During a recent conversation regarding our wine-making endeavors, I overheard a comment implying that Pinot Noir is purely a fad. My wife, taking offense to this comment, countered that we have been drinking, loving and making Pinot long before the Movie came out. Obviously, many Pinot and Burgundy lovers have been drinking wine made from this grape for centuries; long before the Movie came out and long before the advent of modern marketing.
However, I do agree that part of the current Pinot craze we are experiencing is a fad. There is no better evidence of this than the fact that many current Pinot releases are made to please the palate of a non-Pinot drinker. I am referring to the heavily extracted, high alcohol, fruit bomb, over the top Pinots I have encountered recently. They resemble a Syrah or Merlot rather than the delicate, perfumed, silky, nuanced wine that we came to love.
Now, there is no black and white in my wine world. There is no wine that is better or worse than others. There is only time and place; as in, every wine has its time and place. But I am a sucker for a good Burgundy. We live a stone’s throw from Kermit Lynch (god bless him) and that has spoiled us. It also has exhausted our yearly wine budget at only mid-year. Our palette grew accustomed to Burgundies and we did not drink any serious California Pinot until 1995 when we tried Acacia while wine tasting in Carneros. The wine was pure and elegant; we were pleasantly surprised and grateful to find we enjoyed some Pinots made closer to home. And our palate grew richer for finding it.
Over the years we’ve discovered other styles of winemaking that take place in other regions–Russian River, Santa Rita Hills, Sonoma Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey, Anderson Valley, Chalone and Willamette Valley, to name a few. Some of the most exquisite and intriguing we’ve had were made by Calera in the Gabilan mountains, on Mt. Harlan—far away from Napa and Sonoma and even farther from Burgundy (at least, geographically.) Each one of these regions is different and wonderful in its own way and each winemaker imparts his or her own style on the wine. My advice is to be open minded, to try new wines and not get closed in. I’ve learned to listen to my own palate since I am the one spending my precious running-out time with the bottle, not the reviewer or whoever else is providing opinions.
As we have been making our own Pinot for five years, I have developed a much greater appreciation for a superb one when I encounter it. In my experience, winemakers that allow wines to make themselves usually produce the wines I appreciate and enjoy the most. It is difficult to restrain yourself, step back and let the wine make itself. After all, you might mess up the whole vintage and have to wait another year to try it again. The urge to do something and ‘fix’ whatever problem you think the wine is having is very strong. But we learn to live with what we are given, to try not to make a ‘perfect by-the-numbers’ wine, to appreciate the differences year to year. Sometimes Mother Nature hands you a ‘non-typical’ year, such as the frost then heat of 2008 in California, or the unmatched heat wave of 2003 in Burgundy. I’ve been in involved in agriculture and agriculture products for a long time myself, I know it is no use to fight it. Instead you make the most of what you got, you work with it and if it gives you a highly extracted, high alcohol, juicy wine, so be it! It is better than manipulating it to the point where it is no longer itself in order to have it represent a ‘typical’ style or region for the sake of consistency.
So, is the swell in Pinots a fad? Yes, it is a fad for some people, but it is a good thing. It is a good thing because we now have so many new wine consumers being exposed to this varietal. Yes, some of them will look for their beloved Cabernet or Syrah attributes in there, but others will try wonderful and honest Pinot Noirs and will appreciate their nuanced elegance. Some of them will discover the great artisanal Pinots being made all over the world, not just Burgundy or Carneros or Russian River. And some of them may turn this ‘Fad’ into a permanent appreciation. And we will all be better for it.