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.
TO BE CONTINUED...WINE REVIEWS, AND OTHER USELESS ASIDES