In Dan Berger’s latest Vintage Experiences he relates a conversation with a fellow judge, and East Coast Burgundy junkie, who indicated concern about California Pinot Noir and the current fad to blend these with 24% Syrah to obtain more color at the expense of covering up nuance. I was with him all the way until he stepped off the cliff of absolutism: “Color in Pinot Noir ought to be pale, not black. If you see a black Pinot, something is wrong.”

Simplistic truisms are almost never true in the wine world, and Pinot is even tougher to nail down than most grapes. This guy may know Burgundy, but he sure doen’t know Pinot. While I share his concern, he should have more respect for the variability of which Pinot is capable.

Dan, take this boob to Flowers Winery. The Pinots there in sight of the Pacific Ocean are black as the darkest Syrah, and not only are they pure Pinot, but they are wonderfully expressive of its possibilities of character nuance. Still, I do not usually enjoy them as finished wines, because they have such unrefined tannin, and that is because these special grapes don’t respond well to Burgundian methods.

I question whether this guy’s palate training on French wines qualifies him to evaluate California Pinot winemaking practices. I myself would like to see California wines deliver more energy, nuance and depth, and I believe GrapeCraft principles to be helpful: mineral energy from living soil, soulfulness through refined structure.

But that’s just me. California has few terroirs which will give us Burgundian wines, so we have to explore other styles we are capable of and for which the market has appetite. The main question is “What is the style?”, not “How is it made?”

Syrah or no Syrah, most California Pinots are going for The Big Wine rather than the ethereal nuances of Burgundy, the more so since Sideways dragged all those trend-conscious Merlot drinkers into the game. I’m not enthusiastic about this path, but neither was I happy when the Oregonians went into an internal shell for two decades, during which they made a lot of substandard wine. Yet they finally emerged with a wonderful and distinctive style that’s all their own.