Top-end 2004 tasting blindsides Burgundy
By KARL KLOOSTER
Of the News-Register
In 1979, Oregon pinot noir was the subject of a humorous poster prominently displayed in wineries and wine shops. And not just in this state, but in Washington and California as well.
I recall seeing my first one at Chateau Montelena, the highly regarded winery in Calistoga, at the northern end of the Napa Valley. And the Calistoga winery didn't even produce pinot noir.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Not having one on hand, I'll attempt to recreate the amusing images and see if I can duplicate the hilarious effect.
Caricatures of two men were done in cleverly executed line drawings.
On the left side was a Frenchman, sporting a rakish beret and a pencil-thin mustache a la Inspector Clousseau.
He was gripping a fancy, single-shot pistol, the barrel pointing straight up in classic preparation for a duel. The hammer was cocked for imminent action.
Facing the foppish froggy was a scruffy, Wild West gunslinger wearing a 10-gallon Stetson. He sported a thick, bushy mustache that drooped down at the ends.
The cowpoke was gripping a six-shooter with the barrel positioned just below his lips. He was getting set to blow off a wisp of smoke seen wafting up from its extra-large opening.
The Frenchman's eyes bugged out in dismay as he stared down at the sizable wine cork protruding from between his pursed lips.
This poster summed up at a side-splitting glance the now-legendary tasting competition wherein an upstart Oregon pinot noir - the 1975 South Block from David Lett's The Eyrie Vineyard - came within a fraction of a point of outscoring one of the finest that Burgundy had to offer.
The French were in such a state of denial they staged another blind tasting, this time with an even bigger gun from their Burgundy arsenal. But the outcome was similar.
Since then, when wine conversation turns to Oregon pinot noirs, comparisons between them and their Burgundian counterparts are almost inevitable.
Oregon winemakers will tell you it's not their aim to emulate the wines of Burgundy, but simply to make the best pinot noirs possible. Similarities notwithstanding, they differ in style even from each other, let alone with the wines of France's famous Burgundy region.
Despite all this, the temptation to conduct direct comparisons cannot be resisted. And again and again, blind tastings have proven Oregon pinots are getting better and better.
Probably the most poignant of those of recent times took place on June 29, 2004, at the annual Oregon Pinot Camp. It is sponsored by the local industry for wine trade professionals from around the country.
Although news of this tasting is by no means new to aficionados of Oregon wine, or industry insiders, its results are well worth recounting nonetheless. It could be called the battle of the Domaines - Oregon versus France, toe-to-toe.
In the New World corner was one of the Yamhill Valley's very best, Domaine Serene of Dayton, whose star has quickly risen to the top. Winery owners Ken and Grace Evenstad arranged this tasting at no small expense, as the retail prices quoted below attest.
Domaine Serene's opponent in the Old World corner was the undisputed champion of Burgundy, the headiest of the creme de la creme, vintage in and vintage out.
Domaine de la Romanée Conti - or DRC as it's referred to in the shorthand of the international wine crowd - is universally regarded as the quintessential statement of what the pinot noir grape can attain.
At their best, the domaine's six Grand Cru vineyards express a perfect balance of depth, elegance and complexity. Wine writers wax eloquent about them, employing a barrage of descriptive adjectives sure to boggle the minds of the uninitiated.
This was a blind tasting in which 37 restaurateurs, retailers and distributors sniffed, swirled, sipped, swished and savored their way through 18 wines.
There may have been some spitting, as is often done by serious tasters attempting to render the most professional opinion possible. But at this elevated level, one can hardly blame them for doing more swallowing than usual.
According to then Domaine Serene winemaker Tony Rynders, who was on hand for the event, there were no losers in this group of greats. There were simply some wines that proved to be a bit better than others.
Six vintages - 1998, 1999, and 2000 - were compared in three flights of six wines each. Those years were all outstanding ones both for Oregon and Burgundy.
The retail prices of the Domaine Serene entries ranged from $47 to $75 per bottle. Although at the high end for Oregon pinot noir, that's modest by comparison with the $240 to $749 the DRCs then fetched. You don't even want to know what they go for now.
The pinots from Domaine Serene were Grace Vineyard, Evenstad Reserve and Mark Bradford Vineyard. Those from DRC included Grands Echezeaux, Echezeaux, La Tache, Richebourg and Romanée St. Vivant.
Each of the DRCs comes from a small, individual vineyard. And according to French wine law, it is among an elite few Grand Crus in Burgundy that have the right to be called by that name alone.
You have to know that the only grape used is pinot noir. It doesn't appear on the label.
The results? For the 1998 and 1999 vintages, all three Domaine Serenes ranked above their DRC counterparts. For the 2000 vintages, Domaine Serene entries finished one-two.
Rynders said, "This was by no means designed to be the comprehensive last word on who's best. But we were delighted that the New World wines were selected over the Old World across the board."
The Evenstads were out to prove a point. And even though it came at the cost of more than a half-million pretty pennies, they did just that.
Once again, it makes the case that Oregon's finest pinot noirs are on the ascendance, destined to firmly secure a preeminent position among the ranks of world-class wines.
Karl Klooster, the News-Register's regional editor, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 503-883-6227.