More of Randy's must-reads...

Randy Caparoso's Culinary Wine & Food Matching is everything you wanted to know about wine and food matching sans the gibberish and maddening generalities.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

True luxe & flagellation at the 2012 World of Pinot Noir

What became crystal clear after two days of immersion in the grape at The 12th Annual World of Pinot Noir in Shell Beach, CA. this past March 2-3:  American Pinot Noir has definitely grown up.

But have Pinot Noir lovers matured?  The Pinot Noirs shown – generally from the 2009 and 2010 vintages – were impressive enough, despite more than a few hints and allegations heard amongst the crowd about concerns like “balance,” which I still think is a load of expletive (re Why this whole “balance” issue is a crock).  I stood next to one enthusiastic pinotphile – bless his heart – congratulating a vintner because, and I quote, “I like the way you believe in picking early and making wine less than 14% alcohol.”  As if most winemakers – who have blown their wads or sold their soul to the devil to birth a gratifying pinot – are so clueless, they don’t know alcohol or balance from nothing.  The irony, of course, is that it’s neither a vigneron nor pinotphile who has the last word on such matters.  It’s Mother Nature.

Case in point:  in the press room I tasted the 2010 Clos Pepe Sta. Rita Hills Estate Pinot Noir and immediately thought, wow... the best Clos Pepes I’ve tasted in years (at least since the inaugural World of Pinot Noir in 2000).  Knowing owner/winemaker Wes Hagen’s almost religious devotion to restraint, vineyard over varietal fruit expression, and (hang on, here comes that word again) balance, I felt quite pleased with the maturity of my taste.  Until I picked the bottle up and looked at the alcohol content:  whoops, 14.5%.  Maybe my pinot consciousness hasn’t progressed after all.

So I wrote Mr. Hagen a few days later, and he promptly responded, saying that his 2010 was a product of “a long, very cool year that was punctuated by a heat spike in October.”  Grapes benefitted from “insane hang time,” but the heat wave “dehydrated the berries and added a layer of rich, sexy fruit not seen since 2002.”  Although Hagen admits that “Oregon haters might suggest Syrah additions” in this richly pigmented, ultra-intense vintage, spreading across the palate like “blueberry and boysenberry jam, cherry compote, intense spice and insane depth and concentration of aromatics... plush, luxe, sexy, ultra-seductive."

In other words, good stuff; and no matter how you spin it, as pure, sharply etched, and refined as any Pinot Noir, damned the torpedoes.  So even if only for this one time, 14.5% alcohol is good enough for Hagen, maybe we can’t define a wine by its numbers after all.  Duh.

Then again, the love and self-flagellation concerning American Pinot Noir goes back some time.  In typical deference to the enduring, mystical superiority of red Burgundy, in 1896 (not a typo) a respected U.C. Davis professor submitted:  "in some localities (of California) it is doubtless possible to make Pinot Noir wine of high quality and to age it, but only with a minute attention to detail and an elaborate care, which no price that is likely to be obtained at present would justify" (Muscatine, Amerine & Thompson, Book of California Wine).  

In the late 1960s the late, great André Tchelistcheff was famously quoted to say, "Pinot Noir is scrawny and broods about the slightest offense... all the challenge is getting the surly child to smile."

I started my own search for America's elusive vinous love child even before taking my first official sommelier job, back in 1978; when anything resembling real Burgundy was considered a freak of nature.  Those days, we could count the number of consistently successful pinot specialists on literally one hand:  let me see... Joseph Swan, Sanford & Benedict, Chalone... but not much more, since it was only occasionally that producers like Beaulieu, Mondavi, Hanzell or Eyrie produced something that wasn’t amusingly naïve in its presumptuous domesticity.

Ah, but how the list of its dedicated, thoroughly accomplished practitioners has swelled.  Producers who – standing on the storied shoulders of Tchelistcheff, Swan, Lett, and going even further back, Paul Masson and Martin Ray – seldom produce a discouraging pinot.  That is why, personally, I am as appreciative of big, voluminous, even richly oaked styles as I am of lighter, prickly, more comely or demure styles of Pinot Noir:  I vividly recall the days when you were happy to get anything that tasted decently of the grape.

Those that know me know that I abhor ratings (how can you put numbers on matters of aesthetics that change with the moment and circumstances?), but I do have a list of favorites tasted at the 2012 World of Pinot Noir.  

Larry Hyde's outstanding new vineyard in Cuttings Wharf, Carneros

In rough order of personal preference, as circumstances would have it at that point in time:

2010 Larry Hyde & Sons, Carneros – It’s been a long time since I was as thoroughly impressed by a Carneros grown Pinot Noir as I was with this bottling; compelling in its brilliant violet-red color, ultra-rich strawberry perfume, and full, concentrated, richly knit, voluptuous, even sluttishly rounded, fruit focused qualities.  Mr. Hyde, of course, has long been known for his viticultural prowess, supplying impeccable material (mostly Chardonnay) for the likes of Kistler, David Ramey, Patz & Hall, DuMOL, and his own HdV (in partinership with Aubert and Pamela de Villaine) for years.  But here’s the kicker:  the grapes for this spectacular pinot come from Hyde's most recent planting near Cuttings Wharf, south of Carneros Hwy. from Boon Fly Café, representing a massal selection (i.e. clonal mix) that went into the ground only in 2006.  When I followed up with Mr. Hyde about this freakazoid of a pinot, he said:  “yes, this is the case of young vines often producing superior wine... the problem will come up when the vines reach adolescence, and all our work will go into devigorating to recapture that quality” – adding, facetiously, “the ideal thing may be to sell the grapes to someone else when they reach that stage, and take them back when they are old and finally find their own balance.”

2010 Clos Pepe, Sta. Rita Hills Estate – I really was quite taken by this wine, as indicated by notes that read “puristic, sharply defined, velvety, tightly wound yet resplendent (yeah, that word actually popped up) with popping cherries and strawberry preserves.”  Question might be, does this particular pinot reflect more of a vintage and the grape itself, or, as the winery’s mission statement reads, “the complex and transparent character of the climate and soil here in Sta. Rita Hills?”  Here’s a thought:  who cares?  I say, just enjoy...

VML's Virginia Lambrix

2010 VML Boudreaux, Russian River Valley – VML (by winemaker Virginia Marie Lambrix, a Biodynamic® specialist who also makes the Truett-Hurst wines) also showed a 2010 VML Winemaker’s Select from Russian River Valley, and damned if I can tell you what I like better.  The Boudreaux positively quivers with pliant, fleshy, black and red berry fruit, sheathed in silk with wisps of smoky tobacco; whereas the Winemaker’s Select puts out even more sumptuous, broader, more densely textured fruit with a sensual, almost primal wild berry fruit quality (think gorging yourself from thorny roadside bushes while biking through a wine country in a summer sweat).  In a conversation with Ms. Lambrix the month before, she likened her Select to “Tchlistcheff’s fur coat... that animal smell combined with the perfumed scent of a woman,” but either VML will satisfy the most primitive longings of pinot lovers, pining for that base, licentious experience in finely laced garb.
2010 Kosta Browne, Gap’s Crown Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – This is more like one of those “whoa” pinots – somewhat full scaled, with as much muscle as flesh, or masculine, if you will – but its rich black cherry intensity seeps deep into the mouth, with that “Elvis on black velvet” quality that you just can’t keep your eyes off.  And for all you protest kids, there is very much a terroirist wine, as you find pinots of pretty much the same ilk made by others (notably MacPhail, Patz & Hall, Sojourn, Wind Gap and Anaba) who source from this 800-850 ft. elevation hillside vineyard on the western flanks of Sonoma Mountain, bathed in the sun while belted by moderating, rambunctious winds whipping in through the Petaluma Gap.

2011 Chamisal, Stainless Steel/Unoaked, Edna Valley – My enthusiasm for this pinot may very well be a plaintive cry for help:  I’m such a wuss when it comes to shamelessly fruity styles, and this fruit driven cuvée is like plasticine rock to a crack addict.  But I can say this because I’m just as confident in my street creds; and because even terroirists enjoy a good quaff like this purplish ruby red, emanating floral, super-fresh raspberry aromas, becoming like drippy cherries in the mouth, contained in a fine, zesty, medium body unperturbed by mild tannin.  

