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The Holy Grail: Pinot Noir Under $15

Posted on  | August 1, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Quietly, confidently, this noble varietal wine is transitioning from cellar-dweller to crowd-pleaser.

Scene from Pinot Noir vineyard in California

When Constellation Brands, one of the biggest wine suppliers in the world, paid $160 million last year for Mark West—the $10 Pinot Noir brand—industry veterans weren‛t surprised.

“I think they’re going to get their money’s worth,” says Thomas McGarry, the wine manager at Super Buy-Rite Wines & Liquors in Jersey City, NJ, where he sells as many as 400 cases of Mark West a year and stocks 60 to 70 SKUs of Pinot Noir that cost less than $15 a bottle. “There has been incredible growth in this category over the last couple of years.”

Incredible, in fact, may be an understatement. Pinot Noir, traditionally the province of enophiles with deep pockets, has been a fine wine more than a mass wine for good reason: The grape has long been considered difficult to grow and just as difficult to make, even when it was expensive.

And when it wasn’t expensive? It rarely tasted like Pinot, even in the way less expensive Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay can still taste like the variety and it usually had off flavors as well. In fact, a variety of well-regarded winemakers around the world, including Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm, long ago gave up on Pinot (at any price) for just those reasons.

That all may be changing. Consumers have responded to Pinot Noir that costs $15 or less by coming back for more, and the wine business is scurrying to keep up with them. The reasons for the surge in consumer interest are hazy, perhaps equal parts recession, Pinot’s fruity and less tannic taste profile, maybe even the lingering halo of the movie Sideways. Regardless, the industry is selling Pinot as never before, with sales up 8½% for the 52 weeks ending May 19, as measured by the analyst firm SymphonyIRI. And Pinot costing less than $15 accounts for almost three-quarters of the category’s sales as measured by dollar volume during that period.

“Pinot has not been as well known as the core varietals,” says Curtis Mann, the director of wine and spirits insights for SymphonyIRI. “It was not where consumers started off, but switched to Pinot from another varietal. But there’s been a huge run-up over the past five or six years, and it looks like it’s going to continue to grow.”

Decade of Momentum

The Pinot boom began about a decade ago, and many observers believe the catalyst was Mark West. That label, introduced by California’s Purple Wine Co., was the first inexpensive Pinot to score with consumers, says Dave McIntyre, the wine columnist for the Washingon Post: “The success of Mark West was a combination of sourcing decent grapes in large amounts, creating a consistent and recognizable style of wine, and savvy marketing—including its slogan, ‘Pinot for the people.’”

Cheap Pinot is not new. Roy Cecchetti, the president and owner of California’s Cecchetti Wine Co., made a lot of it for Pepperwood Grove, then a Sebastiani family brand. But no Pinot at any price had done what Mark West has done over the past 10 years: It grew to 600,000 cases in annual sales and had established itself as the category leader when Purple sold it to Constellation Brands for $160 million in 2012. To put that in perspective, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and its Italian partner, Marchesi Antinori, paid $185 million for “Judgment of Paris” winery Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 2007 at the height of the fine wine boom. That a grocery store wine could come anywhere close to that figure speaks volumes about how the wine market has shifted and the role inexpensive Pinot Noir has played in that shift.

Now Mark West is pacing at 800,000 cases-per-year, says Marketing Director Juan Fonseca, and Constellation Brands expects the brand to accelerate even more, up to a rate of 1 million cases annually within the next 18 to 24 months. More perspective: 1 million cases is about 40 percent of the total Pinot Noir that Burgundy exports every year—not just to the U.S. but to the world.

“There was an obvious need in our portfolio—we didn’t have a Pinot brand at that price,” says Fonseca. “And it had a consumer following for the price/quality ratio associated with the product. The sweet spot for Pinot is under $15, and $10 is the bullseye.”

Other producers have followed in a near frenzy. E. & J. Gallo’s Mirassou and Barefoot are the next best-selling under-$15 Pinots, while Bronco Wine Co. makes bargain Pinot under a dozen labels. There are Chilean, French and New Zealand imports; brands from independent producers like Cecchetti Wine Co.’s Line 39 and Bogle; and even new big-supplier labels featuring Pinot Noir, such as Diageo’s Velvet Crush. This development, says Napa wine marketing consultant Paul Tincknell, is one of the few he can think of where the U.S. wine business has followed consumers, instead of trying to lead them to a new product. His take on the consumer interest? “They were tired of Cabernet and Merlot,” says Tincknell. “They wanted to try something different.”

There remains a question why consumers, who had seemed content with “bigger” red varietals for so long, decided they wanted something new. And it’s important to note that Cabernet and Merlot remain more popular; Cabernet outsells Pinot by about 2½ to 1, while Merlot outsells it by some 7 to 6, according to Nielsen case statistics.

With those two leading reds essentially holding ground, it may well be that new Pinot Noir drinkers are coming from elsewhere. Chris Keel, who owns a small fine wine shop in Fort Worth, TX,  called Put a Cork in It, observes, “I am selling cheaper Pinot Noir to people moving away from Moscato, saying they are too sweet now. Moscato was the ‘gateway’ wine, but now they want to branch out and try some reds, so Pinot Noir makes sense.”

Still at the Movies?

Other industry members point to the paean to Pinot Noir, Sideways—not because so many people saw it and were converted (the 2004 movie grossed $71 million, a relative pittance for Hollywood), but because it made the casual wine drinker aware there was something more to try than the usual red wines.

