When shopping for wine, "affordable" and "good" are an oxymoron when perusing the pinot noir bins. Part of the joy of wine is discovering those wines that buck against the common notions and rules of wine. Finding a good, affordable pinot noir provides exactly one of those experiences. While many high quality pinot noirs will cost from $40-$80, it is possible locally to find an everyday choice under $20.
Pinot noir can be found in several locations at your favorite wine store -- as a single varietal from Oregon and California and as burgundy from France. For those just beginning to explore this category of wine, I recommend starting with choices from Oregon or California, which are more approachable from the perspectives of shopping, tasting and budget. French burgundy is rewarding as well, but it requires more time and money to fully to explore this vast category of wine.
Within California, areas such as Carneros, Russian River Valley and parts of Santa Barbara and Monterey are key growing areas.
Where pinot noir appears to really thrive is the cool climes of Oregon, particularly Willamette Valley, rife with small winemakers who have made big news with this wine.
Part of the wine's high price tag -- and its mystery -- is its inherent mutating quality that allows it to easily reproduce, leading to thousands of variations and very uneven consistency. Further, pinot is considered a very delicate grape that requires a long, cool growing season to excel.
Pinot noir has long been considered a food-friendly wine because it offers enough tannin and fruit to work against an array of foods, especially seafoods such as grilled or seared tuna and salmon. The next time you're serving up sushi or grilling fresh salmon, check out these delightful everyday wines priced around $15, depending on retailer:
Saintsbury Pinot Noir Carneros 2001 offers a creamy wine with hints of berry and a whisper of vanilla. This everyday offering is just one of three pinot noir offerings from this critically acclaimed winemaker in California's Carneros region. Check out the winery's Garnet and Reserve wines for an even more luscious wine experience.
A to Z Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2002: A bright, young pinot with hints of raspberry hails from small Oregon winery, A to Z Wineworks. A to Z selects grapes from various growers to create an elegant wine that yielded around 30,000 cases.
Hangtime Pinot Noir 2002: A full-bodied pinot noir from the Byron Winery, which scored a Top 100 listing last year by The Wine Spectator. The wine is so named for the extended length of time the grapes are left on the vine.
For something a little different, try the Penner-Ash Rubeo 2002 from acclaimed Oregon winemakers Lynn and Ron Penner-Ash. This quirky wine, priced around $25, is a blend that combines the lighter, creamier style of a pinot noir with the slightly smokiness of a syrah. The result is a hybrid that's a good alternative to cabernet for pairing with summer "surf and turf" on the patio.