2010 Failla, Keefer Ranch, Russian River Valley – Because Failla is a poster child for what is often associated with contemporary “natural” wine – cold climate viticulture, wild fermentation, minimalist élevage, etc. – the assumption even among those who should know better is that a Failla Pinot Noir will also be minimalist in structure and fruit expression.  Of all their cuvées, Failla’s Keefer Ranch regularly defies such pigeonholing:  the 2010, a violet toned, lusciously fruity wine teeming with extravagant perfumes of strawberry, peppermint and baking spices, flowing out from a velvety, voluptuous body of almost unreal lushness.  Winemaker/owner Ehren Jordan would tell you that fruit from Keefer Ranch is what it is – he doesn't fool with it - and so if you are looking for something taut, tart and taciturn, like a nice little pinot should be, you should probably look elsewhere, my friend.  Just as exotic in its pinot sauciness - but in a tad more flowery, bony, Angelina Jolie sort of way - is the 2010 Failla Sonoma Coast Pearlessence.

2010 Freeman, Keefer Ranch, Russian River Valley – This vineyard – sitting pretty much dead-center in the Green Valley sub-AVA, sloping down to Green Valley Creek – invariably produces meaty yet fluid pinots for its prestigious clientele (besides Failla, Kosta Browne, Siduri, and the Keefers themselves).  Freeman always seems to emphasize the foresty spice, enhanced by subtle smoky oak, of the terroir; and in 2010, couching that in black cherry and earth tones, its plush, fullsome body fluffed up by mild acidity.  With even more emphasis on earthy, sweet pepper tinged spice, the 2010 Freeman Sonoma Coast Akiko’s Cuvée coalesces with similar, plush qualities, battened down by a slightly edgier, mouth watering acidity.

James MacPhail

2010 MacPhail, Pratt Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – You gotta love James MacPhail’s aggressive style:  you might notice his use of oak, but nearly always just to the point where varietal fruit qualities distinguishing his stable of top flight vineyard sources become all the more exhilarating.  In the 2010 Pratt, a woodsy/spiced black cherry fruit concentration hits you with almost relentless, juicy intensity, supple and fleshy in the mouth, yet coiled and springy in the feel.  After a brief hiatus, Mr. MacPhail’s return to this growth, farmed by Jim Pratt at the north end of Sebastopol Hills (as such, also falling within the Russian River Valley AVA), is something to write home about.

2009 Talley, Rosemary’s Vineyard, Arroyo Grande Valley – It’s the immediate east-west proximity to the Pacific that has always given Talley’s Arroyo Grande Valley plantings their sturdy, steely, often dark, savory, scrubby, almost iron-like, downright masculine qualities – confoundingly stingy in some years, generously sleek in others.  Of all their single vineyard bottlings, Rosemary’s probably personifies that taut tension of sinew and berry jam concentration; in 2009, taunting you further with exotic notes of berry infused black tea spice, before knocking you to the floor with curvaceous, fleshed out, acid and stony sensations.

2009 Bergström, The Bergström Vineyard, Dundee Hills - Among the latest releases from Bergström Wines, there are three estate (also DEMETER certified Biodynamic©) grown bottlings from three different Willamette Valley AVAs, representing two vintages that owner/winemaker Josh Bergström says “could not be more different.” Bergström describes 2009 as a “warm, ripe year, producing wines of opulence, density, plush textures, and alcohols over 14%.”  Hence, the meaty, almost explosive qualities of the ’09 Bergström Vineyard, couched in what Bergström describes as an "old world palate... meaning more earth, mineral and a complexity that does not revolve solely around fruit,” which he attributes to his signature estate’s rocky red soil, consistently giving “a ferrous-driven minerality reminiscent of blood or Breseola.”

On the other hand, Mr. Bergström describes 2010 as more of a “classic Oregon vintage... very late ripening into November, flavors developing before sugars, interplay of acid and tannin, and alcohols around 12.9%-13.2%.”  Though still calling them “babies,” the 2010 Bergström de Lancellotti Vineyard Chehalem Mountains Pinot Noir ($60) is already flowery and perfumed, and the 2010 Bergström Gregory Ranch Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir ($60) is silky, bright and effusive, despite the young, meaty tannin in both.  Bergström notes that Gregory, the family’s newest site, is on one of Yamhill-Carlton’s cooler slopes, describing its emerging character as “urgent cherry and Marionberry, and a sweet earth character more akin to truffle than loam, on top of the classic sweet spice/potpourri of Willakenzie soil.”

Some briefer remarks on other noteworthy Pinot Noirs:

2008 Solomon Hills, Santa Maria Valley – One of the few ‘08s being shown during the weekend; red berry perfume tinged with smoky, peaty notes; slender, lean, but nicely filigreed qualities, energized by snappy acidity and harmonious tannin.

2008 Bonaccorsi, Nielson Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Another ’08; this one, a charmer with dollops of cherry fruit and strawberry purée; soft, delicate feel on the palate, with silk and zippy acid interplay.

2009 Native9, Rancho Ontiveras Vineyards, Santa Maria Valley – Fragrant cherry pie, cola, and smoked meat qualities in the nose and dense texturing; acidic snap, plus raw, pithy sense of immediacy from front to back.

2009 Pali, Fiddlestix Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills - Bull’s eye in the middle of the seductive perfume (red berry and rose petal) and earth tinged aspects of the grape; slinky body, draped in velvet and smoky spice.

Greg La Follette with assistant winemaker Simone Sequeria

2009 La Follette, Du Nah Vineyard, Russian River Valley – Head spinning intersection of wild berries, dead leaves, smoky spice, and even a smack of leather (organic rather than Brett related); silken textured, earth toned flavors punctuated by sharp acidity; youthful tightness in the finish.

2010 ROAR, Sierra Mar, Santa Lucia Highlands – First release from Gary Franscioni’s newest vineyard atop a 1,000 ft. elevation slope; lush bing cherry, super-high toned, tangy and deep.

2010 Lucia, Gary’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – By Pisoni Vineyards; medium-full bodied wine saturated with black cherry fruitiness; firm tannin center, while lush and snappy on the palate.
2009 Benovia, La Pommeraie, Russian River Valley – Bright, broad, lavish Russian River Valley style; plump, juicy, velvet texturing.

2009 Flying Goat, Garey Ranch, Santa Maria Valley – Super-fragrant nose of strawberry and peppermint sprigs; bright, zesty, high toned, yet fine and delicate in the feel.

2010 Thomas Fogarty, Rapley Trail Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains Estate – Redolent of strawberries and underbrush, yet dense and youthfully bright, tart edged on the palate; finishing with a fluid feel of soft leather in its medium weight.

Winemaker Nathan Kandler in Thomas Fogarty's mountaintop estate

2009 Fiddlehead, Oldsville Reserve, Chehalem Mountains – Pale transluscent red color and fragrant perfume of dried flowers and berries; sense of delicacy in the nose and palate, finishing with a fine, zesty flourish.

2009 Sokol Blosser, Dundee Hills – Another Oregonian shown in almost stark contrast to the weightier California pinots:  a lithe, medium bodied pinot, throwing out attractively floral notes of Christmas spiced berries; some tightening tannin in the mouth, but flowing into a long, zesty finish.

2009 Freestone, Estate Grown, Sonoma Coast – Nose dripping with sour-suggestive morello cherry fruitiness, tinged with an airy woodsy spice and strawberry sweetness; fairly full on the palate, revved up by good acid and sweet woodsiness of the spice and oak.

2010 Luminesce, Presqu’ile Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Luscious, sweet red berry nose; the promiscuous fruit qualities tucked into a nicely rounded, velvety medium body.

2010 Belle Glos, Clark &Telephone Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley - Billowingly sweet scented, somewhat fat yet luxurious, satisfying; from an own-rooted, Martini clone vineyard now in its fortieth leaf.

ROAR's Gary Francscioni

2009 Lucienne, Doctor’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – Fairly lavish nose of red berries, smoke, and trail mix-like dried fruits and nuts; aggressive full body and tannin, but plumped up by lush flavors.

2010 Hilliard Bruce, Hahn Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – Luscious, almost liqueur-like strawberry/cherry aroma; velvety, broad feel, brimming with luscious fruit, in similar, gushy, bouncy style to the solidly crafted 2009 Hilliard Bruce Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir Moon.

2009 Silver Pines, Sonoma Mountain – Sweet berry and interestingly organic, forest floor aromatic notes; silky on the palate, finishing on the soft side.

