California Wine: What You See, Ain't What You Get

The world of wine seems, at a glance, to be full of purists. There are many people who swear by their specific wines, particular regions or preferred vintages. Offer them anything that does not fit within their myopic view of things and they will scoff at the thought.

People purport to have favorite varietals, such as Chardonnay, while quickly dismissing others, such as Sauvignon Blanc. There are wines that have reputations of greatness and those that are still recovering from cinematic badmouthing. I am also sure that if you asked many of these people what was in the bottle in their hands labeled Cabernet Sauvignon, they would respond Cabernet Sauvignon. And that would be true ... to an extent.

When it comes to varietal labeling in California, the law states that a wine must be seventy-five percent of a particular grape to carry that name on the front of the label. The label need not include any information at all about what comprises the other twenty-five percent. So, when someone says to me, "I love California Pinot Noir," I wonder how much. How much Pinot is in that bottle, and how much is it the Pinot that they love.

Perhaps what they love is the other twenty four percent of Syrah, or even more bizarre, Mondeuse. Mondeuse? I know. It's not a grape that most people in California have heard of. Hell, it is not a grape that most people in the world have heard of, outside of the Savoy region of France. However, Au Bon Climat Winery owner Jim Clendenen has heard of it, and he proudly adds a percentage to his Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir, as is stated on the front of the bottle.

Maybe that's because he knows that a good blend can offer more than a single grape, even though that singular name often sells better. This wine offers a nose of dark brooding fruit, with chunks of chocolate, and funky undertones. It's a great barbeque Pinot, and a real crowd pleaser. For a wine labeled Pinot Noir, it's a bargain, hitting the shelves under twenty dollars.

Pinot Noir is a temperamental, delicate grape and an expensive wine to make. Many winemakers have found ways to make an affordable wine by sacrificing quality, and leave their labels simply reading Pinot Noir. Jim Clendenen has done neither. His wine delivers both quality and honesty by letting you know exactly what is in the bottle.

Au Bon Climat 2010 Pinot Noir, retails about $18.

Los Angeles resident Michael Newsome, a wine buyer for Whole Foods and a Certified Italian Wine Specialist, joins us every Tuesday for an exploration of California wine. See his previous posts here.



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