I’m not going to climb on this old horse again.
Who am I kidding? Of course, I am…
People who have read The Pour Fool know my views on Pinot Noir and, in particular, Oregon Pinot Noir. For anyone who doesn’t, here it is: Not a fan. If I buy a Pinot, it’s A) probably for someone else, or B) from Burgundy or California and the latter about fifty times more than the former. Not really a fan of Chardonnay, either, having worn it out by sheer repetition, so when it comes to Burgundian varietals, I’m kinda out. There ARE a few – a VERY few – Oregon Pinots that I’ve consumed and enjoyed – Stangeland, Purple Hands, Brickhouse(!), Knudsen, a couple from Patricia Green, and the Mac-Daddy, Ken Wright Cellars, for which I would almost pass up an average Cab or Malbec or Sangio or Syrah. Or most any other varietal that’s not Pinot.
But, for almost the entire going-on-28 years I have worked in the wine trade, geeky pals of mine have been insisting that I would eventually wind up in a passionate lip-lock – of an intensity suggestive of a fanatical Middle Eastern religious cult – with Pinot Noir. Because, as almost all of them have said, “Everybody does, eventually.“
So, when I said I wasn’t going to climb on this old horse…well, I’ve failed again. Normally, this disdain for Pinot Noir would go on for pages. But, this time, I am forced – by what little shame I possess and an antiquated sense of fairness that is unseemly, here in the Trump Era – to acknowledge a YUGE and revelatory shift in my personal Pinot Paradigm, occasioned by the arrival, via FedEx, of a large box containing a regulation slew of shocking, stunning, seismic wines from Tony Rynders, the former winemaker for Domaine Serene (yet another Oregon winery I mostly ignored), working under the rubric of his new venture, Tendril Wine Cellars.
It took me – literally! – MONTHS to even sit down to write this because I honestly just did not know what to say. I have no frame of reference for singing praises of Pinot Noir. Yeah, there has been the occasional recommendation of Ken Wright and Brickhouse…and waaay less than that for any Pinot that I could honestly say I sat and drank and thoroughly enjoyed because it really hasn’t happened. The last bottle of Pinot that we made a deliberate choice to drink for our own enjoyment was a Brian Loring Gary’s Vineyard…from Sebastapol, CA…in 2006. My wife pitched in to move me along in writing this, as she so frequently does, with the nut of the matter: “Why is this any different from any other wine you like? Just write what you tasted…and take the trash out, willya?
I can’t even imagine what sort of hell it must be to be married to me…
The Nutshell, then: These are probably the best bottles of Pinot I’ve ever tasted and for damned sure the best Oregon Pinots I’ve run across. The vast run of Oregon Pinot Noir shares that aggravating character of light European lagers, in that both are obsessively concerned with niggling differences in flavors and what amounts to minutiae in flavor profiles. Tendril’s line-up is a full-on barrage of complex flavors, framed by a texture that’s actually even chewy(!) and definitely not the ethereal, “feminine” (an adjective that Oregon Pinot makers used to ALWAYS attach to their wines, thinking that it would lead people to see them as more “Burgundian”) Pinots that ruled the Oregonian winescape for well over thirty years. The traditionalist Oregon houses touted the very things that make me not like them: subtlety, nuance, elegance, and all those other code words for stinginess – all that baloney that the French have sold for generations to explain why Americans (and everybody who’s not French) are idiots who Don’t Know Wine.
Yes, by damnit! We ARE Americans and we’re not all that impressed with nuance. Oh, some of us get it; largely folks, like me, who fall under the loose description of “wine weenies”, but the general run of US wine consumers want FLAVORS – big, definite flavors and lots of ’em!
And the Average Joes are NOT wrong.
Neither are the French…for them. They’re entitled to their tastes and we’re entitled to ours but, for over 100 years, American wine snots deferred to France in everything. The proof was everywhere: all these wineries called Chateau This and Domaine That and the near-universal off-white labels, on textured vellum, with pen ‘n’ ink sketches of their winery, some of which looked like a French trailer park. That was the norm, for longer than just about all of us have been alive.
