My neighbor Carmella Carella is fond of saying she's never met a pinot she does not like, though she may have to revisit that claim after a recent pinot tasting in a South Berkeley garret, where wine seldom graces the cabinets or the refrigerator. We learned several things about pinot that evening. First, never tell your heterosexual male friends that you're planning a "pinot tasting." (It can have a different connotation than you may have intended.) Second, pinot comes in different colors. And there's not a whole in common between a pinot grigio and a pinot noir. Also, it comes from many different parts of the world, and it's generally not cheap — compared to other varietals, it's tough to find a bottle that sells for less than $10. It's occasionally redolent of Band-Aids or bank counters, but it can taste surprisingly sweet. And, of course, the quality varies.
We launched the experiment at Berkeley Bowl's wine section, where I selected anything cheap that had the word "pinot" in the title. Thus we wound up with two grigios, two pinotages, and one noir, all presumably spawned from the same genetic pedigree. Prices ranged from $7.50 to $10.25, which barely tips the scale for a budget wine buyer. Overall, the grigios had a lighter, tangier, bubblier flavor, while the noirs — not surprisingly — were inky and husky, in a not-always-unpleasant way. The 2008 Paggio Pinot Grigio ($10.25) was akin to a pungent lemon juice, while the 2007 Il Pino Pinot Delle Venezie ($9.95) tasted a bit like the liquid inside of sourgrass — or water at the surface of a marsh. Carella (not her real name) would beg to differ as she found the Il Pino quite agreeable.
As for the red and noir vintages, we had a more adventurous and overall cheaper selection. The 2008 Montpellier Pinot Noir ($7.50), straight from a Napa vineyard, tasted a bit like crushed blackberries. Like Carella's personal favorite, the Ernst & Co Pinotage 2007 ($7.50) from South Africa, it had a subtle, warm flavor and made a suitable dessert wine. Unfortunately, the tasting closed on a sour note with another South African import, the 2008 Ken Forrester Petit Pinotage Stellenbosch ($9.95). The worst in the bunch, this wine dredged up childhood memories of things we used to eat when our mothers' backs were turned: used dishtowels, Band-Aids, plastic utensils, blades of grass. Advertisers say it goes well with spicy foods, but I'd call it an alternative to soap-in-the-mouth.
For all its shortcomings, pinot is a fairly evocative wine, and it generally elicits strong reactions. Carella dismissed the Stellenbosch as unsavory, but took the Ernst home with her. If anything, we learned that no two pinots are alike — and some are more likeable than others.