ranches Monterey 2009 ($12/bottle)
Looking for a splurge? Kali Hart by Talbott Pinot Noir Monterey 2008 ($16/bottle), Chalone Pinot Noir Monterey 2008 ($20/bottle), Summerland Monterey Pinot Noir 2008 ($22/bottle and another personal favorite)
Santa Barbara: Similar to Napa and its various micro-climates, Santa Barbara has a distinct topography that allows for cool ocean breezes and fog to flow through the area’s coastal ranges and makes it one of the coolest places to grow wine vines in California.
What to expect: Elegant Pinot Noir that defy any previous notion of lightness without substance in Pinot Noir – these are beautiful Pinots that have complex structure that includes a medium body, bright fruit, and a smooth long finish where others just give out at the end.
What to try: Parker Station Santa Barbara Pinot Noir 2007 ($12/bottle), Martin Ray Santa Barbara Pinot Noir 2006 ($12/bottle)
Looking for a splurge?Anything with a Sta. Rita Hills appellation will most likely be dynamite and give you an example of California Pinot at its very best. Melville Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2009 ($17/bottle) Sanford Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2007 (half bottle @ $18)
Willamette Valley: Cool and moist thanks to its position between the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west (think of LA smog effect but replace dirty lung-clogging air with fresh cool and wet sea fog).
What to expect: Oregon Pinot Noirs tend towards the more Burgundian style in that they can get a little funky and earthy in an amazingly delicious way. They’ll be delicate and lighter in body but still carry flavors of fresh fruits like dried strawberries and blueberries rather than the raspberries and dark cherry flavors of California.
What to try: Spruce Goose Pinot Noir 2006 ($11/bottle), Rascal Pinot Noir 2007 ($12/bottle), Primarius Pinot Noir 2007 ($14/bottle)
Looking for a splurge? Look for “Dundee Hills” – a sub appellation of Willamette Valley that produces stellar Pinots. Try: O’Reilly’s Pinot Noir 2009 ($17/bottle), Belle Pente Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2008 ($23/bottle), Benton Lane Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2008 ($22/bottle)
Looking for a splurge? Ritual Pinot Noir 2008 ($18/bottle), Montes Alpha Pinot Noir Leyda Valley 2007 ($19/bottle)