The explosive ascent of Pinot Noir from relative obscurity to it-grape status is unprecedented. Silky, complex, and incredibly versatile, Pinot Noir is the perfect food wine; full of charm and intrigue, it drinks beautifully on its own.
California and Oregon are home to Pinot's greatest expressions in the New World. In Passion for Pinot, award-winning photographers Robert Holmes and Andrea Johnson and wine writer Jordan Mackay capture the grape's allure through portraits and profiles of the top Pinot producers and terroirs on the West Coast.
Mackay's engaging narrative chronicles the different stylistic approaches to growing and vinifying Pinot and tells the story of the dedicated winemakers responsible for elevating the grape to its exalted status. The evocative photography of Holmes and Johnson showcases the many landscapes, seasons, and faces of Pinot Noir in America. Throughout the book, quotes, facts, and maps help make Passion for Pinot an illuminating and entertaining guide to a singularly beguiling grape.
"If any grape would be at home in the pose of the femme fatale—smoke curling from its lips, long, irresistible legs crossed as another winemaker is sent to his doom—it would be Pinot Noir." —Eric Asimov, from the Foreword
* A portrait of the most fashionable grape in the wine world, pairing vivid narrative and stunning photography to showcase top Pinot producers in California and Oregon.
* The only fully illustrated book on American Pinot Noir.
* The explosive ascent of Pinot Noir from relative obscurity to it-grape status is unprecedented. According to AC Nielson, Pinot sales have increased 120 percent in the last two years.
* Features a foreword by Eric Asimov.
Robert Holmes is a renowned photographer and author who has illustrated more than forty books. His work appeared regularly in the acclaimed Day in the Life series as one of the world's 100 best photojournalists, and he has worked for many of the world's major magazines, such as National Geographic, Life, Time, Travel and Leisure, the London Sunday Times and Paris Match. His work has won many awards from Communication Arts and Lowell Thomas, and he was the first person to twice be named Travel Photographer of the Year by the Society of American Travel Writers.
Andrea Johnson is a freelance photographer specializing in wine and travel. She has covered many of the world's wine regions, and her photographs are regularly featured in publications such as Wine Spectator, VIA, Sunset, the San Francisco Chronicle and National Geographic. Her previous books include photography for Rick Steves' Europe through the Back Door series, and her commercial clients are many of the premiere Pinot Noir producers worldwide.
Jordan Mackay has devoted the last eight years to exploring, understanding and writing about wine. After writing for Texas Monthly and serving as a wine columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, he became wine and spirits editor for San Francisco's 7x7 magazine and a contributing writer to Wine and Spirits. He has also written about food and wine for Food & Wine, Gourmet, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.
A PERFECT STORM OF PINOT
WE WERE STANDING IN A VINEYARD bathed in delicate spring sunshine. Its luminance covered the crest of a knob-like hill, contrasting the dark, brooding shoulders of Oregon's Coast Range, which towered nearby. Looking at the young Pinot Noir vines, with their newly sprouted leaves reaching eagerly toward the sun, the Oregon winemaker, Kelley Fox (of Scott Paul Wines), asked, "What's the old saying--'You know you're on to something when you get ridiculed'?" She was addressing Mo Momtazi, the Pinot's owner, who was relating the story of the conversion of his vineyard to the controversial system of biodynamic farming. One of his reasons for making the conversion was to try to save this very section of Pinot Noir, a weak area of land that hadn't displayed enough strength to ripen the grapes. "There were a lot of skeptics, a lot of people who wondered," Momtazi said, about the feasibility of farming his enormous vineyard, 95% Pinot, biodynamically, making it one of the largest such Pinot Noir vineyards in the world. In just a few years under the new method (composting, zero chemical inputs) his success is evident not only in his own richly colored, deeply flavored Pinots under his Maysara label, but in the twenty or so other Pinots made by all the people who buy his fruit.
Words like ridicule, doubt and risk come up frequently in tales of this perplexing grape. For years, the pursuit of Pinot Noir--unproven, unpredictable, uneconomical--was seen as folly on the grandest scale. Yet, Pinot is seductive in ways that other grapes are not, its elusive beauty leading to irresistible attraction. As wine critic Jancis Robinson has written, "It leads us a terrible dance, tantalizing with an occasional glimpse of the riches in store for those who persevere, yet obstinately refusing to be tamed."
Such was the experience of Andre Tchelistcheff, the revered Napa winemaker who claimed that the 1946 Beaulieu Pinot Noir was one of the greatest wines he had made in his life. And, despite 48 years of trying, he died in 1994 having never replicated it. As he famously proclaimed, "God made Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the devil made Pinot Noir."
Like so many beauties of literature--from sirens and mermaids to Lolita--that have led characters to their demise, the pursuit of Pinot Noir more than any other grape has inspired risky behavior. But, more often than not--at least in America--submission to the siren song has transformed lives for the better. The hero may have had to endure ridicule, skepticism, doubt and risk along the way, but the results cannot be denied.
Consider the doubt Josh Jensen inspired among family, friends, and investors when in the early 1970s his search for limestone soil on which to plant Pinot Noir (paralleling the ground of Burgundy) led him to a purchase a remote, desiccated rock mountain in a remote, sparsely populated section of California's Central Coast. Bucking drought, the elements, and the intransigence of solid rock, Jensen has made some of this country's greatest Pinots under his Calera label, indeed some of the finest ever made outside of France.
