California Pinot Noir

If you have seen the movie "Sideways," you may be wondering why so much attention was given to the red wine Pinot Noir. While the movie's title aptly describes the skewed relationship of its main characters, the term sideways brilliantly sets Pinot Noir's greatest challenge in the vineyard against its ultimate reward in the glass.

In France, this ancient grape is used to create the legendary, age-worthy wines of Burgundy, the best of which have earthy, mineral flavors supported by leather and lingering spice. Take this grape outside of Burgundy and Pinot Noir makes a very different wine. Here's why: Pinot Noir, an elusive grape, isn't easy to grow. Its thin skin is susceptible to vineyard hazards such as rot, frost and mildew. To avoid these conditions, growers carefully select cool vineyard sites where the grape can ripen slowly and perhaps catch a coastal breeze. Premium spots in California include the outer reaches of Sonoma and the Central Coast regions.

So why would anyone bother with such a finicky grape? One stellar sip of a Burgundy grand cru and you will know exactly why. Given the right vineyard location, soil type, climate and attention, Pinot Noir can produce complex, memorable red wines. Plus, the grape's crisp acidity makes Pinot Noir a great food wine. California's fruitier-styled Pinot Noirs are great with meaty fish such as salmon or Ahi tuna while the velvety Burgundy-styled Pinot Noirs pair well with roasted veal and grilled lamb.

At the risk of teetering toward wine-snob speak, Pinot Noir is an expressive grape that has the ability to create wines with a unique sense of place. It has an almost ethereal quality that keeps wine lovers searching for the next great bottle. Like Burgundy, California's top Pinot Noirs reflect the character of the region and the personality of the winemaker. Pop a Pinot tonight and taste for yourself.

Marianne Frantz, founder of the Cleveland Wine School, is joined by Jerry Stupka from Jerry's Wine Center in selecting wines for this month's Cellar Notes.

2003 David Bruce Pinot Noir, Central Coast ($23): Wild berry, ripe strawberry and spice. Lip-smacking acidity and soft tannins make this a perfect food wine. Drink now or hold for a few years.

2002 Estancia Pinot Noir, Monterey ($17): Flavors of sweet cherry, raspberry, red plum and cedar with crisp acidity and spice. This is a great value and great with food.

2002 Castle Rock Pinot Noir, California ($12): Medium-bodied with black cherry, vanilla and spice from oak supported by medium-plus alcohol, crisp acidity and a long finish. This is a great wine value.

2002 Saintsbury Pinot Noir, Sonoma ($27): Concentrated fruit. Ripe cherry, raspberry tart and caramel. Firm tannins and spicy-oak flavor.

2003 Mark West Pinot Noir, Central Coast ($17): Rich strawberries, black cherry and cranberry with a touch of kirsch. Crisp acidity, soft tannins and juicy fruit make this a wine great with food or alone.

2002 Migration Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley ($32): Dark and rich with complex flavors. Plum, truffle, smoke and wild berries with a silky soft finish — more earthy than fruity.

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