Oregon's Pinot Noir: Is It Worth $32 a Bottle?

TIMES WINE WRITER

The prototype wine made of Pinot Noir, from the Burgundy region of France, is considered by wine connoisseurs to be among the greatest and most sublime experiences in the entire world of wine. Yet as great as Burgundy can be on its native soil, its track record around the rest of the world is, to put it mildly, abysmal.

In 1976 I wrote about the potential of wine from the Pinot Noir grape in Oregon. A year ago, I wrote about the potential of Pinot Noir in Oregon. This year, in 1991, I believe the potential is still there. But unlike some other wine writers, I believe that greatness in Pinot has yet to be achieved in that state. Only a few Oregon producers have a record of consistency and make wines that age well.

The latest attempt to make Burgundy in Oregon is by the house of Joseph Drouhin, a Burgundy producer with a long heritage (founded in 1880) and with a tradition of great wine from a multitude of districts (16). In 1986, Robert Drouhin, president of the firm, acquired property in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where a number of wineries exist, and began to make wine.

The 180-acre property, named Domaine Drouhin Oregon (or DDO, as Robert Drouhin called it at a Los Angeles news conference), eventually will be an all-estate-bottled winery, making some 15,000 cases of Pinot Noir. Twenty-seven of a planned 65 acres have already been planted.

To test the waters, Drouhin got started rapidly. In 1988 he bought grapes from his neighbors in the Red Hills of Dundee; his daughter, enologist Veronique Drouhin, made the wine.

That first wine, from the excellent 1988 vintage, is more like previous Willamette Valley efforts; it is to be released May 1. For the DDO wines to come, Drouhin has been planting grapes that include two clones not widely planted here, and they are not yet bearing fruit. He expects they will make the DDO wine better than the first vintage.

But the good news about the first Pinot Noir effort in Oregon is that it is an excellent wine, not as deep and dark as some Burgundy lovers might like, but containing a good cherry aroma with a trace of cranberry, a hint of clove and cinnamon for spice and a delicate yet firm structure that will help it age a few years.

Ironically, Drouhin, a savvy and somewhat cautious man, spent more time putting a price on this wine than making it. He wanted to make a statement about the quality he believes can be made from Oregon fruit, yet he didn't think an artificially high price would have benefited him--or Oregon.

"I looked around in your country, and I discovered that Pinot Noir was lower in price than Cabernet Sauvignon, and I see no reason for it," he said at the news conference here last week, eliciting laughs from the assembled reporters. "I think Pinot Noir, when it is well-made, should be expensive, because it is much harder to make a good one than it is to make Cabernet. And yet I don't want to charge too much for it . . . ."

Besides, he reasoned, there are only 1,875 cases of this first release--1,500 of it for the American market--and the demand for it (he assumed) would be very high, a kind of collectors' item, not to mention a wine of curiosity for those who have been following Oregon's erratic fortunes with the Pinot Noir grape.

Moreover, Drouhin certainly couldn't ignore the fact that at least four producers--David Lett of Eyrie, David Adelsheim of Adelsheim, Dick Erath of Knudsen-Erath and Paul Hart of Rex Hill--are already getting pretty high prices ($20 plus) for their Pinot Noirs. And justifiably so, for in the good vintages they are usually excellent wines.

So, after long thought, Drouhin decided that his first New World effort will be priced at $32 a bottle. This is a price commensurate with low-end Burgundies, many of which aren't as good as this wine. (Of course, they are expensive because of the weakness of the U.S. dollar as much as anything else.)

With this decision, Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir instantly becomes the second most expensive Pinot Noir in America, after the very limited Williams Selyem "Howard Allen Vineyard" Pinot Noir that sells for $40 a bottle. Clearly this is a "statement" and a bold move, but it's one that already is backfiring with some merchants.

The Drouhin unveiling here at the Four Seasons Hotel was splashy. More than 100 retailers and wholesalers attended a luncheon, and when they heard the price of the wine, their reaction was instant. A sampling of the emotions showed anger, bitterness and dismay.

"Ridiculous," said one South Bay wine merchant. "There are California Pinots that are better at half the price."

Earlier, at the press conference, Drouhin disputed that. He began his remarks by saying that his belief in Oregon as a great growing region for Pinot Noir "does not mean I am critical of what is being done in other regions, by other people."

However, he later continued: "I am very often very critical of our California friends when they make Pinot Noir. I think they should concentrate on the grapes that are successful here.

"In this country, up to now, the nature of Pinot Noir has not been well understood. You have been educated with Cabernet Sauvignon. If you judge Pinot Noir on its color," he said, "you are impressed with the wine that has the most color," but color isn't as important in Pinot Noir as it is in Cabernet.

He added that "very often California Pinot Noir does not taste of Pinot Noir." He said that too many Californians try to grow Pinot Noir in regions that are too warm, and the result is wine that lacks the true character of Pinot Noir.

"Sure, and what does he think of the Russian River and the Carneros?" sniffed a Los Angeles merchant when told that. "Are they too warm? Are they making thin wine?"

"Yeah, and what about Santa Barbara?" said another merchant. "What are Byron, Babcock, Au Bon Climat and Wild Horse making? Swill?"

"Sure, I can sell six bottles of this stuff," said the South Bay merchant of Drouhin's Pinot. "On its curiosity value. But at 32 bucks? Come on. I'll take Chalone, Calera, Dehlinger, Swan. . . ." He rattled off the names of another half dozen top California producers that make excellent Pinot Noir at lower prices.

"And don't forget the Mondavi Reserve," interrupted another.

"So what's his price going to be when he makes a better wine than this and he has 15,000 cases?" asked a San Diego merchant. "Fifty bucks? Sixty? That will really sell well."

The fact is, this first effort is a striking one, and it does solidify Oregon's claim as a potential Pinot Noir heaven, a place where it is possible to make fine Burgundian-style wine. And Drouhin's very presence in the Oregon scene adds luster to the image that Oregon hopes to gain.

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