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2014 Pinot Noir All-Americans

“One thing a profound wine always does is to seize your imagination and hurl it a thousand feet into the air. That is the story you need to tell, so peer back at the innocent bottle, and nod a small thanks for showing the way to the sky.” Terry Thiese, The Journal of Fine Wine

At the end of each year I name my favorite Pinot Noirs for the year. It is the American way to name the best, but there were so many exceptional Pinot Noirs produced in 2014 in California and Oregon, the task was extremely 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. For the Pinot Noir wines that were left out of the All-American awards this year, the words of Mark Twain ring true. “It’s better to deserve honor and not have them, then to have them and not deserve them.”

The following considerations explain how I choose the All-American Pinot Noirs:

1) 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 again later in the day or the following day. The wines come directly from my home cellar at about 63ºF and are tasted in Burgundy stems. I usually taste only 8 to 10 wines a day to give 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 benefit the evaluation.

2) I do not taste wines blind, but strive for integrity, consistency and objectivity. I frequently have the tech notes on each wine at hand, and that assists me further in understanding the wine.

3) I tend to focus on current drink ability since most consumers prefer to drink their North American Pinot Noir relatively young.

4) I often taste the best wines the following day from an opened and re-corked (but not gassed) bottle which gives me further insight into quality, balance and age ability of a wine.

5) I score all wines using 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.

6) My scoring guidelines: 94-100 - Extraordinary; 90-93 - Outstanding; 86-89 - Very Good; 80-85. I do not publish reviews of wines that score less than 80 since I cannot recommend them. I use the Pinot Geek icon for Pinot Noir and the Golden Geek icon for Chardonnay for wines rated as extraordinary. The Pinot Value icon and Chardonnay Golden Value icon designate wines that offer an exceptional price/quality ratio. Generally, this will be a wine priced at or below $35 that is also in the Very Good or above category.

7) I less often review Chardonnay and sparkling wines, and rarely other varietals.

8) I must wrestle with stylistic differences among Pinot Noirs. 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 comes down to distinguishing between appreciating and liking. As wine 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.”

9) Pinot Noir is a chameleon of a wine making critical and precise evaluation very challenging. Pinot Noir can vary from bottle to bottle, day to day, and week to week. Bottle variation is particularly troublesome. Fortunately, I often have two bottles available when I review a wine, and I only report a review of the better or stellar bottle.

10) 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. Most American Pinot Noirs today 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.”

11) The 2014 All-American Pinot Noirs were judged on merit, independent of price, case production, vintage and region of origin. Most wines tasted in 2014 were from the 2011, 2012 and 2013 vintages. It is somewhat unfair to compare wines from disparate vintages, but the evaluation of each wine is taken on its own merit in the context of the vintage which is known when the wine is reviewed.

12) I have no monetary arrangement with any winegrower or winery and do not accept advertising on my website. I do not receive or demand compensation from wineries to review their wines or publish their reviews.

13) Only finished bottled wines formally reviewed in controlled, and therefore comparable circumstances, are candidates for All-American consideration. I sample many wines casually at home, at wineries (including barrel samples), at social dinners, at walk-around tastings at Pinot Noir festivals, at competitive wine judging events, at organized wine tastings and at winery-hosted dinners, but I do not include these wines in the All-American selection process. A few exceptions were made when wines were tasted in a sit-down formal format at wineries.

14) I review more California Pinot Noir than Oregon Pinot Noir. This is because 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 or my personal preference between Pinot Noir from the two states.

15) Some wineries are deserving of multiple All-American awards, but can only receive a single first or second team award. Considering that some wineries only produce one or two Pinot Noirs while others release multiple wines, it seems only equitable to limit an All-American first team or second team award to one wine per winery.

16) As in football All-American teams, there are eleven Pinot Noir and Chardonnay All-Americans on a team. An extra “special teams” player was added this year making twelve on a team. The awarded wines are listed in alphabetical order.

17) A number of the wines are still available from the winery, retailers, or the secondary marketplace. If you cannot obtain a certain coveted 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.

The “2014 Winery of the Year” is White Rose Estate in the Dundee Hills of Oregon. This winery was singled out for special recognition based on innovative winemaking practices and extraordinary offerings involving the entire winery output. A detailed feature on this winery and a review of current releases is offered later in this issue.

I have also recognized wineries whose wines I met with for the first time in 2013 and show special promise. I call this “First Encounters of 2014.” These wineries are singled out later in this issue.

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