Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dumb, da dumb, dumb (wine journalists), and snapshot of the finest current Oregon pinot noir releases


As someone who's penned newspaper wine columns for over twenty years, I think I can say this: newspaper wine columnists write the dumbest things. So wine lovers beware: particularly the piece written by a Chicago Tribune writer, which I read this morning (Jan. 13, 2010) in The Denver Post (which brings up another old beef of mine: why reprint dumb columns from newspapers in other cities, when there obviously are plenty enough good, or better, wine columnists living and working in your own town?).

In any case, the offending piece is titled: Oregon or California pinot noir? Taste test decides. Decides what? In the piece, the columnist opines, "California used to be the undisputed American star in the world of wine. But, increasingly, Oregon has been stealing the limelight, to the Golden State's sometimes obvious chagrin." Says who? I spend about a third of my time in California, talking with California wine lovers and producers; and although over the past two decades they've been very much aware that very fine wine is made in Oregon, I have never, never heard anyone express "chagrin." Wine lovers and producers may have preferences, but by nature they are a pretty catholic lot: they appreciate good wines from everywhere it's made. Vinous conflicts of the sort reported in this piece are pretty much imaginary; at least in respect to "Oregon vs. California pinot noir": existing only in the minds of reporters prone to senseless sensationalism.

The story goes on to report the results of a question posted in Facebook and Twitter, asking "who made better pinot noir: Oregon or California?" The splits were "sharply split and decisive." Predictable enough. Then the piece reports the results of a recent "California-Oregon smackdown," in which "three Oregon pinots were put up against three from the Russian River Valley." Conclusion: "and the winner is... California." Gee whiz, three measley pinots from Oregon vs. three pinots out of hundreds and hundreds from California? Sort of like taking three random kids from one high school and three from another high school, having them play ping pong and then coming to conclusion that one high school is better at ping pong than the other.

It's not that wine lovers, or lifetime wine professionals like me, don't find comparisons valid. We compare similar wines from different regions all the time to learn the differences, and even to determine what we ultimately prefer. The dumbness, virtually always, is in conclusions that wines from one region are "better" than the other; or in the case of wine columnists, leading readers to such errant conclusions. As with all aesthetically crafted products, wine preferences are decidedly personal; and stating that one preference is superior to another is a decidedly dumb thing to do.

Oregon's Ken Wright

To the Chicago Tribune writer's credit, he did make some valid observations of the six pinot noirs tasted in his particular smackdown: "In general, the Oregon pinots were lighter in color, fruitier in the nose and cleaner on the palate than the Californians, which were dark, smelled more like hay and mushrooms and had more powerful fruit." But as someone who makes a living doing these comparisons, I have to say this: you could select three different Oregon pinot noirs and three different California pinot noirs for another smackdown, and easily come up with the opposite conclusion -- that Oregon pinots are darker, having more powerful fruit and smell earthy, whereas California pinots are lighter in color, fruitier in the nose and "cleaner" (whatever the hell that means) on the palate. The growing conditions and winemaking styles that produce these differences in the two states have become so numerous and varied, it has become virtually impossible for even experienced pinot "experts" (this word, always a state of mind), much less average pinot lovers, to make out the differences in "blind" or "double-blind" tastings.

In fact, it's been like that for well over ten, nearing twenty years now: pinot noirs in both California and Oregon are more varied and sophisticated than ever! So why report that one might be "better" than the other? My conclusion: by assuming the lowest common denominator awareness of wine lovers who read this chaff, the writer plainly insults his own vinous intelligence. Whatever the case, readers deserve a lot better than this; and to the editors of The Denver Post, I just have to ask: if you're too lazy to write your own wine columns, could you at least do a better job of weeding out the junk from other newspapers?


Speaking of which, the following is a report I recently filed for Sommelier Journal (Nov. 2009 issue) on some of the finer pinot noir releases recently coming out of Oregon, based upon tastings and conversations with vintners just before the 2010 harvest. Not that that I think Oregon makes the greatest pinots in the world, mind you. But they are certainly among the finest; something anyone with common sense, two eyes, a nose and a palate that enjoys the taste of good wine would have to say. Re:

SNAPSHOT OF CURRENT OREGON PINOT NOIR RELEASES

Pinot noir has become synonymous with the relative cool climate grapegrowing regions of the Willamette Valley AVA (i.e. American Viticultural Area), stretching along the Oregon coast from Portland to Eugene; and consumers can now look forward to the more serious releases from the rainy, thus oft-maligned 2007 vintage. The better producers, says Penner-Ash winemaker/proprietor Lynn Penner-Ash, shouldn’t be “penalized” because “some winemakers can’t make wine in a cool, wet year.” As one of Oregon's most respected vintners, Penner-Ash pulled out all the tricks learned from her twenty-plus years in the Willamette, picking before, during and after the rains that persisted throughout the month of October. Her pièce de résistance and top-of-the-line, the 2007 Penner-Ash Pas de Nom, is simply amazing – plush, powerful, exotically scented.

