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2013 Pinot Noir All-Americans

Each year in December I name my favorite Pinot Noir performers for the year. It is the American way to name favorites, but there are so many exceptional Pinot Noirs produced now in California and Oregon, the task is very challenging. Picking the best in any lineup of wines is controversial, so this issue always provokes a response from readers.

Some of your favorite wines or producers may not be included since tasting every American Pinot Noir release in any one year is an impossible task. I estimate that there are at least 2,000 producers of Pinot Noir in California and Oregon alone. For the Pinot Noir wines that were left out of the awards this year, the words of Mark Twain regarding awards ring true. “It’s better to deserve honor and not have them, then to have them and not deserve them.”

I take my responsibility seriously and follow a number of regimented steps to arrive at the wines that I consider truly extraordinary and deserving of the title “All-American.” The wines are culled from both winery submissions and my personal cellar of purchased wines. The wines are all tasted in private at my home in a quiet setting in the late morning and often later in the day. The wines come directly from my home cellar at about 63ºF and are all tasted in identical Riedel Vinum Burgundy or Riedel Oregon Pinot Noir stemware. I usually taste 6 to 10 wines a day, giving each wine the appropriate attention it deserves. I make several passes as I taste each wine carefully over the time needed for the wine to open up. Occasionally, I will decant a wine if the winemaker recommends it or I think aeration will greatly benefit the evaluation. I frequently taste the wines the following day or even two days later.

I do not taste wines blind, but strive for integrity, consistency and objectivity. There are three good reasons why I do not taste wine blind. First, I prefer to evaluate wines in the same manner as the consumer experiences them. Second, I believe an essential part of judging wine is to know what you are drinking. Third, I often have the production information at hand, and that assists me further in understanding the wine. The more background detail I have, the more I am likely to discover in the wine. British wine writer, Jamie Goode, whom I hold in high regard because of his lucid writing about wine, supports my methodology. He says the following. “When we are tasting blind, there is a limit to what we can say about the wine that is in front of us. Seeing the label influences our perception of the wine; it brings our knowledge about wine into play. But it also helps us to understand the liquid in the glass better. We can put into context the flavors we are experiencing.”

Jonathan Cohen wrote an excellent treatise on blind tasting, “In the Kingdom of the Blind: On The Limitations of Blind Tasting,” in The World of Fine Wine, Issue 41, pages 74-81, 2013, and I highly recommend it if you are interested in this subject. He admits “blind tasting undeniably comes with some benefits,” but emphasizes “it also carries significant but insufficiently appreciated disadvantages relative to sighted tasting.” One of the disadvantages he points out is that blind tasting “positively prevents us from perceiving things we want to perceive in tasting wines.” I consider it very important to know the vintage, the harvest Brix, the percentage of whole cluster, the fermentation regimen, the length of elevage, the amount of new oak used, the finished alcohol percentage and titratable acidity and so forth. In many cases, if I know the winemaker, I know what he or she is trying to achieve.

I tend to focus on current drink ability since most consumers prefer to drink their North American Pinot Noir relatively young. I most appreciate wines that are at or close to their best the days I taste them. That said, credence is given to age ability, particularly in the context of balance. I often re-taste wines later in the day with food at dinner to replicate the consumer’s drinking experience, and sometimes over the next day or two from an opened and re-corked (but not gassed) bottle. The latter gives me insight into the quality, balance and age ability of the wine.

I instituted the 100-point scoring system in July 2013. There were a number of reasons for this. The reality is that the wine drinking public has come to rely on this scoring system to choose wines of quality. I feel that I have enough experience tasting wines to now make my scoring judgments valid. Scores bring relevance to the PinotFile newsletter in the current milieu of critical and professional wine evaluation and education. In the past, exceptional Pinot Noir was indicated by a Pinot Geek icon but these wines did not receive the recognition they deserved because wineries, distributors, retailers and others had no way to use the Pinot Geek icon to signify the excellence of these wines.

Despite the use of the 100-point scoring system, my emphasis remains on concise, unpretentious, and understandable tasting descriptions intended to reveal the style and quality of the wine and in turn, guide the consumer to Pinot Noir they might enjoy. I am convinced that arriving at an apropos description of a wine is not only more challenging than awarding a score, but is the fairest way to evaluate a wine. In the words of Neil Beckett, “The appraisal of a wine’s quality is available to all...the skill of imparting it is available to just a few.”

