Message from California Winemakers: Stop Slandering Our Pinot!

Pinot noir grapes have a much darker hue than ...
Pinot Noir grapes

“I do like those bigger, lustier Pinots. I know some people around here spike ‘em with Syrah. Maybe I got seduced by them.” –Rex Pickett, author of Sideways and Vertical, in a Palate Press interview

“Some wineries add a dash of Syrah for color and backbone.” –James Laube, Wine Spectator

“The lack of coloring would be a factor in poor score wine ratings (for Pinot) from wine critics. In response to these poor scores, some Russian River winemakers altered their techniques in order to enhance the color. These techniques ranged from blending in the darker color Alicante Bouschet and Syrah or the red wine concentrate known as ‘Mega Purple’.” –Wikipedia entry on the Russian River Valley AVA

Winemakers who work hard to bring pure, outstanding Pinot Noir to their customers are sick of stuff like this. But cutting Pinot with Syrah or other varieties is perfectly legal. In California, a wine can be labeled “Pinot Noir” as long as 75% of the wine is Pinot. So why do we care if winemakers are cutting their Pinot?

The answer goes back to the wine’s historical home: Burgundy. In Burgundy, Pinot is Pinot. Blends are not accepted and celebrated. This is not true in regions like Bordeaux, where Cabernet is routinely blended with other varieties, or the Rhone Valley, where Syrah mingles with Viognier in the North while blending with a long list of varieties (including Grenache and Mourvedre) in the South. Most grapes, even in their most heralded regions, are comfortably blended. But Pinot is not.

Adam Lee, co-owner and co-winemaker of Siduri and Novy, reminds us that even in Burgundy, there were stories of blending Pinot with other varieties. But I would assume even Lee would not claim that the high-end producers in Burgundy are offering anything other than 100% Pinot Noir today. And there certainly isn’t a legal window to create a blend consisting of 25% “other varieties” in Burgundy.

Lee also wisely points out that you can’t substantiate a negative. In other words, want to prove that high-end Pinot producers in California aren’t cutting their wines? Essentially, you can’t. You have to, as Lee writes in this piece for Palate Press, take their word for it. And he adds that he knows a lot of high-end, small-production Pinot makers, and he knows “that none of them add Syrah to their Pinots.”

This point was echoed by Larry Brooks, winemaker at Tolosa in the Edna Valley, in a recent interview with W. Blake Gray. Brooks contends “that this happens mostly in cheaper Pinots, not the expensive single-vineyard ones.” And Brian Loring, who makes a range of popular Pinots under his own name, wrote on the popular wine bulletin board Wine Berserkers that blending Syrah into Pinot is “simply not done” and added that California Pinot is dealing with “the urban myth of added Syrah.”

So let’s try to answer some questions. Is it a myth? Why should this matter to wine consumers? Can we get beyond “take my word for it”? Can we ever know how often Pinot is cut with other varieties?

Larger production Pinot: Don’t assume it’s pure Pinot Noir

There is a clear difference between small and large producers, which is a fair place to start. And consumers ought to know that big-production Pinot is not always pure Pinot. We can’t know exactly how often it’s a blend, but there are mounds of evidence that indicate consumers who want to think they’re getting pure Pinot on the cheap are getting something else.

Red Bicyclette
French defendants faced huge fines for illegally passing off other grapes as Pinot Noir.

This does not mean that American producers are engaging in fraud. Legal blending decisions are a world away from the recent Red Bicyclette scandal, which involved eighteen million bottles of French wine that was supposed to be at least 85% Pinot Noir. Turns out it was cheap Merlot and Syrah.

American winemakers are well within their rights to blend other varieties into their Pinot, even if California Pinot can show plenty of color and flavor depth without help. And it’s safe to assume that, when we’re talking about Pinot Noir being cut with other varieties, it’s happening much more often with large production wines.

RedTree Pinot Noir impressed James Laube enough to earn his praise and an 88-point score in Wine Spectator, high for a large-production wine. Laube’s tasting note does not include the fact that the wine is a blend, but his blog post on the wine (in which he describes the Pinot as “excellent”) describes the winemaker’s decision to add an unknown red blending variety. The winemaker told Laube that he used the unknown red blend because Pinot needed help achieving the “right flavor profile.” Laube did not ask what is wrong with Pinot’s flavor profile on its own, but we can discern the answer. Pinot is notoriously difficult to grow and make well, and in many large-production operations, it doesn’t receive the attention it needs to thrive.

