Steal My Sip: Pinot Noir recommendations for around $12 USD and under: The blind tasting!

29 03 2010

Four Pinots on the Sill © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

Okay, after over a week of miserable allergies, my nose is back and I am raring to go on with this tasting!

Let me start by saying that this is not going to be easy. Typically to find a nice Pinot under $18 USD is almost impossible, but let me explain. Pinot noir is typically priced at starting points higher than other varietals because…it is a pain in the a@@ to grow. Some of you may have seen the movie Sideways (which explained a bit of this, but also put the screws to Merlot), and remember that Miles said it is a very thin-skinned grape and needs the perfect climate to grow into something extraordinary and become Pinot Noir.

Varietals like Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot are grown almost everywhere and are stronger, tougher grapes and can withstand the elements better than Pinot Noir. So that all being said, we pay for all of this at the checkout. The care needed and given to these grapes will cost us more, but…when it is done right, Pinot takes up to another planet. This is why you will find a ton of those varietals previously mentioned, on the shelves at much higher volumes produced and the ability to sell at lower prices. Much more available grapes to make these wines, blend with others, etc. So there are fewer produced at the under 11 price point.

There are so many styles from which choose. California is typically more fruit-forward, France is typically more earthy, Oregon skates the line between, New Zealand, and South America have become players now in their cooler regions.

Today, we have a few bottles that were $12.00 USD or less from the 2008 vintage. Three of these 4 come from California. The other is French. I will blind test to see what I will use as my “house Pinot” and can serve to guests at events or give away as presents in the future. Again, everyone has a different sense of what is good, mine will be about color, nose (smell), mouthfeel, taste, price and of course – overall bang for the buck. Which of these will taste like a 2 dollar wine and which can pass for a $20? Let’s try them and see.

I have chosen these 4 bottles based on availability, popularity. Please note that I have had tried them all in the past – but different years (vintages) for each. So these represent, to me, the best of the best that are widely available. 3 of the 4 were purchased in a local Supermarket Chain wine store – if that gives you an indication about just how widely available they are here in NJ and the tri-state area.

4 glass tasting 1 © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

4 glass tasting 1 © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

Blind Tasting

I am getting some help with this tasting, as my wife Stacey will be sipping along to ensure a “fair and balanced” representation. Each bottle is wrapped with a blank paper and tagged with a number so we will be able to associate our notes with that bottle. There are some fancier kits you can purchase for wine tasting parties, but since this is merely for “science” and not for “show,” I will keep it fairly casual.

OK, the bottles are organized and covered (blind), and I have poured 2 sets of 4 Riedel Overture red wine glasses with about 2 ounces each of the 4 bottles and labeled napkins under each to tell us what to associate with our notes. Again, this is “blind” so we have no idea which we will be tasting until after we reveal out notes and rankings. I also allowed these samples about 45 minutes in the glasses to breath before we began.


Bottle One of 4

Bottle 1 of 4

Bottle number one:

Color: Medium Ruby, as we can still see our fingers through our glass, but not clearly. All 4 of these are similar.

Legs/Tears: After swirling, we see that the “tears” or “legs” which represent alcohol content, take a bit of time to develop then show – but slight. This is indicative of alcohol content. Higher will typically mean higher levels of alcohol.

Nose: A bit “tight” and not giving that much in the way of scent now. Dark fruit, a bit of alcohol burn (astringent) and a bit of a sour note. Not much in terms of the nose.

Mouthfeel: Think of mouthfeel like viscosity: water (light), skim milk (medium) milk (full), heavy cream (mouth coating and silky). This one was between light and medium.

Taste: Light raspberry, vanilla, and heat on the finish from high alcohol (burns the back of the throat a bit) – so not much to talk about. This was not pleasant and any taste disappeared quickly, except for the alcohol burn on the short finish. Think of the tasting as a movie or play. There is a beginning, a middle and end. This went from start to finish quickly and ended poorly, but quickly.

