Pinot Noir is Jazz

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by josh perilo

continuing on my recent ramblings, comparing different grape varietals to different genres of music, one grape in particular began to vex me. pinot noir. so unique, and yet incredibly hard to define, i tossed and turned trying to pin down what musical niche could possibly compare. then it struck me like a frying pan to the temple: pinot noir is jazz.

the more i thought about it, the more similarities there were. all pretense aside, down to the minutiae, the two run side by side in my mind.

for instance, i find a lot of jazz, generally speaking, pretentious and annoying. it makes me crazy, because i have to work to listen to it. that being said, when jazz is good, and it works, and you are there in the moment with it, there is nothing else in the world that can compare to that singular experience.

this is pinot noir.

great jazz-even decent jazz-is difficult to make. the seemingly improvised notes that circle and spiral around each other for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, but eventually end up making a great musical statement that builds to an epic crescendo. mingus. davis. coltrane.

this is the pinot noir from exceptional vintages of cotes de nuits in burgundy, the willamette valley in oregon, and the russian river valley in california

but then there's the other stuff. "new age jazz." "contemporary jazz." strained and overproduced, laden with squealing soprano saxophones and metronomic synth base bumps. instrumentals that fizzle with a breathy hiss of faux-ethereal, tree-huggy nonsense. manhattan transfer. david benoit. kenny g.

this is "big business" pinot noir. the post-sideways pn craze that got huge winemaking corporations throwing thin pinot into centrifuges to spin the juice till it tasted like cherry jam. dumping oak chips (or, even worse, sawdust) into vats of over-extracted, overripe, manipulated red liquid.

then there's pinot from areas that just shouldn't grow it. while there are a handful of decent pinot noirs from areas like northern italy and new zealand, by and large, they remind me of a really, really talented high school jazz band. they are great! they stay together the entire time. they even took second in nationals last year, right behind that jazz band from minnesota that wins every single time. but at the end of the day, they are exactly what they are: a high school jazz band. not enough soul. not strong enough. not enough backbone or dirt under their nails.

don't get me wrong. great pinot noir comes from all over. it doesn't have to come from just burgundy or the russian river valley. the willamette valley area of oregon seems to have the perfect combo of temperature, soil and weather to nurture the tough growing process of pinot noir just as, if not more, successfully than even the russian river valley. it's neither stuffy old burgundy, nor is it the out-of-control wackiness of the oftentimes all over the place cali noirs. it is jazz, but it dances to its own beat. it sashays across the dance floor to a rhythm that you can shake your hips to. you unintentionally bop your head to the syncopation and off-beat of its tropical groove. bossa nova in a bottle, a pinot noir like the one from amity vineyards is astrud gilberto's breathy and passionate rendition of "corcovado."

it's just too bad that more growers can't suck it up and stick to making wine from grapes they can actually grow well. and maybe someday kenny g will start making children's records. until then, listen to jazz and drink your pinot noir the same way i do: with extreme caution.


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