Pinot noir smackdown: Oregon vs. California
Uneasy geographic rivalry plays out in the glass
A Russian River Valley pinot noir from winemaker Merry Edwards stood out in our blind tasting of California and Oregon pinots. (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune / December 3, 2009)
Most of this is mere chaff — something to have fun with. But the bad blood between Oregon and California has always struck me as something a little deeper, especially when it comes to wine.
This fact was driven home at a big wine tasting conducted at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California last year. The only Oregon winery there was Sokol Blosser, at a table at the far end of the aquarium behind a big pillar. There, if you got that far, was winery co-founder Susan Sokol Blosser, winemaker Russ Rosner and a friendly octopus patiently waiting for visitors.
Sokol Blosser's placement was probably just luck-of-the-draw coincidence, but it did provide one of those aha moments that you remember. Using two social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, I recently asked who made the better pinot noir: Oregon or California? And, if California, Sonoma's Russian River Valley or the Central Coast?
The replies were sharply split and decisive. Some of the partisanship was expected, coming from public relations pros and winery owners. But others farther afield, either geographically or vocationally, also weighed in.
"Given my druthers, Oregon," said Richard Kamins, host of a radio talk show in Middletown, Conn., and a former wine store owner. "Better climate and soil conditions. Though, Santa Barbara's Au Bon Climat makes good pinots."
There was a split opinion at the Hilton Austin in Texas. Joe Bolash, the hotel's resident manager, is "partial to the Russian River Valley with its propensity for producing full, high tone pinots that feature red berry and lots of structure." Jason Grant, general manager of the hotel's Finn & Porter restaurant, likes Oregon, especially the Dundee Hills region, for pinots with "softer tannins and overall roundness, femininity and a long true finish."
And Carolyn Jung, who writes the FoodGal.com blog in Santa Clara, Calif., admitted, "I have to say I'm partial to Oregon pinots. And I live in California! Is that sacrilege?"
Might just be. But give her a dispensation for honesty.
And the winner is ... California
Merry Edwards made her considerable reputation on distinctive pinot noir wines from California's Russian River Valley, so it seems right that one of her wines came in first in a blind tasting of California and Oregon pinots. Right behind her, though, came two of the Oregonians: Sokol Blosser, one of Willamette Valley's pioneer wineries, and ForeFront, a new venture by the Crimson Wine Group.
In general, the Oregon pinots were lighter in color, fruitier in the nose and cleaner on the palate than the Californians, which were dark, smelled more like hay and mushrooms and had more powerful fruit.
The California-Oregon smackdown presented here won't change any minds, especially because only three Oregon pinots were put up against three from the Russian River Valley. Yet this sort of comparative tasting is something you can do at home. Shake up old preconceptions and assumptions in the new year.
2007 Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley: Full fruit flavor deepened with woodland notes and a sense of the earth. Evocative nose offered touches of hay, smoke, cedar and spice. Colored a beautiful deep garnet. Serve with seared duck breast, beef stew, foie gras. ✭✭✭ $42
2008 ForeFront, Willamette Valley: A somewhat faint nose bloomed a little in the glass, offering floral and pepper notes. The taste was bigger, dark cherry fruit underlined with cedar and earth. Short tannic smack on the finish. Serve with pasta and mushroom sauce, steak, prime rib. ✭✭✭ $24
2007 Sokol Blosser, Dundee Hills: This Willamette Valley wine was markedly lighter in color than the rest. A lean, elegant wine with notes of earth, pine, dark cherry. Serve with grilled salmon, scallops in vanilla sauce, crown roast. ✭✭✭ $38
2007 Rued Winery, Russian River Valley: A kirsch-like nose with flavor touches of cinnamon, cherry and spice. Serve with short ribs, lasagna, cheeseburgers. ✭✭ $35
2007 Sequana Sundawg Ridge Vineyard, Green Valley: A wine from a small wine region in the Russian River Valley. There were cherry, chocolate and plum flavors. Serve with venison in a berry sauce, rack of lamb, roast chicken. ✭✭ $50
2007 King Estate Signature Collection, Oregon: The simplest wine of the lot; sweet cherry predominated with just a slight cedary edge for balance. Bright red fruit on the nose. Serve with Asian pork loin, duck with plum sauce. ✭✭ $29
You want that wine. But your store or area distributor may not carry it. State law may prohibit you from ordering a wine online. What to do? Ask your wine retailer for a wine similar in flavor, style and price. Remember, too, prices vary.