An employee at a large California wine company told me how it works in the creation of many thousands of cases of Pinot across several brands: “Samples were broken out solely by Syrah levels. The Pinot with the largest dose of Syrah was the winner. It was more that it wasn’t that much worse than the others, and it became a resting place for some leftover juice, and it was darker.” The employee did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal, but added, “Syrah needs a dumping ground for a lot of people right now.”

Jon Bonne, the outstanding wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, summed it up thusly: “If we’re that worried about Merlot being blended into cheap Pinot, there’s an easy solution: Stop drinking cheap Pinot.”

What about small-production, high-end, Pinot?

Now let’s look at the Pinots in which Brian Loring says adding Syrah is “simply not done.”

I spoke to Rick Moshin, owner and winemaker of Moshin Vineyards in the Russian River Valley. He has a unique opportunity to understand what’s happening with Pinot on an artisan level because he not only makes his own Pinot; he makes Pinot for seven other wineries (and more in previous years). Moshin’s facility allows him to make 10,000 cases a year on his own label, half of which is Pinot, and 20,000 cases for clients.

Moshin told me he would not reveal his clients, but said they are well known names in the industry. He also was quick to praise his colleagues, insisting that Pinot can be special in the Russian River Valley and surrounding appellations and he believes there are already many producers proving it.

But he disagrees with Lee, Brooks, and Loring when it comes to whether small producers cut their Pinot with other varieties.

“Just because you’re small doesn’t mean you don’t do it,” Moshin said. “It just means no one knows you do it. The public is kind of in the dark.”

Moshin is not claiming that high-end Pinot producers commonly cut their Pinot with other varieties. “It’s not common, but it’s not exactly rare,” he said.

He explained that when a client wants a darker, bolder Pinot, he’s often asked to add Syrah, but occasionally he’s blended Petit Sirah and even Zinfandel into Pinot at the request of clients.

“I have to make the wines for these people. I know what’s done,” he said. “I follow their orders, and they request all kinds of things. We do what we’re asked to do and we’re not responsible for the end result, and sometimes I think what’s done can ruin the wines.”

The addition of Syrah is not hard to spot, Moshin said. “You can taste even two percent Syrah in many cases.”

Moshin said he would never cut his own Pinots. “That’s defeating the purpose of Pinot Noir,” he said, then added, “That’s fine if you’re looking for high scores. I’ve talked about these practices with other winemakers and I think it’s probably often about points. I’ve stopped submitting my wines, so they’re in a different position. I understand that.”

Moshin makes 15 different Pinots that comprise his 5,000 cases, and in doing so he delights in searching for the finest nuances from site to site. His wines show softer colors and lower alcohols and have earned high praise from such esteemed writers as Dan Berger.

But perhaps most importantly, Moshin makes it a priority to talk to customers about what Pinot is supposed to be. He finds many customers expect thick, black Pinot Noir, perhaps having encountered Pinots that have been, in Moshin’s words, “corrupted.”

“These practices of blending Pinot or other things have helped create a customer base that often doesn’t understand what Pinot is about,” he said. “When customers get the idea that Pinot should not have softer colors and lower alcohol, it affects all of us who make the wine. We feel the pressure to take it darker.”

Dark Pinot: Don’t just assume it’s cut with other varieties

Adam Lee points to a variety of factors that lead to darker-colored Pinot without the addition of Syrah or other varieties: a longer growing season, enzyme addition, removal of stems from the winemaking process. Moshin agrees and explained that Pinot Noir in California should not be expected to be an exact replica of Pinot Noir in Burgundy. “Conditions are different, clones are different sometimes. There will be darker Pinots that will be pure Pinot and will be outstanding. No doubt about it.”

But Moshin volunteered his distaste for enzymes, which are used to bring more of the wine’s color out. “Enzymes give the wine bitterness. Now you have to use fining agents to get rid of the bitterness that you’ve added yourself. Enzymes can give you color and tannin, but you’re creating new problems for yourself do deal with through further intervention.”