Until, finally, around the late 1970s, some wineries started saying, “Screw this” and began making wines that had nothing much at all to do with France. And, gradually, bottle by bottle, the concept of “California-style” or “New World” wines started to sell…and have kept on selling like MAGA caps to imbeciles, ever since.
We like BIG wines (and if you read that and did not hear, “I like big butts and I cannot lie…”, well, I don’t even know who you are, anymore) and the idea that we should somehow be ashamed of ourselves for that is just another decaying vestige of our aeons-long Francophilia.
…what if you could have BOTH? What if you could have subtlety and nuance AND fat, assertive flavors? What if you could drink Pinot Noir and not have to do that sip-by-sip rationalizing of the excessive acidity and rote range of flavors and lip-welding tannins and the contrived restraint in vinifying those lusty Willamette Valley grapes to make them “Burgundian”? What if…Pinot could be as soul-satisfying as Cabernet or Malbec or any other red wine? Nobody knew this was even possible. Ken Wright has turned the trick on occasion, as has Doug Tunnel at Brickhouse and the late, lamented Patricia Green. Several of the Young Guns of Oregon Pinot have approached it but no one had really solved the Rubik’s Cube of getting more body, more flavors, and more approachability out of Pinot grapes AND making it structurally as complete and balanced as the Bordeaux-style wines that most of the NW has made its bones on.
Until that box of wines showed up at my door.
I remember Tony Rynders at Domaine Serene. I tasted those wines every flippin’ year for more than a decade. They were, to quote a famous, stupid NFL commentator, “Ah-ight“. They were ah-ight. Nice. Nuanced and Burgundian, even. Maybe even worth the horse-chokin’ price tags they came with, if you really, really, irrationally love top-end Oregon Pinot. But not earth-shaking. Not especially revelatory. And that is not just my Pinot-detractor opinion. Over ten years, I’ve had Serene come up in conversations with at least twenty wine industry colleagues and about 80% of them had my basic reaction. Serene was firmly in the core of that tier of Oregon Pinot producers which were a HUGE deal with Oregon Pinot fans and not so much with anyone else. I’d go to Oregon to taste wines and everybody was talking about Domaine Serene. Then, I’d go to Horse Heaven or Red Mountain or Walla Walla and ask wine fans what they thought of Serene and the near-universal answer was, “Domaine who?“
I was sent this box of wines nearly a year ago. I think. Three, four months either way. And I am absolutely NOT kidding: I have had no idea what to say. I’m NOT going to characterize this as eating crow because it’s not. I haven’t budged an inch on my dislike of the vast run of Oregon Pinot but at least some of that impression was because NOBODY – and that includes the Ken Wrights and Brickhouses and Torii Mors and Purple Hands and all the other OR producers that I was honestly able to say nice things about – was making THIS. The wines in this box absolutely ARE Pinot Noir but Pinot as nobody in the NW US is making it. They’re not California wannabes, either. Any greenhorn student of American terroirs and how to spot them will immediately know that they are not Sonoma, not Santa Barbara, not Monterey peninsula, not any Cali Pinot hotspot. They express every molecule of their cool, misty, pastoral, mineral-rich, loamy, vegetation tinged monkey-puzzle that is the Western Oregon.
In reviewing these, I’m not going to even do my usual thing of capsule reviews with scores. The scores, the numbers, yes, gonna do that, mainly because even people who can read accompanying texts tend to only remember the scores. So, here they are, with prices…
Tendril Chardonnay: 94 Points, $40
Tendril Pretender White Pinot Noir: 96 Points, $60
Tendril “Extrovert” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir: 97 Points, $48
Tendril Saffron Fields Vineyard Pinot Noir: 98 Points, $60
Tendril “Tightrope” Pinot Noir: 98 Points, $64
Tendril “C-Note” Whole Cluster Pinot Noir: 97 Points, $100 (one “c-note’!)
For tasting notes, I’m just going to transcribe the original, hand-written notes I made while tasting these. They are far from what I’d say if I took time to think about it more but, as I’ve often found, those first-impression notes are usually the most honest and rein in my tendency to mine for rhetorical nuggets.
