We often wonder how pinot noir got so expensive. There was once a time in our early years of winemaking when burgundy cost considerably more than California pinot noir. Now, it’s the opposite. We can find excellent burgundies from areas like Mercurey, Givy and Maconnais that are reasonably priced under $50. A good pinot noir from California or Oregon is often $70 or more.
We recently asked for an explanation from Daniel Warnshuis, winemaker and primary owner of Utopia Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge appellation of northern Willamette Valley. Warnshuis was one of the many who retired from a lucrative career in Silicon Valley to launch a winery and fulfill a dream. If anyone understood the current pricing challenges, it would be an upstart winemaker like him.
Warnshuis, a broad-shouldered guy who racked up awards for swimming butterfly at Michigan State University, said he drives the tractor and puts as much manual labor into the soil as his pickers. His family even sorts the grapes to manage expenses. That makes him unique from the upstarts who put their names on the label but hires other people to do the work for them.
“Supply and demand,” he cited as one reason for pinot noir’s lofty prices. Like other craft pinot noir producers, Warnshuis started out with a manageable production so he’s not stuck with an unmanageable inventory to sell. He eschews distributors and retailers, each of whom takes a cut of his profits, and sells all of his wine through his tasting room and wine club. His goal is to simply to sell all the wine he produces. However, other winery owners keep production down just to keep prices high. It’s not uncommon to see people on waiting lists for wines that easily exceed $100 a bottle. Beaux Freres’ Palissage Vineyard Pinot Noir clocks in at $150 – if you can find it.
Warnshuis, however, said it’s more than market demands that drives pinot noir’s insane prices. Like others, he makes his wine without sulphites. And, labor is in short supply.
“It’s more costly to make wine organically because it’s labor intensive. And, the cost of labor goes up every year and there is competition for help,” he said. Pickers are so short in supply that he may turn to volunteers at harvest time. A scarcity of labor means higher wages.
Utopia Vineyard’s wines are comparatively well priced, but consumers will still gasp as spending $48 for an estate pinot nor and $65 for a reserved pinot noir.
We liked the 2014 Utopia Vineyard Estate Pinot ($48) – a light-colored pinot noir with red berry flavors and good acidity – but we really enjoyed the 2014 Utopia Vineyard Estate Reserve Clone 777 ($65) for its well-defined and nuanced flavors. Utopia also makes a killer estate chardonnay with just a kiss of oak that sells for $45.
Warnshuis hasn’t yet found the perfect “utopia,” but that doesn’t really exist, right? His wines, however, can be found at utopiawine.com.
California pinot noir
The Willamette Valley isn’t the only place for good pinot noir. Here are a few new releases from producers who make several single-vineyard pinot noirs:
- Calera Ryan Vineyard Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir 2016 ($65). From one of our favorite pinot noir producers now owned by Duckhorn, Calera turns out consistently good wine year after year. This single-vineyard pinot noir from a site in the Gavilan Mountains is serious business. Intense and focused cherry and sage aromas marry with plum, black cherry and currant flavors with a dash of minerality. Less muscular but equally appealing is the 2016 Calera Mt. Harlan Mills ($75) – a more effusive version with lush raspberry and black cherry flavors.
- Maggy Hawk Unforgettable Pinot Noir ($65). After making great wines in the Willamette Valley, well-respected winemaker Tony Rynders landed a gig with Jackson Family Wines at this impressive vineyard in Anderson Valley. Every one of the four pinot noirs in the portfolio are excellent and demonstrate the impact of pinot noir clones. It is a good balance of elegance and power with fresh black cherry flavors.
- Lucienne Santa Lucia Highlands Doctor’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($50). Hahn Family Wines has a series of three spectacular pinot noirs grown in arguably the best region in California for pinot noir. We liked this juicy and dense version with copious cherry fruit with hints of spice and forest floor. The other two versions demonstrate the diversity of the vineyards here. The Smith Vineyard pinot noir has raspberry notes and brighter fruit while the Lone Oak Vineyard pinot has sweet fruit with nice earthiness. All three are impressive.
- Inman Pratt Vine Hill Pinot Noir 2016 ($73). Inman makes some of the best terroir-driven pinot noir in Sonoma County and its trio of new releases affirm that once again. We loved the lavender and raspberry aromas of this elegant, limited-production wine. Fresh raspberry and cherry flavors with a hint of mineral. Inman’s 2016 estate OGV pinot noir ($73) is every bit as good.
- Emeritus Pinot Hill Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2017 ($60). A fog from the east sweeps Pinot Hill most of the day, which creates a savory character of this wonderfully lush pinot noir. The stronger sun exposure on the west side of the hill adds riper grapes and texture to the blend. Damp earth and mint combine with black cherry flavors. If you really want a full-blown pinot noir experience, try the 2016 Emeritus Don’s Block Pinot Noir ($110), a provocative and mind-bending wine with impressive concentration and texture.
- Migration Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir Drum Canyon Vineyard 2017 ($70). Generous aromas of blueberry and cherry draw you into a lush black cherry and boysenberry palate. Hint of vanilla and long, lush finish.
- Sea Smoke Southing Pinot Noir 2017 ($70). One of our perennial favorites, Sea Smoke pinot noir has a lot of elegance. From Santa Rita Hills, the Southing unveils a cloak of strawberry notes with violet aromas and a dash of clove.
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: October is Pennsylvania Wine Month and this article — though not new — has special things to do, taste and discover all across the commonwealth. The homepage even features an article about pinot noir!
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Tom Marquardt (email for questions) and Patrick Darr have been writing a wine column since 1985. They’ve traveled extensively to vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the U.S.
Tom lives in Florida with his wife, Sue, where he conducts wine tastings. Patrick is in the wine retail business in Annapolis, Md.