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Your New Steakhouse Red

Like any card-carrying wine geek, I appreciate, and usually even enjoy, those lithe, lean and delicate Pinot Noirs that are all the balance-pursuing rage right now. But let’s be honest—they often taste like wet rocks and dirt, which aren’t exactly the elements that “normal” people are digging on these days.

That’s why I’m also a proponent of powerhouse Pinot Noirs. These opulent, rich, gorgeous wines sport dark fruit, heavy spice and savory earthy qualities that coat the palate with layers of flavor. They stand out from lighter wines when served to a crowd, and though Bordeaux varieties will forever remain king of the steakhouse, these brawny, structured Pinots can tackle a T-bone as well as any top-shelf Cabernet.

And I’m not alone. Some wise winemakers and smart sommeliers are embracing the style.

It’s what James Ewart aimed for when Delicato Family Vineyards wanted to produce a top-shelf Pinot a couple of years ago. Using fruit from its San Bernabe estate in Monterey County and the nearby Santa Lucia Highlands, Ewart crafted Diora La Petite Grace. It’s an ode to the Central Coast’s incredibly long hangtime, which allows for ripe-yet-balanced bottlings.

“We can get those really concentrated, really dark fruit characters without going over the top and producing Porty, pruny flavors,” says Ewart, whose 5,000 cases of Diora (93 points, $30) disappeared in six months without much marketing. “We’ve released a lot of labels, but this one has been a hit.”

Though riper Pinot isn’t trending in the less-is-more sommelier world, Jaimee Anderson, beverage director at Wolfgang Puck steakhouse CUT in Beverly Hills, sees a place for it alongside the Cabernets she usually serves.

“Working at a steakhouse, people tend to go toward wine with more opulence and, dare I say, more fruit and alcohol and oak,” says Anderson, who advises clients based on their preferences and menu picks.

“If it’s heavy marbleization on the table, I’m going to look for a Pinot on my list that has structure and concentration. If it’s more lean, like a filet, I will go for a prettier expression of Pinot.”

That she has such a choice is even more to the point. Pinot Noir is a shape shifter, able to succeed at all levels of ripeness while still offering a degree of elegance.

Or, as Anderson says, “It’s a somm’s playground.”

So let’s not sequester the grape only to the lean corner of the yard. Next time you’re at a steakhouse, find a powerhouse Pinot to pair with that rich rib eye.

Powerhouse Pinots To Try

Thanks to the Pacific Ocean’s consistent cooling breezes, the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County and Sta. Rita Hills near Santa Barbara are especially adept at producing “steakhouse” Pinot Noirs. Here are five recent favorites.

Loring Wine Company 2013 Garys’ Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands); $50, 95 points
abcock 2013 Slice of Heaven (Sta. Rita Hills); $60, 95 points
Patz & Hall 2012 Pisoni Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands); $90, 94 points
Sextant 2013 Santa Lucia Highlands; $25, 90 points
Año Verde 2013 Santa Barbara County; $20, 88 points