Why Is Pinot Noir So Expensive?
We often wonder how pinot noir got so expensive. There was once a time in our early years of winemaking when burgundy costs considerably more than California pinot noir. Now, it’s the opposite. We can find excellent burgundies from areas like Mercurey, Givy, and Maconnais that are reasonably priced under $50. A good pinot noir from California or Oregon is often $70 or more.
We recently asked for an explanation from Daniel Warnshuis, winemaker and primary owner of Utopia Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge appellation of northern Willamette Valley. Warnshuis was one of the many who retired from a lucrative career in Silicon Valley to launch a winery and fulfill a dream. If anyone understood the current pricing challenges, it would be an upstart winemaker like him.
Warnshuis, a broad-shouldered guy who racked up awards for swimming butterfly at Michigan State University, said he drives the tractor and puts as much manual labor into the soil as his pickers. His family even sorts the grapes to manage expenses. That makes him unique from the upstarts who put their names on the label but hire other people to do the work for them.
“Supply and demand,” he cited as one reason for pinot noir’s lofty prices. Like other craft pinot noir producers, Warnshuis started out with a manageable production, so he’s not stuck with an unmanageable inventory to sell. He eschews distributors and retailers, each of whom takes a cut of his profits, and sells all of his wine through his tasting room and wine club. His goal is simply to sell all the wine he produces. However, other winery owners keep production down just to keep prices high. It’s not uncommon to see people on waiting lists for wines that easily exceed $100 a bottle. Eaux Freres’ Palissage Vineyard Pinot Noir clocks in at $150 – if you can find it.
Warnshuis, however, said it’s more than market demands that drives pinot noir’s insane prices. Like others, he makes his wine without sulphites. And, labor is in short supply.
“It’s more costly to make wine organically because it’s labor intensive. And, the cost of labor goes up every year, and there is competition for help,” he said. Pickers are so short in supply that he may turn to volunteers at harvest time. A scarcity of labor means higher wages.
Utopia Vineyard’s wines are comparatively well priced, but consumers will still gasp as spending $48 for an estate pinot nor and $65 for a reserved pinot noir.
We liked the 2014 Utopia Vineyard Estate Pinot ($48) – a light-colored pinot noir with red berry flavors and good acidity – but we really enjoyed the 2014 Utopia Vineyard Estate Reserve Clone 777 ($65) for its well-defined and nuanced flavors. Utopia also makes a killer estate chardonnay with just a kiss of oak that sells for $45.
Warnshuis hasn’t yet found the perfect “utopia,” but that doesn’t really exist, right? His wines, however, can be found at utopiawine.com.
California pinot noir
The Willamette Valley isn’t the only place for good pinot noir. Here are a few new releases from producers who make several single-vineyard pinot noirs:
Calera Ryan Vineyard Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir 2016 ($65). From one of our favorite pinot noir producers now owned by Duckhorn, Calera turns out consistently good wine year after year. This single-vineyard pinot noir from a site in the Gavilan Mountains is serious business. Intense and focused cherry and sage aromas marry with plum, black cherry, and currant flavors with a dash of minerality. Less muscular but equally appealing is the 2016 Calera Mt. Harlan Mills ($75) – a more effusive version with lush raspberry and black cherry flavors.
Maggy Hawk Unforgettable Pinot Noir ($65). After making great wines in the Willamette Valley, well-respected winemaker Tony Rynders landed a gig with Jackson Family Wines at this impr