Wine for Thanksgiving - Snooth Blind Tasting of West Coast Pinot Noir


What Wine for Thanksgiving – Snooth Panel Tasting Program blind tastes West Coast Pinot Noir.

Wines tasted for this report;
Flight 1
A)    2006 Ponzi A Tavola Willamette Valley – 13.5%
B)     2006 Willakenzie Willamette Valley - 14.2%
C)     2006 Benton Lane Willamette Valley – 14.1%
Flight 2
A)    2006 Elk Cove Willamette Valley 14.5%
B)     2006 Duckhorn Migration – Anderson Valley – 14.5%
C)    2007 Wild Horse Central Coast – 13%
Flight 3
A)    2007 Holdredge RRV 14.3%
B)    2006 Davis Bynum RRV 14.9%
C)    2007 Rodney Strong RRV 14.4%
Flight 4
A)    2007 Alma Rosa Santa Rita Hills 14.5%
B)    2006 Stoller JV Estate Dundee Hills – 14.5%
C)    2006 Saxon Brown Parmelee Hill Son. Valley – 14.5%

Just in time for Thanksgiving I convened Snooth's blind tasting panel to take a look at what may very well be the most recommended wine for Thanksgiving:  West Coast Pinot Noir. I have posted my impressions separately and have just added a few comments in the group round up notes that follow.  Members of this week's panel:

Jeanne - Wine enthusiast
Elizabeth - Retail wine sales
Greg - Wholesale wine sales
Stephanie - Retail wine sales
Ali - Retail wine sales
Jeff - Restauranteur
Justin - Wholesale wine sales
Jamie - Wine enthusiast

While I personally prefer a good bottle of Zin for Thanksgiving, as illustrated by last week's email, the appeal of Pinot Noir in undeniable.  We assembled a selection of wine in what might be characterized as the middle price point. One of the problems with Pinot is that demand continues to outstrip supply, though thousands of recently planted acres will be coming into production over the next year or three so that situation may change. Regardless the price for Pinot today includes a demand premium making these wines a bit on the pricy side.

I made this a West Coast pinot tasting since there really is a difference between say, Oregon Pinot and Russian River Pinot.  Not only does the climate produce different wines, not to mention the soils, but there are also different wine making schools of thought out on the west coast. Light elegant Burundian Pinots deliver a very different experience than say, full on fruit bombs from the Santa Rita hills.

This Panel tasting was among the most interesting we have had since the distinct attributes of Pinot had very polarizing affects. The high acidity of many of these wines was off-putting to many but makes them very food friendly and refreshing to drink so your experience at the dinner table could be far different from our experience with saltines in a blind tasting.

The other factor that proved to be crucial in determining one's preference among this admittedly limited selection of wine was the earthy, funkiness that some producers strive to capture. Some people simply prefer big, ripe, clean fruit and for these people some of the attempts at producing a Burgundian style of Pinot just do not, and never will, appeal.

Fortunately there seems to be a wine and a style for everyone. While opinions diverged on many wines in this tasting I was surprised at how closely the panel's results mirrored my own. The opinions on the top 6 wines were pretty universal and overwhelmingly positive.   This was a strong group of wines and I was delighted to see that people ranked elegant examples as highly as they did some of the more assertive wines.

With two vintages to try, most of the wines on the market today are the current 2006's and a smattering of 2005's and just released 2007's, it's useful to just touch on the character of each. 2006 was a hot growing season in Oregon and produced big, ripe wine. In many cases production was very high and that helped ameliorate the elevated levels of alcohol that could have been produced but none-the-less the vintage produced unusually robust, exceptional wines through much of Oregon. California on the other hand was a challenging vintage with some decidedly bright spots, like the Russian River Valley where fruit forward wines were produced. But if one would have to generalize the vintage was spotty and produced a large number of wine that are more reserved than normal with an unusual touch of austerity to them. Many people may find this to be to their liking however.

2007 On the other hand looks to be very promising for California's Pinot Producer. A long mild spell of weather during harvest allowed  slow, even ripening of the fruit producing complex and balanced wines. Yeilds were down from the highs of 2006 but so was ripeness so resultant wines have a bit more structure and a bit less alcohol. The cool spell during harvest allowed for fairly elegant wines to be made. Oregon suffered from significant rain during harvest but the cool weather, it had been a fine cool season all along, allowed grower to wait for the grapes to loose some of the accumulated water without having to worry about rot, mold, or excessive ripening.  The wines have lower alcohol than their 2006 counterpoints with brighter structure, much like the Californias but relying more on the bright acids than richer tannins.

