Pinot Paradise Lost -- raucous 2008 event

Pinot Paradise Lost – Gripes amidst the Santa Cruz Grapes


The Santa Cruz Mountain Winegrowers Association (SCMWA) invites member wineries to pour their pinot noirs the last Sunday of March at the lovely venue of Villa Ragusa in quirky downtown Campbell .  If you live in Silicon Valley, It’s usually been a great way to taste a lot of pinots without a lot of driving.

We were lucky enough to attend both the 2007 and 2008 editions.This year 35 wineries trotted out about 75 pinot noirs for our tasting. There were two immediately noticeable changes from 2007.

First there were many people at the 2008 event who seemed to think this was an excuse to drink a lot and converse loudly with their friends.  Second, it seems to us that a number of wineries have either stopped attending Pinot Paradise or (even worse) are showing up but only pouring their low-end wines.  For whatever the reason, there were about 600 people at the 2008 tasting.  In 2007 there were 400 folks, making for a much more pleasant event.[1]

The upside to the more raucous 2008 event was one winery whose pourers wore t-shirts reading “Pinot Envy.”  Yes, they were all women.  Yes, the winery was selling the shirts.  No, we didn’t buy any.

All this plus 13 “fine food purveyors” handing out snacks for a mere $60 per person.

A Paen to Pinot
Pinot noir – the grape that’s difficult to grow and nearly impossible to turn into good wine.  Pinot noir grapevines yield about 60% less per acre than most other wine grapes.  Right off your costs are about doubled because it takes roughly twice as many grapes to make the same quantity of wine.  Then you get to the winemaking and it becomes downright impossible.  These grapes are so fussy and fragile that it’s easy to overcome the delicate pinot noir nose and fruit with tannin, oak, excessive water, or the wrong yeast.  But when we find one we like, we tend to stick with it until proven otherwise.  (The “we” includes my lovely wife Norma.)

The central issue:  are there wineries that produce pinot noir that we consistently like?  Granted the sample is way too small (both in number of wineries and years) to draw any conclusions.  But what the heck – this is a blog, not the Journal of Wine Economics.  What follows is our impressionistic comparison of the 2007 and 2008 Pinot Paradises.

Warning:  we like our wines fruit-forward with light tannins, if any.  We’re amenable to unusual flavors.  The vanilla finish is one of my favorites, but some of the more slate-like, mineral flavors can also appeal.

The Wines
We managed to taste wines from 26 of the wineries this year.  At the 2007 event we sampled the pinots from 20 different wineries.  Some were pouring a single pinot, a few were pouring as many as three.  The overlap between the two years wasn’t complete – we skipped some tables where we sipped in 2007 because we didn’t think they were trying to make wine we liked.

It’s a tough job but someone has to do it.

Let’s cut to the chase.  There are two wineries that performed consistently at both events:  Hallcrest Vineyards and Muccigrosso Vineyards.  Neither is cheap, but at least you can purchase quantities of the Muccigrosso Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir ($35/bottle).  Hallcrest routinely puts its pinots on allocation, usually four to six bottles maximum.  But the prices are usually upwards of $40/bottle.

Wineries that seemed to be producing good pinots at the 2008 tasting included:

  • Roudon-Smith 2006 Santa Cruz Mountain ($24/bottle).  Berry on the nose and palate with a bit of spice.  Cherry on the palate, nice finish.
  • Hallcrest Vineyards 2004 Vista del Mar vineyards ($42/bottle).  Lovely floral nose, deep intense fruit.
  • Burrell School Vineyards & Winery 2005 “Principal’s Choice” ($44/bottle).  Smoky nose, some tannin, a bit of licorice, very intense.  A pinot for steaks.  Not listed on their web site as of March 31.
  • Woodside Vineyards 2004 ($36/bottle).  Another pinot trying to be a zinfandel with a smoky nose and considerable spice on the palate.
  • Windy Oaks Estate Vineyard and Winery 2005 Estate Pinot Noir Reserve is completely sold out to the general public, but available to wine club members for $48/bottle.  At the 2007 tasting we rated this wine as fruity with a little spice.  Windy Oaks was only pouring the 2006 Estate Cuvee ($38/bottle) and the 2006 Estate Diane’s Block ($45/bottle) at the 2008 Pinot Paradise.  Of the two we preferred the Diane’s with a bit of fruit, some mineral qualities, but quite drinkable.  But we find them all pricey.

Under the heading of wine you can’t buy is Sarah’s Vineyard 2007.  The winery was offering samples of their barrel tasting.  Due for release in 2009, it’s worth taking a second look when it hits the market.

Who Fell Off?
So who were the folks that did such a good job in 2007 but fell apart in 2008?  Perhaps the longest drop was McHenry Vineyard.  After the 2007 Pinot Paradise we ordered a case of their 2003 estate pinot.  Light, fruity, a hint of secondary fermentation.  We drank the 12 bottles with considerable pleasure.  Unfortunately that may have been a one-time occurrence, as the 2004 and 2005 were almost watery with very little flavor of any sort.  And beware ordering the older pinots from McHenry’s web site.  We tried a few and the best of the lot were over the hill.  Some had gone bad.

What About The Rest?
By my count we tasted 36 different pinot noirs on March 31.  We can only recommend six.  In part, this has been the impact of that stupid movie.  Many wineries are planting pinot noir grapevines in places where the grapes will not do well.  And a fair number are asking their winemakers to attempt making a wine that they don’t have the skills to handle.

Paradise Lost
As a wine economist, my natural reaction to a situation like this is to raise the price.  Clearly $60 per person is attracting a crowd that isn’t much interested in pinot noir.  But as a wine lover who especially enjoys pinot noirs I have my doubts about whether that’s a good solution.  Let’s suppose the SCMWA doubles the price in 2009.  That would, in fact, keep out some of the folks who just came by to get drunk.  But it will also prevent pinot noir lovers from attending simply because their incomes are too low.  The economist’s solution is far from ideal in this situation.

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