A prevailing myth on the California wine scene is that you need to pay at least $25 per bottle to savor a pinot noir of character and charm. The inspiration for that view likely is the equally persistent perception that exquisite pinot noir can be made only in small and scarce batches by artisan vintners.
There is some merit to both beliefs if you are looking for a pinot noir of grandeur and complexity or maybe just a lot of new French oak but the assertions really don't hold up if you want to experience the excitement that even an inexpensive and mass-produced interpretation of the varietal can deliver.
This was reaffirmed most recently as I sat on a panel at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, held on the grounds of the Citrus Fair at Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County in January. Among other categories, our panel was assigned about half the entries in the class of pinot noirs priced up to $19.99. That's all we knew, their wide price range, not their producers, not where they originated, though the competition is limited to wines made in the United States.
We tasted 59 of them. In color, flavor and structure, they ranged all over the place, from light to dark, fresh to insipid, sturdy to limp. We gave 11 of them gold medals, a respectable share given how broadly inexpensive pinot noir is dismissed by the cognoscenti.
The wine we chose as best of class spoke to the nobility that pinot noir expresses when it customarily is priced in one of the much more expensive classes. Its luster was deep and brilliant, its texture luxurious, its flavor unequivocally rich and balanced. I was ready to award it a gold medal on its smell alone rich, fresh and focused.
Overall, the wine was characteristically Californian full, round and long but with a spunk not often found in pinot noirs so concentrated. It came before us deep into our flights and was the first entry about which we got truly excited. The panel concurred unanimously that it deserved a gold medal, meaning it ended up with a double gold.
The wine was the A by Acacia 2011 California Pinot Noir. A by Acacia is the starter brand of Acacia Vineyard, celebrated for pioneering pinot noir and chardonnay in the Carneros district at the southern reaches of Napa Valley since 1979. Now owned by the conglomerate Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines, Acacia is best known today for vineyard-designated pinot noirs priced between $40 and $80.
Diageo created A by Acacia, however, to take advantage of California's expanding pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards beyond Napa Valley. As a consequence, 80 percent of the fruit responsible for yielding the A by Acacia 2011 Pinot Noir was grown along the Central Coast, with 20 percent from fruit harvested in North Coast growing areas.
Recently retired A by Acacia winemaker Tom Westberg credits the grapes he got from the cool Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo County for the wine's fresh fruitiness and crisp acidity. To enhance the wine's color and to provide it with its supple tannins, he drew grapes from Mendocino County and the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County.
During the making of the wine, he processed about two-thirds of the grapes as whole berries to help account for the wine's sunny fruitiness. He aged the wine for six months with a combination of new and used French and American oak, thereby helping to round out its body and to provide notes of wood spice. (Westberg, who worked at Diageo's Monterey facility, retired in January, with responsibility for the brand assumed recently by Aileen Santos.)
While the A by Acacia 2011 California Pinot Noir easily was our choice for best of class among the entries we tasted, the category produced several other exceptional pinot noirs to contradict the conventional wisdom that fine examples of the varietal just can't be inexpensive and made in rather large batches. The other panel that judged pinot noirs priced up to $19.99, for example, chose as its best of class the Cupcake 2010 Central Coast Pinot Noir ($14).
Furthermore, several other everyday pinot noirs won either gold or double gold medals, including the Sea Glass 2011 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir ($12), the Bogle Vineyards 2010 California Pinot Noir ($11), the Castle Rock Winery 2011 Mendocino County Pinot Noir ($11), the Cellar No. 8 2011 California Pinot Noir ($11), the Little Black Dress Vineyards 2010 California Pinot Noir ($12), the Lucky Star 2011 California Pinot Noir ($9), the Red Rock Winery 2010 California Pinot Noir ($12), and the Steelhead 2011 Sonoma County Steelhead Vineyards Pinot Noir ($13).
The sheer weight of that evidence should end the argument that fine pinot noir has to be made in small quantities and priced steeply for it to deliver clarity and excitement.
A by Acacia 2011 California Pinot Noir
By the numbers: 13.2 percent alcohol, 34,000 cases, $14
Context: Winery officials say the 2011 A by Acacia has the elegance and vibrant acidity to complement grilled salmon, and the richness to stand up to grilled beef, lamb or pork, and they won't get any quibble here.
Availability: The A by Acacia 2011 Pinot Noir is stocked by BevMo and Safeway. It isn't poured for tasting at Acacia's tasting room in Carneros.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at email@example.com.