Into the valley of Napa
Rode the six hundred (ok, maybe a few less than that)
Pinot to right of them,
Pinot to left of them,
Pinot in front of them
Volley’d & thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell…
– with sincere apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson
In case the title of today’s article lacks clarity for some of you (presumably the wildly hungover among you), I should note that Napa Valley Pinot Noir and I seem to have come to a… disagreement.
Which is a shame, really, because NV PN, though never svelte, has several qualities that make it potentially likable company. Velvety mouthfeel. Bright red fruit. Heft that can be attractive when balanced with the right levels of food-friendly acidity.
But make no mistake about it, NV PN has mistreated me. My tongue might actually have bruises from the most recent fisticuffs between us.
Last week, the 2011 Professional Wine Writers Symposium in Napa Valley wrapped up with a blind perspective tasting of three vintages (2007 through 2009) of both Napa Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs at the Rudd Center of the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena. Since we had little over an hour to blind-taste our way through numbered beakers of samples of each of the three vintages from multiple wineries, I chose what I thought would be the more interesting route: skip the Cabs (ample samples of those back in the dancing waters of Philly, after all) and instead face off against the samples of Pinots (less of those anyway, 24 wines in all – 3 vintages from eight different wineries). The wines were a finalist list culled down from 100+ submissions back in December by members of the Vintage Perspective Tasting jury.
Anyway – go for the Pinot, maybe learn something new. Expand the horizons. Get out of the comfort zone. Can’t hurt, right?
Wrong. Turns out blind-tasting those NV Pinots was, for me, the sensory equivalent of taking a knife to a gun fight. I have since crawled shamefully back into the safety of my comfort zone, tending my wounds and muttering unintelligibly in pain. You win, Napa Pinots. Please don’t hurt me again…
I know that one shouldn’t make too many judgments from a relatively small and certainly very quick tasting. But, the Napa Valley Vintners group did offer up these wines for the specific purpose of gaining a perspective on the vintages and the general state of winemaking during those years for those respective varieties. So… one could argue that, when it comes to the following, the Pinots had it coming; but you’d also be forgiven for interpreting my post-take as an embittered cheap shot, the stone tossed from far atop the hill after the bullies who just beat you up are far enough away that you think you can still outrun them.
It’s not that the Pinot Noirs on display weren’t well-made wines (they were). It’s just that, well… those Napa Valley Pinots were big boys, and if these are the best of the lot, then only fans of the big and smoky need apply, and even those fans might want to avoid the 2008s.
I thought it would be telling to list some of my tasting notes on the 2008s from the session, which border on the bizarre (presumably because I was punch-drunk from being hit squarely in the palate so many times by oak and booze during the tasting) and are… well, they’re not kind:
“Between the tire rubber and smoke on those nose, I feel like I’m playing a game of ‘Spy Hunter’”
“Man, this wine is a total smoke-bomb. Wondering if it should audition as a new weapon in Angry Birds.”
“This is on fire; as in burning-building, run-for-your-life, lungs-filled-with-smoke on fire.”
There were quite a few offerings of 2007s and 2009s that I found intellectually interesting, but none that I wanted to kick back with and finish paired with a plate of grilled salmon. All of the wines on display were 100% Pinot, and not all of these wines were boozy bombs – but many, many of them were, and the majority clocked in way over 14% abv. Still more would have been showing off their vibrant, sexy red fruits if not for the “generous” application of oak. We did, of course, get a full list of the producers to match up with the wines afterward, but I’m going to withhold the names for reasons that should be obvious if you’ve read this far (if they’re not obvious, keep drinking until they are).
I know this is a stylistic thing, and I for one have always believed that stylistic personal preferences come into play in a huge way when blind tasting: in fact, tasting wines blind might be the best way to get to know your own stylistic preferences. But f*ck it, rake me over the coals if you must, I just can’t get past the notion that the style of these NV PNs was too “big” even for big.
Since the best that one can really do at this sort of tasting is offer general pronouncements (and even then we have to bear in mind that only eight producers were tasted), here are my general takeaways, in the hopes that they might be helpful for Pinot-lovers out there:
- There are some nice 2007 Napa Valley Pinot Noirs to be had, but they’re generally very big-mouthfeel wines with big fruit flavors. The 2009s are not as consistent, and the 2008s are, actually consistent (just consistently not-that-great).
- Much of the NV PNs from those vintages are very well-made wines; they’re also well-oaked wines, big on smokiness and small on inspirational drinking experiences. Your mileage, of course, may vary (my smoked-to-death may be your cooked-just-right).
- The finishes on many of the 2009 NV PNs were surprisingly long, but carry some booze and smoky oak along with the fruit. Some may like that style, others not – just know what you’re in for when you’re shopping for these.
- I don’t like them, they don’t like me, and maybe we’re just not ever going to get along. I mean, there’s only so many times I can get wacked in the mouth before I get too scared to get out of bed.
I’ll end with a minor (but impassioned) plea to Napa Valley from someone who loves vibrant, sexy Pinot Noir: please, let those red fruits free from their wooden cages. It might not even mean a lot less wood, maybe just a little less wood, to make a big, big difference in how elegantly these wines present themselves. I know those beautiful red fruits are are hiding back there… I can smell them through the smoke!