Making Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is tough on growers and winemakers. It leafs early in the spring meaning it's more likely to go through multiple frosts. It has thin skins so it's easier to mildew and rot plus susceptible to insects and birds. For many winemakers producing a great Pinot Noir is the ultimate challenge. It starts with decisions at the crush like adding stems or not, adding whole clusters or not, and finishes with how much pumping and filtering to do. Pinot is considered a delicate grape and many believe the less you move it around the better.
Up until about 20 years ago California made mostly mediocre Pinot Noir. Why? I think the majority was made Pinot just like any other wine (it's different) and often grew it in too warm of a location. Even figuring out the right clones can be difficult as there are probably a hundred planted in California. The wine has really improved in the last few years, but I'm guessing there may be a way to go yet. Now there's Pinot planted in parts of Sonoma County that were once thought too cold for ripening grapes.
Buying Pinot Noir
Many want to love Pinot because it trendy since popularized by the movie Sideways. Many can't quite love it because of price and styles.
Premium Pinots seem to run in the $45-$65 range (or higher). With most other varieties you can find plenty of wines in the $10-$20 area, but not so much with Pinot. The grapes just sell for too much and the processing is too difficult to find many cheap, drinkable ones.
California has a love affair with fruit-forward, soft, easy-drinking wines. Making wines this way usually means a higher alcohol content. While you can hide 14.5% alcohol in a Zinfandel (many are higher) you can't in a Pinot and the wine may finish with unpleasant heat. These big wines lose all the delicacy and complex flavors that Pinot is known for. How many consumers will spend $50 for a wine like this when they can get a Syrah for maybe half the price? As these big, bold Pinot taste more like Syrah anyway.
This doesn't mean there isn't a market for the full-bodied Pinots along with the lighter, more delicate style (sometimes called New World vs. Old World style).
Pinot Noir can be an expensive hobby. Sonoma County puts on a Harvest Fair every autumn with the highlight being many of the county's best wines available for tasting during the three day fair. Over the last few years Pinot is one wine I've been concentrating on. The main thing I've come away with is Pinot is the least likely varietal where price and quality go hand-in-hand. That is, just because you paid a premium price does not mean you're getting a premium wine. I have found too many expensive Pinots that I wouldn't pay $10 for let alone $50. I don't see this problem nearly as widespread with other wines.
Pinot Noir may be fickle for the grower and producers, but it's also fickle for the consumer.