Wine: A 'Sideways' look at pinot noir
"Sideways" has been blamed for a lot of things, especially by merlot lovers. But Adam Lee, one of California’s leading makers of pinot noir, says the 2004 film that galvanized a market for pinot may have fixed a particularly narrow perception of the wine in the American consumer's mind.
“When 'Sideways' was popular, the 2003 and 2004 vintages were released,” Lee told me recently during a visit to Washington. “Those were the hottest years we’ve had to deal with: That big expression of pinot became locked in the market’s perception. When ‘05 was cooler, people said California was pulling back.”
So if too many pinot noirs today seem big and clumsy, perhaps the industry is trying to recreate the brawny pinots of ’03 and ’04 out of a belief that consumers want them that way.
Lee, 46, created the Siduri label in 1994 with his wife, Dianna. Based in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, the pair produce pinot noir from various coastal regions such as Sonoma Coast and the Santa Lucia Highlands as well as a number of single-vineyard bottlings from prime pinot spots ranging from Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills to Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
They produce wines from other grapes such as syrah, chardonnay and viognier under a second label, Novy Family Wines, named for Dianna’s family. They made 107 cases of their first vintage; today, they produce
70,000 20,000 cases of wine each year. They don’t own any vineyards, but contract by the acre rather than the ton, an arrangement that gives them maximum control over viticulture during the season and guarantees the vintner a certain payment regardless of yields.
(Siduri is the Babylonian goddess of wine, Lee explained. When they submitted their first label for approval by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the regulators didn’t appreciate the cartoon drawing of the wine’s namesake. “They made us take the nipples off,” Lee said. “We’ve left her that way ever since.”)
Although Siduri wines enjoyed immediate critical success, Lee acknowledges they succumbed to some fads. “When we started, everybody was preaching low yields, so we took them really low,” he said. “When yields are too low, sugar rises faster than the grapes actually ripen,” leading to excessive alcohol and imbalanced wine.
He’s also a skeptic of the so-called “natural wine” movement, which preaches minimal intervention in the vineyard and winery to allow the wine “to make itself.”
“I think ‘natural’ does a disservice to wine by taking the human aspect out of it, just as it is wrong to argue that more intervention is necessarily better,” Lee said. “Great wine is a marriage of nature and man.”
In 2008, for example, his pinot in the Russian River Valley suffered from a rot known as botrytis cinerea. Along with careful selection of grapes, Lee opted to add more yeast than he normally does in order to initiate a faster, more reliable fermentation. That would have been taboo for natural winemaking, but Lee wasn’t willing to risk a stuck fermentation or other problems that could develop.
That ability to adapt winemaking to the variability of vintage conditions brought us back to the "Sideways" analogy. We shouldn’t expect wines to fit a single model year to year, but adapt to the conditions nature gives us. And that’s a sentiment fans of natural wine would probably agree with.
Lee showed some resilience toward nature’s variability as he shivered cheerfully throughout his D.C. visit. “I’m going to Scottsdale after this,” he said. “I packed a bathing suit, but I forgot a coat.”
Siduri Pinot Noirs are at risk of attaining cult status, and they sell out quickly. The appellation line, a terrific value at around $30 per bottle, are easiest to find; my favorite is the 2009 Sonoma Coast. Single-vineyard wines such as the deep and spicy Cargasacchi Vineyard 2009 from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation in Santa Barbara County or the Garys’ Vineyard from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County offer more complexity and will reward a few years’ patience in your cellar. They sell for about $55. In the Novy line, don’t miss the 2008 Syrah from the Santa Lucia Highlands ($30) and the 2009 Viognier from the Russian River Valley ($20).