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Mining for Good Under-$30 Pinot: Inflation Tamers

It used to be said that finding good, cheap Pinot Noir was an oxymoron. Not anymore. Allen Meadows has been quoted as saying, “It is a sad fact that inexpensive, high-quality Pinot Noir is almost non existent.” I agree that high-quality Pinot Noir is never a bargain, but today there are many bottlings from California and Oregon that offer good to even very good quality Pinot Noir perfectly suitable for everyday drinking. Many people, particularly the Millenials (ages 21 to 34) and Generation X (ages 35 to 46), are looking for good wines that are affordable and are currently driving wine market growth. The over-47 wine drinkers make up the largest proportion of daily wine drinkers and purchase much of the high-end Pinot Noir, but the wine consumption in this group has changed little over the past several years.

The San Francisco Business Times recently reported (www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/news/2011/02/07/theother-guys-wine-sales-soar-66.html) that The Other Guys, which is a separate company under the family umbrella of the Don Sebastiani Family of Companies, had an astonishing 66 percent increase in sales over the last year to 169,000 cases. This surge in sales was led by several brands including Leese-Fitch, Hey Mambo, Plungerhead, The White Knight, MooBuzz, and Pennywise. The company predicted that sales will increase another 50 percent in 2011 to 250,000 cases. The wines are priced in the $8 to $14 per bottle range and offer eye-catching names, labels and alternate closures, all features attractive to the Millenials and Generation X. The MooBuzz and Pennywise Pinot Noirs are reviewed below and offer solid value.

Tim Fish, writing in his blog, Exploring Wine with Tim Fish (www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/444), wrote an article recently titled, “What Does It Take to Make an $8 Wine.” He notes that the market is flooded with available bulk wine and companies like Don Sebastiani & Sons buy producer’s excess wine at a steep discount and bottle it under their own label. Often the purchased bulk wine is blended with wine produced from existing grape contracts. Winemakers may employ shortcuts like oak staves instead of barrels and micro-oxygenation, both of which can simulate oak-barrel aging.

Micro-oxygenation (Microbullage)

Micro-oxygenation is a controlled and extended introduction of small amounts of oxygen into wine, developed in the early 1990s by winemaker Patrick Ducorneau, who worked with the highly tannic grape Tannat in Madiran. Ducournau started a company, Oenodev, which offers the technology worldwide. Vinovation in California is Oenodev's representative in the United States.

During oak barrel aging of wine, the wood allows a gentle and slow aeration of wine contained therein. Tannins are polymerized into forms that are softer on the palate. The process of micro-oxygenation mimics the effects of barrel aging in wines that are kept in stainless steel tanks. Oxygen is released from a ceramic device placed at the bottom of the fermentation tank. Oxygenation is achieved in a shorter time, and when combined with oak chips or staves to add wood flavor, a significant cost savings results compared to the use of oak barrels. In addition, micro-oxygenation can remove green characters and sulfides from red wines.

Jamie Goode in The Science of Wine (2005) notes, “Although micro-oxygenation is quite a new technique, the enthusiasm with which winemakers have adopted it suggests that there must be something to it, even though the exact details of the underlying science aren't actually clear yet.” He quotes Clark Smith of Vinovation as saying, “All the enormous Central Valley producers are currently using micro-oxygenation techniques, and perhaps as many as one-third of the ultra-premium North Coast wineries are at least experimenting with it.”

Not all large producers of inexpensive wine resort to these shortcuts. Take Kendall-Jackson, for example. The 2008 and 2009 vintages of their Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Noir (reviewed below) that retail for $18, can frequently be found for a dollar or two less, and offer a very good drinking experience. Tapping into their vast Pinot Noir vineyard holdings, Kendall-Jackson produces a Pinot Noir with a production level of over 50,000 cases that will raise the eyebrows of even the most stodge pinotphile. The Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Noir is aged for 9 months in 15% new, 95% French, oak barrels. The lots, which come from Monterey County, Santa Barbara County and Mendocino County, are kept separate until the final California blend.

