Wine column no. 71: When fame doesn't make it right, or good: Oregon pinot noir's beguiling disguise

July 19, 2015: Let me tell you a story of a perfect land, a perfect city, where the wine is magnificent, and the food, well: there’s nothing better.

This is Evansville. This is southern Indiana. This is honesty.

Let me say that you only get to understand Evansville once you leave it. Drive to a bigger city, try to navigate its traffic, sit amongst its neighborhoods, its breezy winds, and then tell me that you don’t understand Evansville. Tell me that you don’t understand what it takes to leave something you love. Tell me that you don’t know what matters most of all. Tell me that I don’t know what I’ve lost.

And then send a wine my way. Really, any wine — any Pinot noir, any chardonnay, any Cabernet sauvignon, any wine that makes a difference, because this is a wine column. This is a column about a social drink, a tonic, an elixir that makes us all feel better about what we do. You have a glass of red wine when you come home from work. You have a glass of white wine when you order a meal at Bonefish Grill. And Champagne, Napoleon Bonaparte’s favorite drink? Well, that’s for the truest of hearts. At least, I’d like to think so.

This is wine, on the down low. It’s basic, after all, because this is Indiana. This is Evansville. This is us, honest to goodness, all down to earth, and easy to relate to, or so the old slogan goes. We are Mike Pence, just farther south, on the very edge of what we don’t say, of what we don’t acknowledge.

Because I like a challenge, I’m going to suggest you choose a Pinot noir. They’re prickly that way, those Pinots, because they only seem to succeed in certain places, in certain milieus. Thin-skinned and difficult, their grapes are famously finicky, troublesome and yet full of potential. Very few people manage to handle them well. Yet when they do, you notice. You notice quite well.

Wine critic Andrew Jefford was in the midst of commenting on Syrah when, it could be said, Pinot Noir grabbed the camera. He put it plainly: She’s a diva.

“In other words, just getting her on stage costs a huge amount of money and effort, and even then there’s no certainty that she will open her mouth and sing. If she does, she may be sublime, and no one in the theater will ever forget that combination of beauty, power and lyricism. But her moods are notorious, she’s prone to flu and sore throats, she doesn’t like most of the cities where she’s asked to perform and her agent is always holding out for a better deal.”

In other words, not everyone would choose to take on Pinot Noir. This is a grape, mind you, with bunch rot and downy mildew tendencies. It’s also sensitive to yeast strains, wind, frost, soil types and pruning techniques. It’s your basic grape varietal nightmare. Enter David Lett. It was Oregon in the late 1960s, and he had noticed that Willamette Valley, where he later made his famous 1975 South Block Pinot Noir from Eyrie Vineyards, has a similar climate as Burgundy, France. That’s the home of the most famous Pinot Noir, by the way. When Lett took his South Block to Paris for an international competition against French red Burgundies and won third place, Oregon ended up on the wine map. Well, France’s wine map, anyway. And on that point, I think we can all agree: Maps matter, but only to those who choose to follow them.

After that, Oregon was the Newest World in what was already known as wine’s New World. Robert Drouhin, a French wine magnate, established his Domaine Drouhin Oregon winery in 1987. Others followed suit, digging for metaphorical gold in the wine world’s newest, most popular metaphorical gold mines. And why not? That’s what people do when opportunity strikes. That’s what you do when everyone else is doing it, too. Everyone wants a piece of the glory.

These days, Oregon Pinot noir has a reputation for excellence — some of it deserved, others not so much. Yet that’s the downside to fame; it brings attention to what shouldn’t be discussed, or even tolerated, and forces us to make room for both. Those seeking a claim to fame insist: This is part of the game, too. The more talented sigh: Every good wine must have a bad wine to be compared to. So here you have it: Good wine versus mediocre wine, Oregon against Oregon, and all here in Evansville. I can’t imagine anything better. The safest battles, after all, just use words, even if none of those words are safe at all.

If you’re looking for a good wine under the $20 bar, the best I’ve found recently was a 2013 Erath Pinot Noir from Dundee, Oregon. This wine evoked flavors of cola and cherries, was fuller bodied, and had balanced tannins and acidity. $16.99. Binny’s Beverage Depot.

The it’ll-likely-be-better-next-year choice was the 2013 A to Z Pinot Noir, which was strong on vegetable notes but weak on cola flavors. I’m usually a big fan of A to Z, which has crept up in price over the years, largely because it’s usually a decent under-$20 bottle. But, not this vintage. My advice? Widen your perspective and look to other shelves. Money doesn’t make the diva. $18.59. Schnucks on Washington Avenue.