Thursday, March 12, 2015

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of Pinot Noir--PART ONE

Maybe the most common observation about wine is the old chestnut about Pinot Noir being the hardest varietal wine to make. You’d only have to attend World of Pinot Noir to agree. Perhaps it’s all the clones of Pinot Noir that make it challenging. It seemed to me at this 15th edition of World of Pinot Noir, the clones were running the circus. Yes, I felt the need for an obligatory clone joke. Wanted to get it out of the way early.

The Board of Directors of WOPN decided to invite me to their event this year. Yeah, I don’t understand either. I’ve always wanted to attend, so I happily responded yes to the invitation. Let’s get this out of the way early, too. World of Pinot Noir may be one of the best run events I’ve ever attended. From my perspective, that of an attendee, everything ran seamlessly, from the small seminars to the grand tastings to the dinners. I know how hard that is to do. Imagine wrestling with more than 100 wineries each day, co-ordinating the service of a bunch of sommeliers (I think the proper phrase is "a mixed case of sommeliers," or "a caravan of Coravins"), getting the resort kitchen to perform on time, create the right menus, have everything set up and running on time, and make it seem like you’re enjoying it. If I wore a hat, I would tip it to Damon Miele, and the rest of the people involved. Bravo. I cannot think of a single thing about the event itself to criticize. At the time, I even thought the hookers were a nice touch—my apologies to the girls at the Uber table.

The current obsession with Pinot Noir fascinates me. The crowd at WOPN was an upscale crowd, as you’d expect at Bacara. Except for wine maven, and Bacara resort owner, Bill Foley, who looked remarkably like Otis Campbell from Mayberry, I was the least stylish person in the room. I have the fashion sense of a homeless Olympic ice dancer. Zinfandel doesn’t attract the same crowd. They hold ZAP at the Presidio, which is beautiful, but is basically old Army barracks. It’s like Zinfandel is the troubled kid who enlisted in the service, now has PTSD and needs a service dog. Pinot Noir is the drink of the Beautiful People these days, and Bacara was the perfect place for them to hang out and get completely shitfaced on the wine of the moment, made by the wineries of the moment. And that’s what they did.

The weekend began with a seminar conducted by Jancis Robinson MW. I didn’t have a ticket to that event, understandably; I’m sure it quickly sold out to paying customers. Instead, I went to the Santa Barbara Zoo. I find a zoo to be a good warmup for a large public tasting. You walk around and stare at the various exhibits, their inhabitants pacing nervously back and forth doing the same thing over and over and over, contemplating whether they want to throw feces at you, while you try to figure out where that smell is coming from, and dodge kids pushing frantically to the front. It’s just like a big wine tasting. The zoo prepared me for the Friday afternoon Grand Tasting.

I passed up the chance to introduce myself to Jancis Robinson at the Thursday evening Media Dinner. I don’t know why. Cowardice, I guess. And feeling out of place. I’m not really, in any sense of the word, a journalist. I’m a clown, a Fool, and not a very accomplished one at that. I didn’t want to walk up to Ms. Robinson and say, “I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Ron Washam, the HoseMaster of Wine™.” I didn’t know how to pronounce “™,” for one thing. Also, I’m not a person who is ever starstruck. Thirdly, I was pretty sure she was packing heat. A lot like many of the Pinot Noirs.

I never have a plan when I go to a huge wine tasting event like WOPN. For example, I didn’t have a list of wines I needed to taste. I’m actually glad when there are so many wineries at a tasting, there were more than 100 each day at WOPN, because I know I won’t be able to taste a statistically significant number of the wines no matter what (100 wineries means there were probably more than 500 wines available to taste), and so I don’t try. I relax. If a tasting only has 150 wines to taste, I’ll try to taste them all—which is stupid. But it feels doable, and I’m fearful I may miss one or two of the best wines there if I don’t put every single wine in my mouth. At the Friday Grand Tasting, I tasted about 60 wines in three and a half hours. That’s a reasonable pace for me, time to focus a bit on each wine. So I tasted about 10% of the wines. Of course, there may be no worse way to evaluate wine than a large public tasting, so poorly evaluating 10% of the wines is what I set out to do. A job for which I am well-equipped.

Most of you reading this have attended large public wine tastings. They have lots of different vibes, depending on the location, the wines being served, and the price to attend. WOPN had quite the upscale, fashionable, wealthy crowd. At ZAP, there are herds of older women wearing spangled shirts reading “Got Wine?,” a wine yoke grungy from years of work around their neck, in numbers rivaling the glory days of passenger pigeons. If you own one of these shirts, I want you to get rid of it immediately. You look pathetic. You look like Lady Gaga threw up on your blouse. Just donate it to Goodwill. Though I’m guessing even homeless people would refuse to wear them. I swear, I thought I saw one on a Liberian woman in a story about the Ebola epidemic on CBS News. Really. But, oddly, she was rocking that top. Though the yoke was real. So, yeah, people see you in that shirt and think about fatal diseases. Wishing you’d get one.

