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San Francisco Pinot Days: Pinot From All Over

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The eighth annual Pinot Days grand tasting occupied San Francisco's Fort Mason Festival Pavilion this past Saturday. This was my sixth year attending the event, and I've seen it shrink, particularly over the past couple years, from a two-day-plus extravaganza, featuring several seminars with winemakers in addition to the Sunday grand tasting, to now a single, half-day event on Saturday. Yes, there were a couple of related dinners with winemakers, and a retail store tasting that coincided with the event. Pinot Days claims to still be the biggest Pinot Noir festival in the world, with over 200 producers and around 500 wines. Nonetheless, this is not the three-day-weekend, wall-to-wall Pinot fest it used to be.

Has the Pinot frenzy following Sideways finally cooled off? Certainly a great deal of Pinot has been planted in California in the last several years, and the high demand for the grape of a few years back seems to have slaked. It may also be that with a growing number of trade and public tastings focused on particular regions that excel in Pinot -- like the stellar Sta. Rita Hills tasting I reported on here, Santa Cruz Mountains' Pinot Paradise, and the upcoming West Sonoma Coast tasting this August -- people may be less attracted to a Pinot-from-anywhere event, as Pinot Days has become.

Pinot Days was also missing several of the top producers it has featured in the past -- names like Arcadian, Hanzell, Littorai, Kosta Browne, Merry Edwards, Mount Eden, Peay and Pisoni. With reduced yields in the last couple of vintages, the word around the festival was that producers like these passed on this event because they didn't have wine left to sell. Even producers represented at the event were, in some cases, not pouring their more celebrated wines since, again, they had little or none of those wines remaining in inventory.

The geographical reach of the event, however, expanded further, from the usual California and Oregon contingent, with a sprinkling of Burgundy, to include New Zealand and even Chilean Pinot. And, as always, there were new producers from all over.

To focus my tasting efforts, I passed on great producers from regions I'd tasted recently, like Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Cruz Mountains, and targeted wineries that were new to me, or regions I've tasted very little lately, like New Zealand. As a result, I had to pass up tasting wines from terrific producers like Alma Rosa, Baxter, Big Basin, Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe, Fort Ross, Mahoney, Scherrer and Siduri.

The vintages represented were largely 2008, 2009 and 2010. Of these, 2008 was the weakest in California -- due to fires and untimely rains -- although it was a very good vintage for Oregon. The 2009s from California tended to show well, with ripe fruit and structure, but the 2010s were also very good, in a lighter style. In fact, having now tasted 155 domestic Pinots from 2010, compared to 480 Pinots from 2009, I find I'm scoring more 2010s at a higher level -- giving more of them 92 and 93 points -- than I did proportionately with the 2009s. Some of these may age well too, but it's largely a vintage that will be enjoyable in the shorter term, while we wait for our '09s and '07s to mature.

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Some other noticeable, and commendable trends, from the 2010s I tasted at this event, and otherwise recently, are higher acidities and lower alcohols than in years past, thanks both to the cooler weather conditions in 2010 as well as to decisions by many growers and winemakers to pick earlier and to favor acidity over super-ripeness. There continues to be quite a bit of experimentation with some level of whole cluster inclusion, but I felt even in the wines where the stem or whole cluster inclusion went above 15 or 20 percent, the green, stemmy flavors weren't as overwhelming as they were a couple years back when the stem inclusion trend started to become really noticeable and, for me, obtrusive.

The 2010 vintage was apparently a very good one too for New Zealand, with a relatively long growing period. Their Pinots were more savory and higher in acid than their California counterparts, making them excellent food wines. My favorite New Zealand producers at this event were Ellero and Spy Valley.

The French Pinots poured were quite mediocre, and not at all representative of the glories of red Burgundy. I've recommended in the past that the Burgundy offerings be omitted at this event, in favor of keeping the focus on local West Coast Pinot, and I think that's still good advice.

The California producers whose wines I sampled that were showing best for me at this event, scoring an average of 91 points or higher, were Abiouness, August West, Benovia, Freeman, Joseph Phelps, Joseph Swan, Kanzler, Ladd, Small Vines and Sojourn. My favorite Oregon producers were Rex Hill, Stoller, William Hatcher and Winderlea.

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Kathryn and Paul Sloan of Small Vines

For an upcoming Pinot-dominated event that is expanding, and focused on one of California's hottest regions -- in terms of popularity and attention, not climate -- I highly recommend the second annual West of West Festival August 3-5. This event spotlights the West Sonoma Coast, and will include such top producers as Anthill, Benovia, Cobb, Fort Ross, Hirsch, Littorai, Peay, Small Vines and Sojourn. The weekend-long event will include informative seminars and grand tastings, as well as dinners and related activities. Tickets may be purchased here.

For more details on my top wines of this tasting and my tasting notes on 114 wines, see the complete report on my blog here.