Mistakes Were Made 

In tasting cheap Pinots, a tolerance for error is helpful.

"Mistakes are interesting," Harvard psych professor Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness. He's talking about the inherently flawed way most of us pursue our bliss, but he could easily be discussing the finer points of oenology, since winemaking mistakes sometimes result in more interesting imbibing. During several tastings, our token winemaker has noted such a flaw and concluded that the wine in question might actually be better for it. He'll detect a little sulfide or a hint of spoilage yeast and applaud these "faults" for giving the wine complexity.

The more intricate the grape-growing and winemaking process, the easier it is to screw up. One of the easiest to botch is Pinot Noir. Still, at its best Pinot is bliss in a glass, so growers and vintners keep trying. With mistakes on the brain, what better crowd to assemble for a tasting than three editors — plus, of course, our token winemaker.

For our selections, we looked first to California's Central Coast region, which produces wines that can be fruity and aromatic but still fairly light on the palate. The 2005 Five Rivers Central Coast Pinot Noir ($15.99) was an almost-unanimous choice for our favorite. It's beyond our usual price range, but we thought it was worth it for its light taste and a subtle, citrusy aroma that brought to mind orange-pekoe tea. Indie Editor found the aroma tart and vaguely antiseptic, "albeit in a good way," while Arkie Editor found the taste fresh and subtle.

Another Central Coast Pinot, the 2005 Robert Mondavi Private Selection ($6.99), was a heartier wine than the others, with a faux-oak aroma I've come to associate with bad Cali red. "Blech," Arkie Editor drawled, imagining the headache this would cause if consumed too enthusiastically. Indie Editor praised its tang and pleasant spice.

Five Rivers was my favorite for a cocktail wine, but for drinking with food I preferred the 2005 Redwood Creek French Pinot Noir ($5.50), imported and bottled by California's own Frei Brothers Vineyards. Its bottle is virtually identical to the 2005 Redwood Creek California Pinot, also $5.50 — but don't let looks deceive you, because France beats California hands down. A cheerful little red with pleasant tartness, the French Redwood was Arkie Editor's favorite — she found it easy to drink and loved its floral aroma. Indie Editor smelled pineapple and ranked it last.

Finally, the Redwood California: With a strong cherry-strawberry taste and a slightly cloying aftertaste, I likened it to a perfume you find interesting but wouldn't wear. Arkie Editor thought it was fine given the price, and our token winemaker, who detected an aroma of pink taffy, praised its richness. He also pegged it as the Mondavi — and mistook Five Rivers for the French Pinot. We decided this just made him more complex.


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