Food & Drink

The Grapevine: Pinot noir shines in Shell Beach

What is it that makes pinot noir fans so passionate? You can’t really credit the 2004 movie “Sideways,” which extolled the virtues of this grape (and trashed the reputation of still-popular merlot). No, true aficionados were flocking to pinot festivals long before that movie.

The granddaddy of such gatherings, the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon, was started in 1987. And earlier this month, the World of Pinot Noir, held in Shell Beach, marked its 10th anniversary. Pinotphiles spent two days in seminars, walk-around tastings and dinners, all focused on the grape that is the object of their obsession.

I can’t speak for other consumers, but I can tell you what I love about pinot noir: The best examples have structure and weight combined with delicacy and an almost ethereal character. For me, the pinnacle is red Burgundy — like the wines of Gevrey-Chambertin’s Domaine Fourrier, which were featured at WOPN—but New World producers are crafting some attractive styles.

I have often lamented that many California winemakers turn out pinots that taste almost like syrah or even cabernet sauvignon. They’re heavy, high-alcohol, tannic wines that lack charm. Still, winemakers can get away with a lot of ripeness if their pinots retain some balancing freshness and acidity, and if they don’t succumb to the temptation to overpower the wines with oak. I tasted a lot of ripe pinots at WOPN that managed to be light on their feet.

It helps that many of the California wines were from the 2007 vintage, an exceptional one for pinot. “2007 is the best vintage of my career — and I don’t say that lightly,” said Larry Brooks, who has made pinot for more than 30 years from vineyards around the state and is currently winemaker for Tolosa Winery in the Edna Valley and for his own label, Campion. His 2007 Campion Claire’s Pinot Noir ($35) from Hudson Vineyard in Carneros is spicy and bright, with ample fruit and firm structure.

In my tastings over two days, I was particularly impressed by some of the wines from the south Central Coast. Next week, I’ll tell you about the highlights from San Luis Obispo County. Santa Barbara County was the source of the bright, lively, smooth 2007 Rusack Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir ($36); the 2007 Flying Goat Dierberg Vineyard Pinot Noir ($42), with its bright raspberry and sassafras notes and supple texture; and the 2008 Alta Maria Pinot Noir ($25), which combines bright raspberry fruit with a subtle note of thyme.

Sonoma Coast and the Russian River Valley are two well-known pinot appellations. From the former, a highlight was the 2008 Pfendler Vineyards Pinot Noir ($45), which is a little floral and has plenty of bright raspberry fruit. Another pinot hot spot, the Santa Lucia Highlands, produced the 2007 Hahn SLH Pinot Noir ($30), with its juicy, plump cherry and crushed strawberry flavors and firm structure.