Pinot Noir – The Perfect Little Black Dress

You are going out to dinner with one companion and it is a night to splurge on a great bottle of wine. Since there are only two of you, the wine needs to be just right for each of the dishes you order individually. Is there a varietal that is so versatile that it can show its best with a variety of appetizers, salads and entrées? We faced this test when my husband, Paul, and I celebrated my birthday dinner at the Tree Room at Utah’s Sundance Resort.

First we selected our meals with first courses of braised short rib ravioli for Paul and warm duck confit salad for me. For entrées we wanted dishes that showcased the talents of Chef Colton Soelberg. I was set on the fresh trout and Paul selected wild boar. It was time to consult the expert, Cecilia Shan, the wine and beverage director, to help us with our conundrum. Which of the wines for about $50 would show its best with all four dishes?

Cecilia recommended the 2004 Bethel Heights-Sundance “Redford Cuvee,” a Pinot Noir from Oregon. “Pinot Noir has dual personalities,” Shan says. “It is like a white wine texturally in that it is delicate and silky on the tongue. However, it also has red wine intensity with the complexity and tannic structure necessary for pairing with heavier fare.”

As we learned, Pinot has a “delicate texture” that’s soft enough not to “overpower the trout,” but is also bold enough to stand up to the boar. If this is true, does it mean Santa Barbara vintners have a Pinot that can do the same? But of course.

Wendy Van Horn, wine director at Wine Cask, says Pinot Noir is the varietal that harmonizes with a variety of dishes. Other wines like Cabernet or Syrah match well with a “hunk of beef,” she says, but “will completely overwhelm the more delicate taste of a light fish dish.”

“Pinot is versatile primarily because it occupies the sweet spot of ‘happy medium’ – neither too heavy nor too light, not too rich or too acidic, too soft or too tannic,” says Van Horn. “As a wine, Pinot is analogous to the perfect little black dress that can be dressed up or down and worn pretty much everywhere.”

Trey Brooks, co-owner of Louie’s California Bistro, says Pinot Noir’s low tannic structure is what lends itself to a variety of food.

“From red meats like our rack of lamb to Alaskan halibut, the wine works with meat dishes and is delicate enough to pair with fish,” he says. “Currently, I’m pouring Brophy Clark Pinot Noir from Ashley’s Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara. It’s a great wine with good fruit up front, finishing with an earth spice.”

A good local test involves matching the Wine Cask menu with Pinots. If I want miso broiled black cod with Japanese eggplant, shiitake mushrooms, pickled carrots and star anise broth, but Paul wants to dig in to the grilled Kobe beef top sirloin with baby root vegetables and black truffle sauce, what is the wine to choose for the big splurge? Wendy’s answer: A Pinot from Burgundy, the 2003 Vosne-Romanée, Robert Arnoux ($90).

“The supple plum flavors and warm earthiness in this Burgundy bring out the earthy miso flavors in the cod dish and beautifully underscore the essence of black truffle in the sauce on the beef,” Van Horn says.

But what about Santa Barbara Pinots? “That would be the 2004 Native 9 Rancho Ontiveros, Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley [$80],” Van Horn replies. “This is the inaugural release for this wine – and it’s one to watch. With these dishes, the succulence of the ripe fruit topped with exotic spice notes – think cinnamon, mace, cardamom –really play up the spice notes in the star anise-flavored broth on the fish while the lush fruit and velvety tannins embrace the tender beef.”

Sip Tips

Speaking of Pinot, I tasted recently some wines worth noting from Clos Du Val, a pioneer winery in Napa Valley since 1972. From the new vintages I tasted four of its new releases. My two favorites were the 2005 Pinot Noir, Carneros ($28) and the 2004 Merlot, Napa Valley ($26), both pairing excellently with food. The fact that winemaker John Clews is a home chef with extensive culinary knowledge seems to influence his winemaking so these wines complement your meal without overwhelming it. The Pinot has flavors of bright cherry and spice, with hints of tannin and the Merlot is robust with dark fruit, spice and dried herbs.

The Santa Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance will host its 2nd Annual Wine & Fire event June 22-24 to celebrate and explore the wines and people of their unique winegrowing appellation. This was a great event last year where guests, growers, winemakers and vintners mingle and, better, get to know each other. This year there will be a wine reception at the La Purisima Mission on Friday (June 22). Saturday's “Trial by Fire” will be a tasting seminar that will explore present day issues in a “prove it” trial setting, where panels of winemakers will defend or refute opinions on such topics as “oak or no oak” in Chardonnay and “made in the cellar or in the vineyard” with Pinot Noir. The audience will participate as jurors as the winemakers present their wines to support their positions. A ranchero-inspired gourmet luncheon with pit-roasted suckling pig, spit-roasted salmon and grilled local vegetables among other dishes created by Chef Jeff Olssen will be held on the grounds of Rancho La Viña, on the southwestern edge of the America Viticultural Area. On Saturday evening and Sunday, members of the Winegrowers Alliance will present dinners, open houses and winery events throughout the appellation.

A full listing of winery events and ticket information can be found at