Bottle 2 of 4

Bottle 2 of 4

Bottle number two:

Color: Medium Ruby, as we can still see our fingers through our glass, but not clearly–just outlines (as all 4 of these are similar)

Legs/Tears: After swirling, very similar to the first glass

Nose: Differs from the first bottle as it revealed some interesting notes. A bit of cherry vanilla, but a very different characteristic was some orange peel. Perfumed with violets with herbs and  a bit of alcohol as well. Interesting nose overall. High hopes based on this.

Mouthfeel: This one was more toward medium

Taste: Light cherry vanilla, some cream soda, dark berry, and a bit tannic (tart and sour) on the finish. This tannic characteristic faded and got somewhat better after abut 15 more minutes in the glass, but still fruit faded into heat.

Bottle 3 of 4 © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

Bottle 3 of 4

Bottle number three:

Color: Medium to dark Ruby – the darkest of the 3 so far

Legs/Tears: After swirling, similar to the first glass. Then we see tears slowly forming and moving down the glass.

Nose: Sweet dark stone fruits, some cherry and a lot of vanilla, a bit of alcohol was wafting up, but not overpowering the vanilla notes. Hoping this tastes like it smells. I think I know which bottle this is, based on the nose alone.

Mouthfeel: This one was medium to full, with a creaminess – thanks to that heavy use of oak (probably oak chips not full oak barrels at this low price)

Taste: Very “manipulated” but smooth with “skittle- like” candy notes (kudos to my hero, Gary Vaynerchuck and WL TV) some cream soda, dark berry, and a bit of heat on the finish. This one had the longest finish, with the fruit giving way to the vanilla oak. Very smooth. Smoothest so far, but reminiscent of the wine I had made 2 years back – and it was not a pinot noir. I’m torn about this wine. I want to dislike it because it seems a bit “fake” but really do like the way the oak and fruit work together and how smooth it is. I think many people will really like this. Not as much a food wine as it seems an apéritif that can work alone. Best so far, but again, I’m still undecided on this one. Will come back to it later to see. I’m intrigued.

Bottle 4 of 4 © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

Bottle 4 of 4

Bottle number four:

Color: Medium to dark Ruby – like  3

Legs/Tears: After swirling, similar to the first glass. Then thick tears, the most of this grouping

Nose: Wow, interesting! What the hell is this? Unusual tobacco and dirt. This is earthy and full of vegetable aromas. I am picking up green peppers, olives and even cut grass. Also, getting some oregano here. Unfortunately, I also am picking up a very strange (in a bad way) tar and burnt plastic aromas. I will come back later to see if this “blows” off /dissipates with air time.

Mouthfeel: This one was more toward medium like skim to regular milk

Taste: Picking up that tar in here like a young Barolo from Piedmont, Italy or perhaps that burnt plastic/acetone is reminding me of a South African Pinotage blend I had last year. This is interesting, for sure, but seems out of balance. Dark fruit. The alcohol is not playing well with the fruit just yet. Some bitter notes through this and that grassy vegetable characteristic from the nose is coming through on the palate. This differs from the first and second bottle, with a serious personality here, but not sure it is a friendly one. This may be like the annoying neighbor that we all know, but love despite his faults.This definitely reminds me of South Africa, like Boekenhoutskloof The Wolftrap (only not as smooth).

Empty Glasses for Pinot Tasting © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

Empty Glasses for Pinot Tasting © Tales From the Trellis, 2010


I was right, lol. It is really hard to find something under $18 USD that I really like and would want to have every day and is a real quality product with a sense of place and overall high quality. That being said, here are the final notes and placement of the bottles:

