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2010 Pinot Noir All-Americans

It is time to renew the annual tradition in the PinotFile to name the best Pinot Noir performers of 2010 as “All- Americans.” In this, the tenth year of proclaiming Pinot Noir All-Americans, it was extremely challenging for me to single out wines from the array of stellar Pinot Noir currently being crafted in California and Oregon. The bounty is a testimony to the cadre of passionate winegrowers and winemakers who have successfully corralled the temperamental nature of Pinot Noir.

The All-Americans were selected not only for their fruity, flirty New World hedonism and description-defying sensuality, but for the emotion they illicit. All the anointed wines were technically sound, but what separated the All-Americans was a powerful charisma. It is a truth that it is not what is said or written about a wine, but what is emoted that truly defines a wine’s greatness. Veronique Drouhin-Boss, winemaker at Oregon’s Domaine Drouhin, said it best, “There are plenty of good wines in the world that give you pleasure. A great wine gives you emotion.”

In choosing exceptional wines distinctiveness also comes into play. Terry Thiese summarized my feelings on this beautifully, “I’d rather drink something that tastes like something and not like everything. Anything can taste like everything, and too often it does, and it bores the crap out of me.” Too many New World Pinot Noirs simply taste the same. I look for wines of character and uniqueness that speak of the special place from which they originated.

The stylistic split of power versus finesse, or “New World” versus “Old World” styles is ever present and debated, but superiority of either style is a tired argument. The best style is the one that gives you the most pleasure. Many pinotphiles can appreciate both styles and relish in the diversity of Pinot Noir. I try to steer a neutral course, separating my personal preferences from the objective assessment of the wine regardless of style.

The issue of high alcohol continues to be debated and the subject was approached in previous issues of the PinotFile this year. Winegrowers are often looking to achieve phenolic ripeness at lower brix and there are a spate of Pinot Noirs on the market with unbelievable flavor and complexity at alcohol percentages of 13.0% to 13.8%. Still, there remains a significant group of male consumers who prefer the sweetness and body that alcohol confers on wine, and this fact, combined with the unavoidable ripeness occurring in warmer growing regions and vintages, lead some producers to craft Pinot Noirs with well over 14.5% alcohol. I definitely prefer wines with under 14.2% alcohol since the wines are often more balanced, easier to drink, more compatible with food, allow you to consume two or three glasses without getting sideways, and offer the health benefits associated with taking in moderate amounts of alcohol. Of the wines receiving All-American awards in this issue, the California Pinot Noirs ranged from 12.8% to 15.2% alcohol with most under 14.5% alcohol, and the Oregon Pinot Noirs spanned 13.4% to 14.8% with the majority under 14.0% alcohol. I looked at the best New Zealand Pinot Noirs I tasted this year and their range of alcohol was from 12.5% to 14.5%. California Chardonnays ran the whole gamut from 13.5% to 15.2% alcohol.

There are a number of steps I take to arrive at the wines I recommend in the PinotFile each year. I do not taste the wines blind, but strive for integrity, consistency and objectivity. “The aim of judgment,” respected French wine critic Michael Bettane said, “is truth and impartiality.” There are two important reasons I do not taste blind. First, I prefer to evaluate wines in the same manner as the consumer experiences them. Second, an essential part of judging wine is to know what you are drinking. I tend to focus on current drinkability, since most consumers drink their wines 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. If a wine is balanced when I taste it young, it is almost certainly to hold up for several years. A wine that is out of balance initially will never become balanced over time.

I taste Pinot Noir (and occasionally other wines including Chardonnay) in a consistently calm setting in my home in the late morning. The wines are brought directly from my cellar and are tasted over an hour or two in a relaxed atmosphere. I usually only taste 6 to 7 wines at a time. I give the wines adequate time to open up and make several passes as I taste each wine. Occasionally I will decant a wine if the winemaker recommends it or if this will benefit the evaluation. I use either Riedel Vinum Burgundy or Riedel Oregon Pinot Noir glasses exclusively.

Often, I will re-taste wines later the same day with food at lunch or dinner to replicate the consumer’s drinking experience, or over the next day or two from an opened and re-corked bottle. The latter helps to indicate quality and balance, and to predict longevity.

I have no monetary arrangement with any grower, winery, retailer, or wholesaler, and accept no advertising. I do accept wines for review, but about a third of the wines I sample are bought directly from the winery or through customary retail channels. There are many Pinot Noirs that I sample casually at wineries, social dinners, Pinot Noir festivals, wine tastings, and wine dinners, but I do not include these in the All-American selection process, preferring only to include bottled wines that are formally tasted in controlled, and therefore comparable, circumstances.

I do not award scores to wines, preferring to give an unpretentious and concise description of the style and quality of the wine that the reader can appreciate and use. I attempt to convey that special sensuality exhibited by Pinot Noir that is so easy to covet, yet so difficult to describe. I am convinced that an apropos description is not only more challenging to arrive at, but is the fairest way to evaluate a wine. The Pinot Geek icon is used to designate wines of exceptional merit and these are the only wines considered for All-American honors. The Value icon is used to indicate wines of good quality that are value priced (less than $35).

I want to emphasize that I do not take my reviews or myself too seriously. I always keep in mind the tenant written by noted New Zealand winemaker Neil McCallum, namely, “The difficult art of wine tasting requires a considerable measure of humility.” I preach that you use my tasting notes as a guide, but trust your own palate. Focus more on the producer than any one specific wine.

