It's three-star scores all the way for this batch of well-made, predictable Pinots from the celebrated, maybe over-lauded 2012 vintage. And that's nothing to scoff at. It's good news that for about $25 these days you get a square deal in Pinot Noir. No sous bois and no surprises.
Cuvaison 2012 Carneros Pinot Noir ($38) No surprise that this selection, priced one tier above the others, wins favorite in a blind tasting—I, er, didn't even look at the tech sheet before assembling the lineup. The hint of smoky, incensey oak has a high-quality savor to it; the fruity potpourri aroma has depth; the plum and cherry flavors are intensified with cola character; and the finish is firm. It's got a bit extra and it costs that bit extra.
Landmark 2012 Overlook California Pinot Noir ($25) First release of this label, following Landmark's successful Overlook Chardonnay by a mere 20 years. While the dusty, fine oak aroma doesn't reveal much besides the faintest cherry perfume, it's an enticing perfume, and the palate of sweet strawberry jam and allspice is substantial. Also, this wine held up or improved the day after opening.
Benziger 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($29) It looks like Pinot, smells like Pinot, and tastes like Pinot—and it's certified sustainably grown. Not smoky, sweet, heavy or light, having a solid palate of mixed berry fruit, this seems a safe, no-fail dinner party Pinot.
Cherry Tart 2012 California Pinot Noir ($25) From dessert-theme wine baron Jayson Woodbridge of Cherry Pie, a single vineyard wine marketed with colorful whimsy. The only fault I found with Cherry Tart—besides its being called a "Multi-Single-Vineyard" blend, like calling it a fingernails-on-chalkboard blend—is that it's got a waste-no-time screw cap, but it takes time for a note of lawn clippings to blow off and reveal substantial and enjoyable, if slightly baked, flavors of cherry syrup—halfway to a quality sangria.
Francis Ford Coppola 2012 Director's Cut Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($21) The best of the winery's 2012 Pinots, and in the middle of their price range. Bearing a similarity to the Landmark in sweet, cherry-berry fruit spiced with vanilla, with a weediness that peeks in and out of the aroma.
Cambria Julia's Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir ($25) From a Jackson Family Wines property. A handshake of 4-ethylguaiacol (a smoky aroma somewhere between French roast coffee and highway skunk) just never leaves its grip, even a day after opening. It's unclear if and when the intense, dark fruit might overcome that.