  • 4th Place: Bottle #1. This had little to offer in nose or taste. We both agreed that it was not something we want to drink again. I give it 1 star of 5.
  • 3rd Place: Bottle#2. Though this was smoother than the first, and had a start, middle and finish – it was light and did end on a harsh note with high alcohol burn. 2 Stars.
  • 2nd Place: Bottle #4. Ok, let me explain. Stacey hated this bottle, but for some of the reasons she did not like it, I found it interesting. Again, we all have our own palette so no answer is wrong. Since this offered up really different aromas and flavors, I found it interesting than the first 2, though it was not characteristic of a “real” pinot noir. I think that this bottle may have had higher levels of “Bret” in it, a wine flaw that could have been responsible for that “burnt plastic” characteristic. I would actually say it tied with bottle #2 to be fair, but want to see what would happen to an unopened bottle in about 6 months to a year. Perhaps that may help this bottle. I am giving it 2-2 ½ stars.
  • 1st place: THE WINNER! Ok, so this leaves Bottle #3. Even though this bottle tasted “fake” and “manipulated”, it was still the clear winner. It was fruity, smooth and easy drinking. Had notes of cherry vanilla, a bit of cola, dark fruit and a good mouthfeel. This is a wine that novice drinkers will flock to. Easy drinking, nothing to hate – no tannins, super fruity, a touch sweet with ripe fruit and plenty of cherry/berry vanilla. Intermediate to advanced pinot noir drinkers will not feel this way – but hey, this is for the majority out there that makes up this target market at pinot under $12. 2 ½+ stars.

Pinot Corks Blind Taste Rankings

Pinot corks rankings © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

The big reveal, in order of ranking:

HobNob Pinot Noir 2008, © HobNob Vineyards

HobNob Pinot Noir © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

1st Place: HobNob, Vin De Pays d’Oc, France

I think in a year, the over ripe fruit (skittles) taste may die down a bit and balance out a bit more, so I will put away a bottle to see and get back to you, but I do think this is a short-term wine. I am also surprised that this bottle came from France. This is the most atypical flavor profile for a French Pinot that I have ever seen (smelled, tasted, etc). I thought this would be a California producer for sure. I would have lost a lot of money on that bet. Hobnob has a fantastic website, so check it out.

This was like Rachel Ray compared to Bobby Flay. Many love Rachel for her mass appeal, familiar and comfortable like the girl next door  – and some dislike her for her lack of knowledge and label her as a “wannabe” chef to discredit her. Note: I appreciate what she brings to the table, which is getting more people interested in cooking!

McDonald’s is fake in every sense of the word, but still – many love it. It has mass appeal, hell – even Julia Child admitted to liking Mickey D’s! So, I admit it…out of the 4, this is what I would choose as the top of the lot. So kill me, I enjoy McDonald’s once in a while. When I asked which one Stacey wanted to have again if I could only pour one more, and she said bottle #3 (even after voting Mark West as her initial favorite). Not a wine for the “purist” pinophiles.

2nd Place: Castle Rock, Mendocino, California

Castle Rock Pinot Noir, Mendecino 2008

Castle Rock Pinot Noir, Mendocino 2008

Castle Rock is a fantastic producer of value priced wines, consistently. They have made wine from all over California and even Washington. I always recommend them to people asking for a solid producer across the board. I love their Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, so look for that too, and at around $12 a bottle, a steal. This pinot was really funky and I think that it is not for novices, and probably not for advanced drinkers as well, but for people looking for something different. It is interesting, but again, I want to see if some of that funk blows off in a year. That will help pull this one together.

Mark West Pinot Noir 2008 © The Purple Wine Co.

Mark West Pinot Noir 2008 © The Purple Wine Co.

3rd Place: Mark West Wines, California

Mark West has really taken the country by storm. Many magazines and critics have rated this wine as a best value and you see it all over. Huge acclaim and has beat out pinot up to $100 USD.

I remember when they were not as well know here in NJ and bought 2 bottles. One was the lower end (like this one we tried today) and one higher end. I loved the higher end version (Russian River Valley 2005?) but was more than double to cost. I don’t see those around and don’t think they make it anymore. I did not like the lower end version then, and though it has improved, still put it in 3rd overall. Light in style, an interesting nose but with fading flavor and heat and bitterness on the finish. Good start, decent middle but bad finish. Also “manipulated” tasting like the HobNob, but not as smooth. Not a wine for the “purist” pinophiles.

Heron 2008 Sonoma Pinot Noir, © Heron Wines

4th Place: Heron Wines, Sonoma, California

Heron has made quality Pinot Noir in the past. This is not one of them. Light, fading fast and a whisper of a flavor profile. Hoping they can have better luck next year, because I do like them very much.

