Susan Seubert
Pinot Noir is the star at The Dundee Bistro in Oregon.
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Pinot Noir: A Love Story

Jeffery Lindenmuth / November 2010

Chefs and sommeliers across the country extol the virtues of food's favorite grape.

Long before it was America's most popular restaurant wine, a Hollywood big screen star, and the fastest growing red wine in terms of sales, chefs were already falling for Pinot Noir. What is it about this varietal that seems to make both sommeliers and chefs swoon? Sure, Pinot Noir is often regarded as the sommelier's silver bullet at the table, one of the most versatile wines with a variety foods for its medium body, generous acidity, and subtle tannins. However, to hear the chefs who have been moved, some quite literally, by their affection for this Burgundian paramour is to glimpse Pinot's greater allure.

Jason Stoller Smith, a board member and frequent guest chef for Oregon's annual International Pinot Noir Celebration, left his position as chef at Timberline Lodge atop Oregon's Mt. Hood to become chef/partner at The Dundee Bistro in the heart of wine country in 2001. "I fell in love with Pinot Noir, and also Chardonnay, up at Timberline, and I knew my next move was to get closer to those wines," says Smith. The wine list at The Dundee Bistro is the domain of Luisa Ponzi, a Pinot winemaker herself for Oregon's Ponzi Vineyards, and Pinot Noir accounts for about 70 of the roughly 200 selections. In addition to Oregon bottlings, The Dundee Bistro, created and owned by the Ponzi family, features a smattering of Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, Italy, New Zealand, and California—a fairly complete map of where this finicky grape thrives. "Working with this wine list, I realized I could cook a lot of different things to go with these wines," states Smith.

While Pinot Noir can't claim to be a perfect match for every ingredient or style of food, Smith finds Pinot much less limiting than brawny Cabernet Sauvignons or fat Chardonnays. "I might avoid excessive spice, or certain flavors like cilantro, in order to build my food for the wine. It's not that I'm limiting myself, but because I love wine, I choose to cook with the total guest experience in mind, and Pinot Noir becomes a huge part of that," explains Smith, who recently returned to Timberline Lodge following nine years in Dundee, bequeathing the kitchen to Willamette Valley raised Christopher Flanagan.

Jeff Mall planned to similarly plunge into wine country when he arrived in Healdsburg, California, 12 years ago to open Zin restaurant with partner Scott Silva. Like a harbinger of wine country to come, the first customer to enter Mall's Zinfandel-centric restaurant was George Levkoff, the winemaker behind George, his eponymous Russian River Valley boutique Pinot Noir. Others followed, including Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars, Wells Guthrie of Copain Wines, Bob Cabral of Williams Selyem, and the Rochioli family of Rochioli Vineyards & Winery, all passionate producers of Pinot Noir.

Mall soon conceded that California's greatest Pinot Noir producers were his customers, neighbors, friends: "Our concept was that we wanted to be an American bistro, and I love Zin and its American connection. But truly, when it comes to being a chef and when it comes to pairing food and wine, it's hard to beat Pinot."

Mall's wine list at Zin is 90 percent Sonoma County and features nearly as many Pinot Noirs as it does Zinfandels, a reflection of the ascent of Russian River Valley, which forms a wine country confluence, along with Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley, near Healdsburg. "Sonoma Pinot is really soaring right now, but I find the producers are so grounded. More than any other winemakers, they love talking about the foods that make their wines taste good," he boasts. When crafting dishes that bring out the best in Pinot Noir, Mall most looks forward to fall, as local foragers arrive at his door bearing chanterelles and other wild mushrooms. By using the mushrooms as a "bridge" to Pinot's inherent earthy and savory characteristics, Mall says Pinot can succeed with everything from pasta to hanger steak.

