Saturday, April 14, 2012

Budget Wine Review 7: Pinot Noirs

Please see January’s Budget Review 3 for previous Pinot Noir reviews.  Previous Budget Pinot Noir Reviews It is very difficult to find a decent Pinot for under $20, but there are a few bargains out there.  You can pay a lot and still get something you don't like, but you can almost never get a really good one in lower price ranges. Pinot Noirs can be great wines but they are usually poor buys in the lower price ranges.  There are some pleasant budget PNs, but none of them will enthrall you with subtlety or complexity. If you love red wines and want to stay on a budget, stick with other reds such as Zins, Sirahs, Merlots, etc. 

Buena Vista 2008 Pinot Noir Carneros-$9.99 at Trader Joe's.  Lighter style Pinot Noir, bright with lively acids.  Fairly well balanced.  Good for the price if you like this style Pinot Noir.  Buy it if you like a lighter style PN. Mildly recommended.
Castle Rock 2009 California CuvĂ©e Pinot Noir California -$7.99 at Trader Joe's.  Some of the Castle Rock Pinots are good for the money.  This one is rather thin and simple but does not have any off tastes.  Inexpensive Pinots are difficult to find but you can do much better for $2 more (or even less when it is on sale.)  Get the 2009 Castle Rock PN from Mendocino that is $9.99.  Only the 2009 vintage and only the one from Mendocino.  Castle Rock makes Pinots from many different AVAs, including Monterey, Sonoma, Central Coast, Carneros, etc.  The 2009 Mendocino one sells for $10, is as good or better than most at twice that price, has been on sale for as little as $5.99, and seems widely distributed.  Not recommended.

Castle Rock 2009 Central Coast Pinot Noir Central Coast-$5.99 at Cost Plus.  This is better than the 2009 Castle Rock Cuvee but not as good as the 2009 Castle Rock Mendocino.  I met people at the store who were buying it up because it was given 95 points at the California State Fair in 2011.  Much closer to the mark was the score of 84 given by the Wine Enthusiast or the 88 given by  If you buy wine by scores, be sure you know the source of the score.  I usually find Wine Enthusiast to be fairly reliable.  This is a decent, inexpensive PN, a good buy at $10 and a real bargain at $6.  But the 2009 Castle Rock PN Mendocino retails at the same price, has also been on sale at $5.99 at Cost Plus and is one of the best  Pinot Noirs in the under $20 range. (See Budget Report 3.) This Central Coast one is medium bodied with some cherry on the palate, smooth with just a hint of tannin.  Try it side by side with the Mendocino and you will notice a difference immediately. The Castle Rock Mendocino and Castle Rock Monterey, both at the same price, are better.  Mildly recommended at this price

Castle Rock 2009 Russian River Reserve Pinot Noir -$19.99 at Whole Foods.  I got some raspberry and slight floral notes on the nose with a very smooth, full mouthfeel of cherry and red fruit and a nice finish. It does not have much complexity, however, not that one should expect very much in a PN for under $20.  The 2009 Castle Rock Mendocino sells for about $10 and has been on sale for $5.99 at Cost Plus.  This reserve is perhaps a point or two higher.  But then it is two to three times the price.  This Russian River Reserve is one of the better PNs for under $20 but not the great bargain of the Mendocino.  The reserve is good for the but do not expect it to be as good as some of the premium Russian River Pinots.  It just doesn't work that way with Pinots.  I’d stick with the Mendocino at half the price and especially when it goes on sale for $6.  Except for the least expensive California Cuvee, all of the Castle Rock Pinots I’ve tasted have been quite good for the price.  I’m not sure how much year-to-year variation there is in them, though.  My understanding is that Castle Rock does not have its own vineyards and the wines are made at a number of leased facilities, making them more along the lines of the French negotiant.  Moderately recommended at the price.

