Can it be that hard to make great or even good pinot noir wines? Sure, it’s a delicate grape, a little high-strung, requiring careful nurture. Here, however, is my more than reasonable dicta to (mainly) producers in California, for whom pinot noir is a sort of Holy Grail: Lay off the oak! Avoid deep extraction! Keep the freakin’ alcohol at a sane level!

See how simple it is?

The errant pinot noirs that I’m going to mention today don’t necessarily taste bad; I don’t mean that you would spit them out in a gush of disgust. They just don’t taste (or look or smell) like pinot noir. These are the pinot noir wines that would sit before a Senate subcommittee and confess, “Yes, Your Excellency, in 2006 I did indulge in performance-enhancing substances, but my doctor made me do it.”

Now I understand that there’s no reason why pinot noir producers in California and Oregon should slavishly imitate the manner of pinot noir made in Burgundy, the grape’s natural homeland. Differences in geography, climate, soil and philosophy dictate varied approaches to farming and winemaking and of the impressionable grape itself to these conditions. I have found myself frequently defending a pinot from Russian River Valley or Santa Rita Hills from charges that it is “too Californian.” Yet the essence of the grape should and must remain intact; where a pinot noir wine is powerful, that power should be married to delicacy, and where it is dynamic, that dynamism should be allied with elegance. The world of wine has room for blockbusters; we call them syrah, petite sirah and zinfandel. Pinot noir requires finesse, a lighter touch.

Here, then, are five pinot noirs wines from four regions of California that displeased me to greater or lesser degrees, but mainly by taking on the pumped-up character of other grapes. I will, next week, post reviews of pinot noirs wines that I do, indeed, admire.

I swear, sometimes I don’t know what to think of X Winery. In some ways, I’m a great admirer. Certainly the winery’s flagship xpinot.jpgproduct, Amicus, which debuted in the 2000 vintage, is a great Napa Valley cabernet-based wine that happens to sell for half or a third of what comparable wines sell for. (My reviews of the two Amicus wines from 2005 are here.) X’s merlot and regular cabernet sauvignon are always compellingly sleek and integrated; the petite sirah is appropriately rustic and bumptious; and the blended X Winery Red Wine and the “ES” Sauvignon Blanc are consistently attractive bargains.

But I blow hot and cold on X’s chardonnay. I thought that the X Winery Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Carneros, Napa Valley, was pretty much a travesty, made more so because the chardonnay that the Truchard winery itself makes from these vines is exquisite. On the other hand, the X Winery Chardonnay 2007, Los Carneros, from the Truchard Vineyard (54%) and the well-known Sangiacomo Vineyard (46%) is one of the best, most balanced and integrated, yet boldly flavorful chardonnays X Winery has made to date; I mean you just want to kiss the limestone. It rates Excellent, and at $19, it’s a steal. That’s nice and all that, but such inconsistency is disturbing.

The point here is that I feel the same way about the X Winery Truchard Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 as I did about its chardonnay counterpart from 2006. The wine ages 12 months in 90 percent French oak, of which 30 percent of the barrels were new; that might not be too much oak for some wines, but it was too much for this one, which is dominated by a strident brown sugar element, aggressive spice and downright woodiness. I expect — no, hope for –more finesse from this producer. 784 cases. Good only. About $25.
I’ll back-track for a second here and say that the Hahn Estates Pinot Noir 2006, Monterey County, did not displease me greatly, but it certainly didn’t please me a great deal either. This would be a nifty wine if it were a syrah, but it is, of course, not. Nothing wrong with the oak regimen here; 10 months in French oak, 65 percent new, seems right. The alcohol, however, is 14.5 percent, and the sweet heat and over-ripeness of alcohol really make themselves known. The wine is big and ripe, intense and concentrated, with macerated and roasted black currants and blackberries; did I mention syrah already? The texture is so super-satiny that it envelops your tongue; you feel almost as if you can’t get away from it. Not a bad wine if it were something else, but not a good pinot noir. Good+. About $20.
Spice dominates the Ventana Vineyards Pinot Noir 2006, Arroyo Seco, Monterey, from start to finish, and by the time I got to that finish, I could have been convinced that what I was drinking was a very spicy, very ripe merlot or a slightly mild-mannered syrah. Sorry, there was nothing particularly pinot noirish about this wine. It aged 10 months in French oak — we are not informed about the percentage of new to old barrels — and the alcohol is a sane 13.5 percent; no red flags there. Still, I kept hoping for something more distinctively characteristic of the grape than spicy black cherry and plum flavors and a smooth texture. Not that it tasted bad or anything; the wine was actually attractive. It just didn’t smell or taste like pinot noir, and it is, I believe, the responsibility of a winemaker, whatever his or her vision of a wine, to give us a wine that’s varietally true. Good+. About $28.
When the initial aromas of a pinot noir wine are smoke and charred beef, you know you’re in trouble. That was the case with the MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2006, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, a “pinot noir” so dark and spicy, so robust and hearty, so laced with qualities of leather and black pepper, that you would have sworn it was — need I say it? — a syrah. I’m a fan of MacMurray’s Pinot Gris, which is one of the best in California, and I have usually liked the winery’s Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. This Russian River Valley version, however, was beyond the pale. Good+. About $37.

This is the point in this post where some readers (and perhaps winemakers) are beginning to get restive and mutter, “Who the hell does this guy think he is, telling winemakers that the wines they have worked on and exercised their thoughts and talents on happen to be not varietally true? Sheesh!”

Listen: Grapes have character, and they have characteristics, and while it’s true that the character and characteristics of grapes must necessarily admit variations that derive from the soil where they are grown and the climate that influences them, they still must retain the core, the heart of their essence. Whatever its regional influences, a wine based on the cabernet sauvignon grape, for example, should be identifiable by its essence of black currant, slate, cedar and tobacco, whether made in Pauillac, the Napa Valley or the Hunter Valley. In fact, that sense of a grape’s essential nature bolstered by and integrated with regional qualities should provide one of wine-tasting and drinking’s most profound pleasures.

Some grapes are more malleable than others, as witness sauvignon blanc wines made, say, in Sancerre, Graves, Lake County and Marlborough. What a heady set of variations that geographical extent produces, yet the wines are still identifiable as sauvignon blanc. Less malleable is the pinot noir grape, whose essential (and potentially glorious) character allows only a narrow range of variations, lest it be turned into something perverse.

The word “malleable” is important, because it implies the influence of the human element, the laying on of hands in the process of turning grapes into wine. There is no such matter as a truly “hands-off” approach to winemaking, but those hands must be gentle, not manipulative, offering guidance and nurture, not forceful shaping or ego-driven intervention. The eloquence of a wine, its ability to express the natural character of its grapes, come not from the winemaker but from the grapes themselves. The winemaker’s job is to make certain that those grapes sing. When a merlot smells and tastes like zinfandel, when a pinot noir smells and tastes like syrah, when a gruner veltliner smells and tastes like chardonnay, a great and sad failure has occurred.
I was speaking of character. The Wild Horse Cheval Sauvage Pinot Noir 2005, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County, on the other hand, is a caricature. Far from being “classically elegant,” as the material that came with the wine asserts, this is a big, beefy, body-builder of a pinot noir, packed with the off-putting brown sugar quality that distinguishes too many pinot noirs made in California, especially if, like this wine, they have gone through 15 months in oak. This wine is deeply extracted, dark, weighty, exaggerated and, as far as reflecting its origins goes, not a success. 720 cases. About $65.