Few chefs have pursued Pinot Noir pairing with the creativity of Vitaly Paley, chef/co-owner of Paley's Place since his arrival in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and wine director, Kimberly, in 1995. "We moved out here because of wine. And our food changed fundamentally because of that. Here you're dealing with the land, and nature, and for us that love affair began with wine," enthuses Paley. The list of about 100 selections is drawn almost entirely from Oregon and France, especially Paley's favorite region—Burgundy. "With Pinot Noir, you have the tannins that speak to the richness of meat, and also the delicacy to go with fish and lighter foods. In our region, that means it's versatile enough to go with salmon and crab, and also game meats and mushrooms. The possibilities are wide open."

Addressing the differences among Oregon wines, with Bergström Pinot Noir he recently offered winter squash gnocchi with buffalo/oxtail stew and herb butter, the lean buffalo matching the delicacy and light tannins of the wine, while Broadley Vineyards Pinot Noir, with its richer style and substantial tannins, was paired with seared foie gras on a fingerling potato, wrapped in bacon. While experimenting with Oregon's Penner-Ash Pinot Noir and beets, Paley discovered that his beet soup with crème fraîche and truffled crab melt struck a perfect balance—not hot, not cold, but only at room temperature.

In order to prepare a dry-aged grass-fed rib eye with Scott Paul Audrey Pinot Noir 2008 and Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron Chambolle-Musigny 2007 for an IPNC dinner, Paley first seared the meat, then finished it in an oven on a bed of hay and wood chips, in order to contribute smoky, butterscotch flavors. "It was a particularly successful match—the truffle, mushroom, and sweetly earthy notes of both of the Pinot Noirs were echoed in the lightly smoky and savory richness of the beef," says Scott Wright, winemaker and proprietor of Scott Paul Wines from Oregon.

Of course, Pinot-loving chefs are in no way confined to wine country. "Being in the South, when I just want a drink, I drink whiskey. But what I really love is food and wine together. And when I open a bottle of wine, it's Pinot Noir," states Sean Brock, executive chef at McCrady's restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. With McCrady's sommelier, Clint Sloan, Brock typically blind tastes a dozen wines with each new dish, observing how each wine affects the flavors. "Wine pairing is everything," explains Brock. "I need to be involved because I have a vision of how I want a dish to taste, and the wine can improve the dish or mute it. It can balance or amplify one ingredient."

Pinot, asserts Brock, is like an insurance policy, pairing well with the greatest diversity of foods. He finds that Pinot is especially compelling to his chef's sensibility in the way that it achieves great complexity without becoming weighty or onerous. Breaking down Pinot Noir's complexity, Brock says he likes the way the wine often exhibits smoke, a complement to traditional Southern smoked meats. Floral violet aromas inspire him to work with seafood and also spices like cloves and cinnamon. Lastly, Brock's surf and turf, which includes a seared scallop with forest flavors of pine needles, pine nuts, truffles, and sorrel leaves, is his answer to Pinot Noir's earthy flavors. "I like the idea that dirt is not bad. We talk about it in winemaking, and with these ingredients we can talk about dirt, or earthiness, on the plate," says Brock.

As chef, owner, and wine director at Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Tony Maws sees Pinot Noir as not only perfect with his food, but with the environment of restaurant dining. "Pinot Noir is a wine that can go with pork belly and striped bass at the same table. You have to realize that what happens in a restaurant, with different dishes, is very different than what happens sitting at your dinner table or on your couch at home," he explains. "I love any wine that tastes good with so many foods."

With a predominantly French list, Maws is faced with the challenge of finding affordable selections among red Burgundy, so he also bargain hunts in the Languedoc and Loire Valley, where the Pinot Noir appears in red Sancerre. At the same time, Maws praises Pinot for permitting him to have a list of food-friendly French wines, without a large inventory, noting that Bordeaux and Bordeaux varietal wines might require 15 or 20 years of aging to reach their peak of food friendliness. "The marriage of Pinot Noir with food seems so natural to me," exclaims Maws. "I guess I'm drawn to it because, as the chef, the wine list is about more than just making a buck. I want wines that will do what they're supposed to do—help people enjoy their meal more."