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What Happens When Pinot Noir Becomes As Expensive As Cabernet

By Charles Olken

I am talking about California, of course. That scenario has already happened in France, and the result is that no one drinks top-notch Burgundy any more than they drink First Growth Bordeaux. Price has a way of freezing out the average well-healed non-millionaire.

In California, we have become used to seeing, or hearing about to be more precise, prices for so-called cult Cabernets that have priced those wines out of the reach of almost everyone. Last year, for instance, I attended a tasting of Oakville-grown wines. There were fifty or more wineries in the room, and among them was Screaming Eagle.

We don’t review Screaming Eagle or any of the unavailable cult wines because they are only available to us at the wineries rather than being able to put them to the blind tasting test to which everything in CGCW is subject. You can go down the list—Bond, Ovid, Harlan, Screaming Eagle and on and on. “Sure you can taste our wines”, they tell us, “come on up”. The line for Screaming Eagle stretched out the door. Other winery tables were blocked and had few visitors.

This phenomenon, mostly reserved for Napa Valley Cabernets, is not unknown in Pinot Noir territory, but it is far less prevalent. Yes, we would have to taste Rochioli and others at the winery, but the list is not only shorter but, more importantly to me, the prices, even for the likes of Littorai and friends is generally less than that for the cult Cabernets.

But here is the concern wrapped up in a conversation I had today with a couple of craftspeople doing some rehab to the Olken kitchen. These fine folks live in the Napa Valley. And not knowing whether they were wine drinkers or not, but very much appreciating their kind ministrations to Mrs. Olken’s territory, I asked if they were wine drinkers, and they answered “yes”. So, as is our wont, we offered them a couple of choice wines from our stash in appreciation for their good works.

It turned out that I had a couple of bottles of Pinot Noir at hand, and, with an apology because the wines were not from Napa, I held them out for their consideration. And lo and behold, they took them with the comment, “We don’t drink as much Napa Cab anymore. Too expensive. Pinot Noir has become our go-to grape now”.

I confess to the same phenomenon. While my cellar, especially the older parts thereof, is overburdened with Cabernet Sauvignon, and I still put aside a fair bit of that product, I have become a real Pinot Noir devotee and am more likely to pull one of those out these days than a similarly priced and aged Cabernet.

What happens when and if the predilection for Pinot gets even more widespread than it is? I can tell you. We will become Burgundy, and our Pinots will come with price tags not dissimilar to those now-discouragingly costly beauties from across the pond.

There is plenty of good wine in this world. None of us is going to run out of supplies of our favorite tipple. But the provenance of that wine, which has already shifted away from top-end Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa Cab, may someday see local Pinot Noir go down that same path.

It is not going to happen overnight, and my best advice to you, dear readers, is to stock up on Siduri and Testarossa, Dehlinger and Merry Edwards, DuMOL and Roar and August West and their peers because they make great wines at almost affordable prices.


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No Subject
by Joanna Breslin
Posted on:12/18/2015 12:55:56 PM

As a non-millionaire, I am neither well-healed nor well-heeled, but then, I don't think I'm average either!

As interest in good/highly rated wine grows, the quantities produced of wines that everyone wants remain finite and usually quite small. What is changing how we learn about wine, when long-established benchmarks are no longer within our reach?

Not A Millionaire?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/18/2015 3:23:10 PM

Sorry, Joanna. I guess you will join the masses who have very little chance to drink the great wines except at a very limited number of tastings. 

The wines from which we learn has already changed significantly. I learned Burgundy through LeFlaive and Dujac. I learned Bordeaux through second growths.

Now, even the fancy credentialed tastings rarely go to those levels. So, we substitute reasonable examples at lower prices and that is how newcomers without millionaire pockets now learn in formal training.

I suppose one could argue that learning by tasting Petrus and Bond and DRC is misleading anyhow given that so few tasters, even those on their ways to "geek" status, are ever going to taste those wines. 

I am the bearer of good tidings!
by Blake Gray
Posted on:12/23/2015 2:05:02 PM

Remember when most everyone thought great Pinot Noir could only be made in Burgundy? I mean, I'M not old enough to remember that, but I know my audience ... anyway, I've had great Pinot this year not only from France, Oregon and California, but also from New Zealand and Canada. I've had very good Pinot Noir this year from South Africa, Chile, Italy, New York and Australia -- good enough to make me believe that greatness is either possible there, or has already been achieved and I just haven't tasted the wines yet. None of these wines were cheap, but they weren't Napa Cab expensive either. May I add that I'm typing this from Buenos Aires -- I just can't quit you Charlie -- in a country thought to be too warm everywhere for great Pinot, but I did have a good one last night. Merry Pinotness!

What Happens When Pinot Noir Becomes As Expensive As Cabernet
by Tom Elliot
Posted on:12/29/2015 7:38:09 PM

Wanna enjoy Cabernet that's as good as the best of Napa Valley but at a fraction of the price? Washington State is where you'll find it and it's plentiful too. Cheers!

"Cult" Cabs tasted blind
by Bob Henry
Posted on:1/10/2016 3:30:30 AM

"We don’t review Screaming Eagle or any of the unavailable cult wines because they are only available to us at the wineries rather than being able to put them to the blind tasting test to which everything in CGCW is subject."

My single-blind comparative winetastings featured Screaming Eagle and Harlan and Bryant Family and Araujo and Colgin and others.

To see how they fared, paste this website into your browser and "march" through the California Cab vintages:



When Calif. Pinot Noir costs as much as red Burgundy
by Bob Henry
Posted on:1/10/2016 3:36:02 AM

I dropped off the mailing list of Williams Selyem when their most limited bottling (Summa?) Pinot Noir sold for over $100.

At that price, I could buy very good red Burgundy.

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