In 2005, a group of seven Pinot Noir specialists from the West Coast banded together at the behest of their importer/distributor in Colorado to do a promotional tour of the state. The events they hosted under the irreverent banner of the Pinot Posse — motto: “No stinkin’ badges and no Cabs” — were such a smash the tour has become an annual tradition.
Granted, their success may have gotten a boost from a little movie called “Sideways,” released nationwide in 2005. Before it, mainstream America knew little about domestic production of the Burgundian grape; today Pacific Pinot Noir needs no introduction. But that doesn’t mean even savvy wine drinkers know everything there is to know.
After a dinner at Denver’s Table 6, I asked some of the producers to explain what they think consumers should understand about their signature grape.
How did you come to recognize the potential for Pinot Noir in your area?
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Dan Kosta, Kosta Browne, Sonoma County, California: I’ve been drinking Burgundy since I was 5 years old, so Pinot Noir has always played a big part in my life. However, in the late 1980s, I really started discovering the potential of Russian River Pinots, particularly in the wines made by Joseph Swan, Dehlinger, Rochioli, Williams Selyem and others. These were not the lean, soulless wines that many California producers were making at the time. There was complexity and elegance, and they inspired us to focus on Sonoma County Pinot.
Peter Cargasacchi, Cargasacchi and Point Concepción, Santa Barbara County, California: Since the late 1980s, I’d been drinking Pinots from Sanford Winery here in the Sta. Rita Hills. Richard Sanford was a neighbor, and over a period of 10 years, he convinced me that my high-pH, calcareous soils were similar to the great sites in Burgundy. So in 1998 I started planting Pinot Noir for him, Siduri and Babcock.
Ed Kurtzman, August West, Russian River Valley, California: When I started making Pinot Noir, in 1994, I was working with well-established vineyards: Bien Nacido, planted in 1973, and Chalone, planted in 1946. So I kind of walked into Pinot as it was already in motion. Then I began working with Santa Lucia Highlands in 1999, when it was still a young appellation with first-crop vineyards. Same thing with the Russian River Valley/Sonoma Coast: So many of the vineyards there were planted between 1997 and 2004. It has been interesting to have worked with both old vines and young vines. I wasn’t someone who recognized the potential for Pinot Noir so much as someone who gladly participated in its popularity.
Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi, Bonaccorsi Wine Co., Santa Barbara County, California: When my late husband, Michael, and I started making wine in 1999, our goal was always to go to the Russian River. But we had to keep our day jobs, and the closest wine region was Santa Barbara. We planned to learn there and move on at some point. Then we tasted some of Greg Brewer’s wines. They were phenomenal, and we could not figure out how this region was so overlooked. We made a very specific choice to stay. Of course, back then, Cabernet was king, and Pinot Noir was not very popular. We had to really talk restaurants and wine stores into purchasing it.
What don’t a lot of American drinkers know or understand about Pinot Noir that you wish they did?
Jim Prosser, J.K. Carriere, Willamette Valley, Oregon: I wish more people understood it from a classic, historical perspective: It’s basically a connoisseur’s wine due to its subtlety, complexity and movement. It’s the antithesis of an in-your-face wine; it’s more come hither, more about enticement, and its acid combines with, rather than overwhelms, food.
Kurtzman: That color is only important when it comes to high points from Robert Parker or Wine Spectator. Pinot Noir is naturally a thin-skinned, light-colored red wine. People will hold one of my Pinots up to the light, in their glass, and they’ll say, “Hey, what a light wine.” All they have to do is taste it — it’s full of aromas and flavors.
Bonaccorsi: I think we as Americans drink wine too young, especially Pinot. People understand about aging varietals like Cabernet, but they tend to drink American Pinots upon release. They may not need to be aged as long as Burgundies, but they can definitely benefit from a few years. At this point, my 2010 Pinot and 2009 Syrah are tasting well.
What’s your personal favorite food to serve with Pinot Noir and why?
Kosta: This, of course, depends on seasonality, but I tend to lean toward lighter meats and earthy vegetables. In the spring, rack of lamb with morel mushrooms is perfect. Chicken, salmon and pork dishes usually work great. One hint that I offer in the kitchen is to pay attention to the quantity and quality of salt — don’t be afraid to use it! Good salt can really bring out great flavors in Pinot Noir.
Kurtzman: Anything made with duck goes well with Pinot: duck breast, duck confit, duck burritos, duck with scrambled eggs, duck-bacon pizza.
Prosser: Maybe it’s because I’m from Oregon, but charcoal-grilled Columbia River salmon and Pinot is ridiculously good.
Bonaccorsi: The idea of white wine with fish and red wine with meat is very tired; food has changed in leaps and bounds since the days of beef Wellington, and the same is true of pairings. With that said, there is nothing better than a grilled steak and a glass of Pinot Noir.
What are domestic Pinot’s most distinctive qualities — what sensory clues should a wine drinker look for? How best to serve it to show off those qualities?
David O’Reilly, Owen Roe, Willamette Valley, Oregon, and Yakima Valley, Washington: In evaluating American Pinot Noir, I tend first to note the deeper ruby color. It is also more intensely aromatic and flavored than Burgundy, with a lovely, silky richness. The expression of domestic Pinot Noir varies along with the diverse growing areas: wines from the cooler Russian River sites, Santa Rita Hills and Oregon tend to be more fresh-fruited, while wines from the warmer Santa Lucia Highlands and Sonoma will have more power and richness.
However, one defining feature of all is immediate approachability, so I tend not to decant younger domestic Pinots. Only after some cellaring, when the wine is throwing a little sediment, do I decant. The perfect serving temperature is the same as for Old World Pinots: 55 to 60 F.
Craig Strehlow, Camlow Cellars, Russian River Valley, California:
Most domestic Pinots are very fruit-forward, with good acidity and softer tannins. Look for bright red fruit like cherry and raspberry and darker fruit such as currant and plum, as well as some spiciness and a cola finish. The use of new oak is judicious, to keep the wine in balance. Here in California, we don’t need to worry about ripeness, so the winemaker can pick at the time that’s ideal for them to get the flavor profile they ultimately want.
I believe that decanting all wines is a good idea. If they are young, this will open them up and encourage them to evolve in the decanter. For me the ideal drinking temperature is between 65 and 70 F.
What can consumers expect with respect to the wines you’re releasing this year?
Cargasacchi: Our wines will be ripe and dark, balanced by acidity, and will increase people’s vocabulary and singing ability!
Prosser: Well, from J.K. Carriere, you can always expect higher-acid, classic wines that are made for food and built for age. The wines from the 2012 vintage that are out now are gorgeous and will cellar as well as or better than any domestic Pinot. But I don’t make much, so it tends to move pretty fast!
Kurtzman: The 2013s from August West will be on the riper side, similar to the 2009s. Right now, they’re a little closed down, since they’re so young — but as the year progresses, they’ll open up to reveal the incredible growing season that was 2013.
Kosta: The 2013 wines are complex and luscious. Our Pinot Noirs are fruit-driven, with depth and structure that remind me of the intensity of 2005 and 2007. Hold them for a year, if possible.
Main photo: Pinot Posse members Ed Kurtzman, left, and David O’Reilly during an event at Table 6 in Denver. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ryan Olsen