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Lemelson Reed & Reynolds 2001
Home to some of America’s most celebrated Pinot Noir, Oregon benefits from a marginal climate where grapes must struggle to achieve full ripeness—a challenge that results in high-quality fruit. By far the most important region is the Willamette Valley, which is further subdivided into six smaller AVAs. Surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges, the Willamette Valley is characterized by warm to hot dry summers and cool, rainy winters during which cloud cover is a near-constant. Along with the warmer AVAs to the south, including Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley, it benefits from cool Pacific breezes during the growing season. Further inland, Columbia Valley to the north and Snake River Valley to the east experience cooler, wetter conditions. Post-prohibition viticulture is a relatively new addition to the state, which had been previously deemed unsuitable for the planting of Vitis vinifera grape varieties. That all changed in the mid-1960s, when Pinot Noir was first grown successfully along with other Alsatian varieties. Over the next two decades or so, Oregon continued its ascent to become to Pinot Noir powerhouse we know it as today.
The obvious success story of Oregon is Pinot Noir, which here takes on a personality that could be described in general terms as somewhere in between the wines of California and Burgundy, and is often more affordable than either one. The combination of elegant balance, high acidity, and rustic earth plus bright red fruit places it solidly in the middle of the spectrum for this versatile variety. Other successful varieties here include Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
One of the most difficult yet rewarding grapes to grow, Pinot Noir is commonly referred to by winemakers as the “heartbreak grape.” However, the greatest red wines of Burgundy prove that it is unquestionably worth the effort. More reflective than most varieties of the land on which it is grown, Pinot Noir prefers a cool climate, requires low yields to achieve high quality, and demands care in the vineyard and lots of attention in the winery. It is an important component of Champagne and the only variety permitted in red Burgundy. Pinot Noir enjoys immense popularity internationally, most notably in Oregon, California, and New Zealand.
In the Glass
Pinot Noir Is all about red fruit—strawberry, raspberry, and cherry. It is relatively pale in color with soft tannins and lively acidity. It ranges in body from very light to the heavier side of medium, typically landing somewhere in the middle—giving it extensive possibilities for food pairing. With age (of which the best examples can handle an astounding amount), it can develop hauntingly beautiful characteristics of fresh earth, autumn leaves, and truffles.
Pinot’s healthy acidity cuts through the oiliness of pink-fleshed fish like salmon, ocean trout, and tuna. Its mild mannered tannins don’t fight with spicy food, and give it enough structure to pair with all sorts of poultry—chicken, quail, and especially duck. As the namesake wine of Boeuf Bourguignon, it can even match with heavier fare. Pinot Noir is also very vegetarian-friendly—most notably with any dish that features mushrooms.
Pinot Noir is dangerously drinkable, highly addictive, and has a bad habit of emptying the wallet. Look for affordable but still delicious examples from Germany (as Spätburgunder), Italy (as Pinot Nero), Chile, New Zealand, and France’s Loire Valley and Alsace regions.