In his interview with W. Blake Gray, Larry Brooks contended that winemaking and growing techniques can create a Pinot Noir with characteristics that overlap with Syrah, without the addition of other varieties. Brooks also stated his belief that the darker a Pinot Noir becomes, the less aromatic it becomes, and the more difficult it is to discern a real sense of place in the wine.

Moshin explained how he discerns whether a Pinot is simply darkly colored, or likely to have been cut with other varieties. “It’s often a combination of factors, not just one. Is the wine black? Is the alcohol high? Does it burn when you drink it? Does it have strange flavors?”

Despite Moshin’s distaste for Pinots cut with other varieties, he’s optimistic about Pinot’s future. “I think there’s a shift away from darker, heavier wines, but slowly,” he said. “We have to keep educating customers about how wine is made and what Pinot is about. When it’s good, there’s nothing better. It can pair with a very wide range of foods and it can show the kind of beauty that we don’t often see in wine.”

Interestingly, Moshin chooses not to add the words “100% Pinot Noir” to his labels. And that leads to an important part of the discussion.

Specific labeling: Can winemakers do more to educate consumers?

Specific information on a wine label helps a consumer understand exactly what they’re drinking. Wineries could include the breakdown by variety on the back label. Winemakers who champion 100% Pinot Noir could stamp it directly onto the label, while winemakers who find it useful to blend other varieties into Pinot could list the specifics.

“There’s no way the average customer understands the legal blending limits,” Moshin said. “People see ‘Pinot Noir’ on the label and very few would know that could mean a wine that’s only seventy-five percent Pinot.”

But some winemakers have publicly expressed concern about offering more details on the label. That’s because the TTB regulates wine labels, and inaccurate labeling could lead to penalties. Adam Lee worries that if the TTB discovered a stray vine or two in a vineyard that supplies grapes for his wines, he could find himself in deep trouble with the government. “I think going with 100% would be silly as it truly could open up a winery to potential regulation problems because of a few vines in the middle of the vineyard (that are not Pinot),” Lee wrote on Wine Berserkers.

Tom Hogue, spokesman for the TTB, explained that the TTB is more than capable of distinguishing between an honest mistake and deception. He wouldn’t characterize Lee’s concerns as unfounded, but only because the TTB does not want to comment on a case that does not exist. But Hogue said he “could never envision” the TTB hammering a winemaker for a simple mistake.

“You’re expected not to mislead the consumer,” Hogue said. “If you’re going to make certain claims on your label, you have to be able to back them up. But we’re a rational agency. We conduct product integrity investigations, and we take everything on a case-by-case basis.”

It’s nearly impossible to find California wineries currently labeling their wine as “100% Pinot Noir.” Given the TTB’s take on this issue, perhaps that will change soon.

What else can be done?

Rick Moshin’s account of cutting Pinot for other wineries, detailed as it is, still lacks an important component: specific names. He understandably protects the names of his clients, but without specific evidence of high-end Pinot cut to boost color and body, it seems more reasonable to take Adam Lee’s approach of taking winemakers at their word.

It won’t hurt, though, to occasionally ask them specifically about their techniques. In fact, even critics ought to be more inquisitive. Witness this tasting note from James Laube describing the Taz 2003 Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills: “You might suspect a dollop of Syrah in this Pinot.” Suspect? Why implicate this producer without asking? If a critic has a direct suspicion, it can be addressed with a single question. Then the tasting note can be more helpful to readers by saying, “This is a big Pinot that evokes the character of Syrah, but the winemaker insists there’s only Pinot in the bottle.”

Laube has written 18 different notes on California Pinot that use the word “Syrah,” with no further help to the reader to know whether it’s just a big, ripe Pinot or a blended wine.

To paint all, or even some, high-end Pinot with a Syrah-soaked brush is certainly unfair. Moshin’s optimism should be a guide. There is wonderful, pure California Pinot coming forth in waves.

(And while we’re at it, can someone update that over-generalizing Wikipedia entry on the Russian River Valley?)

Evan Dawson is the author of Summer in a Glass, a book about Finger Lakes winemakers. Evan is also the  Finger Lakes Editor for the New York Cork Report. His paid job includes offering his best Ron Burgundy impersonation as a morning news anchor and political reporter for WHAM-TV in Rochester, NY.