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Monday, Mar. 14, 2011

Don't put all your Pinot in one basket

It isn't quite like saying that it's best not to put all your hatchlings into a solitary container, but a statistic was just handed to me that makes it seem so.

Let's back up.

Napa Valley is primarily Cabernet Sauvignon. Oh, sure, there are a few other wines in Napa, but they are merely the second string, the support players, members of the Greek chorus, spear carriers who seem to fade into the woodwork.

Despite the overwhelming nature of Cab in Napa, the wine can carry its own weight. When you consider that the cost of the juice in even the most expensive Cabernet is about $10, then the wine clearly can sustain its own avoirdupois. In Napa, $50 is a cheap wine.

And the reason has as much to do with the weather as anything else. California gets a lot of sun. Emphasis on "lot." The result is that California Cab-makers can get the stuff as ripe as they want, and for the last 14 years or so, they have wanted a lot of ripeness. Emphasis on "lot."

There are many reasons why this new-style Cabernet is popular, and why people are willing to part with significant amounts of pelf to acquire some of the absurdly priced potable. But suffice it to say that despite the downturn in the economy, the mindlessness with which some people acquire these wines almost regardless of price helps to maintain the landscaping in front of the palatial manors.

And here's a key point: all this can be reliably produced year after year because of the plethora of sun and the willingness of the producers to avoid as much vintage variation as possible through tactics that dumb down the wines.

Distinctiveness? It's a word that has little place in Napa any more. The populace seems mesmerized by this iconic wine.

Now that statistic: 53 percent of the wine produced in Oregon is Pinot Noir. This is a lot and must be a result of the demand for such wines, as well as the reputation they command. In a way, Oregon Pinot has a reputation that Napa's Cabs have acquired. And Napa Cab is often compared with Bordeaux and Oregon's Pinots are compared with Burgundy.

So can we compare Oregon Pinot to Napa Cab? Both are iconic wines and operate similarly in the marketplace.

But it's not fair to compare. The wines are miles apart in a critical way. For me, it comes down to one thing: the sun. There's not always a lot of it in Oregon.

Most of Oregon is, let me be clear, a superb growing area for Pinot Noir because of its cool temperatures. Pinot likes cool, yet there is such a thing as too much cool. And in some vintages, Oregon Pinot can show a less-than-appealing awkwardness.

Great producers usually solve this problem, but occasionally the wines display distinctive vintage variations. This is a good thing. Buyers of Bordeaux and Burgundy have long accepted vintage variation as a way of sorting out the good from the great - and of course they get a few "serviceable" vintages, in which the prices drop precipitously.

If prices for Bordeaux and Burgundy drop when the vintage isn't very great, shouldn't Oregon's? And if not, what is the consumer to think? "I'm paying $50 for this stuff?"

Moreover, though Oregon Pinot and Napa Cab are both iconic wines, the latter has recently shown a homogeneity that can be awfully boring. Though there is rarely much boring about Oregon Pinot, there is a growing sameness that is borne of attempting to justify high prices in some vintages when it isn't warranted by the quality. (Oak anyone?)

So putting 53 percent of your eggs in a single basket may be a bit of a risk, especially when Oregon can make sensational Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and especially Riesling.

That said, look at Washington. Only 20 percent of its fruit is in Riesling, though that percentage is fast expanding.

Assume that Riesling doubled its visibility in Washington to the same 53 percent that represents Pinot to Oregon. Would that entail the same sort of risk?

Not at all, and for a very interesting reason. Riesling is now being sold based on three different criteria: sweetness, regional characteristics and age-worthiness. Oregon Pinot Noir has only the latter two such criteria.

If 53 percent of the wine Washington had to sell were Riesling, the risks would be significantly less than Oregon now faces with Pinot. For one thing, consumers could choose bone dry Riesling, medium sweet, dessert or anything in between. And they could get a wine like those from Yakima or a wine from the Gorge, or any number of other regions.

Now the last parameter: aging. Not many people have yet discovered the absolute joys of aging Riesling. Their loss. We have long loved what happens to the drier styles of Riesling with bottle age, and yet we also have experienced the other end of the stick: Oregon Pinot Noirs that were aged too long.

Sometimes the best a Pinot Noir can be is at age 3 or 4, and after that the wine tends to lose character. In more cases than I can count, Riesling with the proper acid and pH will be a dramatically fine wine with time in the cellar.

My conclusion: Perhaps Oregon should remove some of those marginal Pinot plantings and put in more Riesling.