Mr. Wolf & Racquel

“Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”

“Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”
                                              —Mr. Wolf (Harvey Keitel), Pulp Fiction (1994)

Every now and then we all crave something that surprises us. There are certain foods, drinks, movie genres, music styles—whatever—that on any given day we will say we don’t care for or out-and-out abhor. But sometimes our brains like to play cruel little games with us.

Two weeks ago I was craving a hedonistic California Pinot Noir. I left the wine shop I work for empty-handed, having fought the urge to submit to this inexplicable, base instinct, expecting it to pass. Oh, sure, I don’t mind those wines when I taste them (in fact, I often quite like them), but drinking them—getting through a glass or more—is, generally, an abhorrent notion to me. This is the classic Robert Parker conundrum: rates high in tasting, but is ponderously difficult to drink. As one who far prefers the lean finesse of most Burgundian (or, even, Willamette Valley, Oregonian) Pinot Noir, even the thought of California Pinot Noir frequently makes me shudder simply because experience has taught me that I can’t enjoy more than a few sips and, like most people, I like to drink my wine as well as taste it.

But, as I sat in my wife’s clothing shop trying to kill time until closing, the pull became stronger. I couldn’t take it anymore and walked to the wine shop down the street. My presumption was that this would be a swift and easy shopping trip. The typically more opulent style of California Pinot Noir is very popular and bottlings are a dime-a-dozen (well, they’re exceptionally common, but are actually more like $25+ each). I knew going in what I wanted: ideally, Carneros Pinot Noir that I hadn’t actually tasted before but that had an established track-record of sweet fruit, spice, sage, and smoke…under $20.

Selection based on my criteria was slim and I quickly had to adjust to a broader region and wider price-range. I stood in the aisle of California Pinot Noirs hemming and hawing to myself (sometimes audibly) over my criteria-reduced handful of wines’ speculative crappiness/projected boringness/over-pricedness until I settled on one that I had overlooked in the seemingly endless 20 minutes spent poring over the same seven square feet of shelving. I recently enjoyed this winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon very much, so this was, ostensibly, a safe bet. A second, deeper issue had just silently introduced itself.

Without getting into the particulars of the impact of vineyard site to a given variety of wine grape, most experienced wine drinkers understand that two wines made with the same grape grown in vineyards 25 miles apart can taste dramatically different from one-another. The problem in this case is the wine doesn’t really show any common varietal character.

Of course, many makers of cheaper Pinot Noir blend in large amounts of Merlot, Syrah, or Carignan to beef-up flavor and body-weight, extend, and reduce costs of their wines. But that was not the case here. This was a 2009, 100% Pinot Noir grown in Carneros and bottled in Calistoga, California. My perception is that the combination of vineyard site and the winemaker’s established understanding of working with Cabernet Sauvignon (and relative inexperience with Pinot Noir) undid this wine. Opaque red-black in the glass and on the palate. Was it bad? Not really, if judged as a “red wine”. But it was, at best, a questionable representation of Pinot Noir. If tasted blind, my guess would have been a Syrah/Grenache blend, and a purely blackberry-fruited, rich, firm, and over-oaked tannic one at that. It had no spice, herbaceousness, smoke, or any measurable sense of terroir (other than its darkness). This was, undoubtedly, the work of a Cabernet Sauvignon master using the same heavy hand with a far less aggressive grape. It could have been enjoyable (if a bit over-priced) if sold as a “Napa Red Wine” rather than a Pinot Noir.

Caspar & Dane

“That’s why we gotta go to this question of character…”

“That’s why we gotta go to this question of character…”
—Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), Miller’s Crossing (1990)

This problem came up during a wine competition I was judging a couple of years ago. All of the judges agreed that the wine in question was tasty but I argued that it didn’t deserve to medal because it did not show any varietal typicity. I eventually acquiesced so as not to be difficult and it got a silver medal in its category. But this Pinot Noir situation makes me question whether I shouldn’t have made a stronger argument.

I think varietal typicity matters a lot. Wineries have proven for the last century that it is possible to retain some varietal characteristics while expressing region and a winemaker’s proclivities. Not doing so can be catastrophic. If a consumer doesn’t get a product that resembles in any way what they were expecting, then that is, at best, a disappointment for the consumer and, at worst, a big sales problem for the winery. Repeat buys of that product are unlikely. Vineyards will be pulled up and replanted with something else—a heavy expense. Word-of-mouth can damage the brand forever.

So the question is: Does varietal typicity matter to you?

(As a side-note, two days later I got the Pinot Noir I wanted—Villa Mt. Eden, Sonoma 2009. Ripe cherry, strawberry, cola, mesquite, light sage. Bizarre craving fulfilled.)