Not Familiar with a Wine? Consider the Source.

A few weeks ago, one of my friends provided some constructive criticism of Wine with Dinner. He told me that WWD spends too much time talking about what is good and very little time discussing wines to avoid. I am hesitant to criticize any wine; many vintners put their hearts and souls into their wines. Moreover, wine is very subjective. That said, last week, while enjoying a good burger at Smith & Wollensky, I found the accompanying wine disappointing. I note it here not to criticize the winery or the wine maker, but to provide an example of how important geography can be in selecting a wine.

Out of the two pinot noirs S&W was offering by the glass, I chose Rutz Cellars 2004 Sonoma Pinot Noir. I am sometimes hesitant to order pinot noir produced in many areas of California because of the fine cabernet sauvignon produced in these regions. It is difficult to grow good cabernet sauvignon and good pinot noir in the same place — it is just too hot for top-quality pinot noir in areas where cabernet thrives. (Global warming is not doing moderate-climate varietals in California any favors.) Sure, there are AVAs in a region as large as California, areas such as Carneros and some parts of Sonoma, that produce some great pinot noir due to temperate climates resulting from cooling bay and ocean breezes. Unless you know exactly where the grapes are coming from, however, you gamble more — as a general rule — on pinot noir fruit from California being overripe at harvest than pinot noir grown in more temperate areas like Burgundy, France, or Martinborough, New Zealand. Wanting to try something new, I put my concerns aside.

The Rutz 2004 Pinot confirmed that my concerns, in this case, were well-founded. While I like a fruit-forward pinot, this wine was jammy. While this may have resulted from a number of factors, it is likely an indication that (1) hot temperatures during the growing season over-ripened the grapes or (2) the grapes should have been harvested a bit earlier. While I am sure that Rutz has some very lovely wines in its portfolio, this is not one that I can recommend.

Am I saying that one should never buy a pinot noir from Sonoma or anywhere else in California? No, of course not. There is some excellent pinot out there and much depends on the particular terroir and vintage. However, when considering any pinot noir from a generally hot climate region like California, as opposed to generally cooler regions like Burgundy, New Zealand, Oregon, or even the Finger Lakes in New York, it is helpful to know exactly where the grapes were grown — Carneros rather than California. In this case, I knew that the Rutz Pinot Noir was sourced in Sonoma, but Sonoma itself is a diverse area containing both hot and cool micro climates.

The moral of the story? Don’t be afraid to ask questions about a wine at your local wine shop (or ask for the sommelier at a restaurant), especially if it is from an area that may not be ideal for the varietal. Also, read the back label to see if it discusses the climate for that vintage. It is certainly possible to get top quality pinot noir from many wineries in California, especially in cooler vintages. It is also possible to get good cabernet sauvignon from the Finger Lakes and good riesling from South Africa. Just learn as much as you can first. It is also helpful to try different wines so you can come to know and trust the best producers.

Rutz Cellars 2004 Sonoma Pinot Noir
2 Stars
$23.00 per bottle.

For more information on California’s AVAs, check out the Wine Education Site.


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Published in: on July 12, 2007 at 9:46 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The Rutz is a Sonoma County wine–the grapes are grown all over the county. What I would suggest, given your palate, is that you look for pinots labeled Sonoma Coast, or switch counties and look in Mendocino. These are cool climate areas and I find that they produce pinot noirs that are much less extracted and jammy than those produced in the warmer areas of California.


    Thanks for the tip. I had planned to study Sonoma in more detail before I take my first trip out there. I think you a definitely right about Mendocino.

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