For Joshua Bergström, the 2007 vintage was more a matter of patience and circumstance. “We waited six weeks from the time the rains started,” says Bergström, picking towards the end of November. For Bergström, Biodynamic® growing also is the difference. Less dependent upon “chemical diet,” Bergström’s plantings retain acidity, minerality and depth, with lower alcohol, in both “cold and hot vintages,” as evidenced by the deep, generous, pliant 2007 Bergström Dundee Hills Pinot Noir.

For the dry farmed, Biodynamic® certified Brick House Vineyards, according to proprietor Doug Tunnell, 2007 was “the most aromatic vintage in memory… during the harvest the entire winery smelled like a candy confectionary,” resulting in pinots like his 2007 Brick House Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir: hauntingly perfumed, in the fine, delicate style associated with this estate.

Is it a coincidence that other Biodynamic® producers were so successful in the challenging conditions of 2007? The 2007 Beaux Frères Upper Terrace Pinot Noir is tasting like a banner year (certainly, among the winery's finest vintages ever): a silk tapestry of spiced strawberry and smoke. More proof-positive that you should never pay attention to premature, knee-jerk vintage assessments of the establishment wine press (i.e. dumb, de dumb, dumb); but rather, wait for the wines to actually go into bottle before tasting them, and drawing your own conclusions.
Seven Springs' Isabelle Meunier

Further south in Willamette Valley's Eola-Amity Hills AVA, winemaker Isabelle Meunier describes her deep rooted Seven Springs Vineyard (owned and managed by Evening Land Vineyards) as “bullet proof… impervious to rain, unaffected by heat.” The 2007 Seven Springs La Source Pinot Noir was picked during “good days” at the start of the October rains, yet few pinots from anywhere, any year, are as fine and luscious, bursting with wild raspberry, anise, rose petal and blueberry jam. Yet, not to be undone, the single vineyard Eola-Amity Hills bottlings by Cristom’s long respected winemaker, Steve Doerner, are also wildly successful; epitomized by the 2007 Cristom Jessie Vineyard Pinot Noir, a sweet, electrifying mix of red and black berry fragrances, smoky spices, dried cherry skin, and savory, gripping, round and muscular textures.

Since high demand Willamete Valley pinot noirs are often allocated or even pre-sold, it’s a good idea to get a handle on the upcoming 2008s. Perhaps no Oregonian makes wine in greater demand than Ken Wright, who says ‘08 was very cool, almost bleak, especially after a “significant rain the first week of October.” But this was followed by “twenty-two gloriously warm days that gave the grapes the opportunity to assemble everything… tremendous structure, and very agreeable, complex, delineated flavors.” A market indicator: the 2008 Ken Wright Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir, displaying ringingly bright, concentrated wild berry fruit tucked into densely layered textures, begging for more time in the bottle than usual for Oregon. Wright advises us to expect 2008 to be “not be as fleshy as ’06, ’02, or ’94,” but punctuated by an energetic acidity that “reminds me of ’88.”
Del Rio's Jean-Michel Jussiaume

But Oregon is not only about Willamette Valley. There are, in fact, a number of bright, effusive 2008 Pinot Noirs coming out of Southern Oregon (an AVA lying south of Eugene, extending down towards Cave Junction and Ashland along the California border) now entering the market. Del Rio Vineyard’s bright, youthful new winemaker, Jean-Michel Jussiaume, produced a 2008 Del Rio Pinot Noir that is lithe and flush with wild raspberry and strawberry, reflecting a loose-cluster year, lightened by a poor spring set. In Illinois Valley, in the far western reaches of Rogue Valley, Ted Gerber says his higher elevation Foris Vineyards never have “acidity issues.” In ’08, a “fabulous fall” ushered “ripening all the way through October,” yet allowed for picking at lower sugars (i.e. moderate alcohols). The 2008 Foris Maple Ranch Pinot Noir is alive with berryish fruit, yet deep, tight, compact.
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