Why even write a wine article about pinot noir these days, with pinot becoming such a hot commodity in the wake of the popular movie Sideways? A March 2005 article written by Adam Strum of Wine Enthusiast magazine notes that nationwide retail sales of pinot noir have increased 15 percent since the movie’s release. So why shovel out more publicity? As wine geek and pinot adorer Miles Raymond says in one of the film’s scenes: “.. .[pinot] can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot’s potential can coax it out into its fullest expression.”

How many wineries out there do you think are really following Miles’ mantra? Surely not all of them, and there’s a steep price you may easily be paying, because when pinot is bad, it’s worse than any other red wine. A nose of burnt rubber, rotting vegetables and manure, with flavors of stewed prunes and fetid water await the unwary. This is why a wine column is a must. A newly found love affair can easily lead to a quick separation while following the pinot noir road.

History points to the Romans discovering the pinot noir grape (vitis allobergica) growing wild in the region they named Gaul. More specifically, it flourished in a small area now known as the Cote d’Or in the Burgundy region of France. Time and changes in religion and governments did nothing to stop the persistent farming and vinification of these vines, recognized from earliest time as producing a rare and special wine.

During the past 1900 years, farmers have figured out what grows best and where. Today, chardonnay shares the spotlight throughout the region. The northerly reaches favor chardonnay over pinot (think Chablis) while the southern stretches long ago pointed to the Gamay grape (as in Beaujolais) as the best choice. Here we see Miles’ picky viewpoint vindicated. Pinot noir is fussy, and only in between these two Burgundy boundaries does the pinot grape flourish. Is it any wonder that our own domestic production, barely 75 years old, is still often hit or miss? The true wonder is that our successes, given the relative novelty of it all, can be so remarkably good.

By the 1940s, pinot had begun its American flourishing in Napa Valley’s Carneros region. The name of Andre Tchelistcheff, winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards, is always mentioned as the pioneer who planted cuttings from the best Burgundy vineyards into the cool soils of the Carneros. In particular, his 1946 masterpiece is remembered (and still occasionally consumed) as perhaps the first classic pinot noir made in the United States.

Time has instructed us that mother nature provides numerous California sites for the making of remarkable pinots. Santa Barbara’s Santa Maria Valley, and more recently its Santa Rita Hills appellations, are garnering accolades. Monterey County boasts the Santa Lucia Highlands, while Sonoma, long a benchmark for pinot, achieves grand success from the Russian River Valley. Part of the huge Sonoma Coast area produces first rate pinots as well. With ravenous experimentation, these areas’ winemakers are now making highly prized and greatly anticipated wines.

One of pinot’s greatest pleasures has nothing to do with its bouquet or flavor. It’s the visual splendor of the wine: a red that you can see through, with a glowing hue of Bing cherries, pomegranate, garnet or the most ephemeral of rose shades. No thick as night syrah or cabernet here. Even the richest of pinots allows the ambient light to illuminate its splendors of the color spectrum. And this really adds to the overall sensuality of it all.

Pinot fruit also defies the usual pat “tastes like” words that grace other red varietals. There’s seldom a hint of currant or raspberry to be found. At its best, pinot presents an amalgam of a universal fruit essence. It is all that is good in the panorama of fruit and earth essences. Esoteric stuff for the mind and the body. Therefore, bear with my musings as I try to differentiate the wine’s qualities to you: the best ones defy description.

My blind tasting of 50 pinots included 33 California entries with a spattering of other states and nations thrown in as levelers and distractions. The first number is my grade for the wine

70 2003 Alamos, Mendoza (Argentina) $11

72 2001 Domaine de Valmoissine, Louis Latour $12

75 2002 Les Salices, Lurton, Vin de Pays d’Oc $10

78 2003 Buchli Station, Bouchaine $15

78 2003 Frei Brothers, Russian River Valley $24

79 2002 Bourgogne Rouge, Merlin $18

79 2003 Camelot, California $7.75

80 2003 Gallo of Sonoma, Sonoma Coast $13

80 2003 Turning Leaf, Sonoma Reserve $11.50

80 2003 Lane Tanner, Bien Nacido, Santa Maria Valley $28

Odd, “Eau de Toilette” bouquet. A powdered lady.

81 2003 Beringer, Napa Valley $16

82 2003 Erath, Willamette Valley (Oregon) $17

82 2003 Trapiche, Mendoza $6.65

82 2003 MacMurray Ranch, Sonoma Coast $17

82 2002 Au Bon Climat, Santa Barbara County $21

“Cooked”, overripe, raspy and thin. A disappointment.

83 2003 Rosemount, Australia $12

83 2002 Queen of Hearts, Santa Barbara County $11

82 2002 Saintsbury, Carneros $26

83 2001 Benton Lane, Monroe, Oregon $21

84 2003 Sebastiani, Sonoma Coast $15

84 2003 Stoneleigh, Marlborough (New Zealand) $17

84 2003 Crossings, Marlborough $20

84 2001 Campus Oaks, Mendocino $9 GREAT VALUE

85 2002 Lynmar, Quail Ridge Vineyard, Russian River Valley $29

Attractive, subdued with orange pekoe tea-like spice. Delicate drinking, flavorful but fleeting. Nice nuance and subtleties.

85 2003 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve, California $14 GOOD VALUE

Beet root, earthy richness and dark complexity. Warm, a bit lean on the finish, but flavorful and pleasurable quality.

85 2002 Brotherhood, New York State $12 GREAT VALUE

Sage and herbal notes. A wild pinot with a lithe, delicate feel. Relaxed fruit and a brisk tangy aftertaste. Available at www.brotherhoodwinery.net.

86 2001 Deloach, Russian River Valley $21

Nuanced, “varietal” (read: smells like pinot noir) and a bit “sweaty” in a stewed compote of fruit. Ripe yet lightish flavors, balanced, with decent length. In all, very enjoyable.