My scoring guidelines are as follows. 94-100: Extraordinary (I have yet to have a 99 or a perfect 100-point North American Pinot Noir and do not believe the perfect Pinot Noir has been made); 90-93: Outstanding; 86-89: Very Good; 80-85: Good; 75-79: Decent. I rarely review or publish reviews of wines that score less than 80 since I cannot recommend them. I continue to use the Pinot Geek icon (for Pinot Noir) or Golden Geek icon (for Chardonnay) for wines rated as Extraordinary, and the Pinot Value icon and Chardonnay Golden Value icon for wines that offer an exceptional price/quality ratio. Generally, this will be a wine priced at or under $35 that offers the drinker varietal correctness as well as appealing characteristics that put it into the Very Good or above category. These wines often make very good daily drinkers.

Rarely, a Pinot Noir is awarded both the Pinot Geek and Pinot Value icon when the wine is an extraordinary drinking experience and a very good value (a rarity because extraordinary, cheap Pinot Noir is an oxymoron). There were only seven such wines in 2013: 2011 Bravium Signal Ridge Vineyard Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir, 2005 Dubakella Trinity County Pinot Noir, 2007 Dubakella Trinity County Pinot Noir, 2010 DION Vineyard Limited Release Old Vines Chehalem Mountains Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, 2010 McHenry Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, 2010 Salamandre Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, and 2011 The Gardener Carneros Pinot Noir

I less often review Chardonnay. Chardonnay is often submitted for review because it is a natural partner for Pinot Noir and many pinotcentric wineries produce both varietals. The Golden Geek icon indicates exceptional quality and the Golden Value icon reflects quality at a value price. A Chardonnay is very rarely awarded both designations.

I must wrestle with Pinot Noir Stylistic Differences. It is daunting to single out wines from the array of styles of Pinot Noir currently crafted in California and Oregon. I make a concentrated effort to separate my personal Pinot Noir stylistic preferences from the objective assessment of the wines. In other words, I try to reward wines for their excellence regardless of style. It boils down to distinguishing between appreciating and liking. As writer Jake Lorenzo has noted, “If the style is not one of my favorites, I hope I have the experience and generosity to appreciate what the winemaker set out to accomplish.” Charles Olken, editor of Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine (November 14, 2013) commented about the fact that there should not be disputes in matters of taste. “The wines of Kosta Browne, Paul Hobbs, DuMOL, and Dehlinger are lovely, rich, deep interpretations of Pinot Noir. They smell and taste like Pinot Noir. They are not raisined or sweet or simple. They are simply different from 13% alcohol Burgundies. They are authentic, real and wholly enjoyable.” There is simply no calibration for taste.

The stylistic superiority of high alcohol percentage versus lower alcohol percentage wines continues to be debated, but preference for either style of wine is in the end decided by the consumer. I personally prefer modest and lower alcohol percentage levels because these wines are more often balanced, easier to drink, more compatible with food, allow you to drink two glasses without getting sideways, and confer the health benefits associated with taking in moderate amounts of alcohol.

Pinot Noir is a chameleon of a wine making critical evaluation particularly challenging. Pinot Noir can vary from bottle to bottle, day to day, and week to week. The challenge of judging the quality of Pinot Noir on any given day is reflected in the poignant words of Twomey winemaker Daniel Baron. “You have to remember this when you think about judging wines. They’re alive and changing moment to moment; they have good days and bad; they show well in a particular glass or with particular foods. Judging wine at any particular moment in life is like giving a kid a letter grade based on his behavior in the supermarket.” Bottle variation is a challenging problem in wine evaluation as well. Fortunately, I often have two bottles available when I review a wine and I only report the review of the stellar bottle.

It is a truth that it is not what is said or written about a special wine, but what is emoted that truly defines a wine’s greatness. Aromatics, flavor nuances, texture, balance and finishing persistence all come in to play in finding those special wines that are deserving of recognition. However, it is often not an objective feature, but the emotion that the wine elicits that sets it apart. Most American Pinot Noirs are technically sound, but the All-Americans have a powerful charisma. Veronique Drouhin-Boss, the winemaker at Domaine Drouhin Oregon, has said it best. “There are plenty of good wines in the world that give you pleasure. A great wine gives you emotion.” Remington Norman (Grand Cru) notes, “The impact of great wine is as much emotional as sensorial and, in any case, at the topmost level one runs out of distinctive superlatives.”

