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Pinot Noir Trends in 2006

** Continued emergence of the “garagista” or “shedista” Pinot Noir winemaker. The story often goes like this: borrow some money, rent a small space that will hold some barrels, purchase a sorting table, a press, and some tanks, search the countryside for some precious Pinot Noir grapes that a grower is willing to sell and make your own Pinot Noir. A consulting winemaker is often overseeing the venture. These are often one-man operations and are truly “hands-on” from the design of the label, to the affixing of the label to the bottles, to the placement of the label in fine restaurants. To quote Jane Firstenfeld, writing in Wines & Vines (January, 2006), “Passion will not be denied, and every year, more than a handful of brave souls take heart in hand, lay their money down and take their chances starting new wineries.”

** Consumers and novice vintners, often in small groups, producing small lots of Pinot Noir in facilities such as Crushpad in San Francisco. Involvement can vary from internet directed preferences of the winemaking process to hands-on winemaking at the urban winery. It cannot be too much of a stretch to foresee established wineries becoming involved in this trend as well, allowing pinotphiles to assist in the crafting of a barrel or two of their own wine.

** Small wineries are finding more success with direct selling and it is projected that within a few years, direct sales will account for 50-100% of production.

** Pinot Noir sales are increasing, with most of the increase coming from smaller brands. High-revenue brands, those over $15, are almost all relatively small brands.

** Modern technology is overcoming the advantages of structural gravity flow production of Pinot Noir. Of course, the forklift has been the key to gravity flow of Pinot Noir wine in single-story wineries for years, but improved pumps that allow a gentle and careful regulation of flow are, in the words of Van Duzer winemaker Jim Kakacek, “a match for gravity.”

** There is still a lingering hangover of distain for Merlot that emanated from the movie, ‘Sideways’. Syrah has become more popular in California and has been touted as the next great cult darling positioned to displace Pinot Noir. However, this unlikely. As writer Jan McIlnerney said in his book, A Hedonist in the Cellar, “Syrah is on the verge of California stardom, but like that of actor Orlando Bloom, more promising than happening.”

** Wine press and wine critics are popularizing “Big Pinots,” a term that was unheard of just ten years ago. To prove a point, a friend sent a Pinot Noir that scored 95 in the Wine Spectator to Vincor for analysis. It came back 16.8% alcohol and .66 gm residual sugar!! Remember, a wine labeled 14.8% alcohol can legally be 1½ % higher or 16.3% alcohol.

** According to Wine Business Monthly, the number of wineries in the United States has increased to 5,645 (as of November, 2006), including 4,383 bonded wineries and 1,587 non-bonded or “virtual” wineries. Virtual wineries are wine companies that make wine at someone else’s bonded wineries. According to the database of John Winthrop Haeger (author of North American Pinot Noir), there are more than 720 producers of Pinot Noir. I am currently collecting my own database and I believe the number of producers in California alone exceeds that number.

** The wine auction market is hot, particularly for Burgundy. United States wine auctions exceeded $167 million in 2006. New York’s Acker Merrall & Condit leads in global sales. They racked up close to $40 million in 2006. John Kapon, president of Acker Merrall & Condit, notes that “top Burgundies such as Romanée-Conti, Roumier, de Vogue, and Coche-Dury, are now liquefied works of art.” At the September 16, 2006 wine auction held by Christie’s New York, 3 Jeroboams of 1988 Romanée-Conti went for $94,000, nearly $40,000 over the pre-auction estimate!

** The concept of wine directed at women has quickly cooled. Beringer Blass has discontinued their low-calorie Chardonnay for women, White Lies. The truth is that women are not interested in drinking wines that men wouldn’t drink. I should add as confirmation, that there are many women who sign up to receive the PinotFile - the ratio seems to be about 3 to 1, men to women.

** Sustainable principles are being applied increasingly to wineries as well as vineyards. Sustainable wineries have reduced operating costs, less electricity consumption, and more desirable working environments. The Carlton Winemaker’s Studio in the Willamette Valley was a pioneer in sustainable winery architecture.

** Small Pinot Noir winemakers are leasing blocks within large existing vineyards. Joe Davis, winegrower of Arcadian Winery in the Santa Maria Valley, leases 52 acres of vineyards from five different owner-growers in California. This way, he can take a very active role in the winegrowing process and assure that the grapes are farmed according to his rigid standards.

** The emergence of podcasts. Podcasts are digital media files that are distributed over the internet. Also known as blogcasting. In 2005, blogs were all the rage, but in 2006, podcasts became extremely popular with winos. Podcasts offer the opportunity to listen to wine personalities and offer high-quality personal insight into the people behind the wines. Grape Radio is one of the best. Next up: video and audio internet broadcasts (videocasts).

** Proliferation of region-and appellation-specific wine critics. The world of wine is far too large today for a single critic to have expertise in every region and/or every grape variety. Teams of wine critics now staff major wine publications, with each critic assigned to a specific region. Stephen Tanzer has added a full-time assistant, Josh Reynolds, and relies on several guest contributors. Robert Parker, Jr. has replaced Pierre-Antoine Rovani with David Schildknecht and will utilize the talents of several others for the Wine Advocate tasting reviews (Antonio Galloni, Italy, Neal Martin, British perspective, Dr. J. Miller, Australia, Spain, Washington State/Oregon, and Mark Squires, Portugal).

