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Upscale American Pinot Noir

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It's the holidays and therefore time to step up things a notch. We decided to treat ourselves to a tasting of some higher end American Pinot Noirs. If you want a big blockbuster wine with highly extracted fruit and rich oak, look elsewhere. Pinot is more about subtle elegance and slowly evolving layers of flavor. Pinot is a pleasant companion, not always drawing attention to itself, but it's a wine worth getting to know, each sip more interesting than the last. And no red wine goes better with a holiday meal (or any other meal, for that matter) than Pinot. Here are the panel's top picks:

2002 Gary Farrell Pinot Noir, Russian River, $32

A Californian with nice fruit aromas marked by rich raspberry and lighter blueberry along with notes of coffee, toast, vanilla and subtle oak. This entry is an exceptionally well-balanced wine with good structure and soft cherry fruit. Touches of white pepper, raspberry and soft, ripe tannins add interest to a well-made wine with an admirably long finish.

2002 Panther Creek Pinot Noir, Anden Creek, $38

Stylistically, this Oregon entry is the closest thing to Burgundy in the tasting, with its earthy aromas of wild onion, smoked meat, black pepper, berry and spice. There's a nice dollop of bright berry fruit on the palate along with hints of clove, coffee and pepper. Smooth tannins come through on the finish along with ample acidity that is nicely tamed when paired with food.

2004 Patz & Hall Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, $32.50

Though it's hard to imagine from the price, this California blend of grapes from 14 different vineyards is the winery's entry level Pinot. Bright berry and sour cherry dominate the nose along with touches of smoke, coffee, spice, dark chocolate and caramelized onion. It's made in a very approachable style with soft tannins, softer acidity and big fruit flavors highlighted by berry, mocha, caramel and spice.

This week's panel: Andrae Bopp, Andrae's; Fawn Caveney, Tastevin; Dave Faulk, Porterhouse Meats; David Kirkpatrick, Boise Co-op, Cindy Limber, Bardenay; Karen McMillin, Idaho Wine Merchant

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