That's the long of it, the short of it is that both vintages produced great wines with each playing into the  strengths of one or another group of wine makers. With so many great bottles on the shelf it's no surprise that retailers will be pushing Pinot with a vengeance this Holiday season While we at Snooth agree that it can be a very strong choice we hope you will be able to use the limited sampling of our tasting for some guidance. Some of the wines we tasted, particularly the 2007's, have just been released on the market. They may not yet be widely available but should you see a bottle of back vintage Holdredge or Wild Horse on the shelf you should feel comfortable trying it if that seems to be the style of Pinot that suits you. This tasting was as much about the character of the vintage as it was about the house style of each winery. Recommending Pinot is sort of like recommending shoes. There are a lot of them out there that do the same job but finding the style and the size that suits you takes some trying  on. So without further ado let's try on some Pinot Noir.

Group's 12th/my 12th - 2007 Rodney Strong  RRV 14.4%             $20
Greg captured one issue with this wine when he stated, “this really pissed me off, there's just too much sulfur here, it could be a good wine but this shouldn't be for sale”. The sulfur did dominate the wine and with time blew off a bit revealing some good raw materials, as Justin said, “this is weird and chemical but lurking there is a lot of fresh, pine forest”. Elizabeth noted that it was “ crisp with toasty wood and super-ripe fruit”. But in general the mood could be characterized by Jamie's “I didn't hate this” or Stephanie's “meh”.

Group's 11th/ my 9th -2007 Alma Rosa Santa Rita Hills 14.5%             $40
Elizabeth was the most complimentary regarding this wine noting that it had “plummy fruit with a spicy mushroom edge, it's fairly decent but kind of simple”. Greg also enjoyed it's core of “ dried leaves and tea” and the mouthfell, though felt it was “ very high in acid and fairly lean”. On the other hand Jeff felt this was “horrible” and Stephanie did not put it in her mouth after smelling “armpit and not with fresh sweat” on the nose. This was not well received.

Group's 10th/ my 11th - 2006 Benton Lane Willamette Valley – 14.1%         $25
There were a range of opinions on this wine running from Stephanie's “inoffensive” to Jeanne's “tilted and off balance” and Greg's “ a little short but complex”. Both Ali and Elizabeth round violet and black pepper notes here with Elizabeth feeling that they were a touch candied, a sentiment shared by Justin and Jamie who noted “this smells like a cold Jolly Rancher”. I think Ali and Jeff got it right when the both said, “it's a little simple”.

Group's 9th/ my 7th    -2007 Wild Horse Central Coast – 13%             $22
Justin couldn't muster any enthusiasm for this wine saying it tasted “weird and disjointed, I can't get into it”. Greg felt this was “ grapy with some mocha coffee going on and finishes pretty long with raspberry/cranberry fruit”. Ali had the most complimentary take on this wine noting “ it's got pretty floral notes with cinnamon and balsamic notes and in the mouth it's got sweet fresh fruit with a kind of orange thing going on. “ Jamie though it was a bit simpler adding, “cherry coke, it tastes just like cherry coke”. This was certainly fruit driven but it played that riff very well.

Group's 8th/ my 10th  -2006 Duckhorn Migration – Anderson Valley – 14.5%        $32
Justin welcomed this wine noting, “it's floral and earthy and a welcome relief. It's restrained and elegant but it does suffer from a hint of dilution on the mid-palate.” Elizabeth agreed noting the “rather complex nose with eucalyptus and mixed floral bouquet but there's not a whole lot of flavor”. A sentiment shared by Ali who felt the nose was “pretty complex with roots, bark, and white chocolate but it's lacking structure, it's flabby and round.” This didn't generate much enthusiasm but at the same time no one really hated it. A solid middle of the road performance.

Group's 7th/ my 8th - 2006 Davis Bynum Russian River Valley 14.9%                 $32
This was perhaps the most obviously oaky wine of the line-up with virtually everyone commenting on the wood from Greg's “obviously woody with lot's of sweet vanilla” to Justin's “too oaky for me”. A comment that may have been supported by Stephanie's contention that this wine tasted of “cherry wood, this tastes like a Spanish wine with all this wood”. Jamie concurred with the notion that this tasted as though it could have been Spanish adding “ this confused the hell out of me, it's really concentrated and I even get olives on the palate”. Jeanne went down a similar path adding “ I wouldn't have any idea that this Pinot Noir” . Ali liked the wines unique character noting “I love this, it tastes really old and tarry, like an old Nebbiolo with wet leaves, tea and drying tannins on the finish.”  While atypical this was undeniably well made.

