Reconsidering Pinot Gris

Why you should give this white wine varietal another shot

Eventually someone will ask, "What's the wine that got you into wine?"

Then come the phenomenal answers of ancient brunellos discovered on semesters abroad and burgundies shared with lovers who don't speak the language. You know, mind-blowing wines that are built like time machines. Man, what luck to meet them right there at the top of the road. I hear these stories and I almost never have the heart to say that my own "gateway" bottle was an Oregon pinot gris, bought for $10 and served in paper cups.

Prior to this moment, I'd had "wine" the way I'd had "beer," which is to say selected by price and color at a grocery store. This time, I needed a bottle to impress someone who I supposed knew a thing or two about the stuff, so I traded up from the Safeway to the Woodstock Wine & Deli on account of "wine" being right there on the sign. I explained my audience (probably sophisticated) and my budget (definitely minuscule) and in exchange was handed a bottle of O'Reilly's Pinot Gris. He mentioned lime. It had a dog on the label. I took it in good faith.

Two days later, I poured it nervously at what I recognize today as my first real gathering of grown-ups. An incredible thing happened: everyone enjoyed it. We didn't ignore it, we didn't spend the night talking about it. We simply smiled over it and made note of it and commented as we drained the bottle. It wasn't astounding but it was lovely, and that was more than I'd ever known alcohol to be. As the weeks went on, I thought about it and bought it again and wondered what might be beyond lovely. In the decade since I have found that out, but I've recently made my way back to the grape that got this all started.

Pinot gris is better known around these parts as pinot grigio, which is better known to plenty of people as "what my ________ (fill in the blank with mother, sister-in-law, grandfather who adds seltzer to his wine) drinks." Much of the mass-produced Italian stuff is light-weight and super bland. It is white and nothing more, that often being the secret to its traction. It is inoffensive and vaguely boozey.

Unfortunately, encounters with insipid versions, as with chardonnay and riesling, often cause people looking for better flavors and better stories to move along and never look back. I did the same, even after it did me the favor of showing me the way. I've returned to say that if you've also wandered off, come in. There's plenty here to make the case.

Even though it's been made in Oregon since the 1960s, the pinot gris here is still far from being monolithic. Any given bottle may make a completely different argument as to the best expression of the grape in this region. The lack of consistent, recognizable characteristics may be one thing keeping it from pinot grigio's status as a popular house white in the U.S.

For my purposes, that's a great thing as it makes the exploration that much more rewarding. Veer left and you'll find more body and Alsatian-style spice; veer right and you'll get residual sugar or the tropics, cut with cream. Even the divergent paths still lead to a wine that can unite people new to this world with those who make their lives here. May there be no lovelier task. 

Click here for 5 Favorite Oregonian Pinot Gris to Try

— Carly Wray, Snooth