Pinot noir has become the great alternative. When you don’t want to give another big red wine as a gift it opens up a world of possibilities. Immediately appreciated by name alone, Pinot seems to have developed a certain cachet as the thinking man’s red wine, though there is little evidence to support that. Perhaps it comes from the history that Pinot has had in Burgundy, where until recently  one really did have to know about the wines if one was going going to find something that fulfilled its promise.

Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that those out there who advocated for Pinot Noir before its most recent wave of popularity hit have turned out to be ahead of curve, and before this wave hit you very much had to be thinking about Pinot in order to track much of it down.
Whatever the origin of this image, Pinot  Noir has acquired a certain cachet. It’s also acquired a well deserved reputation for easy drinking, fresh red fruits, subtlety and elegance, which explains its wide spread appeal. In short it makes for a fabulous gift, now you just need to know which ones to buy! A quick note on pricing. I give a range of prices for each wines, often times inexplicably wide, but that’s the way things work in this big country with our three tier system’

The Russian River Valley
Since we are talking about buying a wine as a gift we might as well begin in the heart of Pinot country: Sonoma County. Nowhere in Sonoma is Pinot more closely associated with a specific appellation than with the Russian River Valley; it is to Pinot Noir what Napa is to Cabernet. An ideal and a guarantee of sorts. The Russian River has established itself as a center for the production of Pinot Noir based on their relatively large scaled and dark fruited wines. Wines with the familiar berry fruits and notes of cola, and earth, and generally, noticeable oak, that have served to introduce Pinot Noir to a new legion of fans. That is not to say that all Russian River Pinots are bold in the euphemism of the wine writer. Many achieve wonderful freshness, complexity and elegance, and those are the wines I suggest you consider for gift giving this year. 
2011 Balletto Pinot Noir Russian River Valley $20-$22  On The lighter and more delicate side to be sure, this is a tremendous value in Pinot Noir, classically structured with lovely red fruit, rhubarb and earthy nuance. 
2010 Trione Pinot Noir Russian River Valley $35-$37 A wine for the cellar, this is Pinot that is polished and rich, packed with fresh fruit but also with a tight, taut structure and moderate oak influence that should all come together nicely with 2-5 years in the cellar.  
2011 Holdredge Selection Massale Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, $40-$50 John Holdredge is producing some of my favorite wines in Sonoma. These are the epitome of RRV Pinot Noirs, with delicacy, power, and depth. they are not easy to track down and in fact while my favorite of his 2011s,, the Mazie Rose, is nowhere to be found, his Selection Massale is still out there if you look hard enough. It’s a big wine by Holdredge standards but one that people should love for its explosion of pure, fresh and complex fruit. 
2011 Patz & Hall Chenoweth Ranch Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, USA $45-$60 Patz & Hall is another RRV standard bearer and a producer who has always impressed me as much with their entry level wines as ones further up the price ladder. This Chenoweth Ranch Pinot is not inexpensive but it delivers terrific Pinot fruit in a concentrated yet elegant style. 
2010 Porter Creek Hillside Old Vine Pinot Noir Russian River Valley $65 As far as I can tell this might only be available from the winery but it’s a terrific example of Pinot Noir, nuanced, complex, tense on the palate and gorgeously laden with minerality and precision.. It’s worth the effort of tracking down for your favorite Pinot lover. 
Santa Barbara and Monterey
For those of you looking for more fruit in your Pinot, though still in a bright red vein, I suggest you take a look at the wines from Santa Barbara. These are wines that combine a certain sense of delicacy with their intense and almost sweet  fruit flavors. A distinct departure from the richer, more powerful and darker wines from the Russian River Valley. As an emerging wine region the prices for most of the wines remain very competitive and for value Pinot Noir this is a region to explore.  
2011 Santa Barbara Winery Pinot Noir $13-$20 Zesty, bright and full, this is the fruit forward style Santa Barbara is becoming famous for. There’ are tons of that sweet fruit here yet this remains admirably light on the palate. 
