Cheap Pinot Noir

Pinot noir historically is privileged province of people with prodigious purchasing power.

The grape is difficult to grow, difficult to finish into fine wine. It is sublime when weather and other factors favor vineyard and vintner; a dud when they don’t.

Along came movie “Sideways”—a groveling pinot hagiography—and that just made matters worse. Then better. Sort of.

Today, pallets of pinot noir are stacked eye-high at Sam’s Club. Pinot noir at $15 a bottle, got it. Less than $10 a bottle, how much do you want? Constellation Brands promises to produce more than one million cases of Mark West pinot annually. One million cases.

Fine print: commodity pinot is not particularly pinot-esque pour. Clean and professional, maybe. Possessing delicate, ethereal purity of a Burgundy or Washington State or Santa Barbara treasure, not so much.

Bargain pinot is blended with almost every grape available—zinfandel, syrah, grenache, whatever. Makers blend right up to the 75 percent level that legally permits them to paste pinot label on product. Not bad wines. Not wines that propel Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) into oenophilic ecstasy.

Sober truth: pinnacle pinots start at $30 and climb steeply from there. Burgundy producers catch $65-$350 prices for their general public offerings. Grand Cru bottles go for $10,000-plus. No, Mark West does not taste like those offerings.

Sidenote: Pocketbook-friendly pinots reveal a trend. After years of chasing big oak, big alcohol, big jammy California big red monsters, the U.S. palate pivots toward fruitier, less tannic, lower alcohol pours, particularly among females—today’s most important market segment. Miles Raymond would fulminate against both trends while slurping from the spit bucket.

Tasting notes:

• Mandolin Pinot Noir Monterey 2012. Raspberry, dried cherry, earthy, dusty; simple, commodity pinot a la Mark West; ripe. $12

• Red Rock Winery Pinot Noir 2012. Red fruit, plum, raspberry, cherry cola; dash of zin for silkiness; medium-light weight. $14

• Reata Three County Pinot Noir 2012. Dark fruits, cherry, raspberry; vanilla, toast of oak; silky tannins, fine cool-climate acidity. $30

• King Estate Pinot Noir Oregon 2011. Raspberry, cherry, liltingly delicate, soft tannin, restrained fruit; showcases how Oregon rocks pinot. $30

Last round: I tried cooking with wine last night. After four glasses, I forgot why I was in the kitchen.