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Mark West and the revolution in pinot noir

This is the wine that helped changed pinot noir in the U.S., both in how it tasted and how it was sold. As such, it probably deserves some sort of lengthy academic treatise and recognition for those accomplishments — good and bad. Instead, Constellation Brands, one of the world’s biggest wine companies, just bought it, and who knows what’s going to happen next?

Before the current version of Mark West debuted in 2001, drinkable pinot noir cost at least $20 and came from Burgundy in France, Oregon, and parts of California no one knew much about. Most of the rest of the world’s pinot wasn’t very pleasant – harsh and unripe, even on its best days. That’s because pinot is not only difficult to grow, but difficult to make. Those who grew it in un-pinot places or who made it without having Zen-like pinot skills almost always failed.

Mark West’s great accomplishment had three parts: Making a quality wine, making it cheaply enough so it cost $10, and making so much of it that it could be sold in grocery stores. The irony is that, to do this, Mark West had to make pinot noir that didn’t taste like pinot noir had always tasted. More, after the jump:

The entire region of Burgundy produced about 5.2 million cases of pinot noir in 2011, and about half of that stayed in France. Mark West, all by itself, made 600,000 cases. That’s an amazing statistic, and points to how important the brand is in the marketplace. You might not be able to find a bottle of red Burgundy in a U.S. supermarket, but you’re almost certainly going to be able to find a bottle of Mark West. And for just $10.

More importantly, its pinot noir, from the beginning, was not unpleasant. It was soft and fruity, but it wasn’t sweet and it tasted like wine. This helps explain its continuing success, given how many cheap wines make no effort to taste like wine but try to get as close to a soft drink as possible. Because, of course, American consumers are stupid and need to be treated like small children when it comes to wine.

The problem, though, was that Mark West didn’t really taste like traditional pinot noir. It didn’t have any real oak aging, since that costs so much that it’s almost impossible to do in a $10 wine. It also didn’t have pinot’s trademark earthiness and mushroom aroma or its unique tannins, which can’t be done with grapes grown in those parts of California where Mark West gets its grapes.

Turns out, though, that wasn’t a problem. The people buying Mark West probably didn’t know pinot was supposed to have those things. They wanted a fruity and easy-drinking wine, and that’s what Mark West gave them. It certainly didn’t hurt, either, that the wine can be served chilled and pairs with just about everything. It turned out, truly, to be what its marketing materials proclaimed: “Pinot for the people.”

We can argue forever whether pinot should taste this way. I don’t think so, but the marketplace, as well as the comments and emails I get, say otherwise. I’d also argue that the success of this style of wine made it possible for winemakers to produce the high-end versions of Mark West – the alcoholic, fruity and very non-traditional pinot noirs that have gained such notoriety and high scores over the past several years.

What’s more certain is that Mark West’s success (which coincided with the success of “Sideways,” the movie that made pinot noir a star) spawned about a gazillion similar wines. There was such demand for $10 pinot noir, in fact, that producers used as little pinot as legally possible to make them, filling the wine out with cheaper syrah and  grenache. There was even a $10 pinot noir scandal, when a French exporter sold syrah to a U.S. producer and claimed it was pinot.

It speaks to Mark West’s success that many of those other $10 pinots are gone, and Mark West is still around (and worth $160 million to Constellation). I tasted the 2010 vintage the other day ($10, purchased), and it was the same as it has always been. The wine itself looked a little thin in the glass, but tasted more like pinot than I thought it would. There was blueberry cobbler fruit (one CellarTracker review noted cardamom), but no earthiness and certainly no complexity, even for a $10 wine. It was, to paraphrase Dan Berger, the kind of wine that’s fine to drink as long as you don’t get hung up on varietal character. And it went very nicely with Sunday night patty melts and corn on the cob.

Can Mark West survive as part of Constellation? The brand will certainly continue to exist, though I expect Constellation to dumb down the wine – replace some of the pinot with syrah or grenache, use less expensive grapes, and substitute wood chips for what little oak aging the wine does get. In this, it will taste even less like pinot that it does now, Which may not necessarily be a problem.

4 Responses to Mark West and the revolution in pinot noir

  1. adolfo.winemaker@gmail.com' anonymous winemaker says:

    Mark West Pinot started as a 100% Varietal many years ago. For the last several years it’s a blend of 75 % Pinot (the legal minimum) and 25% Syrah or other blenders.
    Constellation could change the sourcing of grapes but could not thin down the already low as can be varietal content.

  2. jehaine@yahoo.com' Robin says:

    Sounds like a good flexible wine, to go with a platter of mixed grilled foods. I will keep it in mind.

  3. bobbygrape@aol.com' Bobby Cox says:

    You could sure taste the Syrah lately, we could grow good honest Pinot up here on The High Plains given a chance. Would it be better than west? you bet’ya. Would it be Better than Volnay? probably not.

  4. carollersch@yahoo.com' Carol Lersch says:

    First encountered this wine last week at a very expensive restaurant. My first sip I exclaimed (quite loudly ), ‘This is delicious!’ our dinner companions agreed. I’m sitting here relaxing with a new bottle this very moment. Thanks Mark West. I can’t imagine anything that wouldn’t pair well with this wine.
    Carol

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