Thursday, July 31, 2014

My Problem with Pinot Noir

There’s an unspoken protocol around the water cooler at work. Whenever someone starts extolling the glories of another Pinot Noir, they look around to see if I am near and whisper in hushed tones, “Don’t ever talk to him about Pinot Noir, especially from the Russian River Valley.”

It came from a series of tastings, in which it seemed there were an interminable amount of wines from that region, many of which were unrecognizable as Pinot Noir. Dark, brooding, alcoholic, beefy, in a word, inelegant. I just couldn’t imagine why so many people were attracted to this type of wine.

I think it was while I was on Mt. Etna when the lights went on. Years of grappling with Nebbiolo from the Langa, I had made peace with the various styles of wine that came out, starting in the 1980’s. By the year 2000, Barolo and even Barbaresco seemed to be traveling down the road of dark, brooding and alcoholic. Fortunately there are enough souls in the Langa who like Nebbiolo like I do - in a more classical way - light colored, spicy but not overly so, good acidity and oak as a condiment, not as a side dish.

But on Etna I met people who probably didn’t even know they liked Pinot Noir, it being a bit outside of their orbit. Nonetheless they reminded me of the vignerons I met in Burgundy in the early 1980’s. Delicacy, with an ear to the nuance of the nature of the grape, both in Burgundy and on Etna, here is where I found a reconnection to my love for Pinot Noir.

My Aha! moment on Mt. Etna didn’t start with a grape. I was in a very old field high up on the edge of the mountain. There were vines - Minella, Carricante, Nerello, Grenache - among others. The farmer saw a spot three feet away, went down and picked up a strawberry and handed it to me. I popped it into my mouth and it was like the beginning of time, the First Day. I felt as if I had never eaten a thing in my life with such meaning, such flavor, and in context with the earth around me. That was when I saw why Etna and her grapes (not just Nerello) felt like finding my windmill, my naive pursuit of a lifetime.

Looking back on the great wines I have had from the Pinot Noir grape, it is entirely understandable why some folks take the journey of their lifetime pursuing it. Wine lovers, who follow Burgundy hounds in search of their personal grail. I feel that way about Etna and about the Langa.

I have been told my intolerance for New World Pinot Noir can be annoying to those around me. It’s odd, because I find wines from the West Coast that I actually have learned to love. It’s the context in which they are found. Sitting outside on a summer’s day in the Willamette Valley, sipping on a lightly chilled red while planks with fresh salmon roast over an open fire. I can fit that into my orbit. A casual California barbeque on a ranch a few miles inland from Monterey, quaffing a Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands, while free-range chicken sputters serenely on the grill in the cool breeze of a coastal summer sunset. Count me in. I grew up with this, why would I reject it now?

No, what I take issue with is this sense of self-importance some New World tastemakers (some of them also winemakers) ascribe to their own personal interpretation of what they believe Pinot Noir to be. They’ve traveled to France; no doubt, they feel they “get” Pinot Noir. The wines have higher levels of oak; the acidity somehow feels a little more concentrated and a little less integrated than my Beaune (or Nuit) memories. The alcohol levels are 10-20% higher than what I was weaned on. When I outwardly express my “inner Darrell Corti” someone pokes me with the suggestion that while the wines I show disapproval for because of the factors I don’t find attractive, the winemakers (and the tastemakers) are in pursuit of a balanced wine. I wonder what they mean by balance. I was a dancer; I think I understand the word. But the key phrase is “in pursuit.” Of a personal windmill, perhaps?

When I try a wine like that, I wonder how their tastes developed that this became the result of their quest. What did they eat when they were children? When they were teenagers and college age, did they cook? Were they carnivores? Vegetarians? Did they grow any vegetables? Did they smoke pot? Did they smoke hash? Did they ever eat an artichoke? Had they ever eaten an overripe fig that had just been grilled over an open fire? I wonder…

A dinner I had with two winemakers one Sunday on Etna with their families, the food we had wasn’t terribly different from something one might find in the wine country of Californian or Oregon. The land was churning out fresh tomatoes, squash, eggplant, peppers. Olive oil and salt were the lone condiments; the vegetables that arose from the volcanic soil had plenty of essence in which to carry them deliciously for a meal, like the strawberry. Freshly baked bread, cheese from local goats and sheep. And Nerello Mascalese to drink in both red and rosé forms. Pinot Noir could have easily sufficed. At least the Pinot Noir in my mind’s eye.

The problem I have with Pinot Noir might not be with Pinot Noir, I am thinking. It might be with the context - the luggage the winemaker or tastemaker brings to the table. Pinot Noir, in place of the windmills Don Quixote and Sancho Panza chased.

Maybe it is that our unique paths in life find different things to pursue. I have loved Pinot Noir in my lifetime. I don’t worship it. Nor do I worship Nebbiolo or Nerello Mascalese. But the wines we love deserve a shout-out from the fiery mountaintop when they move one’s soul. Even the occasional Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley.

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Samantha Dugan said...

Have you ever attended the IPOB tasting? I went and found that many of the wines were woefully out of balance. Seemed more like, "I like you and therefore we are on the same team" tasting to me. I can take big ripe fruit and elevated alcohol levels, (although I confess that I am more sensitive to the higher abv than many) if the wines are balanced with higher acidity or even tannin, many of them just weren't. There were also quite a few that were out of balance in that anemic way that tasted like they were in two pieces, some barely ripe fruit and clunky (added?) acidity, not balanced either. That said there were some remarkable wines there, so while I thought it felt more like a buddies getting together party, I was glad I went and we a few wicked cool, and wonderfully balanced wines....mostly Chardonnay however.

Joelle said...

This really captures the essence of my own windmill experience in a bottle of Etna Nerello (Benante) that I bought in NZ and drank quietly in awe a couple of years ago; I am already in thrall to Italy's diversity, elegance (in all areas, including wine of course too) but this wine reminded me of being in my grandparent's vegetable garden; in all the best ways.
Joelle Thomson

PS: Would you mind if I give your piece a little newsy plug and the link on my own website?

Dave said...

What a fascinating and thought-provoking statement –" It might be with the context - the luggage the winemaker or tastemaker brings to the table."
Isn't this true for every winemaker, critic or blogger trying to make wine or sense of what is out there?
I love the thought that what we are has a key role in what we drink and how we perceive what we drink.
Grazie molto, AC.

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