or its Chardonnay), something that brings out a kind of poetic, often ribald, ambiguously
affectionate response from people, something other kinds of wine will never get to. At a Burgundy
tasting years ago, we were asked to raise our hands if that wine had been our best experience;
most of us raised our hands. Then we were asked if it had been our worst, and most of us raised
our hands again, chagrined but smiling.
Dumas said it should be drunk kneeling, and with your head bared. Musketeers saluted as they
marched past the vineyards. And, lately, in California, the similes have been extended. Winemaker
Paul Hobbs said making Pinot Noir was like coming home to the indifference of a cat as opposed to
the welcome of a happy, tail-wagging dog, while Karen McNeill said a tasting of it was like
waking up in a strange bed at 3 a.m.—you don’t know whether you’re about to have
a good time or a bad one.
Karen and the Wine Institute hosted a tasting/seminar of California Pinot Noir
at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley recently, which was entitled
“The Needle Has Moved.” The point was well made, though the needle still isn’t pointing toward
most of the wines cut were heavier, or tannic or over-extracted, the survivors chosen for power,
elegance, fruit and earthiness. Subjective, and certainly not definitive (I'd have included
the very elegant McMurray Ranch version and a solid, well-defined Schug "Carneros" we tried the day
before, and there are surely more worth trying), but most of the wines showed through beautifully
in those aspects, velvet with silk trim: 6 were from the Sonoma Coast, 4 from Santa Lucia Highlands,
2 from Santa Rita Hills, 2 from Arroyo Grande, and 1 each from Carneros and Santa Maria Highlands.
Terroir aside, the winemaking varied, some barrel-fermented, some aged on their lees; all were aged
in barrel; alcohol levels ranged from 13 to 15.2 percent.
I ranked half on my top level: Sanford Winery, Brewer-Clifton,
Peay Vineyards, Laetitia, Talley, McIntyre, and Siduri (the last three, incidentally, had the lowest
retail price, less than $42 a bottle.) One that got my attention, almost Burgundian, funky, edgy,
full—I wrote, “a flashback, loud, feral”—turned out to be, unsurprisingly, Au Bon Climat,
from the original Wild Boy, Jim Clendenen. It didn’t come tops for technical reasons, but it would be
the first one I’d want with dinner.