2010 Puma Road, Vigna Monte Nero, Santa Lucia Highlands – By Ray Franscioni Wines (RFW); slightly sharp edged, almost lean in its classical structuring, yet teeming with strawberryish fruit.

2010 Bu, Wildcat Mt. Vineyard, Sonoma County – By Bruliam Wines; invitingly lush red berry perfumes; velvety entry leading to slightly fat but juicy, flavorful feel.
Native9's James Ontiveras

Sunday, December 4, 2011

La Follette's Strange Fruits

No winemaker is as widely known, and often misunderstood, as Greg La Follette

La Follette in Sangiacomo Vineyard
This profile and interview was originally composed for Sommelier Journal (Nov. 2011), where it appeared in abbreviated form as a winery profile.

We like our winemakers to be unique, but not odd.  We like their wines to be intense and expressive of something, but not so different that we can't easily compare them to other wines within our points of reference.  We even like to talk concepts like "natural" and terroir, as long as the ramifications of such are reasonably easy to sell -- at least for those of us in the restaurant or retail trade.

Greg La Follette has never been one to make things easy for us, despite the notoriety of being first real winemaker at Flowers, during this extreme Sonoma Coast estate’s formative stage in the late nineties.  When La Follette ventured off on his own, founding Tandem Winery in 2001, it was almost as if he wanted us to forget the glory years at Flowers, and even earlier milestones, such as the years when he led Hartford Court into the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Big Leagues.

For one, he’s been rarely seen:  after starting Tandem, he turned into one of those flying winemakers, designing and consulting for more than a dozen wineries across the globe, at one point on five different continents (including at home in Sonoma, for it was La Follette that Jean-Charles Boisset first called upon to restore De Loach after taking it out of bankruptcy in 2003).  Between raising kids (a total of six, between wife Mara La Follette and himself) and whispering to vines, there simply hasn’t been much time for public relations or even sales.

Second, when there were La Follette sightings, it was usually of a grizzled man in well worn overalls and an unfortunate haircut – not an image of the suave celebrity winemaker – while the twenty or so wines produced each year under the Tandem label became known more for their tendency to stick out in comparative tastings, challenging even the most adventurous palates with oft-times discomforting sensations of down-and-dirty earth, pungent meats, unidentifiable flowers, or strange fruits – love it or leave it – despite their structural integrity and sleek, coiled intensity.

Still, La Follette’s energy quickly grew Tandem to over 9,000 cases a year; and although the winemaker’s legend also expanded, especially among geekier elements of the cognoscente, the wines were not exactly flying out the cellar door.  Enter Peter Kight, owner of Wine Creek LLC, which also handles Barossa Valley’s Torbreck Wines and Dry Creek Valley’s Quivira Vineyards.  In 2008 Kight began chatting with La Follette about taking Tandem off his hands, in a deal that would also retain his consumnate skills as a winemaker, and his uncanny eye for edgy vineyard sourcing.  In January 2009 Tandem officially became part of Wine Creek. 

Kight’s company immediately brought steadier management, sound marketing and broader distribution to Tandem; particularly by halving SKUs to less than ten, and bringing the products into more realistic price points (from $40-$70 to $30-$40).  After a year into it, Kight came to La Follette with an even better idea – scrap the Tandem label altogether; establish a new name, and re-focus it on what it really is:  La Follette Wines, launched in summer of 2010.

Within the Wine Creek fold, La Follette himself enjoys more freedom than ever as a winegrower; his feet firmly set, so to speak, in the terroir:  if anything, he has always been known for a single minded focus on vineyard expression, even at the expense of “varietal” or brand identification.  To Kight’s credit, Wine Creek has rolled with it, and so far so good.

While fewer in number, the brand formerly known as Tandem still consists of single vineyard and Sonoma Coast bottlings from some of the finest, most prestigious vineyards on the North Coast:

  • DuNah – in the fog and windswept Sebastopol Hills, at the southernmost end of the Russian River Valley AVA
  • Sangiacomo’s Roberts Road – (not to be confused with the Sangiacomo family’s Carneros plantings), falling in the Sonoma Coast AVA on the eastern edge of Petaluma Gap, at the base of Sonoma Mountain
  • Van der Kamp – a 1,400 ft. elevation Sonoma Mountain planting (highest in the AVA) dating back to the early sixties
  • Lorenzo – an historic 36 year old Chardonnay vineyard on the floodplain south of Santa Rosa in the Russian River Valley AVA
  • Hawk’s Roost – another late ripening Russian River Valley site located on the Santa Rosa floodplain
  • Manchester Ridge – a newer site (planted 2002-2004) on a remote, dizzyingly high 2,800 ft. peak in Mendocino Ridge, and one that has only solidified La Follette’s reputation for edgy, iconoclastic winegrowing.
Lorenzo Vineyard

This past spring La Follette sat down and talked about his 27 years of winegrowing, now crystallized in his eponymous new brand:

RC:  Although you’ve established a reputation for the unorthodox, I’ve heard you say that you attribute most of what you’ve learned to U.C. Davis.

GL:  I originally thought of becoming a Catholic priest.  Instead I ended up studying chemistry at U.C. San Francisco, earned my degree in plant biology and chemistry, and started doing research in the U.C. system.  My specialty was infectious diseases, particularly AIDS, but it became difficult for me emotionally.  Finally I said, life’s too short, and much to the chagrin of my parents I went back to school to study analytical chemistry at U.C. Davis, and got my degree in winegrowing.  That was in 1987.

RC:  What did they call that degree at that time?

GL:  My diploma read, Food Science and Technology.  I actually stayed an extra year at Davis, working on-staff as a chemist, while continuing to take as many viticultural courses as I could.  In fact, three years earlier I had already started working at Simi Winery, where Zelma Long was winemaker, Paul Hobbes was assistant winemaker, and Diane Kenworthy was the viticulturist – all great people to learn from.  While attending Davis and working at Simi, I was primarily looking into the role of pectins and their uses as a possible marker for ripeness.  Then after taking my degree at Davis I started working at Chalone with Dick Graff, who actually gave me 67 barrels for my research.  Then I recruited John Kongsgaard, who was at Newton, to help me out as well.

RC:  Sounds like a lot places to be at one time.

GL:  No kidding – I was going crazy, driving all over the place.  But what I really wanted to look at was the effects of Burgundian winemaking techniques, which I was able to do in three different places.  Right about that time, in 1991, I met André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu, who became probably the single biggest influence in my winegrowing career.

RC:  How so?

GL:  André was huge – an amazing man, so focused on wine, holding so much knowledge in his hand, which he would sort of take out in little bits from his pocket, hold it forward in his hand for you to examine, or to pick up and put into your own pocket.  He would never force anything down your throat – most of the time he was more interested in listening to what I had to say.  André also taught me things like, “never let winemaking ruin your personal life,” and “pay attention to your children” – which I never forgot.

Van der Kamp on Sonoma Mountain

RC:  Aside from Tchelistcheff, who were your other key influences?

GL:  Ralph Kunkee, Roger Boulton and Ann Noble were my three thesis professors at U.C. Davis, and they were influential in the way that I thought.  Not so much what they tried to teach me, but how to investigate, how to ask questions.  They gave me tools, not answers – how to problem-solve. 

It was an incredible stroke of luck that I was able to work for André Tchelistcheff because he gave me the opportunity to put that approach to problem-solving to work, all the while encouraging me to go off on other projects – like starting up Yarra Ridge in Australia, and Jarvis in Napa Valley.  I took those jobs, but kept boomeranging back to Beaulieu for the privilege of working with André, and doing exhaustive research for him, like 24 Pinot Noir clonal trials.  Finally, in 1994, a job offer came up with Kendall-Jackson – to start up a new brand called Hartford Court, and to help resuscitate La Crema,  André thought that this was going to be the next big thing, the wave of the future, and he encouraged me to go.  So I started with the K-J properties, where I ended up carving out my own position as an in-house consultant/problem-solver, viticulturist/winemaker.

RC:  This was right before your move to Flowers?

GL:  In 1996 I was out in the Sonoma Coast during the harvest, walking through the rows ahead of the picking crew and flagging vines, because there was some real variability in that field.  I looked across the canyon and saw another picking crew really having a hard time, and so after I was done I got into my car and drove on over – we were on a different ridge, so the drive took 45 minutes – hopped out and introduced myself to Joan and Walt Flowers, who had just recently planted their first 18 acres, and just starting to build their winery.

