“I’m not dead yet…”

by Katie Pizzuto on April 6, 2015

in California Wine,pinot noir,Wine

web-Oregon-Wine-Grape-Harvest-04Things that are often described as difficult, high risk, and overly sensitive are nearly always worth both the wait and the trouble–yeah, damn right that includes me. So, I tend to have a weak spot for a really well-made pinot noir because I know that both the grower and the winemaker didn’t take the easy way out…by planting some cabernet instead, or by making shitty pinot because they just didn’t get the grape. The famous CA winemaker André Tchelistcheff once said that, “God made cabernet sauvignon whereas the devil made pinot noir.” A friend of the devil is always a friend of mine.

It isn’t as simple as old world vs. new world, because Burgundy manages to churn out plenty of subpar pinot nowadays, too. Just because it’s where the heartbreak grape has historically made some of the most seductive wines this world has known, doesn’t mean it’s without greed, stupidity and laziness. Plenty of pinots coming from France are either too fat, too thin, too ripe, too green or too high octane. And the wineries making them blame either a bad year, a finicky grape or a foreign market (that would be us) that wants a pinot that tastes like a fucking zinfandel. And to that end they either throw their hands up, not knowing how to properly coax the best of a grape that is, no doubt, a pain in the ass to grow, or they make wines that no longer resemble anything close a classic red Burgundy, in hopes to boost sales in the US market. You are far more likely to find a wide audience in those who suck at the teat of Coca-Cola and enjoy overly fruity, full-bodied wines than you are in those who appreciate the lithe earthiness of pinot at its best. Pinot never wanted to placate the masses. Pinot is the grape that flips the bird at the masses. But there are always plenty of idiots who won’t let it do what it wants to do.

The pendulum is thankfully swinging the other way in California winemaking now, and many winemakers are returning to a more natural approach to the juice they stick in their bottles. And no, this ain’t about organic winemaking. This is about making a merlot that has the classic (natural) characteristics of a merlot…not of a shiraz. The last couple of decades, California spent a lot of time whoring itself to the public’s cry for homogenized wines. And though I’ve seen plenty of CA finally putting its foot down, making wines that are distinctive, true to their nature and individual in style, pinot noirs are not, overall, being nurtured back to a world of normalcy. Pinots are still the black sheep in most of California. The ones that are forced into becoming something they aren’t…something that tastes like everything else. The ones that should be the embodiment of sexuality, and instead become the embodiment of that size 18 woman at the beach walking around in a size 8 bikini.

corksBut this is how I know that California pinot is not dead yet. La Pitchoune. Somewhere in Sonoma there are some pinot grapes that are being painstakingly grown, patiently cared for and allowed to do their thing in what can only be described as a sort of subservience to the magic of the grape. Andrew Berge isn’t making wine as much as he is growing grapes. And more importantly, he is allowing them to become some of the best pinot noir being made on the west coast. Not because it closely resembles a classic red Burgundy (although it does), but because it DOESN’T resemble anything else but a pinot noir. There is no jam. There is no oak tree. There is no nose-hair-singeing ABV. There is only sexy, earthy, softly curved but beautifully edged pinot. Charles Bukowski wrote, “She may be mad but she’s magic. There’s no lie in her fire.” That woman that comes along once in your lifetime, if you’re lucky, and drives you absolutely batshit crazy at times but also exudes more intoxicating character and beauty than you’ve ever experienced before in one person before? That’s pinot. More specifically, that’s the pinot being made at La Pitchoune.


beer_taps2Those that have been watching the growth of the craft beer/microbrewery movement this last decade with a diligent eye know that Big Brewing has done its best to steal back at least a portion of what it’s lost to the little guys—mostly by screwing with the less-than-diligent consumer. The A-B family of brands now includes lines like Green Valley Brewing Company (the name Anheuser-Bush makes no appearance on those bottle labels), Stella Artois and Kirin Ichiban (no, Kirin is not an import if you are American), as well as having their hands stuck in the cookie jars of Red Hook Brewing, Goose Island Brewery and Alexander Keith’s “Nova Scotia Style”. 

With about 3000 breweries in the US now producing tens of thousands of beers, fighting successfully for tap space in bars is about as easy as luring an order of nuns into a gang bang. Of course, there will always be bars that prefer stocking the piss-water that non-demanding customers can chug on the cheap. The places where Shock Top and Blue Moon are viewed as craft offerings. The places where the beer is served ice cold so you can’t tell how shitty it actually tastes. The places where, if forced to patronize, I order a bourbon. And while we’d like to believe that other, more discriminating “craft beer bars” opt for local, seasonal and small-scale brews whenever possible, the reality isn’t always as romantic as the fairytale. 

