In defense of pinot noir

In wine-drinking circles, I have a reputation for being fanatical (I prefer “reverent”) about pinot noir. Apparently I am not adept at concealing my disappointment when it does not make an appearance during a dinner or tasting. I have devoted the last 800 pages of my leisure reading to the varietal’s short tenure in North America. My wife and I found inspiration in a movie about pinot noir (“Sideways”) for our daughter’s name (Maya). And 10 years ago, I planted a pinot noir vine (difficult and expensive to acquire) in the backyard of a Capitol Hill row house I was renting. My wounds are still too raw to describe the outcome in detail, but let’s just say the poor plant didn’t suffer long.

I disclose this about myself by way of background. My passion for pinot is neither a source of pride nor embarrassment; it is simply who I am. With that in mind, you can imagine my interest in the following review of an inexpensive pinot noir from California written by James Laube, one of the most influential wine critics in the country, if not the world.

“Redtree Pinot Noir California 2008 ($8, score: 88 points out of 100) offers baked cherry pie, with rhubarb and blueberry, showing a wonderful fruit profile that’s spicy, elegant and easy to drink. Great balance,” he wrote.

I normally refrain from writing bad reviews in this column, but I will make this installment an exception. I do so not to impugn Mr. Laube or Redtree but to defend the honor of pinot noir. I not only disagree with his review but also think that his choosing Redtree as an example of pinot noir gives the varietal a bad name. I will counter his thoughts by highlighting two pinot noirs I consider to be better illustrations of this variety’s potential.

Perhaps Mr. Laube suffered from a head cold the day he tasted the wine, or his usually reliable palate betrayed him, but his review misses the mark. I argue that Redtree is not as good as he claims and doesn’t taste like he describes. It offers thin aromas of cran-apple juice and flavors of bright cherry and pluot. That’s it. It’s not bad; it’s just … simple. And therein lies the source of my frustration. I think pinot noirs should be anything but simple.

Pinot noir is fickle and capricious on the vine and in the bottle. It is inherently nuanced and mercurial. Its flavors are thrilling and haunting. According to an old French saying, “Cabernet throws you down and rips your clothes off, but pinot subtly convinces you to take them off yourself.”

To praise Redtree as an above-average expression of pinot noir is like applauding a tenor for clearing his throat. If you don’t have a lot of money to spend and want to get a glimpse of how special the grape can be, try the following wines. Both are widely available in stores on Capitol Hill.

Estancia Pinot Noir Monterey County Pinnacles Ranches 2007 ($15) — Ripe, rich red fruit with hints of black cherry, fresh earth, sage and mineral.
Bogle Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2006 ($13) — Complex, harmonious raspberry and blueberry fruit with spicy notes. Full-bodied and elegant with a lingering finish.

Derek M. LaVallee, certified wine buff, can be reached at