One day, when the Wine Curmudgeon is feeling especially cranky, he will write the ultimate pinot noir rant. It will cover all of the changes in pinot over the past decade that have practically changed the definition of the varietal -- the high alcohol, the relentless use of oak, the gobs of sweet fruit, and the unnecessary addition of tannins.
Until then, I will drink Handley Cellars pinot noir and be glad someone still cares enough to do pinot the way it should be done. One of the best pinots I've ever tasted, and that includes those from pinot's birthplace in the Burgundy region of France, was the Handley 1998 Reserve. It was an exquisite wine, classic and timeless and a wonderful example of what pinot can be in California. Somehow, this 14-year-old wine was still youthful and fresh, with the traditional black cherry fruit, some earthiness, and a touch of oak. Sadly, it's almost all gone; there's maybe a case or two left at the winery.
But the 2009 ($30, sample), which I tasted with winemaker Kristen Barnhisel, is a worthy successor. It's still a little tight and needs more time in the bottle (perhaps six months?), but when it's ready, it will again showcase what Handley can do with pinot. The cherry fruit is there, as is the proper amount of oak and the Handley earthiness. And its tannins are those of pinot, not cabernet sauvignon. Highly recommended, and especially at this price.