2011 Byron Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir $15-$20 Sappy and lean with beautiful strawberry fruit, fine tannins and a hint of oak. This is understated but seductive and a lovely introduction to Santa Barbara Pinot Noir. 
2010 Melville Estate Pinot Noir, Sta Rita Hills $27-$35 Melville has long been one of my go to producers in the region, producing wines that captures the fruit of the region in a frame that looks more towards europe than Northern California for inspiration. The use of whole clusters during fermentation introduces the aromas and tannins of the stems which takes these wines to another level for me. 
2007 Arcadian Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands $34-$50  Don’t be scared by the vintage, Arcadian has always released their wines late, doing the better part of the cellaring for you. The results speak for themselves; wines ready to drink on release. The cellaring softens the wine and allows the earthy, floral elements of the wine to emerge while the core of ripe fruit is still in full vigor. A wine that truly straddles the line between new and old world. While Arcadian is produced in Lompoc the fruit for this bottling comes from Farther north in Monterey's Santa Lucia Highlands.
2011 The Ojai Vineyard Fe Ciega Pinot Noir, Sta Rita Hills $45-$53 For nuance and elegance in Santa Barbara it’s hard to beat Ojai. From their remarkable Syrahs, to their wonderful Pinots the wines all have a transparency and balance that puts them firmly among the world’s best. The Fe Ciega is a dark, earthy wine with lots of spicy character and sweet fruit today but lay these down in the cellar for 5 to 8 years and they integrate wonderfully. 
For my money Mendocino is where the best Pinots are being produced today in California. They are more subtle and less fruit driven thanthose from points south, with a lot of the character that sets Oregon’s Pinots apart yet they remain somewhat different.  Perhaps they are just a bit leaner, and yet with riper fruit. Most of the wines I’m recommending come in fact from the cool Anderson valley, also home to some of the state’s top sparkling wines, which gives you an indication of the climate. Growing fruit here is challenging and while the region is not terribly well known, the wines are not inexpensive. No doubt this is due to the loyal cadre of fans who are quietly scooping up these treasures. 
2010 Handley Pinot Noir Mendocino County  $22-$25 Ripe yet tart and red fruited, this is a lovely style of Pinot, fruity yet not to the point that one misses the earth and dried floral notes that grace this wine. A tremendous value.
2010 Champ de Reve Pinot Noir Anderson Valley $26-$40 This is a gorgeous wine that layers cool, deep fruit over a bed of nuanced vegetal, mineral and spice notes. With all that going on it still manages to remains transparent and vibrant in the mouth. Classic Anderson Valley Pinot. 
2010 Black Kite Cellars Kite’s Rest Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley  $38-$50 One of the first Anderson appelation Valley Pinots that turned me on to this region was a Black Kite Cellars’ wine so I feel a little sentimental in recommending this wine. It’s a bit bigger, and oakier than many wines from the region but it’s incredibly well balanced and soft in the mouth with great savory complexity. 
2010 Radio-Coteau Pinot Noir Savoy Anderson Valley $60-$70 Radio-Coteau is another one of the wineries that introduced me to Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and while that first wine didn’t make sense to me the current releases really show the potential of the region. This is not a small scaled wine, but it’s nuanced and powerful with great mineral and floral accents to the core of rich, dark fruit.  
2010 Copain Kiser en Bas Pinot Noir Anderson Valley  $75-$80 I under-rated this wine when I tasted it recently and thinking back over the course of the year I do not recall having a Pinot that was better. This wine epitomizes the depth of flavor and elegance that Anderson Valley is capable of, all red fruited with hints of spice cake and black tea adding complexity but what really knocks you out is the wine’s refined and zesty texture. 
Stylistically there is no doubt that we’ve been making out way from warm climate Pinot to cooler climate Pinot, or rather i should say that we’re working through from wines that are ripened by the heat of the sun to wines that are ripened by the light of the sun. A subtle but distinct difference that requires it’s own set of articles to fully explore. Simply put as one moves from hot days  to long days in Oregon one leaves behind  a lot of jammy fruit, elevated alcohol (for the most part) and finds instead ripe fruit and the remnants of unripe fruit in all it’s savory, floral, and balsamic glory. Oregon’s Pinots are all that, melding an elegance of structure with a delicacy and complexity of flavor that is unequaled in the States. 
