Perspectives On The Vintage Perspective Tasting 2011 (or “My Skirmish With Napa Valley Pinot Noir”)

Vinted on March 1, 2011 binned in California wine, wine industry events, wine review

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!


Alfred, Lord Tennyson




  • winethropology

    How fantastic that they actually mixed it up this year. Last year with only Cab and Chard made for an ocean of stylistically homogenous wines in a line up impossible to appreciate. No surprise on the 08's as it was the year of massive forest fires and Pinot, more than any other grape, is going to deliver that smoke right to the glass (a whiff of the 08 Decoy PN from Anderson Valley will leave you gasping). On the 07's and 09's, my bet is that a few years will mellow the wood into the characteristic Carneros cream that typifies NVPN. In the meantime, yes, pucker up!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks.  I know 08 was a bear to deal with.  But… I am still wishing that even those had a kiss less of oak on them…Cheers!

  • Colorado Wine Press

    So you're saying the smoke taint from the fires in 2008 is a problem…

    • 1WineDude

      CWP – Yes. :)

      I know the prevailing sentiment will be "duh!" but not everyone will know the history of that vintage when shopping. And I'm also saying that they really, really, really like to put oak on the PNs in general in those parts!

  • Don Clemens

    I think the "love affair" with new French oak is a serious problem with Napa Valley winemakers. It seems that the concept of restraint has disappeared from memory. Most serious Burgundy producers introduce 25-30% new barrels to each vintage, and (I suspect) those new barrels are not heavily toasted. Pinot noir can be such a lovely, perfumed and persistent wine. Why muck it up with all those tannins and smoke?

    • 1WineDude

      You're speaking my language, Don.I have found that the next gen family winemakers are definitely moving away from oak in NV (see more on that here:… ).  And it's because they like to drink wines with less oak themselves.  But the trend seems slower to hit PN than Chard. and Cab. so far.  Cheers!

  • Roger Beery


    I could not agree more. Each NV Pinot vintage tasted like a new attempt at a winemaking style rather than an annual progression / variation on the same theme. So much better juice from over the hills in Sonoma!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Roger – agreed, but even Sonoma needs to make sure they don't get too oak crazy. :)

  • Jeff V.

    Is there a varietal in Napa Valley that DOESN'T get the "oak treatment?" Honestly, I would like to know.

    There are very few Napa Valley Pinot's that I can stomach, but one bright star was the 07 El Molino, Rutherford Pinot Noir that I had back in November. It clocked in at 70% new oak, but it was beautifully integrated and balanced, a sign of a caring and attentive winemaker. Seek it out. Their 08 Rutherford Chardonnay was highly impressive as well.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Jeff!

  • Wes Cook

    Hey Dude,

    Sorry to hear that you got beat down by those NV big boys…they can be so cruel. Why don't you come on in for a swim in the Oregon PN pool while you recover…the water's fine! There is some makeup going around but in general, much more restraint on the wood up here.

    • 1WineDude

      Wes – OR I think is my “native land” when it comes to U.S. PN these days!

      • RyanReichert

        Yea, I was thinking the same thing.

        Simple solution. Three words: Buy Oregon Wine



        • 1WineDude

          Wow – major OR props in response to this.  But then, they are by-and-large well-deserved!

  • Terry Hall

    Thanks Joe, Interesting post. It was very enlightening to hear and read the comments from that tasting–people loved them or not–very little middle ground. I think that's part of the allure of PN, a far more emotional variety than most.

    Just checking in on the "smoke" comments–which I take as oak barrel aging not forest fires that burned 100 miles away from Napa Valley–I thought everyone had already looked at a map to understand that story.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, terry – great point about PN, opinions on how the grape should be made into wine are as difficult and multi-varied as the wines made from that heart-breaker!Regarding the smoke taint – I know, *I know*…  Maybe we need a link to an explanation / coverage to remind everyone (send one along and I'll amend to include it).Listen up, peeps: while it's *possible* some taint hit Napa's PN grapes it is EXPONENTIALLY MORE PROBABLE that the smoke aroma comes from the oak treatment in Napa PNs, even in 2008.

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