Perusing the Grocery Aisle for Drinkable Pinot Noir
Periodically, I look at the state of the value-priced domestic Pinot Noirs on the shelves at local supermarkets. It
is standard practice today for these stores to offer a 30% discount on a six bottle mix or match purchases.
The selection of Pinot Noir wines lining the shelves at chain supermarkets is practically identical since shelf
space is controlled through distribution dominance by the largest wine companies or “big-volume brands” such
as E. & J. Gallo Winery, The Wine Group, and Constellation Brands who produce wine under multiple labels.
These three producers account for more than 60% of all wine shipped in California. Jackson Family Wine
Estates has a lesser, but still prominent presence with their Byron, Cambria, Carmel Road, Kendall-Jackson
and La Crema brands of Pinot Noir. There are usually only a few Pinot Noir wines offered from boutique
domestic producers and then only the winery’s entry-level wines.
In addition, there are many labels that give only the vaguest idea of who produced the wine. When the back
label says, “Produced and bottled by,” by law, 75% or more of the wine in the bottle must be made (fermented)
by the producer listed on the label at the stated address. But as the case in many of these inexpensive wines,
the back label may say, “Vinted and bottled by,” in which case the winery on the label may have had very little
to do with making the wine at the stated address, or “Cellared by,” in which case the wine was only aged or
cellared by the depicted winery before bottling. In essence, in many cases, the consumer is prevented from
knowing what region(s) the grapes came from or who made the wine and are only given the name of the
“phantom winery” that may have sourced bulk or declassified wine from any number of producers and slapped
a label on it. The consumer also has no way of knowing whether the “Pinot Noir” is made from 100% Pinot Noir
grapes. The result can often be a disappointing reflection of what Pinot Noir can be.
Winemaker Ted Lemon of LIttorai once commented in his newsletter that after tasting a number of inexpensive
American Pinot Noirs, “They were large in scale and alcohol, with rough tannins and dark, extracted
flavors….the aromas dominated by various shades of oak….essentially they tasted as if they were the
winemaker’s rejects from reserve barrels driven by the media’s insatiable appetite for Pinot on steroids.” There
are also a number of inexpensive Pinot Noir wines that are very shallow and boring often made up with oak to
cover deficiencies. The old saw holds true: you get what you pay for in Pinot Noir.
Here are a few wines I plucked off the supermarket second and third shelves (the most expensive Pinot Noirs
are on the top shelf). The prices are full retail prices so figure a 30% discount when buying six wines mix or
match. The Oregon Pinot Noir wines seem to perform better than California wines at these under $20 price
2016 Austerity Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., $15.70. Vinted and bottled by Austerity,
Moderately dark garnet color in the glass. Very perfumed, offering a prominent floral scent
alongside a red berry mix. Light to mid weight core of blackberry fruit back by insular toast and vanilla from
oak. Silky in texture and simple in character with a very modest finish. It is hard to find much Pinot character
under the oak.
2015 Blank Canvas California Pinot Noir
13.5% alc., $12.84. Vinted
and bottled by American Vines Cellars, Napa, CA. Kris and Cora Riggs
owners. Orange County Fair medal winner.
Light ruby red color in the
glass. Aromas of cherry, raspberry, spice and redwood. Light to mid
weight red-fruited flavor spectrum of strawberry, raspberry and cherry.
Slightly confected with minimal oak presence. Rather shallow and easy
going with modest tannins.
2015 District 7 Estate Grown Monterey Pinot Noir
13.5% alc., $14.27, screwcap. Estate grown, produced
and bottled by Scheid Family Wines, Greenfield, CA. Label refers to Monterey County which is District 7
among the 17 California grape crush districts. The Scheid family has been sustainably farming land in
California for nearly 50 years.
Moderately light ruby red color in the glass. There is a whack of oak on the nose
that dominates the cherry aroma. Elegantly styled, but lacking depth and length, with plenty of toasty oak
obscuring Pinot’s delicate character.
2016 Line 39 California Pinot Noir
13.5% alc., $9.99. Vinted and bottled by Line 39, Parlier, CA. Designed as
a top value in Wine Enthusiast magazine.
Moderately light ruby red color in the glass. Nothing but toast, char
and grill on the nose. Somewhat better on the palate, with mid weight flavors of red cherry and raspberry
infused with oak. Submissive tannins and true to Pinot Noir in character, but little satisfaction. The wine had
completely faded and was vegetal when tasted the following day from an opened bottle.
2014 Wente Vineyards Riva Ranch Vineyard Arroyo Seco Monterey Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., $27.13.
Produced and bottled by Wente Vineyards, Livermore, CA.
Moderate garnet color in the glass. The aromas and
flavors feature very ripe berry and blackest cherry fruits with noticeable accents of oak spice and toast. Beefy
and somewhat bold in the mouth with supporting tannins, finishing with some intensity and the echo of oak.
2016 Averaen Oregon Pinot Noir
13.8% alc., pH 3.69, TA 0.60, $15.99, screw cap. Classy label and bottle.
Jory and sedimentary soils. Aged 10 months in French oak barrels.
Moderate garnet color in the glass. Shy
aromas of cherry and oak. Light in weight, offering flavors of cherry, cranberry and green tea with a bit of wood
in the background. Matched tannins, good vibrancy and finishing cut.
2016 Planet Oregon Oregon Pinot Noir
13.6% alc., $17.99, screw cap. Cellared and bottled by Soter
Vineyards, Dundee, OR. Produced from certified sustainably grown grapes.
Moderately light garnet color in the
glass. Aromas of red cherry and berry, underbrush and earthy flora. Light to mid weight in style with a decent
charge of cherry fruit. Hints of herbs and oak in the background with buried tannins and a juicy persistence on
2014 The Pressing Plant Kick Out the Jams Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
13.4% alc., 815 cases, $17.49, screw
cap. Vintner Sheri Hood is a New Yorker who managed
rock bands for record companies before moving to Portland
to make wines inspired by the music she loves.
light garnet color in the glass. Very nicely perfumed with
spiced cherry and a hint of oak. The mid weight cherry core
is inviting and supported by accommodating tannins. Nicely balanced,
with a deft touch of oak and a gregarious cherry finish. This wine
should find wide appeal at this price.
Previously reviewed Oregon Pinot Noir in this category:
2016 Cloudline Willamette Valley Pinot Noir $14.99. Reviewed in the previous issue. Bottled by Cloudline
Cellars, Dundee, OR (a Drouhin family label). Excellent Pinot character at this price point. 89.
2016 Underwood Oregon Pinot Noir $13.99. Reviewed in the previous issue. Vinted and bottled by Union
Wine Co. McMinnville, OR. An easy sipper with balanced oak. 87.