About two weeks into the semester, my lit students got their first essay assignment.
By way of footnote, I confessed to a few irritants that would adversely affect how generously I’d be able to read their efforts. If, for example, the first three words were “in today’s society,” I’d too carefully scrutinize the entire piece for clichés and generalizations.
And if they announced that the author of the text in question “utilized” description or metaphor, I’d immediately think “pretentious,” or “tone deaf.” I’ve just never understood why anyone would “utilize” tools, money, tomatoes, paint, paprika, power or hardwood when he or she could so simply “use” them.
My current pet peeve: “notorious” as a synonym for “well-known” or “famous” or “celebrated.” I recently picked up a study of Frankenstein that consistently committed this admittedly venial sin. The author also used “sheepish” when she clearly meant “squeamish,” and “incongruous” when the context called for “inaccurate,” so I didn’t feel too guilty about abandoning the book at page 50.
While “notorious” does mean “noted,” that neutral usage is, according my dictionaries, “rare.” Since the 17th century it has had negative connotation and means, usually, “unfavorably known.” Valley Wine Company is, for example, well-known for its wine selection but notorious for its unprepossessing décor.
The day after I returned the Frankenstein tome to the library, I was looking through a health food magazine from the Davis Food Co-op and noticed a sentence that started “Resveratrol, the key ingredient in red wine, gained much notoriety after several animal studies found…” I immediately assumed that some new study pegs resveratrol as somehow harmful rather than helpful. But no, the sentence concluded, “that it extends life,” and the piece went on to enumerate resveratrol’s ability to calm inflammation, balance blood sugar, protect against tumors and so on.
In other words, it gained much “prominence” or “significance” rather than “notoriety.”
I know I’m persnickety about words — perhaps I’m becoming notorious for this trait — but it seems a shame to lose such a precise word when we have perfectly adequate and much less confusing neutral or positive alternatives.
This is, I guess, a circuitous way to begin talking about pinot noir, a grape both celebrated for the elegant wines it can produce and notorious for being difficult to grow. It doesn’t much like wind, heat, dryness; its thin skin makes handling an issue; the grape clusters are susceptible to fungus, the vines to viral invasions. Famous wine writer Jancis Robinson calls it a “minx of a vine,” and noted winemaking pioneer André Tchelistcheff famously proclaimed that God made cabernet sauvignon but the devil made pinot noir.
It took me a long time to appreciate the varietal, mostly, I think, because I kept trying the cheap ones. While you don’t need to spend $40 to get a delicious bottle, it helps. In a piece titled “Can You Get a Good Wine for Under $15?” a wine expert answered yes, but a not a pinot noir. Too bad, since pinot is a red eminently suited to warm summer days.
When I talk myself into spending a lot, it’s usually for a pinot. I sometimes think there’s just no other wine I’d rather have. Violet-scented, bright with cherries and dark raspberries, tart, acidic, earthy, smoky, mushroomy — heaven. Yes, I do write rather frequently (and repetitively?) about pinot, but, well, it’s a celebrated varietal. All the great Burgundy reds (with the exception of the wines from the Beaujolais region), for example, are generally 100 percent pinot noir.
You might not know this, though, from the bottle. While the interesting pinots coming from New Zealand and Chile are easy enough to spot, the new and often excellent pinots from Germany might well announce themselves as “spätburgunder.” And French wines are notorious for complex and nearly undecipherable labels. Instead of “Pinot Noir” you’ll see the name of the area, like the famous Clos de la Roche Grand Cru (which I won’t talk about because I’ve never tasted it and given the prices, am unlikely to. Apologies to readers who hate sentences that end in a preposition).
Once you figure this out, you can find imported bargains. Or at least relative bargains. I mentioned a few months ago a very drinkable German pinot from Gustav Lorenz that I picked up in Berkeley and then discovered on the shelves at Corti Brothers for only $11. Of domestic affordable pinots, my own favorite is the clean, light Acrobat from Oregon (second label of organically farmed King Estate), which you can now buy at the Co-op for $16 — or get by the glass at Monticello (excellent with its vegetable-loving menu).
I read one wine writer’s assertion that the worst of the Oregon pinots is better than the best of the Californian — a gross generalization that I’d never have let my students get away with, knowing as I do that there are perfectly wonderful California pinots, especially ones from the coastal areas. But I myself generally prefer the Oregon pinots to the California ones, the latter often being more fruit-forward, alcoholic, and — to my taste — less elegant.
Recently I went to Vini and tried, simultaneously, three very different pinot noirs — one from Chile, one from France, one from Oregon. It was a fun exercise, one I highly recommend. The Chilean pinot was from the carbon-neutral winery Cono Sur. A single vineyard effort, it struck me — in spite of claims to “burgundian style” — as very like my caricature of a California pinot: fruit forward, a bit hot (14.5 percent alcohol), not especially complex. At $24 it was the least expensive of the three and perhaps the most immediately, albeit fleetingly, appealing.
The most expensive was, predictably, from the Willamette Valley — the J.K, Carriere 2010 Vespidae. The Wine Advocate gave it 90 points and an accurate description: with “dark and bitter-edged berry fruit — cassis, blackberry and huckleberry,” it displays “density with refinement of tannin and focus.” I liked it quite a lot and would love to serve it with a mushroom pasta, but its $43 price tag is a definite deterrent.
Besides, I liked the Burgundian pinot, a 2011 Joseph Douhin Cote de Nuit-Villages (no “pinot” on the label) even better. Like the Vespidae, it comes in at a reasonable 13 percent alcohol. With a deep wild cherry aroma and mushroom aroma and taste, it has many layers of earthy loveliness.
Well-known Maison Joseph Drouhir has been making wine for centuries, using organically farmed fruit from low-yield vines in soil and climate especially suited to pinot, and that experience shows here. If you’re in the mood for a wine splurge, have a relaxing afternoon at Vini so you can try this — for just $3.25 — before committing to the $27 bottle.
Yes, good pinot noir is notoriously expensive. When I asked John at Valley Wine Company for a pinot recommendation in the $20 range, he shrugged and said they’d been searching for just such a wine for six months. With no luck. So, if you’re a pinot fan or would like to be, save your pennies. In the meantime, buy a nice grenache.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com