First, let’s leave Sideways out of this discussion entirely.
I often find myself on the opposite side of arguments with many of my wine geek friends because of my firm belief that California does, in fact, produce great Pinot Noir. Generally speaking, the Pinots I enjoy aren’t the Pinots which garner effusive critical praise and command prices approaching triple digits: they’re the more humble wines from the cooler pockets of California.
There’s a belief amongst some in the anti-flavor elite that California’s climate is inhospitable to the temperamental Pinot Noir grape and that it pushes ripeness levels too high, producing a Pinot Noir that goes against its “typicity.” But wine appreciation shouldn’t be a dog show where every grape must be compared against its Platonic (read: French) ideal. California produces its own unique, delicious expressions of Pinot Noir and we’re at the beginning of a Renaissance in Pinot production in California, which is refreshing as the grape seemed on the verge of seppuku due to overproduction of mediocre cherry cough syrup.
Ripeness was never the main culprit in Pinot Noir’s initial demise, however. Even before its surge in popularity in the mid-2000s, California Pinot Noir was almost always a percent or two higher in alcohol than its Burgundian counterparts. The real villain was the overuse of new oak barrels (or, more likely, oak chips) which, when paired with riper grapes, gave the wines that characteristic candied sheen which came to exemplify the worst of New World Pinot Noir, wines which had more in common with then-popular Australian Shiraz than anything else.
(I would be remiss in not again mentioning that California labeling laws only require 75% of a wine to be made from a particular grape to have that grape’s name on the label. Many Pinots from California are blended with other varietals, Syrah and Merlot being particularly common adulterants.)
But when new oak is reduced or even eliminated from the equation, even a 14% alcohol California Pinot has all the earthy aromas one can find in better Burgundies which, when coupled with a warmer climate’s brighter, fresh fruit flavors, produces a wine that is both immediately pleasurable and intellectually complex.
A new generation of wine makers is producing very exciting Pinot Noir in California, eschewing many of the former flagship Pinot appellations of the Central Coast in favor of cooler-climate, less expensive AVAs like Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Cruz Mountains, Sonoma Coast and Mendocino County. The use of new oak barrels is being replaced by the use of older and neutral oak barrels (neutral oak being a term for a barrel that has been used so much that it no longer imparts any oak flavor), allowing for the mellowing effects of wood aging without the homogenizing effect of new oak vanilla. Aging in concrete vats, still common in Europe, is also being used more in California.
So take another look in your own backyard for a good Pinot Noir. I promise you’ll find something you like.