too many pinots?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Back in the day, a buddy and I had a motto: too much is never enough. That philosophy makes good sense when you are in the dating/partying years. But you soon learn it doesn’t apply to everything.

Take pinot noir for example. Latching onto the Burgundy model, which focuses upon terroir-driven single vineyard bottlings within tightly-designated communes, the winemakers in this country – both in Oregon and California – have gone on a single-vineyard rampage.

Oregon’s best pinot producers have been making single vineyard wines for more than two decades, but in recent vintages what was at first a dribble, then a flow, has become a tsunami. To cite just one example – not to pick on them, but simply to make the point – in 2006 Erath, formerly a rock-solid producer of a small number of well-made pinots – produced 10 single vineyard bottlings.

When queried, the winery’s PR rep replied that “in each vintage Gary [Horner – winemaker] only crafts single vineyard pinot noirs from fruit that meets his discerning criteria. The 2006 vintage started with a favorable, mild and dry spring resulted in an exceptional fruit set, and weather conditions remained advantageous through the summer and fall into harvest. Gary believed the vintage provided fruit that would allow him to highlight the distinctive characteristics of 10 vineyards.”

My question is this: Does Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (owner of Erath) – a supremely savvy wine marketing company – truly believe that it is to their advantage (from a sales and marketing point of view) to offer 10 different single vineyard pinots from one winery? If so, what is the advantage? “Discerning criteria” doesn't tell me much. What criteria are we talking about here?

Let’s face it – any single vineyard wine will show some distinctive characteristics. Distinctive is a neutral value word – it can be good, bad or indifferent. But a decision has to be made - how many (if any) single vineyard wines will be produced? And why? What is the advantage for the winery? And what is the appeal for the consumer? Let's say I am Mr. or Mrs. Consumer and I am MADLY IN LOVE with Erath pinots. I've got to drop $500 to buy a bottle each of these ten offerings. That ain't chump change! Why would I do that?

There are dozens of other Oregon and California producers putting out 8 or 10 or more pinots every vintage. In a challenging vintage (such as 2007 in Oregon) it can result in a lineup of thin, weedy dogs – which suggests that the motivation is not to make good wines, but simply to keep the collectors collecting. I am NOT suggesting that is the case with Erath – they have already indicated they’ll reduce the number of single vineyard wines in 2007.

But in general these single vineyard pinots are almost always more expensive than the blends, and prices have crept steadily up from the mid-$30s to well into the $50 and up range. One unusually candid winemaker explained the logic to me some years ago. “Why blend?” he told me, “when I can keep all lots separate, charge more per bottle, and sell out more quickly to collectors who want the whole set?”

Often a winery’s reserve level blended pinots are cheaper and just as good, if not better, than all but one or two of its single vineyard wines. Should they stop making single vineyard wines? Of course not. But let’s rein in the horses! Make more blends, at reasonable price points, and limit the single vineyard releases to those that truly warrant them.


Sean said...

I agree, but I don't think this is just an issue with pinots, or even with single vineyard wines. Take a look at K Vintners/Charles Smith. I tend to really like Charles's wines, but geez! It takes some serious cash to buy them all (and I usually like to buy at least 2-3 if I'm going to buy a wine at all). If you don't want to make the investment in all of them, how do you choose which to buy? It's a bit overwhelming, and I'll admit to having put off purchases from them because I didn't feel like dealing with the decision...

Variety is good, but it is possible to go too far IMHO.

Andrew said...

When I have discussed this with several producers, I have found that the smaller producers, who sincerely value the fruit they purchase should have a chance to shine on its own. Granted, they're often times making one barrel worth, and the resulting tiny number of cases are either offered through the wine club or exclusively to restaurants. The rest of the juice is blended into the main label as per usual.

I hate to assume the worst about the larger producers, and the idea of them feeding the collector's monkey. It certainly makes sense that if the collectors are spending the money, why not grab a piece? But, especially when tasting single vineyard bottlings that are, IMHO, overripe and overoaked to receive high ratings from certain critics, why bother trying to reflect terroir? I find that to be the real crime...

Bob Smith said...

After a while even "collectors" get vineyard fatigue. You end up buying too many wines from the same winey/winemaker, all at premium prices, with out much difference between them. I had the bug for a while but I’ve cut back on most of them.

jonnyc said...

I have to say "bravo" to the winemakers and their ability to keep all the vineyard designate wines separate during fermentation, aging and bottling (assuming this is true and not a marketing scheme). Think of extra costs involved, individual designate labels, the sanitation required between each lot so not to have "terroir" A infused with "terroir" B and think of the eye strain trying to identify each bottle. Torii Mor alleviated the eye strain (as pictured) with the single color definition. Again "bravo". Truthfully though, I do appreciate the winemaker who can identify special attributes for any given vineyard. Special kudo's to the estate vineyards of Washington who consistently provide amazing depth and clarity while revealing a true sense of place

Todd Hansen said...

