America's Best Value Pinot Noirs
Pinot Noir has a reputation for being a difficult and unforgiving grape variety. Couple that with the variable weather conditions in the grape’s original home of Burgundy and burgeoning worldwide demand, and it’s easy to understand why most entry-level Pinot Noirs fall short of quality expectations.
Thankfully, these American wineries buck the trend by offering high quality Pinot Noirs for $30 or less.
A second generation of harmonious wines
The down-home, country-comfort styling of Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards’ 2013 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (91 points, $25) flows naturally from the Lange family, who founded their winery in the Dundee Hills in 1987.
Don Lange was a successful singer/songwriter back in the day and still maintains a recording studio at the winery. He and Wendy Lange moved to Oregon with their young son, Jesse, to focus on Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.
Jesse, now the general manager and winemaker, says his earliest wine memories are from the tender age of seven, picking grapes at the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in Santa Barbara County. In Oregon, Jesse says he grew up “with farming and wine as a part of my being.”
Nonetheless, making affordable, outstanding Pinot Noir in substantial quantities is no small achievement.
“Nobody feels like they fall out of bed and have a grasp on making great Pinot Noir,” Lange says. “I think you have to have your fair share of failures and learning experiences before you build the dossier and background required to feel comfortable around this persnickety grape.”
Over more than a quarter-century, the Langes have produced up to a dozen different Pinots annually, one reason this family-owned enterprise can compete with much bigger entities on both price and quality.
“Even though we are a small winery, we are extremely focused on allowing each vineyard and each block to fully express its potential,” says Jesse. “We pick up to 85 different blocks of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and keep every lot distinct and discreet all the way to barrel aging.”
Though the vast majority go into single-vineyard wines, it’s the blended cuvée, Jesse believes, that best showcases the strengths of the region.
“I expect our Willamette Valley Cuvée to be a superb snapshot of the region and the vintage,” says Jesse. “It tends to be more in the red fruit and spice spectrum than some of our other wines, and also tends to be more approachable in its youth.
“Fully 50 percent of our 2013 release is sourced from blocks within the Freedom Hill and Lange Estate Dundee Hills properties, our two most pedigreed sites.”
Although 2013 was a challenging year, with heavy rains interrupting harvest, the wineries that identified optimal picking times made wines as good or better than those from easier, riper vintages like 2012 and 2014.
For Jesse Lange, the best 2013s have superb typicity, and their classical feels remind him of the 2010 vintage.
Taste it for yourself, perhaps, as the Langes suggest, with fresh, wild-caught Pacific Northwest salmon.
Taking whole clusters mainstream
Christine Collier, winery director for Willamette Valley Vineyards, grew up looking out her bedroom window at the new vineyard and winery taking shape on a south slope of Oregon’s Salem Hills.
Later, she sold friendship bracelets in the tasting room, ran through the vines to keep in shape, and even house-sat for the Bernau family, who founded Willamette Valley Vineyards in the mid-1980s.
Today, she leads the company’s winemaking and vineyard operations, as well as the customer experience at each estate. We asked her about the specific winemaking decisions behind the winery’s 2014 Whole Cluster Pinot Noir (90 points; $22).
“Many wineries that make an affordable, entry-level wine typically declassify it from their other wines,” she says. “This is not the case with our Whole Cluster. My role starts in the vineyard identifying beautiful, clean fruit, since this process is so nonmanipulated.”
In other words, what goes into the tank is essentially what comes out of it. Once picked, the grapes go directly into the fermenters with no destemming or crushing. Two different fermentation methods are employed. In 2014, 60 percent went through carbonic maceration, dosing the grapes with carbon dioxide to remove the oxygen.
“An anaerobic environment is created, and the fermentation occurs intra-berry, building up enough pressure to burst the skin open and release fresh, fruity Pinot Noir juice, exactly how it tastes in the vineyard at harvest,” says Collier. “The resulting wine is vibrantly fruity, with a soft, lower-acid finish.”