Chardonnay: …honeysuckle, wildflowers, candied lemon peel…bass notes of caramel and treacle…crisp acidity, perfect structure and balance…tangerine zest, mild baking spices, warm bread, and Asian pear…superb clarity and subtlety, with just enough barrel notes to round it all out.
White Pinot: …not nearly the spice rack I was expecting…leans more toward melons, creme brulee, gooseberry, white peaches, and a lovely, brisk tartness that makes it a great food pairing…oddly, doesn’t taste that much like Pinot…
Extrovert: …black and Morello cherries, dried figs, blackberry liqueur, fennel and cinnamon…stunning body, like a lighter-bodied Merlot, rather than any traditional Pinot…sweet, elusive minerals in the background…flint?…something like cocoa powder… Astounding balance and unobtrusive but supple tannins…
Saffron Fields: …leans toward red berries and stone fruit…fresh blackberries…rhubarb, red currants…fat Mirabelle plums…generous oak without it taking over…ridiculous mouth-feel, like no Pinot I’ve ever tasted…God, why isn’t ANYBODY else making Pinots like these?…full minute-long, sweet finish…
Tightrope: …PR sheet says 18 months in French oak, 50% new; tastes like it…shockingly viscous; glycerine on the tongue…cigar box, stewed cherries, brandied pears, Mediterranean spices, wet wood…black currant, and something like Bourbon, which has to be my imagination…it IS a little boozy…never written that about a dry red wine before…a bit more chewy than the others but even greater intensity…Did I just write ‘intensity’ about a fucking Oregon Pinot?…I would bathe in this stuff…
C-Note: …$100 a bottle…Jesus…Can I park my umbrage at that price tag?…raspberry liqueur, jasmine, savory herbs, pink peppercorns…minerals: slate, loam, saline, calcareous soil…black and red cherries, red currant jam, roasted almonds, St. Joseph’s Aspirin for Children…complexity is literally unprecedented…where the hell did he get these grapes?…stunning structure, perfect tannins, flawless balance, mouth feel like a Napa Cab…If any Oregon Pinot Noir is worth $100, this may just be it…FAR better than the Pinot we paid $150 for in 2006…
To the folks who sent me these wines, I humbly apologize. In almost thirty years of writing about wine, this is the first time I have ever taken this long to review anything. It’s really NOT excusable, so I’m not going to make any excuses. I wasn’t too busy, wasn’t blocked, wasn’t unable to formulate my feelings toward these wines. Tendril is simply the best American winery for Pinot Noir that I have ever come across; even including all those Sonoma and Mt. Eden and San Luis Obispo wineries I love. Somehow, Tony Rynders has managed to take what I have always admired about the occasional release from Ken Wright and Brickhouse and Stangeland and Patricia Green Cellars and institutionalize it; make every wine rise to that standard. I don’t know the man; have no idea what he’s doing that’s so different but he’s By God doin’ it and there is no way to deny that. No, I took this long to review Tendril because I’m a big ol’ pussy. I was afraid to see what a world would look like when I no longer have the sweeping blanket statement to stand upon that Oregon Pinots are all stingy and wimpy and narrow-gauge. It’s been a shock on the order of visiting Napa and having some winemaker take me aside and whisper, “Look, pal, we don’t really make all these Cabernets here. They’re made for us in the Barossa Valley, in Australia, and we just relabel ’em.“
I have now tasted and, God Knows, thought about the fact that Oregon Pinot Noir doesn’t have to bounce off my aesthetics like piss off a tin shed. I now know that I actually want to DRINK – as opposed to taste for informational purposes – some of these things, instead of the roughly annual scant pleasure of maybe latching onto a bottle of one of those named and have a few ounces, just to say that I do like certain Oregon Pinots but nowhere near as much as I like almost any other wine grape.
I’m left with one ironic question: How many Oregon Pinot weenies are going to dismiss these new-standard bottles as “too big” or “inauthentic” or that special gem, “Too California!” I’m betting the numbers will be substantial…but will they swing enough weight to drag Oregon off a promising pathway Forward and back to the dead-end of “feminine“, “nuanced“, and “Burgundian“?