A couple of weeks ago Dann Paquette, co-founder and brewer for Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project in Massachusetts, became a Tweeting whistleblower. Under the brewery’s handle, Paquette pulled the wizard’s curtain back and told Twitterville that Boston is a “pay to play town and we’re often shut out for draft lines along with many beers you may love.” Much like the payola that ruled our radio airwaves in the 50s, Paquette called out the industry for some very illegal “pay to play” hustling—breweries and distributors bribing bars to stock their beers and squeeze out the competition. Paquette railed, “Since I’ve started as a brewer in 1992 it has been a given in Boston that beer lines were for sale.” It certainly isn’t new, and it certainly doesn’t end in Beantown. In 2010, a Crain’s investigation found that a trendy Chicago hotel bar had been taking payouts and other bribes from a powerful MillerCoors distributor. Deb Carey of New Glarus Brewing went so far as to call the city of Chicago “a whores’ market,” noting, “Everyone has a hand out and everyone wants some cash, (free) beer or a discount.”

And sometimes it isn’t cash, but merchandise, that entices a pub. Glassware, grills, coasters, signage, tickets to next week’s big game, etc. that boxes out the small brewery. The pathetic truth, however, is that what was regarded as illegal and reprehensible in the industry back in the 70s is now a fucking business model. The laws may remain in place to “protect free trade” but feds are busy fighting much larger crimes…like keeping absinthe out of US consumers’ hands for nearly a century. And lest you look at Paquette as a whiner who didn’t get his beer on someone’s tap and decided to point tantrum-aimed fingers at innocents that simply didn’t like his beer, others like Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Company have been fighting the same bullshit: “We were supposed to have our event there [undisclosed locale in Chicago] and at the last minute they said, here’s what you need to do. You need to give us X, Y and Z free and discounted in order to come here. Not only were we not able to comply because that’s against our standards (and against IL law, which we respect and follow), we were kicked out of their bar altogether, off all their taps.”

blackflag_640Put aside the fact that it’s illegal (particularly since I know that none of my readership is beyond fracturing a law or two). Even if microbreweries were willing to throw legality and morality aside to gain access to a handle, they simply can’t afford to out-spend Big Brewing, so they continue to be what punk and heavy metal have always been to mainstream music—a craft seldom appreciated by the lulled, complacent masses who just want some background noise, be it in their ears or on their palate. Do your beer-drinking soul a favor and simply stop giving your business to bars that serve swill. Buy a six pack or two of some local quality suds, take them home, crack one open, put on some Black Flag and raise a middle finger in the general direction of St. Louis, MO.


“No! Don’t sign it! Give me time to think. I mean hold on a second boy, ’cause that’s magic ink…”

by Katie Pizzuto July 23, 2014

I’ve just had the pleasure of spending the last couple of weeks with Randall Grahm. Nobody knew. In fact, Randall didn’t even know. Hell, if I’m being honest, I didn’t know until I had drained the last bottle. Though this could quite possibly be the post that finally lands me a one-way cab ride to […]

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WORDLESS WEDNESDAY: “Every picture tells a story, don’t it…”

by Katie Pizzuto May 7, 2014
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“I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation, I’ve never been afraid of any deviation…”

by Katie Pizzuto April 24, 2014
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Making a wine with native yeast (instead of commercial yeast) fermentation takes a brass set of balls. Well, either that or a little madness. But I’ve always felt that a little madness keeps the big madness away…and it also keeps you on your toes. It’s one part speculation, one part faith, and two parts beer […]

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“Owww we want the funk, give up the funk…”

by Katie Pizzuto February 27, 2014
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Brooklyn Brewery makes me wish I lived in Brooklyn, and other than my friend Joe Carroll’s trio of gastro-bliss joints (Spuyten Duyvil, Fette Sau and St. Anselm) I didn’t really think anything could make me want to live in Brooklyn—I heard a tree grows there, but it continues to elude me. Every beer they’ve ever […]

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“That lady’s stacked, and that’s a fact, ain’t holding nothing back…”

by Katie Pizzuto February 1, 2014
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You have to admire a man in his 30s who shows up to his winemaker’s dinner in suspenders and wool slacks. Don’t ask my why— I don’t make the rules—but it’s really damned cool. Add to that a mop of untamable wavy hair and an attitude towards the American cork-dork blogosphere that clearly has yet […]

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WORDLESS WEDNESDAY: “Cause I’m just a girl, little ol’ me, don’t let me out of your sight…”

by Katie Pizzuto January 22, 2014
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“Christmas Eve will find me where the lovelight gleams…”

by Katie Pizzuto December 25, 2013
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Roasting a pig, for many, is much more than cooking–it is ceremony as sacred as any religious rite divined by man. I mean, sure, I guess the overwhelming majority of religious rites don’t include copious amounts of rum, domino matches and tall tales of the old country, but you know what they say…one man’s swine […]

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“You didn’t have to love me like you did, but you did, but you did, and I thank you…”

by Katie Pizzuto December 1, 2013
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I’m not usually one to capitulate to the whole “better late than never” excuse, but I figure if I combine this belated “giving thanks” post with an early, end-of-the-year “top 3″ list post, it’ll be a wash—like 3 Hail Maries for stealing a candy bar. This year found me extraordinarily reflective, which is certainly nothing […]

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