Pinot noir is a truly ancient grape, with a long history of use in wine. A dark grape, famed as an ingredient in the French Burgundy red wine blends, pinot noir has traditionally been regarded as a "difficult" grape to cultivate, outside of the narrow regions of France's Burgundy region. The name Pinot noir, French for "black pine," describes the typically tightly bunched grape cluster, similar in shape to a pine cone. The pinot noir is technically Vitis vinifera, but the grape, favored by the Romans as early as the first century C. E., has a variety of different names, as does the wine made from Pinot noir. To the Romans, it was Helvenacia Minor, mentioned with favor by Pliny. In Austria and Germany, it is known as Spätburgunder, while it's called Pinto nero in Italy.
An "early" ripening variety, Pinot noir is oddly sensitive to frost, and pretty much every other grape blight known to vintners. Consistent efforts, and a lot of careful cloning, has successfully translated the Pinot Noir grape from the narrow strip of France known as the Côte d'Or to Calfornia, South America, Australia, and yes, even Washington. Genetically, Pinot noir is complex, and mutates if a grower looks at the vine sideways; hence there are thousands of varietal clones, in comparison to say a dozen or so of Cabernet sauvignon. The Pinot noir grapes themselves are delicate, thin of skin, and can thus over ripen and "raisin" very quickly. A sweet grape, Pinot noir can produce wines that are higher in alcohol. It is particularly high in beneficial anti-oxidants, especially resveratrol, which may have some part (but only some) in the extreme popularity of California Pinot noir wines; I suspect the film Sideways has even more to do with it.
In flavor, Pinot noir is exceedingly complex, and the descriptors range widely, with berry fruits, particularly strawberry, and sweeter spices like cinnamon, sassafras, and rosemary often called into play for comparisons, along with rhubarb, and green tea. The range of color is fairly broad; some Pinots noir wines are quite light in color. The growing conditions, and aging, also have a great deal of effect on the flavor. Since Pinot noir is an "old" wine, classical French cooking is rich with dishes that are traditionally served with Pinot noir, including cassoulet, Coq au Vin, Boeuf Bourginon, and grilled fish.
Washington has not had a great deal of success with Pinot noir, though Oregon's Willamette valley has done quite well. In fact, there seems to be a decline in Washington's Pinot noir grape harvest; 1,200 tons in 2004, compared to 900 tons in 2006. There are a few vineyards in Washington's Columbia Gorge (not the same as the Columbia Valley; the Gorge extends across the Washington/Oregon border, on the eastern edge of the Cascades). The foothills of this region both shelter and provide irrigation, and help to render the weather somewhat less than predictable, as does the high altitude. Syncline Winery is one of the wineries on the Washington side of the Gorge producing Pinot noir wine. Gorge Crest Farms is another. Klickitat Canyon Winery produces organic biodynamic Pinot noir. White Salmon offers both a Pinot noir and a Pinto noir Rosé. Wind River Cellars offers a Pinot noir from Celilo Vineyard.