Pinot Noir moves the needle in California

There’s something about Burgundy (and of course I mean the red wine rather than the place 
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.
        In Hilaire Belloc’s famous poem, he forgets the girl’s name, but the wine is Burgundy; 
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 
Burgundy. Karen and her crew tasted 126 Pinots and chose what they thought were the best 18; 
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, Paul Hobbs, Kosta Browne,  
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.

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