It was a very good-looking crowd at WOPN. Which tells you instantly they’re not wine people. Wine people, I’ve always found, are not, in general, a good-looking group. We tend to pale complexions and watery eyes. We shuffle, and our shirts are ugly and stained. This crowd was handsome. Whiter than a Ted Cruz rally, but I guess all the black folk were in Selma that weekend. They sure as hell weren’t at WOPN. Glancing around the room at the couples tasting, it looked to me like a Father and Daughter Cotillion in Utah. Young girls all dressed up with their beaming older male escort. I’m exaggerating, but not that much. It was great people watching.

But let’s talk Pinot Noir. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say they hate Pinot Noir. Lots of people claim to hate Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and most of the other familiar varieties. But Pinot Noir seems to be a crowd-pleaser. And like all crowd-pleasers, think your favorite sit-com, maybe that’s because Pinot Noir is ultimately rather predictable, that it falls between relatively narrow parameters. I’m not saying that all Pinot Noir is alike. But go to a Zin tasting and the wines are all over the place stylistically, from lean and restrained to hugely extracted and sweet, from field blends to 100% Zinfandel, from wildly bad to amazingly delicious. Taste a huge number of Chardonnays and be amazed at the variety of styles. Same with Riesling. Tasting through the Pinot Noirs at WOPN, the differences were there, but around the room, the differences weren’t much. Yes, you can tell Russian River Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir, but they seem to be made in the same style, as most sit-coms have stock characters, situations and rhythm. It’s a little boring, really. Though there were a few exceptions, which I’ll get to.

And does every winemaker and marketing person have to say about their single-vineyard wines, “I try to stay out of the way and let the vineyard speak for itself?” What if it’s just a stupid vineyard? Then I don’t want it speaking for itself. I want you to help it. I am of the opinion that very few Pinot Noir sites are worthy of an exalted single-vineyard status. Is every site different? Sure. But different doesn’t mean singular. The main reason wineries use the single-vineyard designation on wines that really don't deserve the status is to charge more money. This might sound cynical, but, in my experience, it’s true. It’s not at all uncommon for a winery’s, say, “Sonoma Coast” blend to be superior to its single-vineyard wines that cost quite a bit more. At least to my jaded palate. But reading most wine critics, you’d think single-vineyard wines are always better, that all Pinot Noir aspires to vineyard designate. Which is horse manure. The single vineyard trend is way out of control in California. An eight-year-old vineyard should be venerated as a unique site, its voice already understood? Don’t be stupid. However, it’s not the naming of the vineyard on the label I object to, it’s making it more expensive when the price of the fruit or the quality, the singularity of the vineyard, doesn’t justify it. It’s gouging, pure and simple. Or, as they call it in the wine business, Sales and Marketing.



Bryan Scott said...

A superior piece of reportage, Hosemaster. Can't wait for further installments.

Bill Ward said...

Couldn't agree more on the single vineyards, and how the appellation pinots usually are better. That's true of several big names. But if you ever get a chance to taste the Rivers Marie Summa Old Vine, pounce. Or maybe slurp.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks, Bryan. Hard to make this kind of thing even readable.

Hey Bill,
Yup, I've had the Summa Old Vine, and I agree, it's pretty great.

Every producer is obviously entitled to make any single vineyard designate they want. But no one ever seems to question the practice. There are often other things involved, but, it seems to me, it's primarily a way to charge more money for a wine that isn't especially fine or distinctive, just from one vineyard. It's a sucker's game.

Alden Skinner said...

I hope you get an invite up here to IPNC. Can't wait to read that one!

Jim Caudill said...

Geez, Jancis came by the MacPhail table asking for you, if only I'd known, I would have tried to hook you up. Purple pages and all that, you have a lot not in common....

Mark Goldberg said...

I couldn't agree more. Before I look at the vineyard, I first look at the winemaker and his particular style. As Alden said, you need to go to the IPNC. I was there in 2013 and it was incredible.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I don't get a lot of invites for press junkets. First of all, I am a Nobody, with a Capital Zero, and, secondly, who I am is the HoseMaster, a bit of a lit fuse. An importer at WOPN confided that he was surprised WOPN invited me because he never had the courage to invite me to his tastings. I guess I'm proud of that.

As we speak, there are undoubtedly dozens of wine typers on paid junkets preparing to write the same old adulatory prose they always write. I don't blame them, though I mock them. Blogging has no financial rewards, really. Junkets seem like something you deserve. And getting recognition is addictive, and you don't want it to stop, and so you lavish praise on a lot of wine that isn't that good or interesting. And then your eight readers tell you how amazing you are when it's done.

Weird business.

I heard she was looking all over for me. As I said, I think she was packing heat. Imagine how popular she'd be if she plugged me.

Yes, we do have a lot not in common. For example, she's not an HMW.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

OK, everybody write to IPNC and get the HoseMaster invited.

Yeah, that'll happen.

Mel Knox said...


When Jancis, Nick and I were partying with Pink at the Somm party, she kept asking Brian Talley where you were.

Of course, for me the highlight of the weekend was meeting the Hosemaster himself along with Alder Yarrow and Alan Goldfarb. Unfortunately Don Neel was attending debutante parties in Rio so he did not join us.

gabriel jagle said...


