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Awash in Pinot Noir

For years it was a status wine. Now there may be too much of a good thing.

February 04, 2004|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Greg POPOVICH has a passion for Pinot Noir. The elegant red wine known to reach its peak of expression in the centuries-old domains in France's Burgundy region spoke to him like no other. So when he launched his California wine company in 1994, Popovich wanted Pinot Noir to be his signature wine.

Too bad he couldn't find any grapes. Most smart California wine grape growers had long avoided the notoriously low-yielding and finicky grape with its wild gyrations in quality. Without the capital -- much less the inclination -- to expand beyond reliance on wine made by other producers, Popovich had to content himself with the abundant Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay wines that were readily available to be blended for his $10-a-bottle brand.

Turns out, Popovich had to wait only a few years.

Suddenly California is awash in Pinot Noir, so much so that a decent bottle can be found for $3 at Trader Joe's. That's the low end of a previously unheard-of price category of $15-and-under Pinot Noirs that Popovich helped inaugurate when he released his first $10 Castle Rock Pinot Noir in September 2002. Popovich expects to sell a whopping 85,000 cases of his Pinot Noir this year, 50% more than he sold last year when it accounted for $3.8 million of his $8.5-million business.

Confusing mosh pit

California's Pinot Noir phenomenon springs from the critical and commercial success of standard-bearers such as Williams Selyem, Marcassin and Rochioli, limited-scale producers who established themselves in the early 1990s. After a couple of decades of less-than-wonderful Pinots coming from regions like Napa that turned out to be unsuitable for the grape (which does better in cooler coastal climes), these Pinot-savvy winemakers had learned that the Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley were the places for producing mouthwatering Pinots that are more refined and complex. And there was no shortage of wine lovers who were willing to pay as much as $100 a bottle for them.

But since the mid-1990s, a rush of new vintners chasing their lead has created a confusing mosh pit of Pinot Noirs from regions as far north as Mendocino all the way down to Santa Barbara.

In the past two years, more than 100 new California Pinot Noir labels have been launched, representing wine at every price point, including some at $75 and more. It's a phenomenal increase in new brands or extensions of old names to include new Pinot Noir labels.

Amid the current frenzy, prices frequently have little or no relationship to quality, which has been worse than spotty.

"It's extremely expensive but not yet delivering on the promise," says wine critic Steve Tanzer. "It's a cynical attempt to make early drinking wine that is an enjoyable soft red wine, which is not what I consider Pinot Noir."

"There was too much planting of Pinot Noir without knowing what to do with it," says Glen Knight, a buyer at the Wine House in West Los Angeles. "There have been a lot of garage wines where people are grabbing whatever wine they can get and sticking a label on it."

Bob Golbahar, president of Twenty/Twenty Wine Merchants, says he's seeing a new Pinot Noir producer every week pushing a new wine. "Williams Selyem had the market cornered for 10 years. I could sell it for $300 a bottle," Golbahar says, noting that the competition has taken the wind out of that market. "Now, I don't carry it. You can get all you want. Everyone is in search of the new great one. DuMol is hot now."

They're new, and that's enough, according to one of California's major wine distributors, who says "everyone is sick and tired of the same flavors. California Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay have all been formulized to a specific taste."

Still, the new wines have been a dramatic improvement over an earlier Pinot Noir wave in the 1970s that died quickly when consumers rejected the weedy, thin wines, according to wine industry insiders.

"We've spent a long time in the U.S. trying to make good Pinot Noir and only recently made advances," says Vic Motto, wine industry consultant, noting that the new regions are still sorting themselves out. Santa Barbara County's Santa Rita Hills is one of the most promising.

"Pinot Noir is about the excitement of discovery. Now that it has a sophisticated, consistent style, it's safer" to try the California wines, Motto says.

Pinot Noir is a terroir wine, meaning that the best examples express the particular mineral and climatic attributes of a property more than other varieties might. To create the illusion of exclusivity in the midst of a glut, ambitious vintners are subdividing their labels into dozens of vineyard-specific secondary labels. Some growers -- notably Gary Pisoni of the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County -- have become as marketable as the vintners they supply, adding their names to the dozens of wine labels that include their grapes.

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