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If Anyone Orders Merlot, I'm Leaving: Anthony Kresge imbibes at Pinot Paradise.

Two Tickets To Pinot Paradise

Pinot noir lovers aren't giving up on their favorite just because it's trendy

By Stett Holbrook

I DON'T WANT TO toot my own horn, but I was into the band Wilco way before they got popular. Really. I've been following frontman Jeff Tweedy since he was in Uncle Tupelo. Now that the band has been embraced by the masses, I lie low lest I be accused of jumping on the bandwagon.

I suspect many attendees felt similarly about pinot noir at this past Saturday's Pinot Paradise in Los Gatos. The event was the debut of what organizers say will be an annual event that showcases the best of pinot noir grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation. And now that the movie Sideways has made the grape a trendy varietal, I'm sure longtime pinot lovers feel their cozy little club has suddenly gotten crowded with pinotphiles-come-lately. Saturday was particularly crowded—sold-out, in fact, with about 800 wine lovers in attendance.

But pinot newbies and veteran quaffers seemed to get along just fine at the festival, held at Testarossa Vineyards on the stunning site of the Jesuit Novitiate above Los Gatos. The event, sponsored by the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers' Association, featured 24 pinot noir producers from the rugged appellation, a Half Moon Bay-to-Watsonville region that boosters call "pinot paradise" because of its cool weather, long growing season and rocky, well drained soils, conditions that favor the cultivation of the fastidious grape. Along with the wineries there were local restaurants like Le Papillon, Il Fornaio, the California Cafe, Restaurant O and Forbes Mill serving food to pair with the food-loving wine.

Pinot Paradise was an effort to cash in on the current pinot boom. Quotes from Sideways extolling the allure of pinot noir hung on the walls of the tasting rooms. But the event was not a gimmick. The Santa Cruz Mountains makes some truly world-class wines, and the event provided a great opportunity to sip and swirl and talk fermentation and extraction with winemakers. Part of the charm of the wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation is their small size and the winding mountain roads needed to reach many of them. While a tourist-jaded pall hangs over many Napa Valley tasting rooms, Santa Cruz Mountain wineries get far fewer visitors and there's a more welcoming, "Glad you made it" atmosphere that greets visitors. But many wineries are so small they don't have tasting rooms or visiting hours, so Pinot Paradise offered great one-stop shopping for pinot fans with many wineries pouring rare library wines not generally available.

Next year I hope they set up some of the event outside. The crowds felt as thick as the beer line at a Giants game. Moving some of the festival outside would also give attendees a chance to savor the beauty of the old novitiate, a facility with a long history of winemaking.

While the surging interest in pinot noir may drive up demand and prices (the grape is notoriously difficult to grow and the best stuff comes from small producers who have to coax their wine into the bottle), the pinot boom is also encouraging more plantings of the grape, so more supply is in the pipeline. Of the region's 1,200 acres of vineyards, only 300 are planted to pinot noir. Some wineries buy fruit from outside the area to supplement what they grow or buy locally. But there are about 80 acres of newly planted pinot noir vineyards.

"I predict you will be drinking some fantastic wines in the next five years," says Michael Martella, winemaker for Thomas Fogarty Winery, calling pinot noir the "finest of what the Santa Cruz Mountains can do."

The current crop of pinots isn't drinking too shabbily either. Some of the most noteworthy wineries I visited at the event were Windy Oaks Estate, whose 2001 reserve pinot noir is fantastic; Burrell School Vineyards; Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, one of the Santa Cruz Mountains' pinot noir pioneers; and Thomas Fogarty Winery, makers of the luxurious but wonderfully balanced 2001 Rapley Trail pinot noir, made from a single vineyard block of superior grapes. The careful reader who happened to attend the event will note that all those wines came from the same tasting room. With so many great wines to taste, I never made it to the other room. My loss.

The masses have discovered pinot noir, but I don't think true-blue pinot lovers will decamp in search of a less trendy wine. Unlike hearing one of your favorite bands played on the radio again and again, drinking good pinot never gets boring. Here's to next year's pinot fest.

For information about upcoming wine events and the wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains, go to the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers' Association website at www.scmwa.com.

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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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