Hitting Their Stride

After a lot of experiments, some North American pinot noirs are finally up to par

A lot of attention is being paid to the pinot noir grape, and for good reason. We are seeing a greater variety of these wines on store shelves, and the better ones made in North America now come from places we would never have imagined.

It’s no longer just California and Washington, but also Oregon, Michigan, British Columbia, and New York.

Generally speaking, the quality of North American pinot noirs seems to have found their stride. That’s not to say there is unanimity or that they taste alike, but rather that they are finally less experimental than they were a few years ago, and more like how pinot noir should taste.

That was distinctly not always the case.

For many years, even some big-name wineries in warmer places like California were producing pinot noirs that were thick and inky and as dark as syrah. Or, in the case of Michigan, there were as pinkish as a Provençal rosé. That great variation in color was enough to leave consumers asking, “What the heck?”

Another issue was taste. The flavor patterns were just about as widely varied. While California pinot noir was often reminiscent of blackberry jam, Michigan pinot noirs from wineries like Bel Lago Vineyards & Winery in Cedar on the Leelanau Peninsula ran in other directions. The fruit was just great and the color too light.

Bel Lago had experimented with more than 30 different clones of pinot noir to find the right one for our climate. And they found not one, but several. Every single one of them showed a lot of promise and was close to the yardstick the industry agrees should be for that grape: Burgundy.

Bel Lago’s problem was that, good flavors aside, a lot of people looked at the color and thought it must be too watery.

Pinot noir, whether in California, New York, or Michigan, is unquestionably a very tough grape to grow — and a very tough grape to make right.

What pinot noir makers everywhere know is that regardless where they make their wine, pinot noir is always more sensitive than other grapes to latitude, climate, soil, weather patterns, and the length of their growing seasons.

It’s not that pinot noir will or won’t grow. It decidedly will. But those factors will more emphatically affect how well or poorly the wine will turn out.

Here are four cool-climate pinot noirs worth looking for:

  •  2010 Bel Lago Pinot Noir Reserve Dijon Clone (Michigan) ($35) Aged 14 months in French oak barrels. Complex aromas: black raspberry, cherry, chocolate, which follow into the palate. Full mouth feel, good tannins, and structure.
  •  2013 Raptor Ridge Pinot Noir, Barrel Select (Oregon) ($30) Benefits from a cooler, northern climate. Red raspberry and a hint of tart cherry flavor, followed by crisp acidity, solid structure, and a silky finish.
  •  2014 Stoller Family Estate Dundee Hills Pinot Noir (Oregon) ($30) Remarkably (and thankfully!) the alcohol level is a very low 12.9 percent. Soft on the entry, floral notes of violet, and hints of lilac. Balanced and surprisingly unctuous for such a young wine.
  •  2013 Willamette Valley Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir (Oregon) ($30) Draws from three area vineyards. Stone fruit and citrus aromas on the entry evolve into rich nutty and spiciness in the mouth, followed by a smooth, lingering close.

Fibonacci’s Curse

Vodka lovers may at first be disappointed to see that their spirit of choice isn’t on the menu at Standby. Gin, check. Brandy, check. Hot Wine Bling, check. But no vodka. That is until you find Fibonacci’s Curse: a spicy, fresh libation served in a glorious pineapple vessel meant for sharing. Joe Robinson, the cocktail mastermind at the bar, says he’s not a fan of vodka but was inspired by the pineapple container to make this drink – perfect for sipping while pretending you’re on a beach and not in southeast Michigan in the dead of winter. —Dorothy Hernandez

Photograph by Dorothy Hernandez


  • 4 ounces St. George Green Chile Vodka
  • 1 eye dropper full of Bittermen’s
  • Elemakule Tiki Bitters
  • 7 ½ ounces house verdita*
  • ½ ounce cinnamon syrup**
  • Mint
  • Pineapple leaves
  • Cherries (they have their own five spice cherries)


Mix all ingredients in a large glass or punch bowl filled with ice. Garnish with mint, pineapple leaves, and cherries.

*Blend the juice of one pineapple, 1 handful of mint, 1 handful of cilantro, 1 lime, and 1 charred jalapeno.

**Steep 4 cinnamon sticks in 2 cups of water for 15 minutes. Remove sticks and add 2 cups of sugar.

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