The Boston Phoenix
February 12 - 19, 1998

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Pinot gallery

From Burgundy to the domestic stuff

Uncorked by David Marglin

Being devoted to wine often means having to say you're sorry. So, up front, I want to apologize to California's pinot noirs.

For years, at wine tastings and among friends, I disparaged California pinots. They lacked depth, I thought; their flavors were overly musty; they were unsophisticated. Now I'm a fan. I find California pinots flavorful, fruity yet earthy -- and many of them are approachable even by the most casual of wine drinkers (although, as with Napa cabernets, the really good stuff starts at just above $20 a bottle). These days -- mea gulpa -- I am drinking a lot of pinots, especially those from Sonoma County and the Carneros district, and I'm finding them to be a lot better than those wines I despised only a few vintages ago.

Pinot noir -- unblended, straight pinot noir -- is the grape of all the great Burgundy reds. Burgundies have been the model for pinot makers, but the great Burgundies are delicate, temperamental, and expensive. The soil in Burgundy is chalky, the weather uncooperative, and -- in great years -- the fruit ripens only at the very end of the season. And Burgundy reds are notoriously bad travelers; most wine tastes better near where it's grown, but with Burgundy this is especially so. Bottles vary widely, so in a case of red Burgundy, even from a superior producer, you never know whether you have a home run or a foul ball until it's in your glass. The price for a good Burgundy from a good year starts around $35, and climbs quickly. But for all the hit and miss, for all its quirks, Burgundy -- both red and white -- provided the best wine experiences of my (pre-legal) youth.

Since then, people have tried to convince me that there were alternatives, but I was dubious. I was consistently disappointed with American pinot noirs. They can't get it right with this fickle grape, I declared time and again. And though I might have been overstating the point, many winemakers would have agreed with me. California was making great cabs and chardonnays, but no affordable, quality pinot noirs. Pinot is the hardest wine to make well, and few winemakers had the right strains of pinot for their soil. They were using fancy techniques when restraint might have served them better. But sometime early this decade, that changed. Winemakers became more sensitive to matching soil to grape variety. And in Sonoma's Russian River Valley and in cool, foggy Carneros (a region that straddles the south of Napa and Sonoma), pinot noir found a comfortable home.

So while Napa remains the land of the giant cabs, Sonoma and Carneros have become renowned for churning out unbelievable pinot noirs. Williams & Selyem, for example, is one winery that pioneered the art of making great single-vineyard pinots; today it sells its wines only through a mailing list that takes years to get on. And while other regions of California to the south are making superb pinot noirs (look for Au Bon Climat, made near Santa Barbara, and Carpe Diem, made in Arroyo Grande -- the '94 at Brookline Liquor Mart is a total steal at $20), when it comes to affordable everyday pinots, the kind you can drink with pizza or Indian food, Sonoma and Carneros are leading the way. You'll taste some earth from time to time, and some pinots show a bit of mustiness, but the better wines offer cherry and raspberry and plummy flavors right up front. And there are some bargains, too: wines like Hacienda ($7.99 at Brookline Liquor Mart) that just go down smooth, with full-on vanilla and a thin sheen of fruit. (Unaccompanied, though, it might also taste a tad chalky, with some cough-droppy undertones.)

These Sonoma and Carneros value wines are good to cut your pinot teeth on, but you may have to spend $30 to get the kind of knock-your-sneakers-off, life-changing kind of wine that made me feel obliged to apologize to pinot makers in the first place. So talk to your retailers and start asking them about what pinots make them want to throw their hands up and shout like the Reverend Cleophus James (Brown) in The Blues Brothers. They probably know some California pinots that will make you flip, too.

The following wines are reviewed for your drinking pleasure, with the usual caveats about price and availability.

1995 Buena Vista Sonoma ($14.99, Bauer Wine & Spirits, Boston). This is California's oldest active winery (open since 1857). Call it a comeback. This baby comes with bright fruit and slight cherry, and ends with a tart note as some of its earthier flavors begin to blend in.

1994 Seghesio Sonoma Russian River Valley ($12.99, Marty's Liquors, Allston and Newton). A smooth and rather inoffensive wine, with solid structure and some broad fruit. Made from old vines, this pinot makes for a nice intro to the grape.

1995 Rodney Strong Sonoma Russian River Valley ($17.99, Wine and Cheese Cask, Somerville). Brash and spicy, with plenty of pepper and earthy overripe cherry notes. An altogether strong wine, with clove accents that can be savored with Indian food.

1995 Marrimar Torres Don Miguel Vineyard (Sonoma) ($28, Brookline Liquor Mart, Allston). Super-round, with generous flavors, reminiscent of a great salami. Plenty of plum, with a tight, refined feel on the mouth. One to try alone.

David Marglin can be reached at wine@phx.com.


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