Local Brilliance

So pinot noir, at long last, is the grape of the moment. Ironic, considering that her sudden popularity is due to the endorsement of a fictional pontificating alcoholic fraud. It's as if Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy had captured the limelight only after becoming Jackie O. But these days we have to be grateful whenever a real class act manages to come to notice amid the multitude of garish wanna-bes. Among wines, those made from pinot noir are the only ones it seems natural to refer to in the feminine gender. Their virtues are those traditionally associated with women of refinement: They are soft-spoken, a little reserved, unassertively alluring, a little unpredictable perhaps but, once acquaintance is made, endlessly fascinating and delightful. There are "big" pinots—the greatest vintages from the greatest growths of Burgundy—but even they are more grandes dames than grands seigneurs, and so rare and expensive that few of us will encounter one in a lifetime of wine drinking. Which makes it all the more pleasant to report that lovely and characteristic pinot noirs are now within the financial reach of most wine fanciers. And some of the most affordable and characteristic of all come from the Willamette Valley of Oregon. It was not always so. The pinot noir grape has been cultivated in the valley for three decades now; but for the first 20 years or so, small and erratic harvests kept the price of even mainstream bottlings forbiddingly high. A series of fine growing seasons has improved both overall quality and consistency, and relentless planting has increased supply to the point that established wineries have access to enough grapes to produce more everyday lines alongside their limited- edition thoroughbreds. Guided in our purchases by a wine fancier passionate about pinot noir, the Weekly tasting team lined up a dozen Oregon pinots currently on the market for $20 or under. Overall, the experience was vastly enlightening; out of multiple side-by-side comparative tastings, a kind of Platonic ideal pinot began to emerge in our minds. With one exception, it was the least expensive wines and less familiar labels that seemed to catch the spirit best. Among the lot, most outstanding was the 2004 O'Reilly's Oregon pinot noir ($14). Our favorites: 2004 O'Reilly's Oregon pinot noir ($14) David O'Reilly is the winemaker at top-of-the-Oregon-line Owen Roe, but he's his biggest competitor with this sleek beauty. A classic of its kind. 2003 McKinlay Willamette Valley pinot noir ($14) Matt Kinne is a virtuoso of pinot, and his current bottling completely transcends the "value" category: a wine with real finesse. 2003 Jigsaw pinot noir ($14) A luscious but balanced pinot, second vintage in a row, from Ransom's Tad Seestadt, who is better known as a distiller. A little hoydenish and, like a lot of recent hot-summer pinots, very high in alcohol, but with the stature to take it. 2004 Lange Willamette Valley pinot noir ($20) The general favorite of our tasting, Lange's, a blend of fruit from eight different vineyards, was also the heftiest, but its style and finish balanced its alcohol (nearly 14 percent, dangerously high for a pinot). and, in alphabetical order . . . 2003 A to Z Oregon pinot noir ($17) A real mongrel (20 vineyards contributed to its making) but enjoyable, if you like your pinot noir on the fruit-forward side. Unfortunately, it does not carry its 13.5 percent alcohol well; it both smells and tastes a bit "hot." 2002 Amity organic pinot noir ($16) Myron Redford's long-established vineyard pioneered organic winemaking in Oregon as well. Wine Spectator likes this one well enough to rate it an 88; for us, it delivered lots of dark cherry flavor and not much else, being notably short on the finish. 2004 Argyle pinot noir ($18) Not one of the happier efforts of one of Oregon's most dependable vineyards. Granted, 2004 was a weird vintage in Oregon, with brief periods of extreme heat alternating with chilly bursts of rain. In any event, there was enough summer to produce a sizzling 14 percent alcohol but not enough fruit and acid to balance it. 2003 Bigfire pinot noir ($18) Rob Stuart has made wine for half the leading firms in Oregon, and the "budget" Bigfire label of his R. Stuart winery is a perennial popular favorite among knowledgeable pinot noir drinkers. We don't know if his claim that this wine drinks "like satin" is justified, but it's definitely a pleasure to sip its firm fruity flavor. 2002 Cloudline Willamette Valley pinot noir ($17) A wine developed for the distinguished import firm of Dreyfus-Ashby by Domaine Drouhin's Véronique Drouhin, Cloudline aims high: premium quality and affordable price (by pinot noir standards). It's a very attractive wine, reminiscent in character of the wines Drouhin produces for her own label, and selling at $40 to $50 a bottle. In our tasting, however, it didn't beat out wines costing three or four bucks less in either finesse or character. 2003 Erath Willamette Valley pinot noir ($16) One of the oldest, largest, and most admired pinot noir stands in Oregon and a dependable producer of high-end age-worthy bottlings that have helped defined the state's pinot noir style. This one was disappointing, strongly alcohol-scented (13.8 percent) with burnt-caramel overtones. 2004 Jezebel pinot noir ($18) The joint product of two of the most respected names in Oregon pinot noir, Rex Hill and Sineann, this is a fine young wine, a little lean and coltish, but so was Audrey Hepburn starting out, wasn't she? 2003 Willakenzie Willamette Valley pinot noir ($20) This fine old estate specializes in pinot noir, and has no trouble selling single-vineyard bottlings in the $30 to $60 range to connoisseurs. But it doesn't seem the firm's heart was in this one; it was our least favorite of all, lacking both the refinement and freshness of wines costing less than two-thirds as much. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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