Expensive wine 48: J Vineyards Pinot Noir 2011

Winemakers like to talk about ?difficult ? vintages, where the weather was too cold or too dry or too something. We tend to forget, given modern winemaking technology and California ?s usually perfect weather, how much of wine involves farming and depends on things that the winemaker can ?t control.

I mention this because J winemaker Melissa Stackhouse had one of those too something harvests in 2011. There has been a lot of Winestream Media chatter about how difficult that harvest was (cooler and wetter than normal), most of which isn ?t relevant to those of us who are trying to decide if we should spend $37 for a bottle of wine.

In the case of this pinot noir (sample, 14.3%), the answer is yes. Stackhouse turned difficult to her advantage, producing a wine that is much more interesting than the over-ripe, over-alcoholic examples that are the current favorites. It ?s not an insult to say that this pinot noir tastes like pinot noir: raspberry fruit, some black pepper and smokiness, and a little oak on the back — but also the restraint that separates pinot noir from other red wines. I was particularly impressed with the wine ?s balance, something sadly lacking in post-modern California pinot noir, regardless of price. It ?s both a food wine (lamb, of course, but also roasted pork) and something to sip and enjoy.

The caveat: There are only 7,000 cases, less than half of normal. Chalk it up to the difficult vintage, which reduced grape yield. No doubt it will be gone quickly.