When I set out to track down American pinot noirs that offer amazing value at every price, I had a very good reason: Pinot Noir has become extraordinarily popular. California Pinot Noir sales rose nearly 60 percent between 2004 and 2005, sales of Oregon Pinot rose more than 40 percent and, although 2006 statistics weren’t in when this issue went to press, anecdotal evidence suggests that demand still has not peaked.

After tasting 168 California and Oregon Pinot Noirs for this column, I can say that there’s a lot of sketchy Pinot out there—fat, hyper-alcoholic Pinot; bitter, superextracted Pinot; watery, lightweight Pinot; and just plain weird, bad Pinot. (For what it’s worth, bad Pinot seems to lead me to stranger descriptors than any other variety. My tasting notes are full of alarming phrases like "old fish!" "bicycle tire!" and "chlorinated pool water!")

And yet. There’s also more good Pinot Noir available than ever before. The best wines I tasted offered that elusive Pinot character: profound aromatic complexity, silky texture, delicate but saturated flavor, and firm but never overbearing structure. Fruit characteristics ranged from ripe blackberry to sour cherry; nuanced notes of herbs, licorice, flowers and earth marked some of the top wines. Alcohol levels ranged from a lithe 12.5 percent to a hulking 15.4 percent—indicating a wine that’s about as graceful as a rhino on ice skates.

Great Pinot Noir can express incredibly subtle variations in soil and climate, but coaxing out even a hint of that potential requires meticulous attention in the vineyard. Consequently, cheap Pinot produced on an industrial scale often tastes more like sour, fruit-infused water than wine. I did find some terrific, inexpensive Pinots, but great Pinot value more often means a $30 wine that tastes like one that costs $75. Also, the best Pinot Noirs are typically produced in moderate quantities. If a bottling proves elusive, try contacting the winery, since producers can now legally ship to 33 of the 50 states.

Go to to find Pinot-friendly recipes.