Walt looked at me and said, “who are you?”  I told him I was Greg La Follete, and Joan said, “oh, you’re Greg La Follette – I just read your column last night about designing a winery for minimal cost and maximum quality output.”  Long story short, they were looking for help.  Their vineyard, frankly, wasn’t planted properly – in fact, a lot of their acreage had already slipped down the slope – and winery construction was running about a million dollars over budget.  And so 5 weeks and about 10 interviews later, I started work for Joan and Walt, sat down with their winery design team to make the necessary changes, and got it completed by the following vintage.  We came in several hundred thousand dollars under budget, and still improved the quality output.

RC:  What was the appeal of Flowers to take you away from that plum job at Kendall-Jackson?

GL:  There weren’t a lot of vineyards in the area at the time. Hirsch was established across the way, and the Bohans were the first to plant out there, although they had planted Merlot which ripened only about two out of every three years.  There were no wineries other than Flowers.  We were planting some very cutting-edge clones and rootstocks, and we did some really cool vineyard engineering to deal with the high elevation, heavy rainfall and steep slopes.

It was a great place to be a pioneer, and a great place to raise children.  Nick Peay was my cellarer for about two years, Luke Porter Bass was my cellarmaster, and I hired Hugh Chappelle as a day-to-day winemaker and Ross Cobb as a harvest enologiest.  I helped out Linda and Lester Schwartz, who were planting out Fort Ross Vineyard next door, and of course, Marcassin and people like Ehren Jordan were doing some big things in the region as well.  I think Flowers was a nucleus for a lot of things that were starting to blossom on the coast at that time.

RC:  How did your experience at Flowers change your outlook on winegrowing?

GL:  It didn’t.  I already had just about all my thoughts and ideas in place well before I got to Flowers.  At Flowers, though, I was able to fully implement them. 

RC:  Such as?

GL:  It was kind of like new viticulture:  using every part of every day in vines’ processing of their surroundings to make the most effective wine possible.  Employing a carbohydrate repartitioning strategy, which involves timing of leafing, not just leafing.  Pruning strategy, appropriate modifications of the Guyot-Côte methods employed in Burgundy.  Bringing that information into the winery and doing wild primary and secondary fermentations.  Doing a lot of gentle nudging rather than bashing of wines.  Open top fermenters, hand punching, going to barrel early and dirty, moderate use of oak rather than big, whacking heaps of oak.  Letting yeast interact with barrel polyphenols to unleash flavor.

RC:  Could you elaborate on your last point about yeasts?

GL:  Yeasts are actually capable of bio-transforming barrel phenols and softening them.  Prior research, at U.C. Davis, and during my time with André, had indicated that going to barrel early was very important for that.  But of course, the work starts in the vineyard.  One of the first things I did at Flowers was take the 18 acres they had planted – which was all cordon spur pruned, resulting in wines with very hard tannins – and do the Texas Chainsaw Massacre thing.  We lopped off all the cordoned arms, and implemented a double Guyot modified cane system.  Almost immediately tannin ripeness and fruit balance improved dramatically.  In other parts of the property we went from meter x meter to 5 by 8 foot spacing, increased yields from 1 to over 3 tons per acre, and we improved quality significantly – something borne out by higher scores. 

RC:  So you were able to improve quality by increasing yields?  That doesn’t sound right, especially for Pinot Noir.

GL:  There is an old adage that says “low yield makes better wine,” but this is horse-puppy.  Balanced vines make better wines.  Sometimes lower yields can make worse wine.  The earliest vintages of Flower Pinot Noir, for instance, were tannic monsters – their fruit is long gone.  The key is putting the breaks on shoot tip growth and initiating carbohydrate repartitioning – encouraging vines to go from a vegetative stage to a reproductive stage, preferably at lower Brix.  This is where you get earlier formation of color and flavor aromas.  You get that by doing things like opening up canopies and getting earlier light penetration, not dropping leaves too early or too late, getting moderate leaf size, not too large and not too small.

At lower yields vines aren’t always interested in ripening tannins, so they make you wait for it – often at a higher Brix than what you want.  Of course, for Pinot Noir it depends entirely upon the clone and site.  While many clones perform better at lower tonnage, there are clones grown on a fertile site that actually need to be picked at higher tonnage to come into better balance.

RC:  When you talk about this – achieving ripeness at lower Brix – it also sounds like a good way to address the issue of high alcohol, which has recently become a big topic, or bone of contention, in the press.

GL:  Whether a wine is below 14% alcohol or above 14% alcohol is really not my focus, but I will say this – I haven’t used a refractometer in over 30 years.  I learned long ago, working with Zelma Long, the right way to taste grapes – how to excoriate the seeds in your mouth to ascertain ripeness, and why you always pick for flavor.  In 2010 my lowest picking was probably about 20° Brix, and my highest maybe about 24°.  Among our current releases, we have wines under 14% alcohol, and wines over 14% alcohol. 

I realize that sommeliers really are the first line of defense – they’re tasting wines, and deciding which wines people will experience – and they can probably decide for themselves whether or not a wine is balanced, whether a wine is good for the food they’re serving, or whether a wine is better off served by the glass like a cocktail.

But for winemakers, our job is to make wines of balance and harmony.  This argument about whether wines should be lower or higher than 14% alcohol reminds me of the argument between a married couples having troubles, especially those with children.  You know who always suffers the most from those arguments?  The children.  You know what suffers the most from this argument about wines having too much alcohol?  The terroir.  We let terroir fall through the cracks when we go back and forth on alcohol, and it’s terroir that really matters – at least for the wines that matter most to me.
Pinot Meunier in Van der Kamp Vineyard

RC:  But doesn’t the high alcohol question call into question the wisdom of how California wine is grown?

GL:  No question, with good farming practices you don’t have to wait forever – for higher sugars or dessication – in order to find balance.  Regardless of where you’re growing or what you’re growing, intra-cellular machinery has to start well before veraison – you can actually start getting carbohydrate competition to effect berry cell division and berry cell expansion just after flowering.  Less berry cell division means fewer cells per berry, which means smaller berries and more concentration.  Less berry cell expansion means small cells per berry, which means smaller berries and more surface to volume ration, resulting in more concentration in the absence of excess sugar.  If you’re not getting that, it probably means you need to re-examine what you’re doing in the vineyard.  It also means you may have planted the wrong grapes in the wrong site.

What I’m more interesting in learning is the language of wine, which is nothing more than the language of vine physiology and yeast cell biology, and the more you learn those particular speeches the better you can speak to those needs.

RC:  At a conference in Santa Cruz, I once heard you talk about yeast cell biology in terms of wild fermentation and nutrient deprivation.  How is that consistent with what you learned at U.C. Davis?

GL:  One of the first things you learn at U.C. Davis is that Saccharomyces can produce aromatic molecules – for instance, one that produces the beautiful smell of rose petals.  But the only way yeasts are able to do this is if they first exhaust their nitrogen sources.  The first thing they eat is ammonia, and then they start on amino acids, preferentially.  The first amino acid they eat is analine, and the last amino acid they eat is phenylanaline.  And so yeasts chop off the phenyl group to get to the analine portion, and basically substitute the remaining benzene ring, or molecules, for 4-ethyl phenethanol – and voila, the smell of rose petals.

What you learn from this kind of winemaking is, “wow, you can push the dragon’s tail and get some really cool aromas and flavors.”  This is why it’s not such a good idea to add a bunch of yeast nutrients or to inoculate prophylactically.  Wild ferments can take forever, and often require prayer and occasional interventions.  But the advantage is their stress responders.  Think of yeast cells as being like athletes – you train them by making them run, not by feeding them bonbons.  When the yeasts start to tire, molecular walls start to crumble, and they begin to build macro-molecules that give wines more structure, like steel girders.  You also get more attractive mouthfeels, and complex aromas, like the smell of rose petals or roasted meats.

RC:  But isn’t it true that at U.C. Davis winemakers are discouraged from employing wild fermentation?

GL:  Davis doesn’t really teach you answers – they teach tools of investigation.  They tell you about the good and the bad stuff, wild ferments vs. inoculated ferments, where you can go wrong and where you can go right.  Make no mistake – wild fermentation is not practicing safe winemaking, but it can produce more interesting and unusual wine.  Wines I call enigmatic, which speak to a sense of place, rather than simple varietal character.

RC:  When you say “sense of place,” aren’t you talking more about following the French, and specifically Burgundian, traditions, as opposed to the science of U.C. Davis?