The recent explosion of second labels offered by premium Pinot Noir producers is a reaction in part to the lucrative market for good, affordable Pinot Noir. Certainly, oak staves and micro-oxygenation are not part of the winemaking regimen for these serious Pinot Noir producers, but they are often shouldered with very drinkable wine that does not fit into their vineyard-designate or appellation bottling program. A good example of this are the $19 2009 Pali Wine Co. Cuvée Pinot Noirs. As owners Tim Perr and Scott knight hand-selected barrels for their single-vineyard bottlings, they found they were left with excess juice. Combined with recession-driven reduced prices for premium grapes, they were able to fashion a more economical tier of wines made with the same commitment to high-quality winemaking that they employ for their single-vineyard Pinot Noirs. The appellation blend Pinot Noirs, each named for a specific neighborhood in the town of Pacific Palisades, California (the hometown of the owners) were launched with the 2007 vintage. Current production of the Cuvée Program is 8,000 cases, with plans to expand to 20,000 cases within the next few years. The wines are vinified by winemaker Aaron Walker under the guidance of consulting winemaker Kenneth Juhasz (Donum Estate, Robert Stemmler, Auteur).

The Siduri Sonoma County and appellation bottlings and the Et Fille Willamette Valley Pinot Noir reviewed elsewhere in this issue fit into this category as well.

I often am asked, “What is a good affordable Pinot Noir?” Wine drinkers don’t ask for a “great” affordable Pinot Noir, knowing that there is no such thing. Reviewed below are several Pinot Noirs that emphatically answer the question. I have included a few wines that retail over $30 at the winery, but can be found in the marketplace for less than $30. In the under $30 category of Pinot Noir, the economy has forced retailers to lower their prices even further and bargains abound. Check www.vinquire.com, www.winezap.com, www.wineaccess.com, or www.wine-searcher.com for sources.

What you get with many under $30 Pinot Noirs: attractive pricing, often discounted; some screw cap closures; light, fruity, food-friendly casual drinking; early drink ability; ease of discovery and purchase due to large production. What you don’t get with many under $30 Pinot Noirs: aromas and flavors that last over time in the glass; age ability; nuance and layering of flavor; purity of flavors unencumbered by oak; the sensuality and sophistication of Pinot Noir. Good and Geek are a few miles apart. You get what you pay for.

2009 Pali “Alphabets” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., 1,030 cases, $19. Aged 10 months in 20% new French oak barrels. · This wine rises above its humble upbringing. Lovely aromas of raspberry jam on brioche with a hint of coffee: breakfast in a Pinot. Very tasty medium weighted flavors of raspberries and cherries with accents of dark chocolate and coffee. Juicy, crisp and refreshing, this smooth player has just enough intense flavor and persistence on the finish to make you sit up and take notice. Very good.

2009 Pali “Bluffs” Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., 1,229 cases, $19. Aged 10 months in 20% new French oak barrels. · Starts out with a flamboyant perfume of black cherries, sage and coriander seeds but fades over time, becoming less interesting with notes of cherry cola and raisins. Candied cherry flavors with a savory herbal note on the relatively short finish. A smooth operator that seduces more with the flavors than the aromas. Good.

2009 Pali “Riviera” Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 3,576 cases, $19. Aged 10 months in 20% new French oak barrels. · Difficult to coax much aromatic interest out of this wine presently, offering subdued aromas of black cherries, black raspberries and oak. Much more interesting in the mouth, with pleasing red fruit flavors set off by bright acidity. Fruit-driven and highly drinkable. Good.

2008 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve California Pinot Noir

alc., >50,000 cases, $18. Jackson Estates grown. · Delicate aromas of darker red berries and raisins with a hint of oak. Mildly intense flavors of strawberries, raspberries and cherries with some persistence on the fruit-driven, dry finish. Smooth in the mouth and easy to drink. Will work beautifully at the table when Pinot Noir is called for. Good.

2009 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve California Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., >50,000 cases, $18. Jackson Estates grown. · Generous aromas of cherries, raspberries and strawberries with hints of exotic woods. Medium-weight flavors of slightly confected red cherries and berries with the slightest oak vanillin evident. Impressively smooth like Elvis on velvet. I kept sipping over an extended period and the wine kept delivering appealing fruit flavor. All you could ask for at this price: low alcohol, smooth texture, simple but tasty fruit, instant drinkability, ease of acquisition, all from a renowned producer. Good (+).

2009 Meiomi California Pinot Noir

13.9% alc., $18, screw cap. 47% Sonoma County, 19% Monterey County, 34% Santa Barbara County. “May-OH-mee.” Winemaker Joseph J. Wagner of Belle Glos Wines. · Dark reddish-purple hue in the glass. Demure blueberry and plum sauce aromas with distracting oak char. Teeth-staining core of vivid black raspberry, strawberry, plum and cassis flavors with an underpinning of oak toast and vanillin. Blessed with pillowy tannins. This fruit-driven wine will find fans but the oak influence becomes more prominent over time in the glass leading to a jam-on-toast taste. I preferred the 2008 version of this wine, both of which are widely distributed and found on many restaurant wine lists. Decent (+).