86 2000 Pope Johannou Vineyards (Greece!) $16

Cloves, spice and deep bouquet. Very ripe, seductive and sexy. A Rhone pinot? Warm, lush flavors. Richly endowed with a supple and smooth finish. This warm climate wine is very good in its fashion. Fool your wine geek friends!

86 2002 Anapamu, Monterey County $16

Ground-up herbs, earthy elements on a penetrating coffee and chocolate-tinged nose. Very powerfully extracted and flavored. Zingy, vibrant fruit. Obvious but impressive. Perhaps too heady and alcoholic; a pinot on steroids. A lot of wine but not for everyone.

86 2003 Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County $19

Direct roundness plus finesse. A touch of cherry cough medicine nose. Lush bouquet of spring garden scents. Drinks medium-bodied with an underlying bitterness and short finish. Yet, despite all, a classy, pleasurable wine.

87 2000 Tudor, Santa Lucia Highlands $35

Positive fruit integration with dreamy cherry elements. Coconut and a viscous, “oily” nose adds interest. Nicely balanced, clean flavors coming up a bit short and tart.

87 2001 Bourgogne, Rene LeClerc $21

Light color, fruit and perfume. A sophisticated picnic wine. Pinkish but pleasing. Dare I say a feminine style? (Well, I’ve done it.) Vibrant, lip smacking flavor. A delight.

87 2001 Willakenzie, Willamette Valley $24.50

Full, sumptuous berry reduction with toffee overtones. Exciting, ripe cherry-like flavors with good acidity and briskness. Harmonious mouthful. (screw cap)

87 2003 Lane Tanner, Julia’s Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley $33

Dark, underbrush laden fruit. Penetrating and “loamy.” A Cotes de Nuit style of terroir. Herbal, distinctive brisk flavors. Tannins are powerful, ensuring future development.

87 2003 ZD, Carneros $30

Ripe and flowery impression. Lovely pinot essence. A subtle style with grace and poetry. Refined, cool crisp flavors. Needs more substance to it, but really on the right track!

87 2003 Dyed in the Wool, Canterbury N.Z. $16.75

Svelte, leathery with a silky, surround-your-sinuses bouquet. Refined, spicy flavors. Alive and vibrant.

87 2000 Margrain, Martinborough N.Z. $19.50

Fulsome, direct, with a penetrating essence that’s very good, but slightly one-dimensional. “Beefy”–comes right at you. Tasty, bold, alive and a touch harsh, but delivers a stocky style. A cabernet lover’s pinot.

88 2003 Steele, Carneros $21

Briery, spicy style. A bit obvious and earthbound, but mellow, herbal, olive-tinged fruit abounds. Comfortable, warm flavors in a full oaken jacket. Flavorful, solid fruit that satisfies like a warm bathrobe.

88 2001 Logan, Santa Lucia Highlands $23.50

From Talbott Vineyards, this bottling has the famous beet root quality of fine, exotic pinot. Full and expansive bouquet. Flavors are nuanced, even and in harmony. This is a connoisseur styled red with quasi-stewed texture and fullness.

88 2003 La Crema, Sonoma Coast $18.75

Elusive, graceful yet deep, succulent fruit. A concentrate of earthy fruit elements. Good refreshment, outdoorsy fullness of flavors. Direct and well worth the money.

88 2002 Buena Vista, Carneros Reserve $22

Varietal, high toned and lithe. A mulligan stew of meat, pepper, spice and herbal elements. Rather impressive. Full mouth feel that’s a bit drying at the finish. A charmer.

88 2003 Mirassou, Monterey Central Coast $11 BEST BUY

A ravishing color. A penetrating bouquet, velvety nose feel and a touch of the indefinable. Drinks beautifully with “sweet” fruit and a sleek caressing flavor. A beautiful wine, and a winery on a roll. Mirassou continues to confound with its tremendous quality at amazingly low cost.

89 2002 Mt. Difficulty, Central Otago (New Zealand) $29

Magnanimous, beautiful fruit with a halo of richness and completion. Sweeps you up. Balanced, flavor rich and refined. Straight up and a bit less dramatic as a drink.

89 2003 Clos du Val, Carneros $31

Velvety, plump bouquet with delicious herbal, lavender and earthy fruits in harmony. Striking. Supple, clingy mouth texture with good length.

90 2002 Testarossa Palazzio, Central Coast $34.50

Solid fruit–plummy, tarry, sappy bouquet that stays with you. Good, energizing flavors and a long finish. Very stylish and rewarding.

90 2002 Wild Horse, Central Coast $22 FINE VALUE

Pretty nuances of rose petals, sweet earth and cedar. Elegant, heavenly fruit. Tasty, crisp, beautiful flavors with an excellent finish.

91 2002 Domaine Chandon, Carneros, Ramal Road Reserve $29

Blackberry, shrubby spices–characterful and inviting. Has a magical perfume about it. Exotic fruit and delicious energetic flavors. Bordering on the sublime. Will develop still further.

92 Taz, Fiddlestix Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills $35

Mmm! Glorious woodsy and earthly delights. Attractive “cheese rind” complements with an amazing solid core of depth and a circle of scents. Profound–draws you in. Power and grace on the palate, but more straightforward than the explosive nose.

94 2001 Dutton-Goldfield, Dutton Ranch, Russian River Valley $37.25 BEST OF TASTING

Fresh vivid fruit–warm and engulfing. Herbs and spice galore in a remarkable, perfectly balanced bouquet. Bright, exuberant yet profound. Flavors wrap themselves around the palate. Fabulous style and perfect weight. Lively acids and a long, loving, persistent aftertaste. A gem that will tell you if the pinot noir road is up your alley.