Group's 6th/ my 6th -2006 Ponzi A Tavola Willimatte Valley – 13.5%         $25
This was met with universally positive response with Stephanie noting the “tree bark, clove and black cherry fruit on the palate with a soft feel and a pleasant finish. A view virtually mirrored my Ali experience which she described as “ Cherry, cola and earth in the mouth and the nice acid gives this a really juicy finish.” That acid was a bit off-putting to Greg who found the wine “too acidic”. While this was, as Jamie pointed out “ not very fruity” It did “ hang around in the mouth” with fine length ad Jeanne noted. I thought the acidity was just fine and lent freshness to this easy drinking wine that's just perfect for Turkey day.

Group's 5th/ my 5th  -2006 Willakenzie  Willamette Valley - 14.2%        $30
The rather organic smelling nose of this wine caused a bit of controversy with Jeff commenting on it's “gamy Character” which Jamie noted “smelled like dirt at first but then more like barnyard” adding “ I like it a lot!” Jeanne added what I think may be a common response to this wine when she commented “This tasted differently than I expected it to taste based on the nose. I didn't like the nose.”  There was plenty of ripe fruit on the palate with this wine but the funky aromatics makes this a love it or leave it kind of wine. The only wine of the tasting that honestly could be called Burgundian, and that is your style this is a winner.

Groups' 4th / my 3rd - 2006 Stoller JV Estate Dundee Hills – 14.5%         $30
While Justin though this was “not very Pinot Noir like” that didn't dissuade Ali from commenting “ I really like this, it's really floral and earthy with sweet fruit and spiced with cinnamon” Jamie also got the floral tones adding “ it smells sweet but more bitter chocolate kind of sweet than fruity sweet.” Jeff really enjoyed this, saying it “ was really very well balanced, I like the way the fruit and acid play of each other” In addition to the cinnamon spice both Elizabeth and Greg found a mushroom edge on a nose they both characterized as very ripe. This seemed to have something to appeal to each palate and I really enjoyed its fine balance and transparent fruit. A new producer for me, and a great surprise.

Group's 3rd / my tie for 1st - 2006 Saxon Brown Parmelee Hill Sonoma Valley 14.5%     $40
Ali was not a fan here “I hated this, green, mint and geranium, uhg” Jeff was more of a fan adding “I liked this a lot, it's a bit over-oaked and the killed the fruit a bit but it's still intense and balanced”. That intensity appealed to Elizabeth who noted on the “ red, dusty fruit, this is very expressive. It's really, really ripe but elegant with earthy dirt on the complex nose”. Greg felt “it smelled better than it tasted” though Jeanne added, “ I enjoyed this wine more than most of the others” and Justin Appreciated the “floral and raspberry fruit on the nose, this is tightly wound but there's really good length here and it's got real minerality.” This is a fuller style but is made in a seamless style that seems to conceal some of the sheer weight here.

Group's 2nd / my 4th- 2006 Elk Cove Willamette Valley 14.5%             $30
This really created divergent opinions among the panel. Justin found this wine to be “over-ripe and too alcoholic with Tina Turner legs. Just brutish” while Jeff really liked it, adding” it's very soft but really well balanced with a sense of terroir”.  Jamie felt this was “ a really cool wine, not typical pinot but with creamy fruit yet herbal and wet pebble notes keep it spicy and stony.” Jeanne didn't agree and characterized the wine as smelling like “ a dirty rag” adding “ I feel like I'd get heartburn if I drank this”. Greg noted that the nose was really ripe but he was “totally disappointed with the palate. Ali also got a lot on the nose calling it “really concentrated with blackberry and truffle but this is super freaking hot in the mouth!”  I can't account for the divergent opinions here as I found this complex and elegant, classic Oregon Pinot.

Group's 1st/ my tie for 1st  -2007 Holdredge Russian River Valley  14.3%             $40
A wine that caused some controversy at first due to its noticeable oak on the nose. Ali called it “charred oak, new oak, cinnamon and oak on the nose” while Jamie characterized it more as “cocoa and dark chocolate and a little woodsy”. Elizabeth felt it was “ easy and pleasant to smell with medium body and very crisp acidity”. Acidity that was appreciated by Justin Who felt it was “ very acidic but an enjoyable acidity adding crisp, zingy forest notes to the wine” Jeff disagreed feeling the wine was “out of whack with this intense acidity”. Ali got past the oakiness on the nose and found the wine to be “ tart and tangy with a ripe raspberry sweetness”.  This is a bit young yet and really benefitted from its time in the glass. This was the overwhelming favorite today and should only get better.

Gregory Dal Piaz is the Community Manager at  Snooth, an avid Wine Geek with a passion for things Italian, and a long suffering Mets fan.

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