2008 Argyle Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

14.0% alc., 7,000 cases, $30, screw cap. Winemaker is Rollin Soles. · Moderate color intensity. Appealing aromas of cherries, cola, rose petals and underbrush. Elegant and soft in the mouth, offering discreet flavors of cherries and berries which carry through on the somewhat lengthy finish. A refreshing wine that holds the oak in check and shows some increasing intensity over time in the glass. Good (+).

2009 Brooks Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., 2,600 cases, $22. 9 vineyard sources. Grapes were 100% de-stemmed and fermented in individual lots. Aged 10 months in 35% new French oak with some Hungarian oak. Unfined and unfiltered. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. Initially the nose offers demure but satisfying aromas of red cherries and berries, dried rose petals and a hint of baking spice. The aromatic intensity fades over time in the glass with a touch of alcohol rearing up. Medium-weighted red fruit flavors with a nice smack of cherry on the finish. Very soft tannins and a smooth mouth feel make for easy approachability. A fruit-forward wine offering a glimpse of the 2009 vintage in Oregon which offers more upfront charm than the 2008 vintage and higher alcohols. Good.

2008 Patricia Green Cellars Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

13.0% alc., $29. Blended from wines in the cellar that are a cut above the Oregon designation but don’t fit into a vineyard or special bottling. · Appealing core of dark berries and dark stone fruits with hints of cola and citrus. Plenty of oak overshadows the fruit. Soft in the mouth with brisk acidity. Decent.

2009 Poppy Monterey County Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., $15. · Moderately intense color. Appealing immediately with aromas of black cherries and berries, spice, white pepper and oak and flavors that echo the nose with a subtle underlying grapefruit and woody note. Easy to drink with a decent structural backbone supporting the middleweight fruit, but fades in aromatic and flavor intensity in the glass over time and delivers a shallow finish. Decent.

2009 Wind Gap Gap’s Crown and Griffin’s Lair Vineyards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

12.5% alc., 314 cases, $29. From Pax Mahle Wines. Hand-numbered bottles. · Shy scent of black cherries with generous oakdriven aromas of spice, smoke and mocha java. Dark-fruited with plenty of smoky oak, coffee and tar in the background. Somewhat better when re-tasted later in the day with some reduced oak influence but the fruit in this wine still plays second-fiddle to the oak. May show better oak integration with a year or two in the cellar. Decent.

2008 The Other Guys Pennywise California Pinot Noir

14.0% alc., pH 3.81, $10-$13. 94% Pinot Noir, 5% Syrah, 1% Merlot. 70% Monterey (Pinot Noir), 24% Clarksburg (Pinot Noir), 5% River Junction, 1% Paso Robles. Clones are Pommard, 115, 667 and 777. · Interesting depiction of a stamp on the label. Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. Aromas of red cherries and berries with a hint of smoky oak. Soft and silky in the mouth with medium-weighted cherry and berry flavors set off by oak-driven brown spices and cola. Some hearty grape variety influence is evident. Reserved tannins and a dry finish. Decent (+).

2008 The Other Guys MooBuzz Monterey Pinot Noir

13.9% alc., pH 3.78, $14-$15, bright yellow Zork closure. 95% Pinot Noir, 5% Syrah (for color and richness). 95% Monterey (Pinot Noir), 5% Paso Robles (Syrah). Back label says, “High on a rugged remote central California hilltop, now and then a cow moos to the accompaniment of buzzing bees.” Front label sports a topographical map of Monterey. Very cool package. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. This wine offers a generous drinking experience with aromas and flavors of cherries and strawberries with mild smoky oak overtones. Very mild tannins, with a refreshing lift of fruit on the finish. Good (+).

2007 Selby Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.7% alc., 579 cases, $27.69, released June 2010. Crafted by Susie Selby. 55% Love Vineyard, 45% Calegari Vineyard. Aged 15 months in 35% new French oak. · Moderately light purple color with a reddish rim. A nicely composed wine with very attractive perfume of Bing cherries, strawberries, baking spices and fresh pastry. Red-fruit-driven with a charming cherry kiss on the lingering finish. Elegant, with enough fruit, acid and tannin to take on the alcohol. Very typical Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. One of my favs at last year’s Pigs & Pinot event. Very good.