The other 40 percent of the blend goes through traditional whole-cluster fermentation. Along with fruity aromas and flavors come earthy highlights from the stems. Released in the spring immediately after crush, it’s an easy-drinking style meant to be enjoyed young.
“The winery’s customers aren’t always looking for a $60 bottle of wine to pair with dinner, so this wine quickly became a favorite of theirs,” says Collier.
Willamette Valley Vineyards produced almost 69,000 cases of Pinot Noir in 2014, spread among 18 different bottlings. The Whole Cluster accounts for more than 40 percent of the total.
“People often think it is a bit risky to ferment our largest bottling of Pinot Noir in this ‘what you put in is what you get out’ style,” says Collier. “It isn’t a wine you can mask with oak to hide any flaws. That is one of the things I enjoy most about making it—it isn’t engineered, it is bluntly honest and a pure representation of the vintage.”
A history of direct-to-consumer sales
The coastal terroir in Northern California’s remote Anderson Valley makes elegant Pinot Noir possible for Navarro Vineyards. But it’s the 42-year-old winery’s focus on direct-to-consumer sales that helps make its Pinots surprisingly affordable.
Winemaker Jim Klein paused during his 24th harvest for the winery to discuss its well-balanced 2013 Anderson Valley Pinot (88 points, $20) and more assertive 2012 Methode à l’Ancienne Pinot Noir (91 points, $30). Both are great values in a region where Pinot is more often $50–75.
Navarro sells 85 percent of its wine directly to consumers, which keeps prices low.
“Our $30 wine can go toe-to-toe with wines that are $50, but we really don’t need that extra markup because of the way we do business,” says Klein.
The winery’s profit margin is much higher on direct sales than on the small percentage it sells to distributors, so Navarro can afford to charge a lower price.
It helps that virtually all the grapes grow on land bought or leased many years ago by founders Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn. Klein is not afraid of generous yields, and uses no more than 25 percent new barrels.
Navarro takes other cost-saving measures, too, like brewing up a master malolactic culture and then seeding all the Pinot barrels. This is cheaper than buying starter bacteria for each barrel, as some wineries do.
As always, though, the quality part of the quality-price ratio begins in the vineyard.
Anderson Valley is a small section of Mendocino County, just 10 miles inland from the crashing surf and chilling winds of the Pacific. So, while summer temperatures spike into the 90s, they drop to 50˚F at night. That cooling keeps the grape acidity high even while the grape sugar rises. Pinot Noir benefits from that balance.
Many of the Pinot vines are spread out on a quadrilateral trellis that allows them to catch lots of sun and produce 5.5 tons per acre, twice the yield that many Pinot producers quote. More grapes per acre means a lower grape cost per bottle, and with it, a lower retail price.
Completing the Pinot picture is Navarro’s polished house style. Klein says it comes in part from using older barrels with no oak flavor left, leaving the yeast lees in the wine as it ages and fining with egg whites to soften astringency.
“Unfined wines can tend to be like unfinished furniture,” Klein says. “They perform fine, but we believe you are really under obligation in practicing your craft to make a wine without all the rough edges. It’s like the final prep you do on fine furniture, doing the final sanding and adding a coat of lacquer or oil to finish it off.”
Introducing folks to quality Pinot
Adam Lee, winemaker at Siduri Wines in California’s Sonoma County, takes a macro view on making affordable Pinot Noir: He simply wants more Americans to drink wine.
A native Texan and frequent business traveler, Lee knows that people across the U.S. don’t feel as comfortable about wine as they do in Sonoma. Even at $30 a bottle and under, wine is a luxury for most.
Siduri’s 2013 Sonoma County Pinot Noir (87 points) is $22, one of the best wine deals in the world.
“We just don’t make money [on it], but we have a commitment to making something for a wine drinker just starting out that’s at a more reasonable price point,” Lee says. “We need more people to drink wine in this country, and as winemakers, [we need] to work together to grow the base.
“We want to bring a new customer in, to give people something that tastes like Pinot Noir. Sometimes, we denigrate so-called ‘starter wines,’ but that’s not smart, either. Starter wines get people drinking wine.”
