‘Brown-paper judging’ of the pinot noirs

Every summer, we stage a wine tasting competition with the chosen varietal hidden in numbered, rubber-banded paper bags. During the past two years, it has attracted a group of savvy consumers. We then judge Washington blends and Washington merlot.

This year, it was pinot noir. And the judges were mostly wine professionals. Did I choose pinot noir because it is my favorite red? Or because I just returned from Oregon pinot camp? Both!

Back in our college days, we cut our teeth on pinot noir. Beaulieu Vineyards, from the Carneros region, cost $1.50 per bottle. That was when hamburger was 38 cents a pound, too. And $13,000 a year was a modest income. Houses were $20,000.

Andre Tchelistcheff, a renowned wine consultant and enologist, was winemaker for Beaulieu Vineyards then. Alluding to pinot noir’s finicky nature, Tchelistcheff said, “God made cabernet sauvignon, whereas the devil made pinot noir.”

Pinot noir has always remained my favorite red. For this tasting, the participants entered 17 pinot noirs: 12 from California, three from Oregon, one from New Zealand and one from Washington. Some judges said they were having a hard time with so many choices.

Taste is subjective. I was specifically looking for a wine that I could readily identify as pinot noir — one with fruit and tannins in balance. When people lament that there are so many wine choices on the grocery shelves, I respond, “If we all liked the same taste, just think how easy it would be. No decisions. Just grab the one chardonnay or the one merlot.” Gallo, possibly Franzia, would reign supreme.

In the broadest terms, pinot noir tends to be of light to medium body with an aroma reminiscent of black cherry, raspberry or currant. French burgundy leans toward more leathery, farmyard flavors and aromas, while New World versions are more fruity. Another emerging style from California and New Zealand is less fruity and light, and more intense like syrah.

Unfortunately, nothing was entered from France. The French name their wines after the region. Hence, their pinot noir is called Burgundy. French chenin blanc is called Vouvray. French sparkling wine is called Champagne. However, pinot noir comes from all over the world. In Germany, it is called spätburgunder or blauburgunder. In Italy: pinot nero. Pinot noir also comes from Canada.

A persnickety grape to grow, pinot noir is sensitive to fermentation methods, yeast strains and is highly reflective of its surroundings, including climate and dirt. Thus, different regions produce very different wines. Pinot noir’s thin skin makes it highly susceptible to bunch rot and other fungal diseases. The vines themselves are prone to downy mildew. One critic proclaimed, “Pinot noir is a seductive yet fickle mistress!”

The leaves of pinot noir are generally smaller than those of cabernet sauvignon, but larger than those of syrah. The grape cluster is small and cylindrical, vaguely shaped like a pine cone. Historians believe that this shape led to the name “pinot.” The branches and trunks of the vines are narrow, and therefore the vineyard is sensitive to light exposure, cropping and pruning.

I especially enjoy Carneros pinot noir. Carneros encompasses both the southern end of Sonoma and Napa Valleys and gets influences from San Pablo Bay. The fog rolls in at night and lifts in late morning, and the pinot noir grapes rejoice.

My husband, who is a statistical, mathematical genius, has devised a tasting sheet that is easy for participants to use and easy for him to tabulate at the end. In the beginning, participants score each wine as super, very good, acceptable or poor. There is also room for comments about each wine.

“Super” is defined as highly recommended and worth searching for — special, with an expected press rating near 90 points. “Very good” is described as having some characteristics of note, and no obvious flaws; would serve to guests. “Acceptable” is fine for everyday drinking at home, with no important flaws, but is not very interesting. “Poor:” Would not drink a full glass; probably has flaws or is so generic that it could be any bulk wine.

This initial step involves people re-tasting as they decide on their own personal taste profile. After the preliminary scoring, the judges then rate their top three.


Interestingly enough, the top five were all from California.

1. Hartford Court 2006 Fog Dance ($38)

After a trip to California two years ago, I specifically asked for Hartford Court out of the myriad of wines tasted in four days. Then I was fortunate to have lunch with winemaker Jeff Mangahas about a year later. He is a Washingtonian, having earned his Bachelor of Science in cellular and molecular biology from the University of Washington. Starting his career as a cancer research scientist, Mangahas was blindsided by a trip to New York, which was followed by a trip to France, where wine became his passion. Enrolling at UC Davis, he graduated with a Master of Science in enology. He specializes in pinot noir from various vineyards (hence, the “Fog Dance” descriptor) with forays into zinfandel and chardonnay.

2. Acacia 2006 ($21)

Unfortunately, the vintage has changed to 2007. Ask me when I have had a chance to try the new vintage.

3. Belle Glos 2007 Meiomi ($29)

I was fortunate to meet winemaker Joe Wagner recently. He specializes in pinot noir with bottlings from various vineyards. “Meiomi” is the Indian word for “coast,” where this vineyard is located. Wagner is the son of Chuck Wagner, of Caymus Vineyards, which specializes in cabernet sauvignon. Conundrum, which is a white blend, is a separate winery. Joe Wagner prefers to describe these various winery labels as “Wagner Family.” Belle Glos is named after his grandmother, Lorna Belle Glos Wagner, who is a co-founder of Caymus. I tasted various Belle Glos pinots when Joe Wagner visited. While Meiomi is the least expensive of his various vineyards, I found all of them to be well-made and worth the price.

4. Blackstone Sonoma Reserve 2006 ($19)

It was good to see an easy-to-find, well-priced pinot noir among the top five.

5. Morgan 2007 Twelve Clones ($28)

Morgan Winery started in 1982. It is reassuring to see old friends still doing so well. The passion remains.

Pinot noir’s sales highly increased after the movie “Sideways,” and its popularity has not diminished. One person said to me that she thought the fad would peter out. I answered (remember, this is my favorite red wine), “Oh, I didn’t think so. Once people have tasted pinot noir, they would be fans forever.”

Interestingly enough, merlot took a huge hit after the movie came out because the main character said, “Merlot? I hate that stinking merlot!”

The higher price and lower availability of pinot noir have not changed. Wineries keep raising their prices in hopes of slowing down sales so that they have a product from one vintage to the next. Especially here in the Pacific Northwest, where salmon dominates many meals, pinot noir is in constant demand.

I leave you with a final quote from Joel Fleischman, of Vanity Fair magazine, who describes pinot noir as “the most romantic of wines, with so voluptuous a perfume, so sweet an edge, and so powerful a punch that, like falling in love, pinot noirs make the blood run hot and the soul wax embarrassingly poetic.”

Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon is more succinct: “sex in a glass.”

Dee Hitch can be reached at

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