2008 Willowbrook Sonoma County Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., $24, screw cap. Multiple Gold Medals. This winery is really on its game. · A tasty and spirited wine with welcoming aromas of berry pie and black cherry tart. Juicy fruit flavors highlighted by lively acidity and gossamer tannins with subtle oak notes playing in the background. I found this wine for $13 at Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa! Be sure to try the other 2007 and 2008 Willowbrook Pinot Noirs now offered. Good (+).

2009 Enkidu Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., 900 cases, $28. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. The nose is dominated by oak with very little fruit evident. Heavily oak-imbued melange of cherries and berries on the palate. Silky and juicy, but doesn’t deliver much fruit flavor now. May improve with more time the bottle. I have enjoyed other Enkidu Pinots but found this one disappointing. Decent.

2009 Pellegrini Olivet Lane Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.93% alc., $28. 49% Occidental Road, 33% Burnside Road, 14% BCD and 4% Pierres vineyards. · Bright Bing cherry and fresh strawberry aromas with whiffs of oak and dark chocolate. Discreetly intense red cherry and red berry flavors with a slight confected (Red Vines), earthy, and dark chocolate undertone. Reserved, fine-grain tannins. Well-crafted, but only of moderate flavor interest. Decent (+).

2009 Balletto Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.9% alc., pH 3.59, 4,004, $24. Sourced from four vineyards, 16 different lots, 12 different clones. Natural yeast fermentation. Aged in 25% new French oak barrels for 9 months. · Moderately deep reddish-purple color in the glass. Penetrating aromas of blackberry jam with hints of spice, purple roses and oak. Moderately intense core of dark berry and stone fruits with a lasting impression of Hoisin sauce on the finish. Veers to the riper fruit side. Some silky charm with bright acidity. ($16 at Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa). Good (+).

2008 Trecini Vicini Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.6% alc., $35. Clones 777 and 828. Frost reduced yields to 3/4 ton per acre. Aged in new and minimally used French Burgundy oak barrels for 11 months. · Opens slowly in the glass to reveal appealing aromas of ripe strawberries, grape must, sandalwood and pine pitch. Discreetly concentrated wave of pretty black cherry and berry fruit underlain with flavors of cola, baking spice and oak, wrapped in mild unresolved tannins and offering a soft mouthfeel. There is an appealing freshness to the fruit here. Typical Russian River Valley offering. I found it at Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa for $24. Good (+).

2008 Carmel Road Monterey Pinot Noir

14.0% alc., pH 3.78, $20, released December 2009. Aged 9 months in 98% French (17% new) and 2% American (100% new) oak. · Soft aromas of black cherries, blackberry jam and violets, picking up intensity with swirling. Lightweight flavors of darker Pinot fruits with supple tannins and a velvety mouthfeel. Often discounted and a solid daily drinker. Good (+).

2008 Paradise Ridge Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.8% alc., 240 cases, $29. Sourced from 2 vineyards, 4 clones. · Moderately light garnet color in the glass. Subdued scent of strawberries, Bing cherries, and sandalwood. Crisp and elegant in style with understated flavors of red Pinot fruits wrapped in supple tannins. Decent.

2007 Macrae Family Vineyards Bacigalupi Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., $30. Winemaker Kerry Damskey. · Moderately light reddish-purple hue in the glass. Lovely, complex nose offering aromas of black cherries, mixed berries, rose petals and newly sawn wood. Lighter weighted, crisp and juicy, with ripe stone fruit flavors and a hint of grapefruit peel in the background. Good (+). (Note: check with winery on availability as this was obtained from Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa and is not offered on the winery’s website).

2008 Calstar Sangiacomo Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

15.05% alc., pH 3.42, $35. Aged in 30% new oak (80% French, 20% Hungarian). Winemaker Rick Davis (Londer). · Moderately light in color. Appealing aromas of spiced berry jam on toast which fade some over time in the glass. Tasty essence of red berries with satisfying flavor intensity. Supple tannins, a refreshing grip of acidity and well-integrated alcohol. Good. (Note: I found the wine discounted to $28)

2009 Point Concepcion Salisipuedes Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir

14.7% alc., $25. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. An array of medium weight dark berry and plum aromas and flavors elegantly styled with soft tannins. A bit of heat shows up on the entry and finish. Decent.

2008 Babcock Grand Cuvée Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

13.7% alc., $30. · Attractive aromas of black cherries, red currants and strawberries with a touch of spice box. Shallow dark fruit flavors which have a noticeable underpinning of oak. The nose trumps the flavors in this linear wine. Does pick up a bit with time in the glass. Decent.

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