Many consumers who drink pinot noir drink a lot of pinot noir and are fascinated by the ability of this grape to reflect a site's unique characteristics. Many of these nuances - hints of lavender, tar, rosemary, etc. - vanish when incorporated into a blend. There is a reason Burgundy has been carved up into many tiny appellations. And that these appellations have their loyal adherents and striking price differences serves as testimony to their validity. Here in the U.S., growers and winemakers are in the process of learning about the unique character of each site and consumers are discovering the many faces of American pinot noir.
Sure, if you drink a handful of pinot noirs a year your interests are probably better served by a blend that is more representative of the variety. But if you love pinot noir and are buying a couple cases of Erath or Torii Mor, why not inject some variety and stray a bit from the center of the flavor profile bell curve?
From a marketing perspective, who would want to join a four shipment wine club when there are only two wines produced each vintage? Many of these wines produced in small lots are available only to club members and tasting room visitors - this enables the winery to drive higher margin direct sales and make consumers who join the club or visit the tasting room feel they got something special.
In short, it is a win-win for the winery and all consumers whether they buy the small lots or not (in that the single vineyard lots generally subsidize the mass-market products).
Paul, you state that, "Often a winery’s reserve level blended pinots are cheaper and just as good, if not better, than all but one or two of its single vineyard wines." To which I reply, "'Better' in what sense?" In the eyes of many consumers, myself included, "better" goes beyond the elements in the 100-point scoring system and includes elements that make a wine unique -- and take us someplace we haven't visited before.

Randy said...

No, not too many Pinot Noirs, rather too many mediocre, middle of the road Pinots. In any business cycle where a "new product" is introduced to the market place, the bell shaped curve analysis applies. In the beginning, there were few growing and producing Pinot Noir, so the styles were also limited. Then Pinot becomes popular (circa 1996) so many others throw their hat in the ring- some still creating new(er) approaches to Pinot. Eventually, big producers bring in the beer making model (consistency, averaging profiles through uniform growing, harvesting and OAK schedules.) and the small guys follow suit. This is where the state of Pinot is currently situated. While Oregon Pinots had maintain relative blance, Pinot Noir grown in Cali is beginning to taste a lot like syrah. Big, ripe sugars (although Pinot is small berried to begin with and the concept pf dehydration for the sake of RP and other corporate publications is quite despicable), lots of fake granular acids, watering back, de-alcing, etc are all occurring... This trend is making for a difficult and challenging DRINKING experience. The power of Pinot is being dlluted by every Joe Schmoe thinking they know how to grow and produce Pinot when is reality, they're making medium bodied syrah.

I thought our goal in this industry is to sell wine? Encourage that second bottle to be opened on a Friday night, no? My clan and I are UNABLE to get though that first bottle of "14.5%", 3.85 ph, 60% new oak bullshit and that is sad to say coming from an Irish family.

PaulG said...

Thanks for these very thoughtful comments. To answer Todd, when I say the blended wines are better I mean in every sense. Not just score. But more balance, fullness, completeness, texture, length, detail. Doing single vineyard wines is an artful challenge, whatever the grape. I've written that single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon can be the greatest of all Washington wines when it is done perfectly - but that is really rare. Syrah also can show excellent vineyard variation; Pinot is not alone in that. Burgundy is Burgundy - the ground is special in ways we can't really duplicate. I'm all for winemakers exploring their different vineyards, but that should happen in the barreling and blending process, and the goal should be to offer the very finest blend first and foremost, then highlight the truly spectacular single vineyard stuff after that. Not vice-versa.

Judy said...

I agree with Todd. Erath produces over 95,000 cases of their Oregon Pinot and it is distributed widely. It is a medium bodied wine with an affordable price point. A great value and very popular. The single vineyard Pinot's are low production and very limited in distribution. Hence, the incentive for joining the Cellar Society as most are available only in the tasting room and reserved for the members in their shipments. When visiting the tasting room they usually pour 4 or 5 of these wines. The comparison of the wines with the different AVA's and soil types makes for a fun experience.

Scott, The Grande Dalles said...

I don’t think distinctive is an “indifferent” word. If something is distinctive it means that some characteristic stands out relative to the comparison group. For centuries winemaking was generally one person (or maybe a group of monks) growing grapes on one piece of land and that same person made wine from those grapes. The great and distinctive wines of the world got that way in large part because of that person-land-grape-wine relationship. This all changed, primarily in the US, in the last quarter of the 20th century. Now it’s more usual to have no connection between vineyard and winery so I think all the single vineyard bottling is a way to reconnect wine with a finite piece of land. The complication is that unless the same person is growing the grapes, the differences between single vineyard wines could be just as much from the human farmers as the vineyard sites.

Scott, The Grande Dalles said...

I’m with Todd, what does “better” mean anyway? I guess with high volume or manipulated wines one can talk about good, better, and best because these types of wines are “made” in every sense of the word. And I think Randy is absolutely correct, big and small wineries alike do all kinds of things to their wines to achieve pre-determined flavor profiles. Is that how the perfect cabernet is made? Great wines are great because they are distinctive and that doesn’t come from pulling out all the tricks in the winery.

Stephanie said...

What I find more unsettling is not the number of single-vineyard offerings, but how it seems to be the new “estate.” Single-vineyard, as Scott points out, does create a closer connection to a place, but in the end, it feels more like a marketing ploy: if you source grapes and can’t claim ‘em as your own, it helps your marketing if you can find a way to make the wine more distinct. The problem is that this is already being diluted, and losing some distinction: more than one label can carry the same single-vineyard designation.

Peter Rosback, Sineann said...


We've had this discussion before (and not just because I am one of the poster boys of "how many single vineyard Pinots?").

My best example is Patricia Green Cellars. They make what seems like 20 different Pinots every year. Of those I really like about 4 or so, dislike about the same number and find the remainder okay, but not special. The Pinots I really like make all the others worthy. It is very nice to find wines that I can really get excited about. If it takes a host of lesser, labeled wines to make this happen, so be it!

By the way, continued great blogging! Your next article, talking your blog down is way off. Your articles generate response - good, knowledgeable response from what I read. Let's expand the viewership...

Peter R Sineann

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