“There’s an insecurity in the wine-consuming public,” says Donny Sebastiani of Don Sebastiani & Sons, whose family has been making wine in California for four generations. “Sometimes, they need something to guide them in their wine selection, and in this case it was Sideways.” Guidance might be a strong term but the film’s belittling of Merlot and elevation of Pinot Noir became fodder around American water coolers; even people who never saw the movie could catch on to the gist of Pinot Noir being hip.

The other advantage of these Pinots, in large part because of the style that Mark West pioneered, is that they are easier to drink—softer, lower in alcohol, less acidic and less tannic, with a smoother fruit profile than Cabernet and Merlot.

Purists may like to dismiss under-$15 Pinot as sub-standard, not true Pinot, etc., but the bulk of America is not keen on debating varietal character; they just like what they like. Or, as Keith Roberts, the owner of Vintage Cellars, a 4,000-square-foot fine wine shop in Blacksburg, VA, where Castle Rock and Bronco’s Coastal Vines are among the best-selling under–$15 Pinots, says: “As long as there is vanilla oak, people go yum, yum.”

This kind of wine doesn’t have the dark earthiness of red Burgundy, given the cost limitations and terroir differences, but most of the Mark West–style wines are much better made than comparably priced Pinot Noirs from elsewhere in France and often taste more like Pinot Noir. And Oregon Pinots, for all their quality and style, hardly exist at less than $15.

Those who argue that these new-style Pinots don’t taste like traditional Pinot—whether from Burgundy, Oregon or even Santa Barbara—point to the grapes often used to fill out the wine, including Grenache, Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and even Refosco, Tannat and Dornfelder, and which turn it into a very fruit-forward wine (as well as keep the price down).

McIntyre, however, thinks those arguments miss the point. “I don’t think customers will care if their inexpensive Pinot isn’t 100% pure,” says McIntyre. “They won’t know. Geekier customers will want truth in advertising. And we’ll always be guessing what other grapes are in that bottle of dark, brooding California Pinot, no matter the price.”

And, says Gallo’s Stephanie Gallo, her company hasn’t seen this as a problem, either: “Consumers will try Pinot Noir and discover its distinctive taste profile. It is because of this distinctive taste profile that consumers will continue to repurchase Pinot Noir.”

That enough Pinot could exist, given the grape’s legendary fickleness, is the other surprise. But, says Cecchetti, that’s not necessarily true any more. As recently as the 2000s, he says, it was difficult to source Pinot. But as demand increased, growers planted more—lots and lots more. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that Pinot acreage increased in California by almost 50% from 2001 to 2012, compared to 18% for all red grapes.

In addition, new viticulture techniques, including improved canopy management and irrigation, plus better approaches to crop management, make it easier to grow Pinot successfully—and not just in California’s cooler, more Pinot-friendly climates, says Bronco winemaker Bob Stashak. All of Bronco’s Pinot grapes come from the San Joaquin Valley, and while the wines don’t have red Burgundy’s earthiness or mushrooms, the Pinot Noirs Stashak and his seven colleagues make (mostly Pinot blended with one of the aforementioned grapes), “don’t seem to cause many problems. The wines are elegant and tasty. They may not have the whole gamut of flavors, but you can get the nice fruit flavors, the strawberry and plum.”

Plus, they don’t cost a lot. Here in America in 2013, what more could a wine drinker want?  

Taste Test
Under-$15 Pinot Noir comes in several styles and what seem to be even more flavors, as if they were surrounding the idea of traditonal Pinot. Still, most of the wines have some characteristics in common, whether they’re in the $10 and up or the less than $10 segments:

  • Lots and lots of fruit, and almost as much oak (from chips or staves or dominoes or whatever). The former is true even in wines that aren’t blended with something else, but are 100% wines and the blended Pinots are even more fruit-forward.
  • Not a lot of acid or tannins, even for Pinot Noir. This seems to be a conscious winemaking decision, aimed at the U.S. palate.
  • Low alcohol. Despite the trend toward 15% pinot noir toward the higher end, these wines are mostly less than 14%, and some are even less than 13%.

What does someone whose specialty is cheap wine, both on my Wine Curmudgeon blog and in my upcoming book, The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wine, look for in under-$15 Pinot? Two things: some varietal character, and balance, because a Pinot that is too fruit-forward is just another red blend. These wines passed that test during a recent tasting of some three dozen samples.

Under $10
Casillero del Diablo 2012 ($9, Chile, 13.5%): Tastes like a Chilean wine, but also like pinot, a little dark and a little old-fashioned.

Cono Sur “Bicicleta” 2012 ($9, Chile, 13.5%): My favorite of the tasting, with an almost Burgundian earthiness and restrained cherry fruit.

Mirassou NV
($9, California, 13.5%): Nicely balanced, with acidity evening out the red fruit and a zingy finish.

Turning Leaf 2011 ($6, California, 13%): The biggest surprise, with a hint of varietal character, not too much fruit, and tannins and a finish not normally associated with a $6 wine.

Edna Valley 2010 ($15, San Louis Obispo, 13.9%): Solid example of California style, fruit forward with velvety tannins.

Harlow Ridge 2012
($11, Lodi, 12.5%): Lots of red fruit, but mostly balanced with a Pinot-like finish. Who knew there was Pinot in Lodi?
Julia James 2011
($12, California, 13%): Lighter, but modern-style Pinot with soft tannins and ripe cherry fruit.
Line 39 2012 ($12, Central Coast, 14.5%): More sophisticated, richer and with deep red fruit that shows off the appellation.

Mark West 2011 ($10, California, 13.8%): Tasty, with soft red fruit and almost too much oak—the style that launched 1 million cases.

Tortoise Creek
“Les Oliviers” 2011
($11, Limoux, 13.5%):
Honest, straightforward French Pinot made in the European style.


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