2010 Stoller Estate Pinot Noir JV  $20-$26 Stoller’s base level Pinot Noir is hardly a base level wine, rich with the lovely transparency of fruit that sets apart the finest Oregon Pinots. There’s plenty of spice notes here and an intelligent use of oak that rounds things out and makes this the perfect introduction to Oregon’s Pinots. 
2009 Belle Pente Pinot Noir Belle Pente Vineyard $30-$40 More powerful and with fruit in a darker vein, Belle Pente’s estate Pinot shows off the darker character of the Yamhill-Carlton fruit while retaining the lovely balance and earthy floral notes of Oregon’s best Pinots. 
2010 De Ponte Pinot Noir Dundee Hills $34-$44 This is the purest, most delightfully pretty and elegant Pinot Noir one could ask for, and it comes from the Dundee Hills, home to Oregon’s top bottlings. I love this wine for its delicacy and grace as much as i love it for its ridiculous vibrancy and gorgeous, lightly peppery red berry fruit. A joy to drink. 
2010 Alexana Pinot Noir Dundee Hills $40-$50 In a more fruit driven style than one might typically expect to encounter in the Dundee Hills, this is still a terrific wine that retains the elegance of the region. It’s layered and nuanced, not a simple fruit bomb, with a soft richness that makes it appealing to just about anybody who tries it. 
2010 Brick House Vineyards 'Evelyn's' Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley $60-$65 A bit on the geeky side of things, this is Biodynamic wine for those who care about such things, and it’s flat out delicious. Filled with tart red fruits, spicy earth tones, and subtle floral aromas it’s super complex and yet delicate and pure in the mouth. It’s so well balanced that it drinks superbly today but I expect this should age very well indeed for a decade or longer. One of the best Pinots of the year. 
New Zealand
And here we reach the possible culmination of Pinot ripening by sunlight, if we were to stick with Central Otago, but in reality anywhere you end up in New Zealand is going to be one of the most extreme places to ripen grapes in the vinous world. There are some really compelling terroirs for Pinot in New Zealand from the earthier versions in Martinborough to the big fruit of Marlborough, lovely complexity of Nelson and the completeness of Central Otago it’s a Pinot Lover’s playground. 
2011 Nobilo Icon Pinot Noir Marlborough $16-$22 A classic example of New Zealand's fruit driven style. Theres a touch of oak adding some spice here but this is mostly about rich and bright black cherry and raspberry fruit on a palate that’s smooth and polished. 
2010 Nautilus Estate Pinot Noir Marlborough $20-$30 A bigger, dark fruited wine, this retains the brightness typical of new Zealand’s Pinots with rich fruit and subtle herb and spice shadings adding complexity in a slightly more robust style than the Nobilo.
2010 Neudorf Pinot Noir Moutere $35-$45 Here we’ve changed gears and while not fully leaving the fruit driven style of Pinot behind us you’ll find that this is just so complex and nuanced with a remarkably fine, earth driven texture in the mouth. Soil and smoke and incipient autumnal notes fill the mouth over the base of pure and precise red and black fruits. Simply seductive. 
2010 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir  Martinborough $40-$48 If the earthier side of Pinot is your thing then Martinborough is where you should be searching and this example from Ata Rangi is rich and tight , packed with dense, earthy fruit wrapped in mineral and sweet toasty oak notes. It’s a wine that will blossom with 3-6 years in the cellar. 
2011 Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 5 Central Otago $63-$85 Felton Road is the one of the indisputable stars of New Zealand Pinot Noir with several vineyards to choose from. Block 5 offers an entrancing blend of super ripe fruit, freshness, and deeply coiled power. It’s delicious today but promise to reveal more nuance and a broader texture after several years in the cellar.  it is a multifaceted gem of a Pinot.