House (wine) Hunters review three low cost / better performing Pinot Noirs from California

Today we're hunting for great wine at great prices, what we call "house wine". House wine is great because it let's you:

  • Spend a bit less on wine by serving something that is better than its price;
  • Take advantage of economy of scale by driving the per bottle cost down using case (12 bottle) discounts;
  • Use some discretion when serving guests who aren't as picky (or whose tastes not as sophisticated); and
  • Avoid blowing an expensive high end wine for that "last bottle" when friends are over and the three bottles you already drank make this last one harder to fully appreciate.

When choosing a house wine, use our three main criteria that the wine:

  1. Be broadly pleasing, i.e. something that most can enjoy; 
  2. Outperform its price point, i.e. seem better than what you'd expect for the price; and
  3. Cost no more than $15 per bottle when purchased by the case (in most cases we're looking at house wines in the $8 - $12 range).

We choose a new house wine by trying a lineup of different options, and then purchasing the winner by the case until we tire of it or until we can't get any more. We're doing some of the work for you here.

With fall upon us, we've decided to test out an exclusively Pinot Noir lineup, all from California to make a fairly easy time of you finding similars at the store. Pinot is great red wine choice in the Spring and Fall transition months, and is particularly well suited to almost every Thanksgiving dish. Let us know what you think.

2014 Jackhammer Pinot Noir ($11.99 by the case)

Why we chose it: Cherry in the nose feels a bit alcoholic hot and a little meaty with some metallic elements. The palate performs infinitely better. It's actually quite smooth and plush red fruit that paired well with veggie burgers. Extraordinarily drinkable, this is a definite house red winner. We came to appreciate the little touch sweetness that came out after 30 minutes or so.

What to look for: This one comes from Monterey, on the coast south of San Francisco. You shouldn't struggle to find Pinots from here, though as our third contestant (the Eighty20) will show, same varietal / same price range / same locality isn't a guarantee. Pick up a few different bottles at your wine shop and compare.

2013 Pinot Patch Pinot Noir ($11.99 by the case)

Why we chose it: Fruity all the way. It's a bit of a struggle to find anything meaningful in the nose, but we'd describe the overall sensation as "lots of red fruit". The expressive fruit in the palate was reminiscent of some Zinfandels or regions known for producing more hearty Pinot Noir (we're looking at you, Oregon). Pinot Patch isn't overly complex, but it's definitely overly enjoyable for the money.

What to look for: We've triangulated this wine to be from Sonoma County (north of San Francisco), but it advertises as a "California" Pinot Noir, i.e. not something the winemaker wants to tie to one particular region. We'd treat it as such. As your local wine merchant for a great bottle of California Pinot Noir that outperforms its price.

2013 Eighty20 Pinot Noir ($10.49 by the case)

Why we chose it: This was our least favorite of the lineup, but it distinguishes itself with some slatey minerality that is lacking in the others. The nose is brambly and rather unrefined, and is followed by red cherry juice on the palate. Simple, yet pleasing, we found this to be a alcoholic hot Pinot Noir that will drink very easily but won't blow anyone away. It was the only bottle in the lineup that we can't recommend as a true House Hunter.

What to look for: Don't go looking for this one. It doesn't hold up to the Jackhammer from the same(ish) place. The good "house wine lesson" here is to look at your options, because you might be able to find something better.