I still come across corked wines regularly. Corked bottles continue to be an annoyance and I don’t believe the percentage of corked wines has changed over the past year (consistent with at least a rate of about 1% which is the incidence reported by the Cork Quality Council). Although it is reported that there is a rapid rise in the use of screw cap closures in the North American wine industry (Wines & Vines, November 2013), the vast majority of Pinot Noirs I review are bottled under cork. Screw caps are confined largely to inexpensive wines and rosés.

You get what you pay for. Collecting and drinking top quality North American Pinot Noir can be a rich man’s game if only trophy or so-called cult wines are sought after. There are a number of such wines from California and Oregon that are priced near or above $100. Generally, the quality of life in Pinot Noir begins at $25, but expect to pay at least twice this for outstanding wines. There are many satisfying Pinot Noirs on the market that are priced below $35. The 2013 Value Pinot Noir All-Americans represent the best $35 and under North American Pinot Noirs I sampled this year. Value Pinot Noirs generally lack aromatic and flavor nuances, length of finish and age ability compared to the more expensive prestige bottlings. That said, price is no guarantee of quality.

The 2013 All-Americans were judged on merit, independent of price, case production, vintage and region of origin. I have no monetary arrangement with any winegrower or winery and do not accept advertising on my website. I do receive wines for review, but about a third of the wines I sample are bought directly from a winery or through customary retail channels. I do not receive or demand compensation from wineries to review their wines. There are many Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that I sample casually at wineries, including barrel samples, and at social dinners, at Pinot Noir festivals, at competitive wine judging events, at organized wine tastings and at wine dinners, but I do not include these wines in the All-American selection process. Only finished bottled wines that are formally tasted in controlled, and therefore comparable, circumstances, are eligible for All-American consideration.

Most wines tasted in 2013 were from the 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 vintages. It is probably unfair to compare wines from these disparate vintages, but the evaluation of each wine is taken in the context of the vintage which is known when the wine is reviewed.

I review more California wines than Oregon wines. I am a big fan of wines from both California and Oregon. I review more California wines since I am based in California, I travel more often to California wine regions, there are significantly more producers of Pinot Noir in California compared to Oregon, and more samples are submitted to me for review from California. This in no way is a reflection of comparative quality of Pinot Noir between the two states. As a result of less Oregon Pinot Noir reviewed in 2013 and the spotty 2010 and 2011 vintages from Oregon, there were not as many extraordinary wines from Oregon tasted in 2013. The few Oregon Pinot Noirs I did taste from 2012 were spectacular and this vintage should be one of Oregon’s best in recent memory.

Wineries deserving of multiple All-American awards can only receive a single first or second team award. There are a number of wineries producing multiple wines that are deserving of All-American recognition, but I chose to spread the love, and considering that some wineries only produce one or two Pinot Noirs, I consider it equitable to only give a first or second team All-American award to one wine per winery. I did make an exception with Oregon All-Americans this year as there were not as many extraordinary wines from Oregon reviewed in 2013 as I noted above (except in the Value Priced category).

Here are additional final relevant disclosures regarding All-American wines. As in football All-American teams, there are eleven Pinot Noir and Chardonnay All-Americans on a team. The awarded wines are listed in alphabetical order. Many of the wines are still available from the winery, retailers, or the secondary marketplace. Even though some wines are offered only to mailing list members, they may still be available, and an inquiring phone call to the winery may be of value. In today’s economy, high priced Pinot Noir has been a more difficult sell, and even highly allocated wines of the past have become more available. If you cannot obtain a certain All-American wine, remember that there will always be another vintage. Try to focus more on the producer than on any one wine as the best producers consistently craft quality wine across their lineup in each vintage. The wine may not be the same song, but it will have the same composer.

Since I only began scoring wines in July 2013, and many of the All-Americans were not scored when tasted, I have not listed the scores of the All-Americans. Suffice it say, all the awarded All-American wines would be deserving of a score of at least 94.

To find any of the awarded wines, contact the winery first, then the retail marketplace using one of the popular wine search engines such as www.wine-searcher.com, www.vinquire.com, www.vinopedia.com, or www.winezap.com. Auctions are another more expensive source of wines and I have used www.winecommune in the past. Membership in winery wine clubs or participation in a winery’s mailing list are both good ways to insure that you obtain highly coveted Pinot Noirs from a popular producer.

“Winery of the Year” awarded for the first time in 2013. I have chosen to single out one winery, Soliste Cellars, for special recognition based on innovative winemaking practices and extraordinary offerings involving the entire winery output. I have also recognized “First Encounters of 2013,” which are wineries whose wines I met with for the first time in 2013 and show special promise.

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