Pinot noir has been a favorite on restaurant lists for some time as it offers name recognition, pairs easily with a wide range of foods and has a variety of appealing aromas and flavors.
“Providing pinot noir on a list allows the guest a level of comfort and recognition, but at the same time the vast array of choices means that a guest can’t just order pinot noir and get the same thing every time,” notes explains Steve Wildy, beverage director for Vetri Family Restaurants four Italian concepts in Philadelphia. Pinot noir styles run the gamut, from Burgundy’s elegance and minerality, to fruit-forward, juicy, tannic styles from warmer appellations in California. We asked operators for their thoughts on pinot’s appeal, regional differences, food pairings and ideal marketing techniques.
Napa Valley Heavy Hitters
Better known for other grapes including chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, California’s Napa Valley also produces intense pinot noir. “Napa pinot noir tends to be the darkest, richest, oakiest, fullest and boldest of the [regions] and can often rival syrah and cabernet [sauvignon] in terms of body and sheer intensity,” explains Wildy.
Indeed, Napa’s warm climate produces a New World style of pinot noir that is often fruit forward and juicy, with higher alcohol content, body, oak treatment and tannin than those from other regions. While some guests prefer this bigger style, Richard Hanauer sees napa pinot as falling off in terms of popularity. “The wines are massive, especially for the grape, and often times their complexity is hidden by weight and power,” notes the wine director for the 74-seat, seafood-focused L20 in Chicago, which offers 200 pinot noirs by the bottle priced $50 to $5,000. Still, he believes muscular napa pinot can often better stand its own next to dishes traditionally too robust for the grape—like a well-seasoned grilled steak. Rajat Parr, wine director for the 20 concepts of the San Francisco-based Michael Mina Group, thinks winemakers who make pinot noir in this style can sacrifice the grape’s signature cherry and earthy notes. Over-extraction to achieve more color, tannin and flavor can lead to wines varietally unrecognizable to more traditionally made counterparts. Parr shies away from this style, but nonetheless sees them as becoming the norm, as customers demand more intense flavor, color and tannin from their red wine. Wit and Wisdom, the latest Michael Mina concept, a 248-seat American tavern at the 256-room Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore, 61 pinot noirs by the bottle priced $51 to $204.
Santa Barbara Stars
Just west of Los Angeles, the coastal Santa Barbara region is becoming increasingly well known for high-quality pinot noir production.“Santa Barbara has an almost perfect climate for pinot noir,” muses Michael Scaffidi, wine director for The Jefferson Hotel, a 99-room luxury hotel in Washington, D.C., which includes the 42-seat fine dining restaurant Plume and 53-seat bar Quill.
Suzan Boyce, sommelier for the 53-seat Southern American restaurant Cotton Row in Huntsville, Alabama, agrees, citing its cooler climate as the reason Santa Barbara pinot noirs have both earthy, Burgundian traits and ripe but lighter fruit than Napa Pinot Noir. But an adept hand is required if the goal is wine that’s recognizable as traditional pinot noir. “I think there is a battle with weight and power here,” says Tim Baldwin, wine director for the Broadmoor, a 700-room resort in Colorado Springs with 18 restaurants and lounges. “Those who keep it in check make exceptional wine.” Benchmark pinot noir for Santa Barbara usually touts medium body, acidity and ripe fruit, with finesse and subtle mushroom and forest floor aromas. Hanauer pairs these wines with delicate meats like rabbit and veal, but doesn’t like to pigeonhole the grape. “The beauty of pinot noir is to not match it to one dish, but several across different diners and courses.”
The Barons of Burgundy
This revered French region is home to some of the most elegant and expensive pinot noirs in the world. Scaffidi says Burgundy is “the ‘Mount Everest” of the wine world. Undisputedly, Burgundy’s winemakers have traditionally produced the loftiest expression of pinot noir. Mineral-driven, with elegance, finesse, a velvety mouth feel, high acidity and relative low alcohol, high-end Burgundian Pinot Noir is complex, multi layered and age worthy. Oak is used often, but well integrated rather than overt.
