Maya: You know, can I ask you a personal question, Miles?
Miles Raymond: Sure.
Maya: Why are you so in to Pinot?
Miles Raymond: [laughs softly]
Maya: I mean, it’s like a thing with you.
Miles Raymond: [continues laughing softly]
Miles Raymond: Uh, I don’t know, I don’t know. Um, it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet. – “Sideways”
OK. So Miles (Paul Giamatti) does an adequate job describing some of the attributes of the Pinot Noir grape, while also telling the viewer why he’s a whiney, sniveling, self absorbed writer about to screw things up with a hot broad who is obviously way too good for him but for some reason is into him. If you watch the film (besides being funny and insightful, it’ll teach you about wine) you’ll see that Miles’ description of the pinot grape is a metaphor for him. In this post, your sniveling, self-absorbed scribe will concentrate on Pinot Noir, focusing on California, while touching on Oregon and France for the sake of context.
Even though Groundskeeper Willie (The Simpsons) called the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”, they do know how to make a good pinot. A little background: In the US, we identify wine by its varietal (Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir…). In France most wines are identified by region (Boudreaux, Burgundy, etc), and many regions grow several different grapes that are generally used in blends. Burgundy is an exception. For the most part, if you get a red from Burgundy, it’s made from the Pinot Noir grape (if white, a Chardonnay). Yes, these are some of the wines that all the French dudes make such a big fuss about. The reason? Well, Pinot is like a woman- fickle, unpredictable, particular, and isn’t about to let you sit on your ass every Saturday and Sunday with a 12 pack and a Costco sized bag of Doritos watching football all day. No, she demands attention. Otherwise, well, you’re asking for trouble. Anyway, French Pinots are known for their red fruit aromas, but develop what is known as a “barnyard” smell as they age. The French think this is cool. I’m not so sure about that, but Pinot grapes like cooler weather, which is why they thrive in Burgundy.
Most Pinot from Napa Valley comes from the Carneros region, in southern Napa Valley. Why? Well, if you been paying attention you might surmise that the Carneros region is cooler than the rest of Napa (two points to the one reader who actually got the answer). Anyway, Carneros is in the southern end of Napa, where it gets cool, moist air from the San Pablo Bay to the south. Carneros is also home to some of California’s best sparkling wine producers since most sparkling wine is made from…you guessed it…Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Hopefully, your head isn’t about to explode from all this learnin’.
The Russian River Valley (in Sonoma) has a reputation for some of the finest Pinot’s California produces. Don’t go askin’ me why it’s called the Russian River. That’s’ what Google’s for. Known for aromas of wild strawberries and raspberries to cherries, these Pinots are kept cool by the fog and cool air that rolls up the Russian River, which dumps into the Pacific. It’s also home to one of California’s finest craft breweries: Russian River Brewing Company (home of “Pliney the Elder”. Don’t ask. If you want an explanation of Pliney the Elder, ask one of your beer-guzzling buddies).
California- Santa Ynez
Santa Ynez (Santa Barbaras’ wine region) lays claim to the Santa Rita Hills, which produces some awesome Pinots. Over on the west side of the larger Santa Ynez valley (near Lompoc and Vandenberg air force base) the Santa Rita hills have the distinction of being one of the few valleys (created by the hills) that runs east west, allowing Pacific breezes to cool the valley and the pinot and chardonnay grapes that grow there. This is where most of the Pinot’s Miles babbles on endlessly about hail from. Here you’ll find outstanding Pinots from Melville, Seasmoke, and Hilliard Bruce to name a few.
California- Santa Lucia Highlands
These “highlands” are located in Monterey County on the terraces of the eastern slope of the Santa Lucia mountain range overlooking the Salinas River Valley, on the back side of Big Sur. They get fog and cool air funneling down from Monterey Bay, which lies to the Northwest. Pinot’s from SLH tend to be bigger and richer (sort of like that fat friend of your dads that drives the Porsche) than Pinot’s from other areas so if you’re more of a big cab guy or gal, give a Pinot from here a shot.
Although the Santa Lucia Highlands is the premier pinot growing area in Monterey, the rest of the county deserves a mention, as it produces some fine Pinots as well. Taste-wise, Pinots from this area tend to be darkly colored and lean towards tasting of dark fruit.
Oregon- Willamette Valley
The Willamette Valley is home to over 400 wineries and is a broad valley composed of six specific Viticultural Areas southwest of Portland. The general attributes that make this valley ideal for Pinot is that…well…it’s in Oregon. Yeah, it’s generally cooler there than say California…In addition, the latitude of the midpoint of the valley is the same as Burgundy’s (remember Burgundy = Pinot) Cote d’Or. At times Oregon Pinot’s can mirror their counterparts over in Burgundy. If you visit the valley, you can check out the joint in Portland that sells bacon maple bar doughnuts. Whatever.