The Wine Guy - Greg Walter

Pinot Noir: here for the long haul

I read a comment on Facebook recently to the effect that Pinot Noir had “jumped the shark.” I’ve never been a big fan of that expression, but it did get me thinking.

The expression “jump the shark” was originally used a couple of decades ago to describe when a television program had run out of new ideas. (Specifically, it was an episode of “Happy Days,” late in the series.) More recently that phrase’s use has been generalized to mean the point when a brand or concept has become irrelevant.

Has Pinot Noir become irrelevant or passé? Have consumers “left the building” and walked away from Pinot Noir in search of what’s new and hot?

The modern renaissance of Western Pinot Noir really stretches back into the early 1980s in terms of the incredible innovations in the cellar and the vineyard that have resulted in the wines we drink today. Of course, the movie (and subsequent phenomenon) “Sideways” propelled Pinot Noir to the forefront of the aspirational wine consumer’s eye — everyone wanted to sit across a table from Virginia Madsen, sharing a bottle of Pinot!

The great and I think sustaining thing about Pinot Noir is the diversity of wine styles that the grape makes possible. Pinot Noir is anything but a monotone, its somewhat unique ability to adapt to difference sites means that Pinot Noir grown in Sonoma County (even using the same clones) will be substantially different than that grown in Santa Barbara County or Oregon. Thus, there are many “camps” among Pinot lovers. There’s the Burgundian camp, the California camp and the Oregon camp. There’s the fruit bomb camp and the forest floor camp. There’s the big, bruiser camp and the low alcohol camp, to name a few.

It’s the diversity of Pinot Noir that allows all of these “camps” to exist—is the diversity of possibilities the grape presents to winemakers and ultimately consumers.

Some might say that the “Sideways” effect really constituted a fad and nothing more. I believe that “Sideways” was a lucky break and an opportunity for Pinot Noir producers to bring mainstream visibility to a wine that a core group of consumers was already enjoying. And while it was an amazing break, it did nothing more than transport an already established and growing segment of the wine world to a critical mass much more quickly.

I really believe that Western Pinot Noir is not a fad and is definitely here for the long haul. Not only do the wines continue to get more interesting, elegant and nuanced each vintage, but every month I hear about or taste wines new, artisanal producers who have decided that Pinot is where their passion lies. I’m with them.

As always, you can email me with questions at

Greg Walter, a Sonoma resident for more than 20 years, has been in wine and food publishing for more than 30 years, 15 of which as a senior editor and later president of Wine Spectator magazine. Today he writes the PinotReport newsletter ( and publishes books through his Carneros Press imprint (

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