Mark West 2009 Russian River Pinot Noir. $21.99 sale $15.39 Safeway. I really like Russian River Pinots. This is a very pleasant, well-balanced Pinot. It is not as thin as most from Carneros, although I would be guessing to say it was from Russian River since it does not have any layers of complexity that I associate with Russian River Pinots. This has decent body but is very simple, even one-dimensional. It certainly tastes like a California Pinot and is easy to drink. At $10, I think it would be competitive, although Trader Joes (see above) and Castle Rock both have better Pinots in this price range. At $20 this wine is simply too simplistic. I paid $15.39 which is a fair price, although not a bargain. Those who don’t like usually like red wines might enjoy this very soft wine. It has Pinot character but no terroir and no exceptional fruit or layers of complexity. It is pleasant and easy to drink. But then there are $5 Italian red wines that meet that criteria. If you want a pleasant, soft, not too thin Pinot that is very simple, this might be an okay wine for you if it is on sale. Pinots can be great wines, though, and this does not have even a hint of greatness. Why not simply drink a Zinfandel at half the price of this one? At least it would have good fruit, a touch of soft tannin and some spice. This is certainly not a bad wine, but it is excessively simple and one- dimensional to sell for the regular price of $22. I really cannot recommend it in its price range.

Rodney Strong Russian River Estate 2010 Pinot Noir-$14.99 sale at Safeway.  An easy to like PN.  Light nose.  Medium body. Nice red fruit on the palate with smooth tannins.  Decent enough finish with a touch of spice.  Not very complex, but one simply cannot expect that in a PN at this price.  If you want a really good PN, you will have to pay for it.  This is certainly one of the better Pinot Noirs for under $20.  No problem recommending this one.  It is one of the better under $20 PN I've tried so far.  Moderately recommended at the price.

Trader Joe’s Russian River 2010 Pinot Noir-$12.99 at Trader Joe's. Light red cherry nose with cherry and a touch of cinnamon on the palate. Very smooth, well structured, with good balance and some depth. In addition to a great mouthfeel, it has a very long finish. I really like this PN for the price and recommend it. This is a good buy in a Pinot Noir. Moderately recommended for the price. (Note January 2013. This is no longer available.)
Willamette Valley Vineyards 2010 Whole Cluster Fermented Pinot Noir-$15.99 sale at Safeway. Wine Spectator gave this an 86 and called it, "Very Beaujolais-like, and still showing a bit of spritz in the mouthfeel, this offers pretty cherry fruit in a fun, forward, clean and simple style. Note the low alcohol."  The color was very pale. When I tasted it, there was some definite spritzig, but it was thin, uninteresting and lacking any sort of complexity, structure or terroir, a Beaujolais Nouveau style Pinot Noir without the fresh fruit of the Beaujolais Nouveau.  This is one of the least interesting PNs I've ever had and was certainly not "fun" to drink. Not recommended.


  1. I agree with your statement about the quality of "budget" Pinot Noirs. Of all the reds that I've tasted that retail for under 20 bucks, the pinots are of the lowest quality. I did like a Chime Willamette Valley Pinot (2007 I believe) that I tasted recently and have enjoyed the Buena Vista Carneros in the past. Ironically, I live in a town called Castle Rock but have not sampled any of the Castle Rock pinots--looks like I need to try the Mendocino,



    1. Do you think good inexpensive Pinots are rare because of the difficulty growing them? The grape is very difficult to grow and only grows well in very restricted areas. Do you think that movie Sideways contributed to many inferior Pinots being grown by vineyards that shouldn't be growing them and wineries that shouldn't be producing them? I think the movie did encourage many wineries to quit making inferior Merlots. Merlots and Merlot blends can, of course, stand alone, just as Cab Francs or Malbecs can. Of course we all know about Right Bank Bordeauxs being great with predominately Merlot in them. It was also the last wine that the fellow in the movie was drinking. I think Spring Mountain is becoming our Right Bank. Merlots excel there. I just tasted two really decent Pinots today from Barnett Vineyards in Spring Mountain, Napa County. Of course they sourced them. I'll try to get the review posted this weekend. Thanks for your interest.


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