Closing Statement: Pinot Noir recommendations for $12 or less

So there it is. Unanimous with an explanation. I poured us a second glass and we finished our dumplings – knowing we had a winner in the under $12 USD category anyway. Next time, I will work up to the $12-17 pinot and will include a global representation for more diversity. This time out, McDonald’s rules the day, as the others were not able to overcome their faults, while the winner won with sheer over-the-top excess in fruit and wood (and a bit of manipulation). Cheers to HobNob Vineyards for this import that will satisfy many here in the USA.

Also try these value Pinots:

  • Robert Mondavi Private Selection 2008: $10.00-12.00 USD
  • Chalone Pinot Noir, Monterey County 2008: $11.99- 16.00 USD
  • Deloach California Pinot Noir: $10-13.00 USD
  • Spend the extra and go for the Cambria, Julia’s Vineyard for $18.00!

Post your favorite Pinot Noir under $12 USD here! Let me know what you liked about them.

Full disclosure: I do not take money, wine, advertising or trade for higher or manipulated reviews–period.

Steve from the Trellis

© Tales From the Trellis and Talesfromthetrellis, 2010




5 responses

29 03 2010
Mike W

Great review. Very interesting to see what you are tasting for. Question though: if these are the “best of the best that is widely available,” how would you rate the 4 compared to the rest of what is on the market (Pinots, under $18)? Are they way above the typical <$18 pinot noir, or would you say the #4 is on average with what you'd expect for an <$18 pinot noir? Would you still purchase the #3 or #4 over another bottle of widely-available pinot around the same price?

30 03 2010

Mike, great questions. I selected these as they do represent bottles available and popular in this area at this price. Mark West has received a ton of acclaim, HobNob, though new, shows up at TGI Fridays and is available in A&P Liquor stores here in NJ. Castle Rock is a popular brand that makes value wines in many varietals and a good “go to” brand for bang for the buck. And Heron, though not as widely avaialble, has been a solid producer in the past. These 4 do represent value brands for this category. Unfortunately, as with most everything else, you do get what you pay for. As Oak barrels are costly so wood chips are used to enhance flavor and mouthfeel, as well as nose. This is true with other varietals like Cabernet and Merlot. Things like that are needed to keep price points lower. Other things are done to “manipulate” wines or cover some flaws. I will have a post on that soon. I look for many things, and though I am not a “trained critic”, I now what I like when I like it and I did not like 1 of the 4 at all. Heron was not up to snuff, at any price. The Mark West was decent but light, but worth the money easily. The Castle Rock was so weird, that most critics would pan it because it did not exhibit “true” pinot characteristics. I liked it because of the rest, it actually did have a personality, albeit a strange one. I would try it again in a year to see what happens. THe HobNob was a clear winner to me based on the price. Does it taste like a 18 dollar wine and would I run out to get a case…probably not no. But, thought it did taste “fake”, it was the most delicious of the group – but it can not jump a level to compare with the better wines in a mid tier category. I think many people will really enjoy this…and some will not. When I asked which of the 4 my wife would want to have again…she picked THe HobNob, even though her numbers and notes added up to Mark West as her winner. So that is really what it comes down to, which would you want to have more of and stirkes a chord with you.

3 04 2010

Uh oh…before reading this I bought a bottle of HobNob to take to a family get-together this afternoon. Am I really taking Rachel Ray to Bobby Flay’s house! D’oh!

Then again, we are having hot dogs…so maybe it will be appropriate? Looking forward to trying it anyway. 🙂

3 04 2010

Carol, It’s fine…bbq is causal and the bottle is fine. Really. I am going to do an update on this within the month and taste the hobnob against the Mondavi, Tohu and Barefoot pinots.
Enjoy! Remember, if it is an outside event, do keep it chilled so it won’t be too hot and taste like gasoline! Happy Easter!

13 05 2010

Thanks for the comment Vermont, I love Oregon Pinot, but unfortunately I was unable to find one for $9.99 and under, as that was the criteria for this tasting! ; )
Look for my upcoming Oregon Pinot post in the next months! Best, Steve from the Trellis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: