Pinot Noir has been called the ‘Heart Break’ grape because it is so hard to make a good wine and when one does, well, fanatics have been known to weep. It’s the diva of varietals, finicky and thus expensive to grow. And while Chardonnay and Merlot may be more popular, Pinot has a steady, nearly cult-like following (in no small part due to the central California road trip movie, “Sideways“). One of the biggest Pinot events of the year is Pinot Days at San Francisco’s Fort Mason. Pinotphiles turned up in droves to taste through hundreds of spicy, silky, earthy, cherry-overtoned Pinots from California, Oregon, Washington and points even farther.
After two hours of sipping, swirling, sometimes swallowing but mostly spitting, I emerged from the Festival Pavillion with berry stained teeth and nearly unintelligible notes of interesting Pinots. It helps to have some kind of focus when you are entering a tasting event with nearly 500 wines and a bunch of Pinot freaks, such as myself. I went in search of local, undiscovered gems and found several which I have narrowed down to five, all south of fifty bucks (often the bottom line for a really good bottle of Pinot).
The 2010 Keefer Ranch, Pinot Noir ($46) was an immediate hit with me. It was crisp and earthy. This vineyard sits in the middle of Green Valley, a couple of miles in from the town of Bodega, and has that Pinot taste that is so specific to the Russian River Valley, silky and smooth with notes of lush, ripe cherries. Get it while you can, Freeman made 320 (750ml) cases of this one. Every one of Freeman’s award winning wines that I tried at Pinot Days made me salivate.
This Monterey County winemaker is located in the town of Soledad and has a tasting room in Carmel. I tried the award winning 2009 Wrath McIntyre Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands. It goes for $49 and is rich with hints of boysenberry yet a bit savory, too. Wrath makes great wines and several are more affordable than this Pinot Noir including their Rose of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, several killer Syrahs and a Monterey Sauvignon Blanc.
Fort Ross, located on the northern coast of Sonoma County, makes a variety of good Pinots at a decent price point. My favorite is Symposium. I actually discovered it at Piccino in San Francisco’s Dogpatch and was happy to be reminded of it at Pinot Days. While the 2009 Pinot Noir Fort Ross Symposium from the Sonoma Coast is still a stand out at $32, their other Pinots, as well as a low oak Chardonnay, were very, very, very good.
Brothers Jake and Ben Fetzer have inherited the family gene for winemaking. One sip of the Masut 2010 Estate Vineyard ($40) Pinot and there is no doubt. It is ruby red in color and lush with cherry overtones and spices. This Pinot is a complex wine full of taste. These guys are farming land that borders the Fetzer Home Ranch they grew up on between Willits and Ukiah. Says Ben Fetzer of their rural vineyards, “Most people think they are lost when they get here.” Sometimes one has to get lost to really make a discovery.
Last but not least is Abiouness named after the owner and winemaker, Nicole Abiouness who says the name is a compliment to her Lebanese father. The 2008 Stanly Ranch Pinot from Carneros ($38) is a very small production, only 218 cases were made. This is typical California Pinot, fruit forward and smooth with a long, lush finish. Others, too, must think highly of Abiouness, her wines have been found at such lofty restaurants as The French Laundry.