It's getting rough out there in the American pinot noir wars. According to some experts, pliant pinot noir may eventually supplant contentious cabernet sauvignon as Americans' favorite quality red. Whether or not this is true, pinot producers in the Pacific Northwest have been fortifying themselves with medals from wine tastings and making forays into consumer consciousness with press releases quoting sympathetic wine critics.
So far, Oregon seems to be the pinot front-runner. Pinots from its Willamette Valley, having received strong support in the wine press, are marching off vintners' shelves and onto sideboards. They are being poured into stemmed glasses to complement roast lamb -- and even swordfish -- in fests from La Jolla to Martha's Vineyard.
But for years, winemakers in California's Napa Valley have also been making fine pinot noir from grapes grown in their Carneros district. Carneros, which lies across the southern tips of Napa and Sonoma counties, is swept by breezes from San Francisco Bay and has the cooler climate the pinot noir grapes require. This year, unfortunately, Napa producers are suffering some palpable concern, not just about Oregon's pinot success but also about the unusually hot summer they're having. Some have even begun to refer to their region as "Baja Oregon."
Nonetheless, the Carneros region continues to give Oregon's pinot producers prime competition. The Carneros-grown grapes are so distinctive, in fact, that local winemakers and growers have formed the Carneros Quality Alliance to establish the special qualities of their wines. They asked Dr. Ann Noble of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis -- the MIT of wine-making -- to conduct an experiment with various Napa and Sonoma pinots. A panel of 12 judges blind-tasted 28 of them -- including 10 from Carneros -- and found common characteristics among the Carneros wines.
According to the alliance's report, "there are characteristics -- namely fresh berry, berry jam, spice and cherry -- in Carneros pinot noir wines . . . which are significantly more intense than in pinot noir wines from other regions."
One of the most promising wineries in Carneros is Saintsbury, named for George Saintsbury, an English literary critic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who was a passionate enophile and the author of Notes on a Cellar Book. Saintsbury's wines show the backbone and subtlety of great burgundies and cost about a third as much; they are also cheaper than much of the competition from Oregon.
Saintsbury consists of a modest, new one-story office with a small production facility out back. The winery makes only two wines -- pinot noir and chardonnay -- and has won more than its share of medals, including two golds in last year's American Wine Competition.
Saintsbury's methods fly in the face of enology as taught at the University of California at Davis. "Some professors think we shouldn't make wine like this," says David Graves, one of the men responsible for Saintsbury's success. His methods include encouraging some oxidation of the chardonnay juice -- a tactic that can detract from the flavor. He also ferments completely in barrel, which can result in overly oaky chardonnay. He allows the wine to go through secondary fermentation, uncommon in California because it reduces acid in wine and can leave a flat, watery finish. Saintsbury's chardonnays, however, are anything but flat, and the fruit flavors come through strong and clear.
"The Carneros fruit can take the regimen," says Graves.
Saintsbury's pinot noir stays in Allier and Nevers oak barrels for 11 months and is only "racked" -- moved to another barrel, leaving the lees, or sediment, behind -- once in that period. The result is what Graves calls "a sappy vitality."
The pinot noir and the chardonnay both sell for about $12 a bottle. Saintsbury also makes a lighter style pinot noir, Garnet, that has a bouquet of strawberries, a lot of pinot flavor and is a great bargain for about $8. Garnet is an ideal red for light pasta dishes and some seafood.
Graves learned wine-making through experience. He dropped out of the University of Chicago, where he was studying evolutionary biology, and earned "a graduate degree in forkliftology," he says, when he set up a wine-making business in Carneros with a partner, Richard Ward. The district seemed ideal for the burgundian varietals they most admired. The grapes ripen more slowly there than they do in hotter northern Napa, and have distinctive flavors prized by pinot drinkers.
Because Saintsbury's vineyards are still young, Saintsbury's wines are made from grapes grown elsewhere in the neighborhood. Long-term contracts with established growers in Carneros are essential to maintaining the standards for Saintsbury's pinot and chardonnay. Growers and winemakers are allies there.
Those interested in the pinot wars should know about other Carneros producers as well. A fine pinot is made by Carneros Creek Winery, just north of Saintsbury. Acacia, just down the road from Saintsbury, sells a number of vineyard-designated pinots that may confuse but won't disappoint you. Acacia also sells several good chardonnays.
In southern Carneros is a relatively new wine-making venture, Chateau Bouchaine, which also makes only pinot and chardonnay, with a couple of versions of each. The pinot is promising, and carries the definite flavor of Baja Oregon.
"Carneros makes pinot taste like pinot," says Graves, in summation.
That's one tautology worth remembering. ::