A Pitch-Perfect Passion For Pinot

by Chuck Hayward

While tasting rooms and wine bars have traditionally been the best way to experience new wines, today’s oenophiles have a variety of tasting opportunities. Massive tastings have become commonplace, and are often presented in large spaces, hosted by organizations designed to promote a variety or region. While fun and often educational, the central purpose of these events is to encourage greater consumer interest in the labels being poured.

Not all tastings, however, are based on naked commerce. A number of wine events really are born from the sheer gusto of an individual – someone in the business who wants to share their passion with a wider audience. Just like tastings hosted by larger entities, the efforts of an individual wine enthusiast to convey his message can be showcased anywhere – from a big conference room to a small parlor. But such individualized tastings create a unique platform where one can experience an array of personally selected wines, each of which provides an insight into the mind of the host. A good example can be found in New York, where Paul Grieco saw his Summer of Riesling tastings (at his intimate Terroir Wine Bar) transform into an international phenomenon. Fortunately for us west-coasters at JJ Buckley, the Bay Area has its own similarly ardent oenophile.

Meet Peter Palmer

Peter Palmer may be one of the best examples of an energized personality who has managed to funnel his passion into a memorable tasting event, in the form of the PinotFest tasting he hosts each November. Over the last 20+ years, Peter has been a sommelier at a number of San Francisco’s top restaurants, eventually finding his home at Farallon. Humble yet enthusiastic, Peter’s easygoing manner disguises the encyclopedic knowledge of California wines that he has accumulated from years of introducing them to his clientele.

PinotFest is now a fixture, held every year in mid-November as a bookend to harvest and is thus the perfect time for winemakers, the trade and consumers to convene. It seems everyone involved is always in great spirits. The winemakers in attendance are relaxed since the harvest is pretty much done at that point, and we in the wine biz can hear the recent vintage results direct from the source. For us retailers, PinotFest marks the brief fall hiatus before intense buying and selling work for the holiday season kicks in, and the consumers in the crowd always bring their infectious enthusiasm for the season. And then there’s the geniality that emanates from Peter and the Farallon staff, all of which combines to cast a warm glow across the room.
In 1999, Peter showcased his passion for pinot noir in a tasting of 40 or so of his favorite producers. Keep in mind, this predated the Sideways-infected pinot craze and was well before large single varietal tastings became the rage. Presented in Farallon’s beautiful banquet rooms (which formerly housed the city’s chapter of the Elk’s Lodge), most of the wineries that pour remain the discoveries and friends that Peter has accumulated over the years.

This is the type of event that could easily get bigger – more wineries to pour, more tickets to sell. But Peter is quite happy with the intimate nature of the tasting. Many of the wineries who attend have participated in every one of the 14 tastings and there’s literally no room for more wineries. The consumer portion of the tasting always sells out in advance. While we are quite lucky to have someone like Peter to sponsor a tasting like this, cities across the globe often boast their own wine enthusiasts who present specialized tastings similar to PinotFest. Seek them out and you will be amply rewarded.
The tasting is a two-day affair. Friday afternoon sees all the wineries assembled to present their wares to retail and restaurant buyers. A grand dinner follows, to which only winemakers are invited. Having never attended, I can’t say much for what happens there, but it’s easy to put two and two together when trying to chat with winemakers the following morning! Later that day, consumers that are lucky enough to hold tickets are treated to the same wines along with a few treats.

As I mentioned, PinotFest is a great chance to taste a lot of wine and glean some meaningful insights, particularly about the style of upcoming vintages. What follows are some brief observations about the current state of California pinot noir.
The Quick Sip


- -The 2009 vintage is one for the books, as most wineries have just about depleted their inventories. So if you like the richer and fuller bodied examples that 2009 provided, stock up on your favorites very soon. That’s because…

 2010 will be a great vintage for those who prefer a bit more elegance and finesse to their pinots. There’s plenty of acidity to be found for those who prefer it and less fruit density and alcohol. But buyers should beware, as some wines can prove deficient in fruit, sometimes resulting in a slightly shrill quality to the finished wine.

 The biggest problem for California pinot lovers in the near term will be actually getting their hands on some. Most winemakers have suffered through two consecutive years of double-digit declines in yields. Imagine you are Dick Dore, owner of Santa Barbara’s Foxen Winery, explaining his projected revenues to the accountant in the face of the 50-70% less fruit for his 2011 releases compared to the previous year. This means the consumer could be facing some sharp price increases for those wines that are not reserved for mailing list customers and restaurants. It is also likely that allocations to smaller markets in the US will be severely curtailed.


Check out some of our favorite PinotFest producers at
JJ Buckley Fine Wines: The bright spot comes from the 2012 vintage, which yielded consistent reports of a bountiful harvest and excellent quality from just about everyone pouring at the event. And for those who see the lighter styles and lower alcohols from 2010 and 2011 as a new paradigm for pinot noir, rest assured that this is not a change in philosophy for many wineries. Rather, it was the weather that dealt winemakers with a difficult hand, requiring them to work with fruit that simply had lower sugars and higher acidity. 2012 looks like a year that will see most wineries producing pinots of richness and texture more in line with the style found in 2009. And there should be plenty wine for everyone.