Dwight The Wine Doctor-Pinot Days Navy Pier Chicago
Story and photos by Dwight Casimere
1. Dwight The Wine Doctor with Alexandre Leclercq of Albert Bichot Wines of France
2. Erin Craig-Wine Consultant Louis Glunz Wines (r) and friend
3. Paul Sloan of Small Vines Wines-Sebastopol, California
4. Cory Davis-Stoller Vineyard
5. Jim Ball and his wife with Dwight The Wine Doctor
6. Stoller Wines
7. Lee Medina-Sokol Blosser Wines
8. Aldo Zaninotto of ROAR Wines
9-11. Some of the "Beautiful People" at Pinot Days
12. Jim Ball Winemaker
13. Alexandre Leclercq of Albert Bichot Wines
14. Maggie Hall-Gypsy Canyon Wine
15. Gray Hartley-Hitching Post Wines
16. Kate MacMurray, Wine Ambassador, MacMurray Ranch Wine
“It’s a good thing you’re here early,” said winemaker/owner Gray Hartley of Hitching Post winery in Nipomo, California. “You weren’t here last year, but within minutes of opening, there was a thundering hoard of thirsty wine lovers at my table!” Hartley’s prediction bore fruit within seconds. The vast expanse of Festival Hall B at Navy Pier became crowded with lovers of wine made from the complex, finicky grape called Pinot Noir.
The grape, and its antecedents, goes back to antiquity. It’s been the subject of a cult-followed Alexander Payne-directed Hollywood film, Sideways (2004), starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. It’s also a wine that has raised as much controversy and sparked passionate arguments, equal to its popularity. The crowd was as diverse as the style and characteristics of the wine. From wine as light and sweet as a summer’s breeze, to dark, almost mahogany or India-ink colored dense wines that smelled of the forest floor and dark, bramble fruit, the 5th annual Pinot Days Chicago Grand Festival Tasting showcased 70 phenomenal producers of Pinot Noir from every important domestic region and a handful from Germany and France. From Sonoma’s Russian River Valley to Oregon, Carneros near Napa Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Pasa Robles, Anderson Valley and the Sonoma Coast, there were up to 300 pinots to sip, swap stories about and savor with a selection of specialty foods from local purveyors. The terrific thing about Pinot Days is that the winemakers and winery owners are on hand to personally pour the wines for you and to talk about how they were made and their unique properties. Here’s a taster’s choice sampling of comments about their wines:
Greg Stach winemaker Landmark Vineyard Kenwood, California- “We focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and I’m pouring our Damaris Reserve ($40) which is our best chardonnay that we have and our pinot noirs (2009 Kanzier-$65, 2009 Sonoma Mountain Grand Detour-$40) which have both been rated 90 points or better. I think what’s special about the wines is that we are really trying to express the vineyards thru the wines. There’s very little handling involved. The pinot grapes are very gently handled acre by acre. It’s a very meticulous winemaking process. Flavor-wise, there’s a lot of fruit and a lot of mushroom in the bottle. Our wine goes well with mushroom- based foods it’s got I get a lot of raspberry and milk chocolate on the nose and on the palette. I would describe it as a classic style of pinot noir. Kanzier is sourced from grapes in the Sebastopol hills. It’s a bigger wine with lots of earthy, forest floor notes. It’s got big blackberry flavors too, with lots of tannins and toasty oak that gives it good structure and balance. It’s still a young wine. I get effusive blackberry fruit when I first taste it. It’s sort of unusual for a California Pinot Noir. I think that’s why the critics rated it so highly (95 points).
Jim Ball-winemaker/owner Jim Ball Vineyards-I’m pouring out 2009 Signature Pinot Noir, which is from Anderson Valley and our Boonville Pinot Noir. Both are made from all Estate Grown fruit and sell for around $45 a bottle. “These are aged in 25 and 50% new French oak, respectively. I think they’d go best with a spiced, wood-smoked Salmon. These are medium bodied wines with a lot of complexity. The Signature, for example, has a lot of sassafras on the nose. (Sound like it’ll go great with Cajun/Creole food) and lots of rich black cherry, plum and dark chocolate. The Boonville has more of a floral characteristic with lots of fruit, like raspberries and blackberries and the smell of violets and rose petals. There’s a little bit of sandalwood in the mix too. That’s why I suggested the smoked salmon.”
The Hitching Post Restaurant in Buellton, California, in Santa Barbara County, is practically a starring character in the popular Alexander Payne film Sideways. One of the characters, Maya (Virginia Madsen) is a waitress there. Restaurant owner/chef Frank Ostini and his good friend, former fisherman Gray Hartley, started making their first Pinot Noir in Frank’s garage in 1979. They moved to a winery in 1984, a quickly drew a cult following to their restaurant and wine bar where the wine was exclusively poured. From making just a few cases of homegrown wine, they’ve increased to over 20,000 cases in their new ultra premium facility at Terravant Winery in Buellton. The wine, as described by Gray Hartley, reflects their shared passion.
“We produce a wine intended to go with food,” Hartley explained in his rather theatrical way of speaking. When he’s not making wine or hanging out at the restaurant, he lends his voice to commercials and does various clothing ad shoots and commercials.
“We started out just making wine for our friends and giving it away, but within a short time, we were making so much, we just couldn’t find enough people to give it to. That’s when we decided to get ourselves a bonded license, and took our winemaking operation to a legitimate facility. So, here we are, thirty years later, and we’re still having fun making wine.”
What’s special about the wines is that we’ve been focusing on wines that are food friendly. As you know, Frank is a chef, and the wine we make is crafted with that idea in mind. If wines are made to complement food, they can accelerate and elevate the dining experience.”
Pinot Noir is most closely associated with the Burgundy region of France, where it gets its name. Pinot noir literally means “black pine” for the dark color and pinecone shaped clusters of grapes on the vine. It is widely considered the finest wine in the world, however, it has a reputation as a difficult variety to both grow and to transform and tame into wine.
Alexandre Leclercq of Albert Bichot wines, a negotiant from France with officers at McClurg Court, Chicago, not far from Navy Pier where the tasting was held, was the sole French proprietor on hand. He presented a handful of wines from his native Beaune, France.
“We have been producing wine since 1831. We are one of the biggest wine producers and negotiants in France. We are part of the history of Burgundy. We produce Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, primarily. We are also one of the biggest producers in Chablis. Now, we have been in the United States for 7 years and are starting to expand our operations. Most of our wines are in the $15 to $35 range. Our Old Vines Pinot Noir is aged 50% in new oak barrels to give it a little bit of structure while maintaining the freshness of the Pinot noir grape. Our next tier of wines sell for $22 a bottle and $35 respectively. They’re aged 50% in new oak for a year to give them more pronounced flavor and complexity. The real difference with our wines is that we provide the same complex, structured wines that you’ll find elsewhere for twice the price or more!”
There were just as many people ordering cases of wine to be shipped later as there were those who simply came to imbibe and enjoy the party. With the Holidays right around the corner, you can bet there will be plenty of food-friendly Pinot Noir on tables throughout the Chicagoland area. Pinot Days heads to Southern California January 28, 2012, Dallas, April 21, 2012 and San Francisco (at Fort Mason, between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge), June 16, 2012. Mark your calendar; I just might see you at one of them.