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Border Skrimishes in the Pinot Wars
[December, 1999]

Threading fog and drizzle on bent back roads, we were chasing down a few leads on the perfect Pinot Noir. A few weeks earlier, we had begun to feel like corpses in a casket, staring up at the uniformly button-tucked sky stretching unbroken from first light to dark, day after leaden day. A quest had seemed sure to put some color in this monochromatic winter, but now, as the dampness turned to hard rain, rolling hills receded into increasingly ashen shades of gray, and we realized we couldn't out run it. Even in Sonoma County, California.

While Oregon and its neighbor to the south share winter weather and Pinot Noir, the similarities end there. When the weather warms, and the swollen Russian River recedes off the vineyards back into its channel, the effects of California's longer and hotter growing season will be in evidence everywhere, from the way wines taste to the character of the people who make them.

As grapes mature to ripeness in the fall, their sugars increase as their acids decrease. Ideally, winegrowers pick when these are in balance, but when their crop is Pinot Noir in a hot climate, the heat can be more of a curse than a blessing, making that balance difficult to achieve. As harvest approaches, warm days without cool nights can produce too much sugar, alcoholic wines, and cooked flavors of plums and stewed prunes.

That's one accusation rarely leveled at Oregon wines, whose growing season is so short and cool Pinot Noir barely ripens within it. In good years, that lends these wines a correspondingly lighter fruit palate, with vivid flavors of strawberry, raspberry and cherry hung on a refreshing backbone of acid. In cooler years dead ending in rain, of course, the fruit can turn almost pastel, leaving acid to dominate both the wine and its reviews.

Somewhere in the middle climatically speaking lies the Russian River Valley, which is close enough to the Pacific Ocean at its western end that in the best years, fog and ocean breezes moderate the California heat, allowing well-tended grapes to reach ripeness with both richness and structure. "Oregon Pinot Noir growers face much greater difficulties than we do here," acclaimed winemaker Tom Dehlinger told us. "Here, we're on the other side of the problem, where it's really still too warm for the ideal Pinot Noir. One out of three years we have a cool summer, and those tend to be our best vintages."

Dehlinger comes to winemaking with a background in biochemistry and a year at UC Davis' enology program, and it's clear the scientist's passion for exactitude is an integral part of his character. But it's that same confidence in analysis, coupled with a fascination with Pinot Noir, which led him to plant his fledgling vineyard in 1975, against the advice of many of his peers. "When we put in the first four acres people said it wasn't a good idea: ‘whatever you do, don't plant any more of it!'" These days, of course, those people put their names on his waiting list.

Across the Russian River, Tom Rochioli's family was also one of the first to plant Pinot Noir, but his roots go back even further, when his grandfather began farming the property in 1938. Nevertheless, it wasn't until Tom returned from school in 1983 that wine was made under the family name.

Rochioli is almost superstitiously self-effacing, crediting his success to the uniqueness of his property, the skill of his father in the vineyard, and luck. "I'm a seat-of-the-pants winemaker. I have a pretty good feel for it, and I usually don't make mistakes that are costly. Lately I've been pretty lucky. If you have good grapes, it's not that tough."

Good grapes and a rock-solid, intuitive sense, actually. Rochioli, whose degree is in business administration, not winemaking says enology graduates "know how to make the perfect wine, but the perfect wine is a boring wine. Especially in the Pinot Noir category, you've got to live on the edge a little bit. These guys out of school come talk to me and they're throwing these huge $10 words around, and I don't know what the hell they're talking about!"

The Dehlinger and Rochioli wines are as different as their makers, but it would be difficult to confuse either of them with most Oregon Pinots. The Rochioli wines we tasted are rich and concentrated but remarkably pure and fresh, while the Pinots we tasted from barrel with Dehlinger were absolutely stunning in their lusciousness, elegance and sophistication.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily make these wines better than their best Oregon counterparts. Tasting these California Pinots exposes how nicely a little more acid sharpens the delineation of fruit in wines further north, and it throws the unique character imparted by Oregon's northern climate and soil into clearer focus.

Unfortunately, vintage variation is also part of that character, especially when compared to Sonoma. For Dehlinger, what really sets the two growing regions apart is how winemakers cope with it. "People are still feeling out the winemaking up there. When I went to Oregon in 1991, the lack of capital was a serious problem; things were really being done in a kind of half-assed way, because people didn't have the money to do it right. You didn't see any of the first class vineyards that you see today."

Dehlinger's point is well taken, though more Oregon growers produce top-notch fruit than he may know, even in lighter years. The next time he travels north, he may see more similarities than just rain.


©1999 Matt Giraud and James McQuillen. This column originally appeared in December, 1999 as The Crush, a bi-weekly wine column published in Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon. Matt and James alternated writing the columns; this column was written by Matt.

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