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Friday Fishwrap
I Am Drowning in a Sea of Pinot Noir

By Charles Olken

Well, it could be worse. It could be Petite Sirah. The problem is that there are forty Pinots lined up on the tasting table and they will all need to be tasted by the time the sun goes down and the Friday night whisky hits my glass.

Apologies to Petite Sirah, but forty of them would be worse. We do not usually taste that many wines at one time, but this is our end-of-issue retasting in which every wine that is being considered for two stars (90 points and above) or struck as us flawed or was simply possessed of mixed messages and needed to be seen again will reappear before us.

The first draft tasting notes are all written and the wines will be tasted blind, a personal promise we made to ourselves thirty-five years ago as consumers turned critics. We are not looking for adjectives in this tasting; that work is done. Rather we are looking for quality. If the wines that showed poorly, and wines do sometimes disappoint for all kinds of reasons, suddenly come good, we know we have more writing to do. But, while the judgments of quality and the aligning of the wines in some sort of hierarchical ranking and the subsequent application of a point score is work, it is not as time-consuming as our initial tastings.

Still, we will be at this task for three to four hours and our brains will be tired—even more so than our palates which seem to fatigue less than our mental faculties. We take an occasional break, but it is only when we have narrowed down those final three or four or half dozen most brilliant wines that we relax and end the day with one last sip of the elixirs that are going to earn the truly big scores. Perhaps, because we know we are going to end with the great ones, the day goes quickly enough.

Pinot Noir is our biggest challenge because Pinot, more than any other California-grown variety, is bottled by many wineries in small lots. Wineries like Williams Selyem, Siduri, Testarossa, Kosta Brown, just to name some of the most obvious examples, will have upwards of eight to ten separate wines. And that is why we are drowning in Pinot Noir. We taste more Cabernet Sauvignon in our series of initial tastings, but because most of the great producers do not make a half dozen or more separate bottlings, we wind up with fewer Cabs to retaste at the end of an issue than we do Pinots.

Pinot Noir reflects is provenance so easily that it invites small lots and single vineyard designations. It is why we have so many fine examples, but why many of them are hard to find. Some time later today, we are going to come up for air. We won’t have drowned. And when it is all over and we are sipping those last drops of our favorites, Steve Eliot and I will look across the table at each other and be thankful once again that we taste wine for a living.


inside look
by Doug
Posted on:5/14/2011 8:13:17 AM
Thanks, Charlie. It's fun to get these brief, inside looks at what it's like to do what you do.
Republishing in Nomad?
by steve yafa
Posted on:5/14/2011 6:34:45 PM
Charlie, hi:For my In The Trenches dept. of Uncorked, your behind-the-scenes pieces— I've seen only this one—would be a welcome addition.Steve
An Ocean of wine
by Marlene Rossman
Posted on:5/16/2011 10:22:04 AM
Charlie, it's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it! People may think it is heaven, but often it is an enormous amount of work.As a wine columnist, I am sitting on an ocean of wine sent to me by wineries, distributors and PR agencies. My garage looks like a wine shop and my handyman, who knows nothing about wine asked if I sell wine!!!A good deal of wine comes to me unsolicited and then I have to make the call whether to feature it or bundle it up with the other plonk and give it to a charity for auction.Sometimes after I do a tasting of four or five bottles, I pick the best and serve it with dinner. I recork the rest of the bottles, put them in a wine carrier and my husband walks down the block giving them to the neighbors. Last week, I heard the following as hubby was went to the next door neighbor, "quick, honey, here he comes again with the good stuff--get out the glasses."

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