Not far away, Gary Pisoni endured ridicule for his decision to plant Pinot Noir in the benchland above the Salinas Valley. Known as "America's Salad Bowl," the Salinas Valley is some of the most productive farmland in the nation and thus not typically associated with quality wine. While some grape vines grew there before Pisoni arrived, they tended to be unripe Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But thanks to Pisoni's strange vision, what were once just rugged hillsides overlooking rich asparagus and broccoli fields are now the source of some of the most sought-after Pinot grapes in California.
Ditto David Lett, known as "Papa Pinot," whose decision to try planting Pinot Noir in Oregon's Willamette Valley was originally disparaged by his professors at the University of California at Davis. We know how that turned out.
These anecdotes are not by any means offered to suggest that planting Pinot Noir is any longer a fool's errand. Rather, they are meant to illustrate the compulsion, the near religious fervor that Pinot Noir can birth in people's souls. No grape has engendered so many stories of life transformation. No wine has so compelled people to suddenly uproot and dramatically change their lives.
Take winemaker Jamie Kutch, of Kutch Wines in San Francisco. For him a single bottle of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir was not only a wine, but also a summons--one that a few years ago he answered. A Wall Street trader at the time, Kutch was very into wine and drank a lot of it. It was, however, the taste of a single Pinot Noir, a 2002 Kosta-Browne Kanzler Vineyard, that caused him within weeks of the fateful taste to quit his job and move to California to make Pinot Noir himself. Still intoxicated less than a year later during harvest, he sent a diamond ring (in a box) down the conveyer amid the clusters of ripe Pinot Noir to his girlfriend of eight years who was sorting the fruit at the bottom. After the next harvest's fermentations were completed, they honeymooned in Thailand.
Consider the story of Deb and Bill Hatcher. Visiting the Willamette Valley from St. Louis in 1985, they sampled wine at The Eyrie Vineyards and Adelsheim Vineyard. "It was love at first taste," Deb recalls. She was thirty-five at the time. Nevertheless, within three weeks they had quit their jobs, packed up and moved to Oregon. Both worked their first harvests that year. Now they own two brands, A to Z and Rex Hill Vineyards, and are, with their partners, the largest wine producers in Oregon.
Or take the example of Steve and Carol Girard, who owned one of the hottest Cabernet labels in the Napa Valley in the mid-'80s. Unbeknownst to the Cabernet, they had for several years been conducting a discreet but impassioned affair with Pinot Noir. Ultimately unable to stand their double-life, they sold their winery and their name and excused themselves from the sunny life of Napa, buying an unglamorous 2,000-acre sheep farm under the more tortured skies of Oregon's central Willamette Valley. The sheep farm became Benton-Lane Winery.
I believe the epigram Kelley Fox was trying to remember that day in the vineyard comes from Oscar Wilde: "Ridicule is the tribute paid to the genius by the mediocrities." I'm sure none of the people cited above and the many others whose lives have been transformed by Pinot Noir would call themselves geniuses. And certainly none would take such a bitter tone in describing their work. Rather, I think, they would say that all the genius is in Pinot Noir itself and that they are the ones merrily paying tribute.
The Time is Now
Pinot Noir is seeing its greatest ever popularity in the United States. According to Nielsen Company research, in the two years between May 2006 and May 2008 sales of Pinot jumped an astonishing 36%. Each year Pinot sales grew by around 20% over the year before, making it the fastest growing red variety in the country.
A seismic 18% jump in typically staid grocery store sales between October 24, 2004 and July 2, 2005 confirmed the trend. The significance of October 2004 is not lost on Pinot lovers. That is the month the movie Sideways was released. Though the bittersweet, tragicomic movie focused on a couple of complicated and generally unsavory characters, one could say that Pinot Noir was the supporting player. Taking place predominantly among the vineyards of California's south Central Coast, the film set its drama in a world of wine tasting and discussion. At one point, the main character Miles says of Pinot Noir, "Oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and . . . ancient on the planet."
Seeing characters, no matter how humiliating and self-destructive their actions might be, take such pleasure and interest in wine (much less Pinot) was thirst-inducing for many Americans. Remarkable was the asymmetrical effect it had on Pinot sales. While the movie was a surprise hit and won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, it nevertheless was a so-called Independent film and had nowhere near the box office numbers of, say, a Spielberg blockbuster. The relatively small audience, compared to its enormous impact on the sales of a particular wine, leads me to believe that rather than causing the Pinot Noir explosion, Sideways was merely the catalyst, the match thrown on a great pile of fuel. In a wine environment that favored bigger and in which most of the wines being hailed by retailers and the press weren't particularly versatile or friendly with food, Pinot Noir--lighter bodied and food friendly--was that fuel so ready to be ignited.
A Little Background
A possible reason for the tantalizing and fugitive nature of Pinot's beauty is that, as grape varieties go, it is one of the most ancient. Like other very old organisms (whales, platypuses), Pinot Noir is replete with mystery. Some of the earliest recorded descriptions of a vine resembling Pinot Noir appear in the first century of the Common Era, suggesting that its history likely dates back much further. Some speculate that Pinot Noir is one of the earliest wild grape vines domesticated by man. And if you have experience raising a wolf puppy adopted from the wild--or even just a stray cat--you understand the unpredictable and often unfathomable behavior that results from intelligence and instinct we don't fully understand. Pinot Noir, which we have been domesticating for at least 2,000 years, stubbornly retains its wily, opaque personality.
Pinot is the great red grape of Burgundy (and Champagne) and is considered one of the world's "noble" varieties alongside the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Riesling. In Burgundy, it makes some of the world's most sought-after wines, wines so hip that we just call them by name: La Tâche and Musigny, for instance. Of course, out of Pinot Noir, Bur...