Lee remembers his own starter wine, an Ernest & Julio Gallo Rhine wine. He didn’t realize there was more to wine until he had a 1984 Rochioli Pinot Noir. Instantly, Lee fell in love with the variety and the Russian River Valley.
Ever since, he’s devoted himself to making single–vineyard Pinot Noirs, with many of those vineyard designates sourced from throughout the Russian River Valley. Those wines are built to age and are more steeply priced.
The Siduri 2013 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (88 points) is $33. The fruit Lee uses is a combination of specific vineyards he’s identified as good sources for more reasonably priced grapes, as well as declassified barrels from each of the vineyard designates. He uses less new oak to help bring the cost down.
“We take a combination of really good fruit and lots that sometimes just aren’t a fit style-wise for a vineyard designate,” he says.
This is also true of the Sonoma County blend. A vineyard like Van der Kamp, which accounts for one of Lee’s most desired, ageworthy Pinots, is atop Sonoma Mountain. Barrels that don’t fit into Van der Kamp’s single-vineyard bottling go into the Sonoma County blend. That’s some amazing fruit for a $22 bottle.
More affordable blends sold into the marketplace, especially for by-the-glass programs, have helped increase Siduri’s single-vineyard designate sales. The Russian River Valley and Sonoma County wines are also available in half bottles—just another way for more budget-minded shoppers and new wine drinkers to discover Siduri.
Crafting recession-busting values
Winemaker Aaron Walker remembers the day in 2009 when, in the grips of the Great Recession, the Pali Wine Co. team realized people were no longer dropping $50 for a bottle of single-vineyard Pinot Noir. It had been the Lompoc-based winery’s bread and butter since 2005.
“We were looking for a way to survive and capitalize on a bad economy,” says Walker, so they went to the store and bought 15 bottles of Pinot priced below $30. Walker, along with Pali’s Co-founder Tim Perr and Consulting Winemaker Kenneth Juhasz, blind-tasted them.
“It was very obvious that the quality of Pinot under $30 was really crappy,” says Walker, who joined Pali in 2007 and took over as winemaker in 2008. “We thought there was potential for us to put out a really good product at a fair price that would do well because the competition was minimal. Sure enough, those wines took off pretty well.”
The margins on Pali’s four value Pinots are much slimmer than its single-vineyard wines, which the winery still offers for around $50. But the sub-$30 Pinots greatly expanded brand recognition, growing Pali’s wine club and bringing more people into its tasting rooms in Santa Barbara and Lompoc.
Now, Pali is focusing even more on direct-to-consumer efforts. It has a tasting room set to open in San Diego and is analyzing the potential of downtown Los Angeles.
A particular star in Pali’s entry-level lineup is the 2013 Huntington (90 points, $23), which is based on older-vine, lower-priced fruit from the Riverbench, Lucas & Lewellen and Los Alamos vineyards. It’s enhanced, however, with declassified barrels from the pricier lots of Radian, Fiddlestix and Ranch La Viña vineyards.
“That beefs up the quality of the Huntington,” says Walker, whose customers also move up the price chain. “Hopefully they step up to our $50 Pinots when they go out to dinner or when special occasions arise.”
Walker built their entry-level program on long-term grape contracts nailed down in 2010, when the grape market was soft, and relied on big harvests in 2013 and 2014 to keep it thriving.
He admits that it will be tougher to pull off with the small 2015 crop, but said that the future is bright, thanks to the 50-acre vineyard that Pali planted in 2013.
“Once that’s up to full production, we could get 200 tons off of it for the Huntington and not be reliant on market fluctuations,” says Walker, who pulled the first grapes off of the new Sta. Rita Hills vineyard this year.
“People think it’s amazing that they can get really good Pinot for such good price,” says Walker. “We’ve heard it over and over, people thanking us for what we’re doing with pricing.”
- 1Lange | Dundee, Oregon
- 2Willamette Valley Vineyards | Turner, Oregon
- 3Navarro | Philo, California
- 4Siduri | Santa Rosa, California
- 5Pali | Lompoc, California