Eric Asimov's wine column features an article about the changing style of California pinot noir wines and some winemakers who are producing wines going against the current trend. Personally, this is a very good thing. Time was, and not that long ago, that if you went out to dinner and found yourself in a wine-choosing conundrum, you could likely solve it by ordering a pinot noir. For example, you didn't want to drink house wine by the glass and your companion decided on the fish but you really wanted to try the lamb or the beef shank. What to do? Ask the server about the pinots on the wine list and you'd likely end up with a medium to light bodied red, not too heavy on the alcohol or too jammy, that went well with almost any food. This was particularly true if a person were favorably inclined toward red wine or not hung up on "white with fish".
That's not so true, anymore. I've been to quite a few wine tastings and tried many bottles of pinot noir that, while they might be good, could just as well have been cabernet sauvignon. Dark red, lots of blackberry or other dark fruit flavor, lots of alcohol and a fair amount of tannin- big dark wines. That style of wine can be fine, great even, but it's not the best thing with fish. Or risotto. Or a vegetable pasta dish, or even a piece of smoked elk.
Without any research or support, I'm tempted to blame the movie "Sideways". Famously, the (rather depressing) movie (which features singularly unlikeable protagonists) includes a rant against the then ubiquity of merlot wine and several paeans to those made of the pinot noir grape. Immediately, fashions in wine drinking shifted and pinot noir prices went up. I speculate that people paying more for wines want "bigger" wines for the most part; something that they will decant and sip slowly. Hence, they went for pinots which showed a lot of fruit and wood and alcohol.
While I enjoy the thought of blaming the movie, the theory is probably wrong. Looking at two lists of pinot noirs from around the time the movie came out, many of them sound pretty much like the big old raisiny fruit-bombs that I'm complaining about, particularly on the more expensive list. Asimov's article describes a more likely reason for the trend in California pinots- unlike in the grape's French homeland, California weather allows the winemakers to ripen the fruit until it reaches maximum sugar, leading to a more alcoholic, more fruity wine. Does California really need to produce more high-alcohol, heavy oak, dark, fruity red wine? Good as that can be, lots of that sort of wine is already available and I'd prefer a bit more variety, particularly in the grape that lends itself so well to a lighter style.
In any event, I hope the trend toward medium bodied pinot noir gathers some momentum. In the meantime, I've found Erath Oregon Pinot Noir on sale in my neck of the woods for $12 or so and the '05 and '06 production were the medium bodied, goes-with-most-food style.