These wines, say Wildy, “Are distinguished by a level of earth [mushroom, smoke, forest floor, wet soil] that typically doesn’t emerge as much in the other styles.” But while he calls Burgundy the hallmark for pinot noir, he notes that as prices steadily increase for the best producers, it pushes the region even further into the category of special occasion wines. Entry-level bottles from the area will still have the grape’s trademark earthiness and elegance, but will lack the length, layers and age-worthiness. “For a good value, the village wines of Burgundy are consistently satisfying, although they can be light with very high acidity,” admits Scaffidi, whose wine list at Plume highlights wines that Francophile Thomas Jefferson probably would have enjoyed during his lifetime, including 250 pinot noirs priced $60 to $2,500 a bottle. He enjoys pairing Burgundy’s restrained style with seafood courses like Monkfish wrapped in Bacon, which brings out the wine’s elegance and earthiness. Wildy views red Burgundy as the most versatile pinot noir on the table. “It is built to work through a myriad of dishes—it’s a great tasting menu wine!” And, he says, Burgundy really comes alive when paired with snails, mushrooms, truffles, root vegetables, game, lamb and duck.
Down Under Style
Sauvignon blanc may have put New Zealand wine on the map, but the region’s reds are making pinot fans sit up and take notice. “There is very New World winemaking [here], coupled with good growing regions and fruity, clean wines that are lighter in style with great acidity,” declares Boyce. Parr puts juicy, fruit and soft New Zealand Pinot Noir somewhere between Napa and Santa Barbara, but notes that guests aren’t yet very familiar with the style and brand recognition is non-existent. New Zealand Pinot is produced mainly in Martinborough and the Central Otago regions—the latter being home to wines that many believe to be the highest quality, complex and most age-worthy in the country. But despite predictions by some that these southern hemisphere wines may someday rival those from Burgundy, Scaffidi isn’t yet convinced. “I still consider this a place for value and not for the eternal summit of pinot noir; it someone desires a well-made, fruit-forward pinot without the complexity of Burgundy, it’s a great region.”
Because it shares some of the qualities of both Old World and New World offerings, New Zealand pinot is very versatile on the table. Its high acidity makes it a palate-cleanser for rich dishes and cream sauces, while its tart cherry notes would work well with squab or duck with cherry compote.
Pinot Perceptions and Guest Education
When asked for a brief description of how guests view pinot noir, Parr uses the words “soft, round, juicy and easy to drink.” Hanauer believes domestic wine fans see it as a lighter-bodied alternative red wine with an emphasis on fruit and oak. Burgundy lovers, on the other hand, view the region and its native grape as something magical.
“Burgundy drinkers are always trying to recreate a prior experience while drinking a producer or vineyard.” They can also be, he says, vocally upset about pinot noir produced in other areas of the world. Sca ffidi also sometimes sees a rift between fans of Burgundy and New World Pinot. “New World [wine] lovers think the wines from Burgundy are too light, and Old World lovers see the wines from the USA as fruit juice. I adore both regions and can easily see an argument for each taste.”
Ongoing staff education and tasting can provide teachable moments for wait staff in the great grape debate, giving the chance to open up a dialogue about characteristics, comparisons and contrasts around the world. Baldwin views California as the easiest go-to region for guests ordering pinot noir, and New Zealand as the wild card, but sees diners truly intimidated by Burgundy. “The server and sommelier need to be able to walk them through it in a non-stressful way.” Broadmoor staff members receive ongoing wine education about pinot noir, including the history of the grape and stylistic differences among regions, through training handout sheets and many tastings. One of the Vetri’s managers recently launched a “Burgundy Club” on Saturday afternoons, where beverage staff is invited to discuss a different part of the region each week. And Cotton Row servers are given a sound, foolproof piece of food pairing advice. “If a table orders fish and beef, our staff is trained to suggest pinot noir as a crossover,” says Boyce. Overall, Scaffidi believes most wine directors simply adore pinot noir from the best regions. “It is the grape that keeps giving back.”
Sonoma and Willamette Valley are noted domestic pinot noir producers.
No discussion of pinot noir would be complete without mentioning the wines coming out of Sonoma Coast and the Russian River Valley, or Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Cooler due to the breezes coming in from the Pacific Ocean, Sonoma Coast and the Russian River Valley produce high-quality, elegant pinot noir with a lot of finesse. Parr describes them as delicate, expressive and perfumed, with red fruit including raspberry and cherry—yet with all characteristics more restrained than those made in the adjacent Napa Valley. They tend to be lighter in color and body, with lower tannins and vibrant acidity—making them perfect partners with delicate fish like halibut and rockfish, as well as chicken and salmon. Oregon is perhaps the best blend of Old World and New World Pinot Noir. “These are the most earth-driven of American styles,” says Baldwin, showing fruit and power while maintaining the mushroom-like aromas of Burgundy. Willamette Valley pinot can be a fitting match for Pacific Northwest cedar-planked salmon.