The All-American awards are unique in that the winners include trophy and cult Pinot Noirs that are infrequently, if ever, reviewed by wine competition tasting panels of major wine publications. The PinotFile All- Americans encompass every Pinot Noir produced in California and Oregon and each year I find All-Americans from each of the major Pinot Noir producing regions.

The All-Americans are judged on merit, independent of price, style, vintage and region of origin. I drink a fair amount of red Burgundy, but leave the critical evaluation of these wines to others who are more dedicated to that region. You cannot live on red wine alone (debatable), so I also taste and review some Chardonnay, Pinot Noir’s cool climate partner.

The awarded wines are listed in alphabetical order. Many of the wines are still available from the winery or through secondary retail distribution. A few of the wines are highly allocated, sold out, and only available on the secondary retail or auction marketplace. A search using the following websites will often turn up sources for the wines: www.wine-searcher.com, www.vinquire.com, www.winezap.com, and www.wineaccess.com. If there is a Pinot Noir you can’t find and just have to have, contact me, and I will try to track it down for you through my connections. Keep in mind that there will always be another vintage and stellar producers make quality wine consistently in each vintage. The wine may not be the same song, but it will be the same composer. Membership on winery mailing lists and in winery wine clubs are good ways to insure that you obtain highly coveted Pinot Noirs from a popular producer.

Current prices of North American Pinot Noir featured in this issue span the range of $10 to $110. Generally, quality of life with Pinot Noir begins at $20, but expect to pay more than $50 for top wines. The 118 California Pinot Noirs awarded the Pinot Geek designation in 2010 averaged $55 with a range of $25 to $110. The 27 Oregon Pinot Noirs receiving the Pinot Geek designation in 2010 averaged $58 with a range of $35 to $100. The 60 wines awarded the Value icon in 2010 averaged $24.50 with a range of $10 to $35. Seven wines from California were prestigious double dippers, a rare distinction, receiving both a Pinot Geek icon and Value icon designation (2008 Siduri Wines Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir, 2008 Meiomi by Belle Glos Pinot Noir, 2008 Foppiano Vineyards Estate Rusian River Valley Pinot Noir, 2007 Greenwood Ridge Vineyards Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir, 2008 Claudia Springs Estate Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, 2007 Graton Ridge Cellars Estate Paul Family Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, and 2007 Varner Spring Ridge Vineyard Hidden Block Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir). The Chardonnays awarded the Golden Geek icon averaged $55 with a range of $22 to $100.

In the past two years, although there has been a significant recession-driven reduction in sales of Pinot Noir costing more than $50 (a class of wines that have become known as the “dead zone”), I have noticed an uptick in the number of Pinot Noir releases approaching, arriving at, and even exceeding triple digits. Some examples of C-note Pinot Noirs include: 2007 and 2008 Penner-Ash Wine Cellars Pas De Nom ($100), 2008 Ponzi Vineyards Aurora and Abetina ($100 each), 2007 Evening Land Vineyards Occidental Vineyard ($120, and a 2009 Seven Springs Vineyard bottling is slated for $100), 2008 Willamette Valley Vineyards Fuller and O’Brien ($100 each), 2008 Elk Cove Vineyards Reserve Willamette Valley ($100), 2006 Stoller Vineyards Cathy’s Reserve ($100), 2008 Sitar Prelude Willamette Valley($100), 2008 Archery Summit Arcus Estate ($100), 2007 Domaine Serene Monogram ($225), 2008 Freestone Vineyards Quarter Moon and Pastorale Pinot Noir ($100 each), 2005, 2006 and 2007 Williams Selyem Litton Estate (now called William Selyem Estate Vineyard) ($100), 2006 Brogan Cellars MIchaela’s Reserve ($110), Fiddlehead Doyle ($166), Paul Hobbs Lindsey Estate Cuvée Augustina ($100), 2007 Lynmar Five Sisters ($100), and 2007 Goldeneye Ten Degrees Estate Grown Anderson Valley ($100). These are very special wines and compared to the prices demanded for high end California Cabernet Sauvignon, a C-note seems almost modest.

Collecting and drinking Pinot Noir can be a rich man’s game if only trophy wines are sought after. Fortunately, there are many perfectly fine Pinot Noirs on the market that are priced less than $35, and the increasing number of these so-called value-priced Pinot Noirs make good Pinot Noir more available now than ever. The 2010 Value Pinot Noir All-Americans represent the best $35 and under North American Pinot Noirs I sampled this past year. Value Pinot Noirs do not match up in quality of fruit, aromatic sophistication, and flavor nuances compared to the more expensive prestige bottlings. You get what you pay for. However, the value-priced Pinot Noirs do offer a perfectly fine everyday drinking experience. Think of them as Pinot Noir unplugged.

I do not keep exact counts, but the number of corked wines seems to be declining to about 2% of the wines I sample. Another 5% of wines are just dumb,” that is, not apparently corked, but just not right. Fortunately, for samples at least, I usually have two bottles and only report the review of the stellar bottle. I have not met with any problems with screw cap closures but these are rare in California and Oregon on premium bottlings. Today, the number of truly flawed commercial wines is extremely low.

You will notice that there are fewer Honorable Mention awards for Oregon Pinot Noirs compared to California Pinot Noirs. That is simply because I taste about three times as many California Pinot Noirs in an average year. It is not a reflection on relative quality.

For the Pinot Noirs that were left out of the awards this year, the words of Mark Twain ring true, “It is better to deserve honors and not have them, than to have them and not deserve them.”

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