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Fine pinot noirs are pricey

After spending the last several weeks tasting West Coast pinot noirs, one thing is certain: There is some great juice out there, but it's going to cost you.

We tasted some extraordinary pinot noirs from California and Oregon -- this country's two primary pinot noir regions -- that cost more than $50. These wines still cost less than $150 burgundies, but not all consumers will be able to afford them. Even at these lofty prices, they aren't always easy to find outside of exclusive restaurants. But if you are looking for a treat, these extraordinary wines are something to consider.

Producers often argue that the prices are relative to the difficulty associated with growing the ornery pinot noir; critics say that pinot noir producers will charge whatever price the market will bear.

No producer wants to charge $25 for a pinot noir made in small quantities when his competition is charging twice as much. High prices create a following of collectors who covet these wines no matter what their prices.

It's a point not lost to Donald Patz, whose seductive Patz & Hall pinot noirs fetch more than $50 a bottle. He doesn't even put "pinot noir" on the label because fans know if it's Patz & Hall, it's pinot noir.

*Patz is the winery's co-founder and national sales director, and exudes passion for pinot noir. His operation makes only pinot noir and chardonnay.

Factors other than ego play into price: Competition for good pinot noir grapes is intense, and yields are as low as 2 tons an acre for pinot noir versus 7 tons an acre for some cabernet sauvignon. "The economics of pinot noir don't work out," he said.

*Patz & Hall makes several excellent single-vineyard pinot noirs from purchased grapes in Napa and Sonoma counties. Nearly 60 percent of them are sold in restaurants, but consumers can still find them in stores.

Next week we'll be recommending some Oregon pinot noirs. A column on moderately price pinot noirs will follow. Here are some California pinot noirs we recommend:

*Patz & Hall Chenoweth Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007 ($60). The most approachable of the three pinot noirs we tasted, this wine shows off expressive aromas, lush red fruit flavors and hints of cinnamon and chocolate. Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir 2007 ($62). Our favorite of the flight, the Hyde Vineyard has a firmer, understated structure that becomes evident once the wine is allowed to breathe. Great depth, generous cherry aromas with mineral, raspberry flavors and hints of cocoa and cinnamon.

*Goldeneye Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2006 ($60). Another gem from the Duckhorn family of wines. A nose of dark ripe cherries with a hint of oak. Bold ripe cherry flavors in a nice lead pencil frame.

*Rochioli Estate Pinot Noir 2007 ($60). The Rochiolis have been making extraordinary pinot noirs in northern California for decades. This estate pinot noir exudes plum and silky black cherry fruit with a touch of vanilla, and adds an earthy tone reminscent of fine burgundy.

*Terlato Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007 ($60). Floral aromas with raspberry and cherry flavors, hints of cocoa, mint and cloves. A light but deceivingly elegant wine.
Sanford La Rinconada Vineyards Pinot Noir 2007 ($50). Sanford is a house of pinot noir and the concentration of this great grape shows. The Sanford Santa Rita Hills ($40) is an excellent starter, but this single-vineyard version knocks off the socks -- but is hard to find.

*Wild Horse Cheval Sauvage Pinot Noir 2006 ($60). Wild Horse makes a decent pinot for a lot less, but this beauty from the Santa Maria Valley is a stunning wine with excellent balance and copious raspberry and strawberry notes, hints of clove and cinnamon.

*Estancia Reserve Pinot Noir 2007 ($31). A decent value in the reserve category, this wine from the Santa Lucia Highlands sports ripe black cherry and plum flavors, smooth texture and a hint of oak.

*MacMurray Ranch Winemaker's Block Selection Pinot Noir 2007 ($60). MacMurray makes well-priced pinots from the Russian River Valley, but this special release captures the best grapes the region offers.