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Monday Manifestos
Oregon vs. California Pinots: And The Winner Is

By Charles Olken

Every now and then someone feels the need to praise Oregon Pinots at the expense of the California versions, and in the midst of that criticism, come predictable complaints that California Pinots taste like Syrah, not like Pinot Noir. This is not a new whinge, of course. It has been heard for years now, and from many corners.

I’ve never understood it for a couple of reasons. In the first place, the structure of Syrah is far more sturdy than Pinot Noir, no matter where grown or how ripe. And in the second, no Pinot in my several decades experience has a meaty, gamy, complex flavor profile that comes with good Syrah. So, put as simply as a I can, these folks are making it up on the fly and are confusing the palate weight of some California Pinots with Syrah. But folks, palate weight is not varietal character, and it is now time to stop the silliness and review California Pinot Noir for what it is, not for what it is not.

Oh, I could do a pretty good job taking apart Oregon Pinots if that were the point. But it is not. Oregon Pinot Noirs need to be examined one wine at a time, not in some mass overview that misses the point and sweeps up everything in its path. That is not how wine review should be done.

And, it is not how California wines are to be judged. It matters not a whit to me whether a commentator likes one style or another. But, if one likes Oregon and wants to compare it favorably to Burgundy, then please go ahead and do so. But stop with the silly, demeaning commentary because too much of it comes from a lack of knowledge, a lack of experience and a level of preconception that smacks of bias.

The thing about California Pinot Noir is that there is no such thing. There are Pinots from given areas that often have similar characteristics. Not all, of course, because for every winery that makes a lighter style, there is one that makes a fuller, richer style. For every wine that can be identified blind as having Russian River Valley characteristics, or Santa Lucia Highlands personality, there is another from those areas that do not conform.

And for every lighter Pinot, say from Peay or Longoria or Sanford or Sandhi, there is a richer, silky, supple wine from the likes of Dehlinger or Alysian or Saintsbury or Williams Selyem or Kosta Browne or Merry Edwards. Anyone who is tasting for character, and not for some pre-defined purpose, will not confuse those latter wines with Syrah. They may not taste like they are from Oregon or Pommard, but that does not even begin to mean that they taste like Syrah. Those who make that mistake when they guess the provenance of the wine are essentially admitting that they have a narrowly defined set of expectations.

It is not a new thing—this rush to bash California wines. I first saw it with the very good 1970s Bordeaux and California Cabernets. When the California wines turned out to be a little more lush and open and began to win tastings, we were told that they would not last. Funny thing is that they outlasted their Bordelaise counterparts. When California Cabs won the famous Paris tasting of 1976, with all French judges, we were told that it was because the California wines were more open in their youth than their French counterparts and they would not age. That also turned out to be wrong.

So, being wrong about California wine is no new thing. I get it. Our wines can be different, and they are certainly not shrinking violets nor are those of us who like those wines. But different does not disqualify them, and I continue, after all these years of tasting and writing, to be confounded by the foolish notion that Oregon is better because it is closer to Burgundy or that California wines are to be dismissed because they are not. Funny thing is that I rarely hear Californians criticize the wines from elsewhere, and yet, the drumbeat of criticism launched at California seems not to have stopped. Oh well. As long as we like them, we have no worries.

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Now Wait A Darned Second
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:7/26/2013 11:41:48 AM

I agree with much of what you say here Charlie and I am a huge, (not just in valume/size) supporter of wines being judged for what they are and where they come from, not be measured agaisnt anything other than others in their same camp. Which is why I hate it when people use the term Burgundian for anything other than Burgundy. I even gave Paul Gregutt some grief on Fcebook when he posted a link to the piece he wrote in response to Ron's post where he dinked Oregon Pinots a bit. In the piece Paul defends the uniqueness of Oregon Pinot Noir and then, in three places, compares them to Burgundy! For me, the second I read that his argument was flaccid, soft and just hanging there.


I don't think there is one flavor of Pinot Noir and I think there are wine drinkers for the many styles and places that grow the sexy ass stuff....but I'm with you Charlie, let it be what it is and stop with the telling anyone what their Pinot Noir should be, isn't enough of...and this is where I shake my head or disagree, I hear, all the time, that Burgundy is thin, lacking fruit, too high in acid, that the savory notes are a flaw and it is never from an Oregon producer to wine drinker, always a California person. So that bit about California just minding their bee's wax, that might be true of you sir but not, I can assure you, of all.


Hey, I was able to read one of your posts and respond! Progress. xoxoxoxox

by TomHill
Posted on:7/27/2013 2:34:19 PM

Charlie.....gasp....have you not heard that most Calif Pinots have Syrah blended into them??? Why...I read it on the it must be true!!! :-)

All joking're right that even big Calif Pinots taste distinctly of PinotNoir. In fact, I can't think of a single Calif PinotNoir that I would, or have ever,  mistake for Syrah.

   OTOH....I take exception to Sam's dumping on the characterization of any Calif or OR Pinot as "Burgundian". I can think of a lot of Calif/Or Pinots that have some certain character that I would describe as resembling RedBurg. Remember those DavidBruce Pinots of the late '60's/early '70's?? Of course you do. And I would certainly describe them as "Burgundian" in style. OTOH, thankfully, I can't recall any Calif/OR Pinot that had the "merde" character that I sometimes find in RedBurg. That's uniquely Burgundy I guess!!!



To Burg or Not To Burg
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/27/2013 7:27:29 PM

That is the question.

Frankly, there are still and always have been CA and OR Pinots that have Burgundian characteristics. It is not very hard to go from recongizable Pinot VC to Burgundian structure and French Oak to get a reasonable match with something in Burgundy. I would suggest the older Gary Farrells as one that often had that direction down pat--not that Gary was trying to imitate Burgundy. He just made wines that had some/many Burgundian characteristics.

After all, red Burgs cover many ports. They are not monolithic.

Too Weird
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/27/2013 7:29:20 PM

For months, maybe a couple of years, I have had to go to Firefox to be able to post on my own website/blog comments. Following Sam's lead, I tried to go directly from AOL and it took.


No Subject
by gabe
Posted on:8/2/2013 7:42:03 PM

for the record, i think that CA pinot tastes like merlot, not syrah


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