** Use of global positioning systems (GPS) to map soils, distribute nutrients and fertilizers, spray for disease, and control watering in vineyards. This is a critical part of precision viticulture now practiced by many winegrowers including The Donum Estate in Carneros and Van Duzer Vineyards in Oregon (both highlighted in the PinotFile this past year). Not every winegrower is enthusiastic about the use of this technology out of concern that it can contribute to very similar wines vintage after vintage.

** Increasing interest in biodynamic farming of grapes. Randall Grahm, for example, will farm all Bonny Doon wines biodynamically in the future. Other producers using biodynamic techniques include Domaine Alfred (Edna Valley), Robert Sinskey Vineyards (Carneros), Benziger Family Winery (Sonoma County), Sonoma-Cutrer (Sonoma County), Ceago (Fetzer, Lake County), Brick House Wine Company (Oregon), Francis Tannahill (Oregon), and Cooper Mountain Vineyards (Oregon). Old World proponents include Domaine Romanée-Conti, Domaine Leroy, Domaine d’Auvenay, and Domaine Trapet Pere et Fils. My impression is that although many wineries currently employ some biodynamic theories, they are fully committed to the tenants of sustainable farming which form the basis of Austrian scientist Rudolph Steiner’s theories. Burying female cow horns filled with cow manure to improve the soil is still a far-out concept to many.

** Use of sheep and chickens in vineyards to battle pests and weeds. If you have traveled in France, you know that the presence of sheep grazing in the vineyards is commonplace. Biodynamic tenants call for the use of animals in farming activities. Sheep control taller weeds and provide manure that gets mixed into compost. In addition, they can sucker vines, and cause minimal damage to the soil. Olde English Miniature Babydoll Southdown sheep are becoming popular in many California North Coast vineyards. This Heritage breed is only 24 inches at the shoulder and about 85 pounds. Deborah Walton has a flock of 65 Olde English Babydoll Southdown sheep on her farm in Tomales Bay and leases out the sheep. They are protected by guardian dogs and are confined by the use of an electronic portable fence. Chickens can be moved around the vineyard in portable chicken houses. They also clean out weeds and eat cutworms that feed on vine roots. Fresh eggs every morning is an added benefit.

** Encroachment of commercial enterprise in farmlands. Portland developer David Kahn has sought approval for am upscale 50-room rural hotel including a restaurant and spa in the Willamette Valley adjacent to the vineyards of Domaine Drouhin north of Dayton. This project has been approved pending The Vintner’s Coalition for Economic Progress (led by Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards and the Domaine Drouhin Winery) appeal to the Land Use Board of Appeals.

** Alternative closures are becoming more acceptable to restaurants and consumers. Wines with screw caps, Alcoa’s Vino-Seal, and even ones packaged in Tetra Pak cartons are being increasingly served in fine restaurants. Wine producers generally reserve alternative closures for wines that are to be consumed young. According to Wines & Vines (November, 2006), screw cap-topped wines had a 51% growth in retail sales in a recent six-month period. Screw cap-topped Pinot Noirs from New Zealand are quite prevalent, and a number of North American producers have now committed to them .

** Mechanical harvesters are now widely used by large growers and even small growers are considering them. All major harvesters now use bow-rod shakers which move the vines in one direction and then suddenly revere direction. Mature grapes are easily removed, while lighter rotted and shot berries do not release. Leaves and other non-grape material are left behind. At Fresno State, GPS technology is used for what is termed “differential harvesting.” Using spectrometry to measure anthocyanin content in the vineyard, the maturation of grapes in different portions of the vineyard are determined and then fed into a GPS unit. The harvester is fitted with a receiver that will control a conveyor system that will in turn segregate fruit according to quality. Mechanical harvesters have limited applicability for Pinot Noir growers because whole-cluster harvesting is not an option. In addition, many Pinot Noir vineyards are planted on tricky hillsides and the types of trellising and row-spacing used are not conducive to mechanical harvesting.

** Night harvesting has become preferable for Pinot Noir producers. Grapes picked at night are fresher, fruitier, and crisper. The development of harvest lights have made this possible for a few years now. Certainly pickers prefer to harvest grapes in the cool hours of the early morning.

** Two notable Burgundian winemakers died this past year: Denis Mortet and Henri Jayer. Jayer’s Pinot Noirs were legendary and he was considered a master winemaker. He passed away at the ripe age of 84 from prostate cancer. Jayer was a strong opponent of hard tannins and employed 100% destemming and prefermentation maceration. He was one of the first winemakers in Burgundy to utilize refrigeration and temperature control. Andy Tan of Auric Pacific Fine Wines shared this quote from Jayer: “If it tastes too tannic, then it is too tannic.” Andy also pointed out that Jayer thought the biggest bullshit in the viticultural world was biodynamic farming. Clive Coates had first met up with Denis Mortet in 1986 and found a man “forthright, passionate, but open and generous.” He noted that Mortet was espousing the idea that “it all starts in the vines” at a time when few expressed this openly. According to Coates, Mortet was a perfectionist and this probably drove him to committing suicide at age 49 early in 2006. Citing his death as a tragedy, Coates points out that he had a history of a nervous breakdown a few years previously, stemming from a feeling that he had not done justice to the opportunities provided by the great 1999 vintage. Coates feels his 2001s are better than his 1999s and his 2002s are marvelous. Mortet was driven to make wine “like Charles Rousseau.” I have had a number of flings with Mortet’s wines and although his mid 1990s’ wines were a little heavy-handed with generous oak, they stimulated me to delve more deeply into Burgundy.

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