I dig your foray into traditional journalism. I can't imagine what the "wine reviews" blog post is going to look like.

And while I don't disagree with your assessment of single vineyard wines and the sales/marketing angle, I will say that giving a wine single-vineyard status does give wineries that purchase fruit the opportunity to recognize the vineyard that does half the work in the winemaking process.

As for the IPNC invitation, I don't think that my endorsement would get you any closer to a press pass. But if you do ever come out the the valley, I would be happy to give you a tour of our growing list of wineries producing gruner veltliner (don't worry, you can wash your mouth out with pinot noir).

Fenton said...

I guaranty you that the WOPN folks are passing your piece around. I suspect that your review will be recognized as more honest and interesting than anything else that has been or is being written about WOPN. I also suspect that they are worried sick about Part 2. Inviting you must be like base jumping.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

It was nice to finally meet you as well. I did my level best to duck meeting anyone who had heard of the HoseMaster, for obvious reasons. I get sick of the adulation. Pink at the somm party? Serves 'em right.

Don't misunderstand me. I have no gripe with putting a vineyard name on a label. My gripe is with pretending every damned vineyard has something to say that warrants a bunch more money on the price tag. It's preposterous, and tiresome. And it makes those who use vineyard designates carefully and deservedly look like chumps.

You should start WOGV in Oregon. A gas station rest room ought to be enough room.

I haven't any idea what WOPN expected from me in terms of my writing, but they had the courage to just see what would happen. I appreciate that. I'll repeat, it was as well-run an event as I've ever attended. That's high praise, in my book. Kudos to them. My opinions about the wines, the venue, Pinot Noir and everything else have little to do with their wonderful event. Any consumer, and I mean any consumer, regardless of wine knowledge, would enjoy it.

I doubt anyone is worried about Part 2, honestly. I just have my own jaded, comic point of view. I'm not Alder, I'm not 1WineDoody, I'm not Elaine Hawkity-Wawkity. I like wine to be fun and to be a bit more forthright about stuff most writers conveniently ignore. It does make me unwelcome, sometimes, but I don't care. I'm not building a career, I'm ruining one.

Bob Henry said...


Single vineyard designations could be at the insistence of the vineyard owner -- as a form of "co-branding."

If you wish to work with (say) Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir or To-Kalon Cabernet fruit, you may have to put that name on your label.

The high price of that contract fruit leads to high-priced wines:

“The Beckstoffer pricing formula calls for the price of a ton of To Kalon Cabernet grapes to equal 100 times the current retail price of a bottle. (This is true of all his heritage vineyards.) For example, if a bottle of Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon costs $250 (as it did at my local store) then Mr. Hobbs paid $25,000 for a ton of the fruit plus a base amount per acre that may vary. By contrast, the average price per ton of (average) Napa Cabernet is just north of $4,000.”

(Source: Wall Street Journal "On Wine" column titled “The Most Powerful Grower in Napa.")

~~ Bob

Bob Henry said...


You are in rare company: having tasted Rivers-Marie Summa Vineyard Old Vines Pinot Noir -- and singing its praises.

Quoting PinotFile:

“Perhaps the finest California Pinot I have ever had the pleasure of drinking.”

~~ Allen Meadows (Burghound) on 2004 Rivers-Marie Summa Vineyard Old Vines Pinot Noir

(Source: Summa Vineyard | The PinotFile: Volume 9, Issue 9)

Ron Washam, HMW said...

From what I know, the really famous and great vineyards often insist a winemaker make a vintage or two from their grapes, and if they like the wines, they then allow the winery to put the name of the vineyard on the label. I could be wrong.

Yes, I understand your point. My point was that simply because you put a vineyard on your label, one not as famous and Pisoni or To Kalon, that doesn't justify a higher price, and shouldn't justify higher expectations from the consumer. Far too often, it's just a vineyard name, not a guarantee of greatness or distinctiveness. But you know that.

I still own some Summa Old Vines. It's not "the finest California Pinot Noir I have ever had the pleasure of drinking," but it's damned tasty.

Unlike Mr. Meadows, I'm sure mine wasn't a fake... Though I gave the empty bottle to Dr. Conti.

Mel Knox said...

There was a study in the Journal of Wine Economics some time ago. The author said that the more specific the location, the more you could charge.

Sean Thackrey, among others, has speculated that better wine could be made with regional blending...Economically this idea stinks.

Mel Knox said...

Also, as I rccall, Jancis never mentioned your was Pink who wanted to dance with you...

Bob Henry said...

Is Hoser extending his "road show" by covering Sunday's Family Winemakers of California trade and consumer tasting in Pomona?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

More than once a producer brought me a sackful of single-vineyard Pinot Noirs that had far more in common than they had meaningful differences. No harm in that. I always assumed they had a wine club to keep happy. And if you give your wine club 20% off the price, it's best to have a single-vineyard wine that's marked up at least 20%.

Pink will have to wait. I mean, please, I just had a baby with Beyonce, I'm kinda busy.

Jancis sends me secret crush emails. Don't tell anyone.

Nope. No Family Winemakers. They're safe.

Bob Henry said...
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