This morning, Monday, November 2nd, 2015, I’m breakfasting on my usual cereal and yogurt and fresh fruit, accompanied by a large, steamin’ pile of fresh crow, chittlins and all, that was served up to me by the family of an Oregon wine pioneer, whose children have now taken over the family vineyard operation and begun to make their own wine…again. In the cloistered confines of Oregon wine, this is Big News and the arrival of the box that contained this bottle was enough to get me intrigued…but wary…which you’ll understand in just a moment…
These folks are Page Knudsen Cowles, Colin Knudsen, David Knudsen, and Cal Knudsen, Jr., the offspring of legendary OR grape-grower Cal Knudsen, Sr. The wine they sent me was the Knudsen Vineyards 2103 Dundee Hills/Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, which was vinified by Argyle Winery’s head winemaker Nate Klostermann, using Knudsen grapes, from vineyards managed by Argyle’s Mark Sheridan and Allen Holstein. After fleeing journalism, over 25 years ago, I routinely chuckle at notions like “burying the lead” but this is one lead that deserves not to be prematurely sodded over, so there are the facts. For now, however, I wanted to make this clear, for anyone who is not a regular reader of The Pour Fool…
I DO NOT LIKE PINOT NOIR.
Never have and doubtless never will, as a varietal of grape or as a style of wine. I know maybe even more about it than many other grapes – where it grows and how, what it should taste like, how it’s vinified, etc. – because my natural tendency would be to ignore that which I don’t personally enjoy and, for someone who writes about wine, that just won’t do at all. Over my 25+ years working in the wine biz, no fewer than 25 of my close friends and associates told me, unequivocally, that I would eventually adore Pinot Noir. My chief wine guru, my old boss at Town & Country Markets, said, flatly, “Sooner or later, if you love wine and keep studying it, you will wind up in Burgundy. It’s inevitable.”
That was 23 years ago and I’m no closer than I was then. The ONLY Pinot Noirs that I have ever willingly sat and consumed for “pleasure” were two from California Pinot genius, Brian Loring, and several from Oregon’s Ken Wright, both of whom are routinely vilified by Pinot “purists”, who will smugly tell you that and Pinot that is too fruity, less tart, less acidic, too “big”, too chewy, insufficiently expressive of stones and moss and leaves and other storm drain debris…is crap. Loring, specifically, committed the heinous sin of making Pinot in California, which Pinotistas will assure you is too warm to grow proper Pinot Noir grapes. For true, washed-in-the-blood Pinot Weenies, a great Pinot must be light, stingy, lean, mouth-puckeringly tart, and taste like it was vinified in a moldy barrel that has a foot of gravel in the bottom.
To several of these folks – who tend to be windbags of a degree that makes me look like Calvin Coolidge – I’ve replied, “If that’s what you are looking for in a wine, buy a jug of Carlo Rossi Burgundy, water it back by 30%, dump a cupful (or more, to taste) of pea gravel in the jug, screw on the cap and let it sit overnight. You’ll save thousands!” After which they call me a peasant and go back to curling their pinkies.
Here’s the deal: Pinot IS (or, more accurately, CAN be) complex, which is possibly the primary wine geek virtue. It can express dozens of red-fruit flavors and more dozens of odd little grace notes, many of which you might possibly wish it hadn’t. One of the Holy Grail virtues of Burgundy is that it’s “stinky” (as wine newbies invariably put it), and I do loves me some stinky wines because, as I’ve seen hundreds of times, the right sort of stank can ride atop a truly magnificent wine. A 1996 bottle of Allende Rioja that I shared at a dinner with friends smelled exactly like home permanent relaxer and tasted…glorious. That was Tempranillo, Grenache, and Graciano and the “aromas” were uncharacteristic of those grapes, which have the potential for expressing almost any fruit flavors you can imagine, as well as grace notes even more abundant than Pinot. The stank frequently blows off, as it did in the Allende. In a lot of Pinot, it’s there to stay.
Pinot is shallow. Depth is not a core attribute of Pinot Noir. It’s not, as wine weenies like me put it, “chewy”. Unlike Cabernet, Syrah, Malbec, Carmenere, and even Merlot, Pinot is all surface and no depth. It’s fundamentally unbalanced, in an overall wine sense, and that breadth-over-depth character doesn’t appeal to me at all. Sangiovese and Schiava are about as close to Pinot as I can come and still want to actually consume the stuff for pleasure or for dining and still remain interested. Pinot, as one Seattle wine writer once put it, “…doesn’t really like you. Merlot is a lovable old St. Bernard whose only desire is to bring your slippers and lay at your feet. Pinot is a German Shepherd whose only desire is to rip your slippers to shreds and bite your foot off.”
With no exaggeration, the movie “Sideways” was one of the biggest precipitating factors in prompting me to leave the wine biz. Suddenly, that legion of casual drinkers who had been, for decades, moseying into wine shops in search of a kicky little Merlot to wash down their veal or pasta (or just to get hammered), now wanted Pinot – inexpensive Pinot that they could “just sip and enjoy”. (“Sideways” got me off of Virginia Madsen for good, something which I would have sworn was impossible) Trouble is, there almost no such thing as “good cheap Pinot”. Merlot is all welcome signs and big smiles. Pinot is warning labels and scowls. And to get a really good Pinot (or one you can drink without rationalizing) you’re gonna have to start thinking somewhere north of $30. Cheap Cabernet is sometimes surprising. Cheap Merlot is frequently pretty good. Cheap Pinot is just Cheap.
Knudsen Vineyards Dundee/Willamette 2013 Pinot Noir is…shocking. I mean that literally, as in that I took the first sip of it, did all the wine-weenie rituals with it inside my mouth, swallowed it, and then sat and lived with the finish for a couple of full minutes, all while doing what I always do when tasting the stuff: Looking for What’s Wrong with This Pinot. As my wine guru also told me, “The thing about Pinot is, whenever you taste a bottle of it, there’s always something wrong with it.” And that has always been correct.
I could not find a single thing wrong with the Knudsen 2013.
I tasted it three more times, analytically, searching diligently for flaws. It took the whole three tastings – a period of almost fifteen full minutes – to finally sit back and say, “Wow! This stuff is spec-damn-tacular.” Judye, who was tasting with me, almost spilled her glass in shock. “You’ve never said that about a Pinot!” she sputtered, “Are you being sarcastic?” Not at all, I assured her.
The first signal that Something Is UP was the intensity. Pinot’s alleged intensity frequently comes via a brutal and immediate blast of balls-out acidity that follows the front of palate impression of faint sweetness the way a slap follows a caress. This had NONE of the slap and plenty of the caress. The flavors(!), My God, are as definite and immediate as a Cabernet or a Syrah! It’s as complex as any Pinot I’ve tasted for the past ten years and really only surpassed by one in my memory. In core flavors, Pinot is severely limited, versus other varietals. Raspberry, cherry, strawberry, cranberry, anise, licorice (sometimes, if you’re lucky) and a suggestion of herbs are about it. (I’ll get pissy emails about this which, it should be noted, will not be answered) It’s in the grace notes that Pinots are distinguished one from another. In terms of its core flavors, this Knudsen shows a vibrant display of each of the ones named above and then adds teaberry, Asian spices (subtle but present), cedar, and cooked rhubarb. Grace notes are all over the map: rosemary, Smarties candy, white grapes, red plums, leather, mocha, honeysuckle, pie crust, mint…well, I could name this stuff for a while longer but you get the picture – complex, involved…engrossing. The texture is flawless; as silken, in its own way, as a well-aged Brunello or Barolo. It shows pretty – NOT puckery and challenging – acidity which implies strongly that this will be a flatly magnificent food wine. But it is on the finish(!) that this wine sets itself apart. This has, without exaggeration, one of the prettiest and most graceful finishes of any wine of any type that I’ve found in years. That teaberry character slides seamlessly to the fore, along with the Asian spices and a rich underlay of black cherry. It fades S-L-O-W-L-Y, lazily, and if you just mindlessly rush to the next sip, you’re missing a spectacular experience.
Now…let’s talk terroir. Francoweenies will loudly proclaim that only Burgundy (they may also, grudgingly, admit to Bordeaux and maybe another French region) has real terroir notes, as though dirt in other countries was made while God was still groggy after creating His French masterpiece. This, of course, is asinine. Terroir shows up in wines from everywhere, all over the planet, and only those with preconceived notions, a regional bias, or a flannel palate will argue otherwise. Sonoma tastes different from Walla Walla, Mendoza tastes different from Barossa…and so on. Oregon tastes wildly different from Burgundy, no matter how fervently the Oregon Pinot Old Guard may have tried to pretend that the Willamette Valley is a little chunk of France that fell off, floated the Atlantic, and rolled across America until it snagged on the Cascades. And in this wine, the actual terroir of the Dundee Red Hills shows up with flaming clarity. The sweet limestone, loess, that distinctive and slightly saline Jory soil, and the subtle seashell notes of the valley’s Woodburn Series, an oceanic silt deposited 13,000 years ago, create an almost symphonic complexity of earth flavors. Sheridan and Holstein, blessed with vines that are now going on fifty years old, grow grapes that absorb and deliver all this geological bounty in an effortless and unshowy way, and Klostermann’s non-interventionist approach to winemaking creates a window-glass transparency that makes this wine a geek’s dream. Those inclined – sadly, like me, a LOT of times – to sit and dissect a wine like a lab rat can do so with this one until they literally get tired of it. And while they over-analyze, the sheer, hedonistic (an adjective I have never used on a Pinot!) pleasure of the stuff will, if they’re paying attention, eventually render such wonkiness moot.
The back story is that Cal Knudsen started the vineyard in 1971 and then went into the winery biz with his friend, Oregon Pinot Pioneer Dick Erath. Knudsen Erath Winery operated from 1975 to 1987, when Cal Knudsen went back to growing grapes and Erath Winery emerged to become a perennial top-tier Oregon producer. Until 2012, no other wine was released under the Knudsen name and, along the way, Argyle became their largest and most dependable customer. That symbiotic relationship spawned this wine which, I think, signals the beginning of a new, less prissy era of Oregon red wine character. For decades, drinking Oregon Pinot was a matter of either being born inclined to that lean, somewhat stingy profile that winemakers (and marketers) constantly called either “feminine” or “Burgundian“, or to creating complicated rationales to allow yourself the trendy cachet of being an “Oregon Pinot Fan”. There have been notable exceptions, along the way. The aforementioned Ken Wright makes Pinots so substantial that it’s hard to believe his neighbors don’t either laugh or picket him. His son, Cody, continues Ken’s aesthetic bent. At Stangeland Winery, Larry Miller has produced user-friendly Pinot for years. And Patricia Green Cellars makes a couple of wines that stack up well with anything produced in California or Burgundy. But this 2013 Knudsen moves the bar up several notches. This is a By-Gosh Oregon Pinot to its roots, that is friendly, elegant, impeccably made, hugely flavorful, and near-perfect in its structure. I could not have been more shocked to find all this in an Oregon Pinot if I had been sipping while hooked up to jumper cables. 98 Points