Chow Town

When it comes to Pinot Noir, critics’ preferences rarely in sync

Pinot Noir Grapes
Pinot Noir Grapes MCT

I’ll admit it: I’m a Pinot snob.

The Pinot Noir I drink is supple, complex, layered — the one you drink is probably not. How do I know this? Because I’m a Pinot snob.

But so is everyone who loves Pinot Noir — there’s something about the grape and the variety of expressions that makes its proponents more than a little doctrinaire about their style preferences. Many of us believe that our preferred style is the “correct” way to reflect the history and character of this remarkable grape. Unfortunately, all our preferences are rarely in sync.

I like Pinot Noir that is more about length and balance than power. Many of the dominant critics lean towards something much bigger, even Syrah-like. Hey, I like Syrah too but I prefer to drink it from a bottle labeled “Syrah” rather than one labeled “Pinot noir.”

Some people think the Pinot Noirs that I like are too mild and lack intensity. I think the Pinot Noirs they like are heavy and ponderous. I suppose that as in all matters of taste, no one is right and no one is wrong.

Except that the Pinot Noirs I love are better. I could type “imho” here, but there is rarely anything humble being expressed by someone who writes “imho.” So busted here, because the Pinot Noir that I like is the true expression of the grape, imho.

Thus it is that I have been unpleasantly dismissive of many California Pinot Noirs, notable exceptions aside. Some like Williams-Selyems or Kosta Browne are considered among the country’s best but they don’t really excite me like they do others (though I respect them, I really do.)

I veer towards the more elegant producers: Copain, Littorai and Peay. Not coincidentally, each sources grapes from the cooler California sites. Cool temperatures mean less ripe grapes — less ripe grapes have less intensity, color and power.

So this morning I found myself sitting at The Farmhouse with Peter Willmert of Red Car Vineyards, in town to visit family and old haunts. We were drinking Red Car wines, grown on the Sonoma Coast (from some of the same vineyards that all those wineries above will utilize for their bottlings.)

I tasted two Chardonnays — both were excellent. Their Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2012 ($42) and their Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 ($62) showed light aromas in a nearly inhibited character; but that allowed me to feel like I could peer more deeply into the wine. And there was much to find there. Tangy, not at all buttery, more elegant than intense but then they don’t use much in the way of new oak.

Their Pinot Noirs were not quite as withdrawn. We started with a surprisingly robust Rose of Pinot Noir 2013 ($19), though it was not lacking for gentility. But there was more there there, as Gertrude Stein would have it, and I understand now why I have never before tasted the wine — it’s always sold out.

The Red Car Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2012 ($45) showed delightful red fruits alongside a gentle but persistent length. We also tasted three single vineyard Pinot Noirs: Platt Vineyard 2012, Heaven and Earth 2012 and Estate Vineyard 2012. Each is about $62 and each is compelling and delicious. I was particularly taken by the depth of the Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir. Though it was not particularly “rich,” it embodied what I love about Pinot Noir: complexity without weight.

Red Car partner Peter Willmert is proud of the style of their wines, needless to say. He believes in the locations for Red Car’s source grapes: “We move as far west as we can till you fall off into the ocean,” he said.

It’s that Pacific Ocean proximity that offers prime conditions to most of California’s great vineyards. With these wines, as with so many Pinot Noirs I like, they’ve moved closer to the source of California’s excellence, and have slowly moved the style of California Pinot Noir in a laudable direction as well.

Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant who for decades has happily educated the public about all things drink. He is one of only three people in the world to have earned the coveted titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column for The Star’s Food section.