Pinot Grigio ... blindfolded
There is no better way to ensure objectivity in wine analysis than to taste wine "blind," and that goes double if you're as opinionated as I can be.
If you're at all inclined to disrespect a wine for humble origins or an industrial producer, or if you just can't help but feel an emotional attachment to a grape or region that you love, it's worth making the effort to jolt your preconceptions out of their familiar patterns by tasting the wine without knowing for certain what's in your glass.
The good folks at Louisville's In Town Winery, a new producer that's building a tasting room - and a growing reputation - in our city, recently made local headlines by bottling a white wine that honors a popular citizen: University of Louisville head basketball coach Rick Pitino, former coach of the archrival University of Kentucky Wildcats and the professional Boston Celtics.
Pitino, it is said, loves Italian wine, and In Town Winery plays to that strength with a Pinot Grigio that bears a (Louisville) Cardinal red label and the obvious moniker: Pitino Grigio.
Last week, In Town's affable president and wine master Leonard Olson, a respected Eastern U.S. wine maker who helped start Michigan's Tabor Hill Winery in 1972, invited a group of local wine experts (including your humble scribe) to participate in a "blind" tasting of commercial Pinot Grigios that included Pitino Grigio and a half-dozen other Italian and American wines made from the same grape, representing a range of retail prices from $8 to $24.
The tasting, in the white-tablecloth setting of Wellinghurst's Steakhouse at Louisville Slugger Field, was a straightforward "blind" arrangement: Each judge was presented a scoresheet and seven samples in unmarked glasses, lined up in order. Our job was to taste, evaluate and rate the wines. We would compare notes and calculate point totals, with the identity of each wine to be revealed only after we had committed ourselves.
The results were ... interesting ... and they clearly demonstrated how blind tasting makes judges honest.
As it turned out, the most expensive wine in the group - Santa Margherita 2002 Valdadige Pinot Grigio from Italy ($24) - earned by far the worst rating. I have always considered this wine overpriced, but frankly didn't expect it to show as poorly as it did, reeking of funky cheese and dirty socks, prickly with a hint of an unwanted secondary fermentation in the bottle; a wine so unpleasant that it was difficult to taste it.
My top rating, conversely - an opinion that the group consensus shared - was a wine I would not have expected to like. MacMurray Ranch 2001 Russian River Valley Pinot Grigio ($17), a product of industrial-scale Gallo and a distinctly oaky brew, nonetheless showed color, body and attractive complexity that made it stand out among its competitors. Pitino Grigio, happily for its producers, fared decently, finishing safely in the middle of a tightly-spaced pack of also-rans and gaining judges' praise as a particularly good value for its $12 price tag, the second-least-expensive wine in the group.
In Town Winery, by the way, is the beneficiary of a $300,000 loan from a state fund that uses tobacco-settlement money to foster economic-development projects that will help tobacco farmers find profitable alternatives. Although In Town's current wines are all made by blending and bottling finished wines from other regions (Pitino Grigio is made from a blend of California and Washington State grapes), it is committed to purchase and use as much Kentucky-grown fruit as possible at the winery and tasting room it is building near the Ohio River waterfront in the city's bustling East Main Street district. Website:
Pitino Grigio is sold only in Kentucky but is widely available in Louisville-area wine shops and restaurants. All proceeds from its sale are to be donated to the Daniel Pitino Shelter in Owensboro, Ky., which feeds and houses indigent people. The shelter and its foundation are named after Pitino's infant son, who died in 1987.
Here's a quick summary of my notes from the "blind" tasting, listed in the order of my preference, tasted first alone and then with bites of mild Swiss-type cheese, notes taken before the wine's identities were revealed. Prices are the actual retail paid by the organizers at three local shops.
MacMurray Ranch 2001 Russian River Valley California Pinot Grigio ($17) - Good color, a little more "gris" than most of its paler companions. Citrus and melon aromas, a whiff of tangerine peel adds complexity. Mouth-filling and forward, more round and full than the rest; oak may contribute to that, but it's handled well, leaving fruit in the foreground. Good wine, works well with cheese. I rated this wine 16 on a 20 point scale; the group's total rating was 108 of a possible 120.
Albino Armani 2002 Valdadige Italy Pinot Grigio ($15) - Golden color, darkest of the group. Melon and citrus aromas, snappy citrus flavor, fruity, perhaps very slightly sweet, but good, crisp acidity provides balance. Good match with a bite of mild Swiss cheese, which brings out a floral note in the wine. My rating 15/20, group 90/120.
Doro Polencic 2001 Collio Italy Pinot Grigio ($15) - Fresh apple and pear scents. Good snap, structure and balance. Seems a little softer with cheese than on its own. My rating 14/20, group 96/120.
Pitino Grigio 2002 American Pinot Grigio ($12) - Appley, light, fresh and delicate. Simple and straightforward on the palate, shows slight sweetness balanced by crisp acidity. Clean, fresh, OK with the cheese, could be a good food wine. My rating 13.5/20, group 91.5/120.
J Wine 2002 Russian River Valley California Pinot Grigio ($18) - Pale color. Slight musky melon scent. Simple, neutral fruit flavor, citric lemon-lime. Clean finish. Depth and balance seem to improve a little with cheese. My rating 12.5/20, group 105/120.
Ecco Domani 2002 delle Venezie Italy Pinot Grigio ($8) - Pale color but there's a hint of golden hue. Fresh, pleasant but faint aromas; vinous and neutral flavor. Not a contender. My rating 10/20, group 93/120.
Santa Margherita 2002 Valdadige Italy Pinot Grigio ($24) - Funky aromas, cheesy, sweaty socks, unpleasant. Flavor the same, "dirty" and displeasing, a touch of prickliness on the tongue. Cheese actually makes it worse by highlighting the funky flavors. Bad wine. My rating 6/20, group 64/120.
WHAT'S YOUR TAKE ON PINOT GRIGIO?
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Baileyana 2001 Paso Robles Syrah
Very dark garnet in color, this big red is very dark garnet in color, with a classic Syrah aroma of plums and fresly ground black pepper. Warm and plummy fruit on the palate adds a dash of pepper for flavor interest, and there's ample fresh-fruit acidity to hold it together. Approachable and easy sipping, a brilliant match with hearty beef short ribs; it holds promise for still more with a little cellar time. (Jan. 4, 2004)
Angeline 2000 Central Coast Syrah
This very dark reddish-purple wine breathes delicious scents of plums and pepper with a back note of dark chocolate. Ripe, juicy and full, it almost seems sweet on the first impression, with good lemon-squirt acidity to provide structure. Sweet black fruit and a whiff of bittersweet chocolate linger in the finish, leaving a pleasant, warming impression that almost evokes the aftertaste of Ruby Port. It made a natural match with a rare grilled ribeye steak. (Dec. 8, 2003)
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This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles and features that I hope you'll enjoy:
Nat Decants: A Thirst for Knowledge
Dave McIntyre's WineLine: Reacquiring South America
Wine Lovers' Discussion Group: What's your "comfort wine"?
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Introducing Burgundy: Meursault (Jan. 16, 2004)
Meet Jancis Robinson (Jan. 14, 2004)
Two excellent whites (Jan. 12, 2004)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Duck! (Jan. 15, 2004)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Jan. 19, 2004