LONG, grumpy, provoked, probably provocative…My $.02 on the unending, stultifying, pointless debate on Burgundy versus California versus Oregon Pinot Noir, written in response to an Oregon producer who attempted to give a self-congratulatory overview of Oregon’s “supremacy” in Pinot. This will probably piss some people off. Please be advised that nothing except the contents of Oregon wine bottles, after 25 years of tasting the stuff, is going to change my mind…
For a LONG time, I couldn’t give away Oregon Pinot in the shops I owned or worked for. I got the same comments over and over again: “It’s too tart! It’s almost sour. I want something softer and fruitier…” etc., etc., etc. And that’s why California has always sold more wine, of all types, to American drinkers than Oregon and Washington combined. Oregon Pinot seemed to be popular mainly among Oregonians, who are every bit as devout homers as we are here in Washington. I was deluged with winery reps who did everything short of begging to get me to devote shelf space to their products…when I already had an entire rack full of Oregon Pinot and Chard that turned over slower than any other regional section in the shop. I worked for Town & Country Markets, Esquin, my own shop in Woodinville, and the online retailer, LetsPour.com, and distributors’ reps and Oregon winery reps wore ruts into my carpets; far more Pinot got poured in those shops than anything else…and I sold California, Burgundy, and even Australia/New Zealand Pinot better than even the best labels from Oregon.
I finally decided to put this to a test, back in 2012. I did a very quiet survey of wine trade professionals, some of my more affluent customers, and about a dozen winemakers from other states and countries, insuring their anonymity if they’d give me their honest views of Oregon Pinot versus those from everywhere else. The results were enlightening but not surprising. They basically echoed consumers’ views: gratuitously tart, generally slight and ungenerous, many badly made, and becoming vastly over-priced. Out of the 55 people who responded, 52 of them said they had varying degrees of trouble selling Oregon Pinot. Many said that they sold Oregon whites far more easily and profitably than reds because the whites were easily as good as the Pinots and cost less. One Italian winemaker was succinct and somewhat merciless: “Oregon is a pretender. They constantly couch their descriptions of their Pinot Noir in Burgundian terms. They boast of their wines as being “feminine” and “Burgundian” but what I find when I taste them is that they have very little of Burgundy’s complexity and none of the quirkiness that makes Burgundy so fascinating. They are also a lot less friendly, even to my Piedmontese palate, than California Pinot. They seem to be quite perverse about this, producing wines that taste almost scornfully unfriendly, as though they’re saying ‘We are the true keepers of the Pinot flame and we don’t need to please people with them‘, which is ridiculous. If wine is not about pleasing the drinker, what is it about? I’m waiting for Oregon to discover that they don’t have to try to be Burgundy. That’s when Oregon Pinot will start to blossom.” Similar comments were the baseline of all the responses.
Any Oregon winemaker or estate owner who wants to can shoot the messenger, here, all they like. I don’t care, at my advanced age, what anybody thinks of my views. But it would behoove all of them to, instead of just casting a smirk or a left-handed compliment at California and other non-Burgundian Pinot regions, study why it is that, in almost every list of great American Pinot, you find names like Williams Selyem and Loring and Merry Edwards and Dehlinger and Roar and Peter Michael and Rochioli and Melville listed ahead of almost all Oregon producers. If California Pinot is so “unauthentic” – as I’ve heard from dozens of Oregon producers and acolytes – why is California so infested with Pinot producers? Why do their wines consistently rank in the top ten in all lists?
Just for one easy example, a quick search of Wine Enthusiast’s Highest Rated American Pinot Noir shows three Oregon bottles out of the top SIXTY and the first of those shows up at number 19. It’s from Ken Wright cellars and should be. Wright’s wines have frequently been criticized as “too big” or “almost California“…while selling out so fast that there’s a waiting list for nearly every wine but his basic Willamette Valley Cuvee. The next name that shows up is Ayoub, a relatively new winery that’s run by a former Silicon Valley dot-commer, with wines made by Robert Brittain…a veteran of Far Niente, Saint Andrews. and Stags’ Leap Wineries – California wineries. Arguably not made in the strait-jacketed “feminine/Burgundian” Oregon manner, both Wright’s and Ayoub’s wines have come in for some criticism for not being authentically Oregon. No one seems to entertain the notion that maybe a lot of people simply prefer those “too-big” California Pinots and that’s the reason that many formerly Cab/Merlot/Zin/Cab Franc producers in CA (notably David Bruce and Hartford) now devote their efforts mainly to Pinot. That’s an awful lot of spendy real estate being replanted with Pinot Noir for a region that’s “unauthentic“. They have to be selling wine somewhere and it’s probably not all in California.
Here’s my personal take: It has only been in the past five, six years that I’ve been able to taste Oregon Pinot Noir and honestly advocate to clients that they drink or stock them and that is mainly because – Hallelujah! – the younger OR producers are becoming less and less worried about trying to be Little Burgundy Far West and are making OREGON Pinot. Oregon Pinot, as it turns out, is far more generous and approachable and pleasing than what was made with such quasi-religious fervor for the first 35 years, as they belabored that poor, put-upon grape, down there in the Willamette Valley, where fruitiness was frowned upon and generosity was seen as an abandonment of one’s Oregon roots. (Literally) Just as with German lagers, Pinot Noir in Oregon has been Much of A Muchness; niggling shades and intimations of difference that – within the fairly predictable, narrow range of flavors expressed in Oregon’s grapes – amounts to a miniscule hint of more raspberry in this one and more cranberry in that and, occasionally, a hint – and seldom any more than a hint – of that magical eccentricity that my Italian winemaker friend alluded to; that lovely shock you get in tasting a true Burgundy and finding God Knows What washing across your palate. Yeah, it may not always even be something pleasing that shows up in Burgundy reds, but it makes the wines interesting and fuels that delicious sense of discovery and surprise that is the reason a lot of people come to love wine in the first place.
There is precious little of that in Oregon’s Pinots, which may simply be the exact difference between the soils and terroir in that goofy region of France, versus the more easily quantifiable environment that’s found in the Willamette Valley. Maybe Oregon simply cannot produce what Burgundy does and I fail to understand what the hell is wrong with that? WHY the bloody heck did an entire wine culture evolve based on a patent impossibility: That Oregon’s wines can – or should! – ever truly express qualities that the wines of a totally different region, on the other side of the world, display?
You can produce art pieces and claim that it takes a rarified palate to appreciate the nuances of your wines. Or you can produce wines that Americans want to drink. NEWS FLASH: None of you birds are living in Burgundy. And it is HIGH TIME you stopped trying to pretend you are.