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The Wine Column

Know Your Pinot

By Stett Holbrook

I HOLD these truths to be self-evident: The white-wine-with-fish-rule is bogus. Merlot isn't as bad as Sideways made it out to be. And you can't drink good pinot noir on a budget. 

There are cheap pinots. There are delicious pinots. But there are no cheap and delicious pinots. I maintain hope that one day I'll find a great yet low-cost pinot noir, but for now if I want the good stuff I know I have to pay for it. That means $20 at least. Forty bucks or $60 is even better. Spending a lot of money doesn't ensure quality, but spend less than $20 and you can almost always be assured of a second-rate bottle of pinot noir.  

I say rather than drink mediocre pinot noir, wait until you can afford one that fully expresses the elegant finesse and hard-to-define beauty of the good stuff. Our proximity to Santa Cruz Mountains' "pinot paradise" doesn't mean top quality pinot noir comes any cheaper, but there are many pinot producers worth holding out for.

One of my favorites is Portola Valley's tiny Varner Wine. The winery produces premium chardonnay and pinot noir that sells for about $40. The grapes are grown on beautiful foothill vineyards on the eastern slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains. They're the northernmost vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, a cool but not too cool climate perfect for pinot noir.

Twin brothers Bob and Jim Varner maintain a devout noninterventionist approach to their wine. Winemaker Bob Varner invests all his energies into his dry farmed vines and then does his best to stay out of the way once the wine is in the barrel. His goal is to capture the essence of the grapes the vineyards gave him and let nature takes its course in the cellar.

"Ideally, I do nothing," he says. "Once it's in the barrel it's done."

Out of that "nothing" come some truly great wines. Earlier this year I had a chance to sample some recently released wines and others still in the barrel. Although the 2007 wines were still in the barrel, they already displayed bewitching flavors of cherry, spice, damp earths and vanilla. One of my favorite bottled wines was the 2005 Neely Holly's Cuvee, a wine blended from the fruit of two vineyards. It's a light but lush wine with whiffs of perfume and dark fruit and spice flavors.

  The Varners' wine sells out quickly, but it's worth seeking out when you want the good stuff. Look for it at Robert's Market in Woodside, K&L Wine Merchants in Redwood City and Draeger's. For more information go to

  WINE WATCH: Clos LaChance hosts its annual Holiday Faire this weekend, Nov. 22–23, from 11am to 5pm. The winery is breaking out its gift sets for the season at the event. Clos LaChance is located at 1 Hummingbird Lane, San Martin; call 408.686.1050 for more information.

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