GL:  I certainly investigated Burgundian techniques very thoroughly, but my idea was to find out how these things work, not necessarily to follow them.  Once you find out how, you can improve upon it.  One of the things you discover is that some Burgundian techniques work, but for reasons that are the opposite of what they say.  A good example is the practices of sur lie and bâtonnage, the stirring of lees, and the idea that this reduces the amount of tannin in wine.  It is true that these practices result in a better mouthfeel, but the opposite is true when it comes to tannins – you actually increase tannins by practicing sur lie

In my own research I’ve found that the absorption of tannin into proteins happens very quickly following primary fermentation, but if you sweep away the lees you’re sweeping away a big pool of tannins.  If you allow lees to remain in contact, there is a slow re-release of tannins back into the wine, along with macro-molecules that are also enriching the wine and bathing over those tannins.  The result is a taking away of the aggressiveness of those tannins.  So instead of feeling those tannins like a big punch, you’re masking those tannins by grabbing them, and putting more fatness and richness into the mid-palate, and extending that feel into the late palate.

RC:  Does this also explain the more consistent longevity of Burgundian wines, compared to most New World wines?

GL:  You got it.  About a couple weeks after primary fermentation, yeasts always begin to prepare to go into a deep space.  So what they do is jettison all their intra-cellular material, all the guts that they don’t need for anything but going into deep sleep survival mode outside the presence of sugar, and a lot of those compounds are great anti-oxidants.  That’s why you stir, and you add oxygen, and even encourage brown juicing – because the lees are able to absorb these compounds, resulting in much more interesting, profound and longer lived wines.
Lorenzo Vineyard, Spring 2011

RC:  It seems to me, when I taste one of your Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs, there is invariably some kind of odd fragrance or unusual perfume not found in Chardonnays and Pinots from other producers – even those who espouse natural fermentations and work with other cold climate sites in the North Coast.  What’s up with that?

GL:  It’s no accident because I’m never focused on just primary fruit – I’m always looking for complexity.  I think, for instance, that if you can combine the smell of mushrooms, or forest floor, rose petals or roasted venison, by favoring a cold loving yeast during early stages of fermentation, and if you have that yeast as an indigenous part of a particular vineyard, then what you are doing is opening yourself up to form a closer partnership with the land.  You are digging out all the possibilities of the land, and you’re letting a vineyard speak in a voice or language it wants to speak in.  I’ve always felt that it’s my job, my mission, to bring that voice forward.  I’m not going impose anything, I’m going to remain quiet and listen, and really try to form a partnership in the same way I might partner with someone I love and respect.  To me, this is a wilder, more satisfying approach to wine.

RC:  Even if those aromas and flavors come out “weird?”

GL:  Especially.  Complexities inherent in a vineyard’s yeast population can be like an exotic flower, a rose petal, or a forest floor.  It can be feral, often sauvage et animale.  If you can find that fine seam of tension that exists between the floral and the feral, and get it just right, I think you make a more transcendent wine – like the tension in the notes that build up in, say, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

RC:  Yet in the past, you’ve often used the term “Euro-centric” to describe your wines.

GL:  When I used that term, I meant relying less on oak and ultra-ripeness to make a meaningful wine.  Relying on higher acidity, but a balanced acidity, and less focus on fruit, more focus on complexity.  There was a time when it seemed like the highest scoring Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs were bigger, higher in alcohol, oakier, and jammier or more opulent in fruit, but that never seemed to keep many of our wines from scoring very high, or even finishing on top.

RC:  Was this also a way of saying that your wines are less “manipulated?”

GL:  It’s mostly about practicing good vineyard husbandry, but I never felt that we were that good when it comes to handling in the winery.  So we watch our wines very closely – giving them a little nudge here, a little nudge there.  We ferment in shallow tubs so that we can do hand punch-downs, because that’s more intimate, and because that’s how you can feel the heat and aromas coming out of the musts.  We sample lees in our mouth, to see if they’re nice and creamy, sweet or stinky.  We monitor our wines barrel by barrel, handling each one like separate lot.  It’s like little children – you have to be there early on to diaper them, then you watch them stumble and fall as they get older, and you’re still watching them closely when you’re handing them the keys as they walk out the door. 

RC:  Back up a little and tell me what makes your fermentors unusual? 

GL:  We use halved stainless steel milk tanks, which range from one ton to six tons.  As they get bigger, they get longer and broader, insuring that the cap stays within the human strength-range of punchdown ability, including a 114 pound teenage boy.  A very important consideration in my sons’ training as young men who have the wherewithal to work hard and know what it all means.

RC:  Now for the million dollar question – is it pronounced “La-FAH-lette,” or “LAH-Fol-lette?”

GL:  My name is “La-FAH-lette,” but the brand is “LAH-Fol-LETTE.”  We figured it’s easier to identify with the French pronunciation.

RC:  Final question – if you could shuck it all away tomorrow, what would you be doing?

GL:  Growing grapes, of course, but in my own vineyard.  But I think I’d like to try it with a horse and plow.  When you plow the dirt yourself, you see everything, and every clod means even more.  Then again, I always liked horsing around!


2009 La Follette, Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($30) – Cold, foggy coastal air funneled in a direct line through the Petaluma Gap to this cobbled, rocky, old riverbed site has consistently made for the nutrient starved wild yeast ferments favored by La Follette; engendering, in Chardonnays, flavor/aromas with as much minerality and toasted almond as intense apple, pineapple and lemon varietal fruit definitions, while slapping a viscous layer over snappy, sinewy, high acid texturing.  Make no mistake, the profile is Californian, but definitely with an Old World raunch.

2008 La Follette, Lorenzo Vineyard, Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($38) – While not the coldest site in the La Follette book (that would be Du Nah in the nearby Sebastopol Hills, and Manchester Ridge on Mendocino Ridge), the clay soil, older vines and microbiology of the vineyard conspire to yield one of the slowest evolving Chardonnays grown in California.  After three years, ‘the 08 remains tight, compact, steel rimmed – more like a wine coming right out of the shoot – although the viscous lemon and honey roasted nut qualities oozing out of a citrus center are clearly indicating a fleshing out into those lavish, creamy sensations for which Lorenzo is always known.

2008 La Follette, Manchester Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge Chardonnay ($48) – La Follette is fond of calling this “the new paradigm” of California Chardonnay,” and he kids you not:  there are outward sensations of minerality that remind you of Chablis, although nothing in Chablis comes close to the flowery perfume – an almost Riesling-like exoticism – typifying Manchester Ridge.  In fact, there is no Chardonnay based white in the world that has this; necessitating a rearranging of one’s comfort zone when addressing this particular animal.  Terroir plays its part, and so does the Chardonnay clone 809 -- a sexy new variant of the Musqué clones, sans the millerandage (shot, or uneven sized, berries) – which composes a third of this bottling.  The other two-thirds is vinified from Old Wente, a classic shot-berry Chardonnay Musqué favored up and down the coast.  Ergo, it is clearly the high elevation, frigid, late ripening nature of the site itself that fashions the edgy, lean, tart edged yet ultra-fine, silken threaded qualities of this wine, bursting with the honeysuckle flower and citrus/lime driven fruit, just hinting at old fashioned butterscotch beneath the stony veneer.

2009 La Follette, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($30) – Pretty much a classic, voluptuous, sumptuously fruited North Coast style of pinot, but with earthy, forest floor, almost soy-like nuances that whisper into the ear like a salacious, husky voiced harlot.  The chubby, young fruit mixes red and black berries with a touch of cola, its lacy sweetness barely hiding sharp, bony tannin.

2009 La Follette, Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($40) – In the Sangiacomo Pinot Noir, the feral aspects of this vineyard’s microbiology infuses the varietal’s fragrant raspberry and exotic tea spices with nuanced rose petal and sensations of roasting meat.  Smoke of oak piles on to the complexity, and the feel is sensual in its silkiness, young tannins poking through like sharp elbows, thickening the wild, earth toned fruit.

2009 La Follette, DuNah Vineyard, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($40) – Here, luscious strawberry preserve perfumes are underlined by pungent organic notes consistent with this site, suggesting rubber boots trudging through crumbling leaves and damp earth.  On the palate, the earth toned flavors is dense, meaty, yet sweet with the vibrant red berry qualities.

2008 La Follette, Van der Kamp Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir ($40) – The La Follette penchant for tertiary extraction – in this case, leather, mushrooms, forest floor – kicks up a notch in the Van der Kamps; the ‘08, girded by the site’s typical, muscular mountain tannin, and a varietal profile that is less floral, more fruit focused, tinged with a sweet peppermint, leafy herb spice.  The feel is dense, savory, fullsome; tannins coming across with clove-like, almost malty thickness.

2008 La Follette, Manchester Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir ($50) – Early studies of Manchester Ridge done by La Follette for U.C. Davis revealed the presence of more polymerizable phenols in its fruit than in any site he’s ever examined; a phenomenon certainly borne out in the ’08:  by far, the most animale of the La Follette cuvées – the essence of the sweet, slightly soured scent of the inside of a woman’s leather glove that Tchelistcheff often spoke of – combined with the oak to give charred meat sensations, suffused by ultra-rich, ringing, berry liqueur quality of the varietal.  On the palate, the luxuriousness takes on sensual textures, like chocolate melting on strawberries, all but making you forget what a unique, or strange, fruit of a pinot this really is.

Rick DuNah in DuNah Vineyard

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

TAPAS wines defy convention...

At the TAPAS Grand Tasting in the City by the Bay

What's the buzz...
Tell me what's a-happening?
- Rice & Webber

First, just the facts, ma’am:

Over 1,900 wine and food lovers attended the TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates Producers & Amigos Society) Grand Wine Tasting in San Francisco’s Fort Mason this past Saturday, June 4; making this the third year in a row that attendance to this once modest affair has doubled.

Out of that 1,900+, some 75% of those attendees were clearly younger than 35, giving the organization’s wineries (about 80 of them), growers and card holding “amigos” (another 30+) a strong idea of where their pan is currently being buttered.

... and as we all know, when it comes to fashion, food and wine, very often the other consumer segments follow the younger crowd.   It often takes the older folks a little longer to catch on to a good thing like this: the appreciation of wines and foods associated with grapes of Spanish and Portuguese traditions.

Second, your come-to-Jesus caveat:  these wines do not lend themselves to the same ol’ qualitative assessments to which mommy and daddy, gramps and granny used to subscribe, and blindly follow.  You cannot put a number like “95” or “85” on, say, the 2007 Abacela Umpqua Valley Estate Tempranillo – grown, as it were, by TAPAS founder Earl Jones in the rolling hills of Southern Oregon – as dark, buoyant, concentrated, fraise-like, fleshy or wild beasty a red wine as you may perceive it to be.

Abacela proprietors, Earl & Hilda Jones
Fact of the matter is, an Abacela Tempranillo knows no stinking numbers when you actually drink it the right way, with something like herb roasted leg of lamb. a whole pig, or grilled, pungent portobellos or eggplant.   It’s when you experience such wines in culinary context that meaty flavors and complexities your senses have no way of detecting when tasting the wine on its own suddenly emerge and knock you upside the chin, and then you are visited by this epiphany:  wines crafted from Spanish and Portuguese grapes cannot, should not, and absolutely will not be pinned down by concepts as odiferous as 100 point scores, as well meaning as people who dole them out may be.

Judging from the crowd at the TAPAS tasting in San Francisco, we think this “new” way (actually an old way, since wine historically evolved within culinary cultures) of appreciating wine may finally be sinking in:   people there for an experience of good wines, not to make judgements, or to rush home afterwards and tear out those dreary magazines or dive into online reviews droning mindlessly on with “ratings” as if good drinking wines were appliances awaiting their Good Housekeeping seals of approval...

That is... hey, teacher, leave those TAPAS producers alone!

This off our chests, let’s talk about a few things that went down in San Francisco, particularly in terms of Lodi grown grapes, since this American Viticultural Area has recently emerged as the largest and most serious source of these Iberian grapes, whether vinified by local producers like Bokisch Vineyards or Alta Mesa Cellars, or produced and bottled outside the region by wineries like Fenestra Winery in Livermore Valley, Quinta Cruz Wines in Santa Cruz, or Odisea Wine Company in Murphys, Calaveras County.

Savoy's halibut pineapple seviche with Harney Lane Albarino

Perhaps it was meant to be:  that Lodi’s Harney Lane Winery happened to positioned right next to the table manned by Oakland’s Savoy Events, where chef/owner Mica Talmor Gott was dishing out a halibut pineapple seviche, tinged with the fresh licorice flavor of tarragon, pungent cilantro, and mildly green-spiced notes of chopped poblano, on oven crisped, red spiced tortilla chips and topped with milky, bouncy queso blanco fresco.

The funnest foods, of course, are balanced by exhilarating sensations exactly like that, and the match with the 2010 Harney Lane Lodi Albariño – a steely dry white wine of lemony and mineral-toned dexterities offset by flowery fresh perfumes – not only made you want to grab more of these seviche chips and throw them in your mouth, it also made you wanna cry as if the intricacy of such simple, quiet yet effective sensations had suddenly eluded you all your pitiful life.

Another TAPAS Grand Tasting highlight was a cooking demo put on by chef/owner James Campbell Caruso of La Boca in Santa Fe, who put out a dish of calamari seared in Spanish olive oil and lemon juice, served with rice cooked with dabs of tinta calamar (black squid ink) and refreshing specks of chopped tomato.  If there ever was an earthy seafood dish bursting with the smell and taste of the ocean, this was it; and it was these sensations that brought out an almost revelatory saline, and umami driven, side of the intrinsic minerality found in the grape of the varietal bottlings of both the lime and honeyed almond scented 2010 Bokisch Clements Hills-Lodi Albariño and the slightly fuller yet lemony crisp, honeysuckle and tropical fruit nuanced 2010 Abacela Umpqua Valley Albariño.

Countdown to ecstasy:  Bokisch Albarino, Spanish olive oil & squid ink

Hammering the lesson home: these really are food wines, and as such, phenomenal in themselves, whether or not this is understood by members of the mainstream wine press who traditionally abhor wines, or winemaking, that even hint at culinary purposes.

But it was, after all, a very large and public tasting; and in that situation you walk a floor, jostle with a jovial crowd at the tables, and take your best shot at some kind of mnenomic discernment of the wine samples splashing in your glass.  Luckily we have plenty of experience at that, and the fact that we actually write down notes. Some of the other high points of that day:

Alta Mesa/Silvaspoons' Ron Silva
2009 Alta Mesa, Alta Mesa-Lodi Verdelho – There were a number of outstanding Verdelhos shown; and out of all of them, this one grown by Ron Silva’s Silvaspoons Vineyard might have been the most palate slaking:   its flowery perfumes – suggesting peach skin, lavender, lime and lemon verbena – levitated by citrusy acidity and a moderate, slinky body.  That said, in a similar vein, the 2010 St. Amant Amador County Verdelho seemed just as sleek, suggesting sweet/tart pears as much as citrus.  While even riper toned and fuller in feel, the 2009 Quinta Cruz Verdelho (also sourced from Silva’s Silvaspoons) had the lacy, leafy green, lemon verbena notes found in the Alta Mesa, along with the soft, nutty, mildly bitter taste suggesting Marcona Almonds.

2010 Jeremy, Lodi Albariño – Many say Albariño should be lighter and zestier than what has been produced for the most part on the West Coast; and unquestionably, the higher latitude length of days in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley and the Delta cooled terroirs of Lodi have a propensity to produce Albariños of somewhat lavish perfumes (although deliberate earlier and earlier picking have lightened recent vintages by Abacela and Bokisch quite significantly).  But if for a more pristine, puristic, light and lively Albariño you pine, the Jeremy gives you that, with slivers of apricot and twists of lemon in lithe, limber sensations.  Not too far off in a similar, light and unfettered vein, the 2010 Odisea Dream Clements Hills Albariño – grown by Markus Bokisch in his La Cerezas Vineyard – was tasting more starkly floral, with more of a green apple rather than lemony tartness.

2009 Odisea, Two Rows California Garnacha – Sourced from both Mendocino and Lodi’s Clements Hills AVA -- the latter, farmed by Gregg Lewis, the proprietor/grower of Dancing Fox -- this red wine stood out for its blast of bright, red, strawberryish fruit, luscious in the nose and meaty in the mouth, even when tightening in the middle with firming tannin and chewing tobacco-like juiciness.  Granted, the accessibility of this wine is somewhat mainstream (wine geeks or critics can easily grasp its “opulent” fruitiness); but in the vein of a good TAPAS style wine, its moderately scaled bottle would also make it “awesome” with food (we’re thinking simple gazpacho or rustic pan con tomate – toasted bread rubbed with garlic, chopped tomatoes, olive oil and rock salt).

2009 Odisea, Unusual Suspects – A blend of 50% Lodi old-vine Carignane, with Grenache (from Mendocino) and Tempranillo (from Lodi’s Lewis Vineyard), this fruit forward red is teeming with bright cherry aromas and flavors, soft and lush in the entry, solidifying into a smoky meatiness towards the finish.  Think of this as like a cross-dressing Pinot Noir – it wants to be all pretty and perfumed, but the larynx is deepening and the shoulders too wide for the top – and as such, you can probably do things like stuff a steak with oysters, or simply rub it with olive oil, grill with cracked pepper, and lay it all out with thick slices of beefsteak tomato dressed in ribbons of basil and a variation of yellow Spanish rice.

2007 Fenestra, Silvaspoons Vineyards Lodi Touriga - Made from roughly equal parts Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesa — the former known for making robust, full tannin reds, and the latter for lighter, more perfumed and finesseful reds — this is a generously black fruited red, dense and muscular down to the core, yet plummy, almost sweet toned around the edges.  While fluid in fleshiness, the feel is beefy, and the finish tinged by some coffee ground tannin.  Definitely a carnivore’s red; yet different, more visceral, from that of, say, a Cabernet Sauvignon drinker’s red:  you wanna to drench your meats with more olive oil or pungent Mediterranean herbs with a wine like this to bring out the slightly raisined, sun inflected notes, or utilize more aromatic aged cheeses made from sheep’s mile (Manchego or Pecorino) to coax out more earthen bass notes.  However which way you do it, this is a wine sharpened by awareness of food, not a wine critic’s pen.

Harney Lane's Kyle Lerner with St. Amant's Stuart Spencer

2008 Harney Lane, Lodi Tempranillo – For all intents and purposes, the Tempranillo grape epitomizes the TAPAS culture, producing red wines of quality that might be hard to fathom by conventional standards, particularly if you have trouble weaning yourself off, say, grapes of French origin, which are generally easier to define in terms of “varietal” character.  The Harney Lane is typical:  it is full and it is savory; yet it is not big and feels soft in the middle.  The nose suggests red fruit, but the mind isn’t identifying strawberry, cherry or raspberry in particular.  The phenolics seem to give toothsome, faintly chewing tobacco-like sensations; but in the end, the taste is not unlike how winemaker Chad Joseph describes it:  like a “chocolate brownie.”  Finally, as mentioned earlier, this is a wine that changes on a dinner table:  the textures becoming meaty, and the fruit qualities taking on feral, almost animal-like sensations that are absent in the initial perception, sans food.

Or can we just agree Harney Lane makes delicious Tempranillo?  So does St. Amant, for that matter (the 2008 St. Amant The Road Less Travelled Amador County Tempranillo tasting particularly wild – like a snorting, black, musclebound bull – in San Francisco), as well as Bokisch Vineyards (a sensual 2008 Bokisch Liberty Oaks Vineyard Jahant-Lodi Tempranillo currently laced in black cherryish, somewhat strawberryish, or maybe blackberryish fruit tones... or is it nothing at all?).

Markus Bokisch workin' it at the TAPAS Grand Tasting

We could go on about other fine renderings shown by the TAPAS producers in the City by the Bay.   Totally unprecedented wines like the startlingly dark, sinewy, teeth rattling 2008 Alta Mesa Cellars Alta Mesa-Lodi Tannat.   Classically inspired wines like the sumptuously sweet, neverending 2007 Abacela Umpqua Valley Port (crafted from Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, Tinta Amarela, Bastardo and Tinta Roriz).   Or wines coming seemingly from places unbenownst to the conventional world, like the St. Amant Amador County Tawny Port (an amazing yet strangely Madeira-like, blondie of a sweet fortified wine, regaling the senses with a head shaking storm of vanilla extract, raw honey, preserved lemon, crème caramel and orange peels punctured by cloves).

But let us just give thanks to these intrepid oenological pioneers, embrace their thought process, and celebrate their success!

Chains at San Francisco's Fort Mason

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Syrahs in a season of discontent

Another outstanding Hospice du Rhône – America's premier Rhône style wine festival, taking place each spring in Paso Robles, CA – has come and gone this past April 28-30, and thus another good reason to stop and assess the progress of the quintessential Rhône style red: those made from the syrah grape.

First things first: there were some startling beauties at this year’s HdR. The 2007 as well as the 2008 Jonata La Sangre de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley Syrah, for instance, seemed larger than life, swollen with perfumed, raspberry liqueur-like syrah concentration; the ’07 tinged by wild scrubby and toasty components, and the ’08 even more specific with roasting meats (what many call “bacon”), wild thyme intensities.

On a seemingly opposite end of the scale, the 2008 Baker Lane Sonoma Coast Estate Syrah was velvety smooth and finesseful – for all the world, pinot noirish in gentility (is this a compliment or insult?) – despite carrying 14.2% alcohol weight; flashing piercing violet perfumes and earthy undertones suggesting sprigs of rosemary and browning forest leaves. The 2009 Baker Lane Sonoma Coast Estate Syrah was even prettier – shrouded in lacy silk and flowery fragrances, yet crisply centered, with roasted meat/animal qualities that made you blink and think “Crozes-Hermitage."

A barrel sample of the Biodynamic® grown 2009 Qupe Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Edna Valley Syrah echoed the ’09 Baker Lane’s silk and lissomeness, with achingly ardorous perfumes of violet, licorice and winter savory. The roasted, chocolaty, coffee-spiced 2008 Stolpman Originals Estate Santa Ynez Valley Syrah and framboise-like 2008 Stolpman Hilltop Estate Santa Ynez Valley Syrah echoed the Jonatas in enormity – sensuous flesh draped over musclebound bodies – and gravity defying sense of scale.

Epoch winemaker Jordan Fiorentini
Then there was an obscenely opulent 2008 Justin Paso Robles Savant (cassis-like syrah amplified by 22% cabernet sauvignon); a barrel sample of blustery, fisticuffing, French sausage-spiced 2009 Red Car Sonoma Coast Estate Syrah; a wild scrubbish, smoky, compellingly lavender/violet/cassis scented 2007 Halter Ranch Block 22 Paso Robles Syrah; an unrepentantly black, concentrated, pumped pectoraled 2008 Epoch Paderewski Vineyard Block B Paso Robles Syrah; and a powerfully pungent, beefy and black cherryish 2009 Jaffurs Larner Vineyard Santa Barbara Syrah. All these wines, among numerous others, underlining the point in defiance of oft-heard criticisms: American syrahs are heckagood, even great, by any standard of the grape, past or present.

For as serious a wine syrah can obviously produce – most wine cognoscenti would rank it with cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling among the five most important Vitis vinifera cultivated around the world – the grape has been much maligned during the past year or two by, well, that very same cognoscenti, for various reasons of discontent, depending upon the pundit:

• They say that syrah is grown in too many of the wrong places outside the Northern Rhône Valley; especially in parts of California and Australia where warm climates yield wines of overripe flavor, excessive alcohol, or both.

• They say American consumers, in particular, have not responded to the growing number of syrahs on the market either because they are “confused” by a plethora of styles or simply because they are disappointed by the overall quality (re the aforementioned reason).

• More seasoned market observers are saying that the dearth of syrah sales (entailing American, Australian as well as French produced wines) has more to do with the age-old issue of supply exceeding demand, exacerbated by the recent international economic woes and glut of wines, made from any and all grape varieties, in general.

One thing we do know: truly good, to great, syrah costs as much or more to grow and vinify as truly good to great cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling; and if anything, in recent years the majority of consumers haven’t exactly been in the mood to spring for $25 to $50-plus bottles of new or unproven brands or varietals. For $8 to, say, $18 bottles of new or unproven brands or varietals: yes, they’ve been more than willing to take the plunge. But as mind blowing as a $100 Jonata may be, we know this is a far less palatable proposition for the everyday Joe or Aunt Gladys than, say, a big, luscious, Lodi grown Brazin Zinfandel or !ZaZin – 14.5% alcohol and all, culled from 40 to 100 year old vines yet retailing for less than $20.

Hilary Clarke (left) of Harrison-Clarke Vineyard (grenache & syrahs to die for) at 2011 HdR
Insofar as the premise that consumers are confused by variations of syrah styles: that seems implausible, since syrah as a wine varies no more – and in fact, considerably less – than varietal wines of perennial popularity, like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and zinfandel. Consumers aren’t that dumb.

Is the perceived indifference due to the facts that many syrahs are overripe, too high in alcohol, or just not very good? The problem with those assumptions: whether moderate or high in alcohol, sweetly fruited or moderately fruited, the quality of syrahs grown outside the Northern Rhône continues to rise rather than falter – as you would expect in a situation where producers continuously improve in skill and experience – and anyone who says otherwise probably has a hole in the head rather than a palate. In any case, refined, multi-faceted syrahs like the '08 Baker Lane make a mockery of the current preoccupation with alcohol: surely, one of the dumbest non-issues going down today.

As a matter of fact, the 2011 Hospice du Rhône was also a great opportunity to compare French grown syrahs with American ones, as there were over 90 producers or importers representing the Rhône (Northern and Southern) pouring alongside some 130 American producers. What true blue syrah lover doesn’t enjoy a good Cornas? No doubt, HdR traditionalists enjoyed the earthy, brothy, pungently gamey 2008 Clape Renaissance Cornas, whereas I was duly impressed by the less fecal-like, flinty, muscular, marvelously compact and black pepper inundated 2007 Alain Voge Les Vieilles Vignes Cornas.

Clos Selene's Selene & Guillaume Fabre
But honestly: could anyone with half a working nose and palate really step back and say that what we are tasting from France these days is still truly head and shoulders “better” or “preferable” to one of now many American grown syrahs of reasonable quality – like the precise and peppery spiced 2006 Alban Reva Alban Estate Edna Valley Syrah, the decidedly rambunctious, deep, ponderous 2009 McPrice Myers Les Galets Arroyo Grande Valley Syrah, or the dramatically high toned, framboise and licorice laced 2009 Clos Selene Hommage à nos Pairs Paso Robles Syrah? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so.

On the other hand, one interesting observation made by a Frenchman – Michel Gassier of Château de Nages in Costières de Nîmes (where blends of grenache, carignane, mourvèdre and syrah rule the roost) – in a HdR seminar sponsored by the trade council, Côtes du Rhônes Wines, was that young vignerons tend to “start off with a primal scream... you want to produce wines that are too ripe and too extracted, and you think too much of a good thing is a good thing.” Only when a winegrower matures does he begin to understand terroir – “accepting some truths that cannot be explained” – until he reaches a third stage, what Gassier calls “an age of reason... when you view things holistically and are more open to change, and finally begin to make wines from grapes grown in harmony and balance with the environment.”

That final phase, according to Gassier, often entails the embracing of organic or Biodynamic® practices, although this is less important than simply developing a thought process engendering wines of more “soul,” reflecting a “a partnership of terroir and winemaker.”

Gassier’s comments became all the more insightful during the HdR seminar following immediately after, called Find Your Mojo, showcasing the syrahs of two American brands of some prestige (especially among the 100 point score circuit), Santa Barbara’s Tensely Wines and Sonoma’s Bedrock Wine Co.: syrahs, as it were, that generally seemed over-extracted, obsessively black and heavy, tilted more towards ultra-ripe fruit and sweet spices derived from oak as opposed to subtleties of texture and varietal character. That is to say: not all the American wines at HdR were impressive in comparison to the French. To a large extent, there is still a lot of immature winemaking going on in the U.S.

Tardieu-Laurent's Bastien Tardieu
The following week in San Francisco, I had a conversation with Bastien Tardieu, the 27 year old son of Michel Tardieu of Tardieu-Laurent, one of the Rhône Valley’s more acclaimed négociants. Having completed his Master’s of Oenology and Viticulture in Montpellier not too long ago, you would think Tardieu to be yet another vintner going through his phase of “primal screaming,” but in fact, wines like the exceedingly elegant, violet and wild mint scented 2007 Tardieu-Laurent Cornas and the only slightly rustique, fleshy yet fragrant and multi-faceted 2008 Tardieu-Laurent Vieilles Vignes Gigondas (grenache with 15% syrah) give a decidedly opposite impression: winegrowing far more obsessed with interplay of man, grape and terroir, rather than extraction or the almighty 100 point score.

When asked how effective it might be to grow syrah in warmer climates, like the Barossa Valley (he has worked at Torbreck), California, and the Southern Rhône Valley, Tardieu opined: “yes, you can grow syrah in warmer climates, but it is still a question of balance. I prefer syrah grown in the Northern Rhône where the climate is cooler because there you get a wine that is finer, with more violet, more licorice, and more minerals like silex – the taste of two stones scratching together. In places like Châteauneuf du Pape and the Barossa Valley, we can get the jammy taste that is common to warm regions, but we completely miss all the aromatic complexity we get in the Northern Rhône – the characteristics that make syrah syrah.”

I found Tardieu’s thoughts to be all the more intriguing because in between HdR and our meeting in San Francisco, I also sat for a Cold Climate Syrah Seminar taking place at Spring Hill Ranch, located in the middle of the Sonoma Coast’s Petaluma Gap. There, along with 40 sommeliers gathered from around the country, we tasted 8 syrahs grown in cooler sections of California’s North Coast; where syrah grapes picked closer to 22° rather than 25° Brix is a norm (resulting in potential alcohols closer to 12% rather than 15%).

Eric Sussman, Ehren Jordan & Carroll Kemp pouring syrahs for sommeliers

One of the presenters during this cold climate summit was Carroll Kemp, winemaker/partner of Red Car, whose Sonoma Coast syrah had wowed me a few days earlier in Paso Robles. According to Kemp, “the style of syrah popularized in previous years is the antithesis of the styles of syrahs now coming from marginal sites along the Sonoma Coast.” Failla’s Ehren Jordan added the point that “many people have a distorted view of syrah, especially from Northern Rhône. I found out fairly quickly, after moving there to work earlier in my career, that ‘roasted slope’ does not mean 90° or 100° temperatures like it does it California. It means more like 80° at the most, and I’m still wearing sweaters in the middle of the summer. If you pick at 21.5° Brix in Cornas, it’s the ‘vintage of the decade!’”

As it were, the unanimous favorite among the sommeliers seemed to be Jordan’s 2009 Failla Sonoma Coast Estate Syrah – hugely, lusciously concentrated with wild blackberry and exotic tea spices and undertones of wild scrubby herbs, yet as lithe and compact as a Nadia Comaneci. Also in this limber, un-Sprockets style: the 2008 Wind Gap Sonoma Coast Syrah portrays the flowery side of the grape, with a cassis-like silkiness and suggestions of caramelized game and blueberry; and the 2008 Arnot-Roberts Clary Ranch Sonoma Coast Syrah is super spiced and perfumed, with mildly feral and sandalwood spice nuances.

Failla's Ehren Jordan
In this tasting in Sonoma, winemaker Stephen Singer reprised his finely balanced 2008 Baker Lane Sonoma Coast Estate Syrah, with its densely sweet concentration of violet, black/red berry fruit, and, earthy, brushy undertones, hinting at the sauvage typical of wines resulting from wild yeast ferments fostered in cool climate microbiology. There was also extravagantly spiced (cracked pepper, sandalwood, evergreen), if somewhat toasted oak lavished, 2007 Ramey Rodgers Creek Sonoma Coast Syrah; and Eric Sussman showed off his woodsy, tightly wound, savory 2007 Radio-Coteau Camp Cherry Sonoma Coast Syrah.

Ah, but is this the future of American syrah? Personally, I would withhold judgement; especially if you have yet to encounter some of the more fascinating growths of Southern Oregon; like the elegantly scaled, sweetly violet scented 2008 Cowhorn Reserve Applegate Valley Syrah (also Biodynamic® certified). Or better yet: the flowery, raspberry, flint, lavender and rosemary scented 2009 Quady North Steelhead Run Applegate Valley Syrah, draped in swaths of velvet; or the grandly full, judiciously savage and purple mountained 2008 RoxyAnn Rogue Valley Syrah.

The experience of grandly rendered syrahs is not nearly as rare as you may think, and exhilarating examples are being grown in new and different ways outside the Rhône Valley. As to which are the most legitimate: it’s become clearer by the day that saying Sonoma Coast or Southern Oregon grow syrahs of greater validity than Paso Robles or Santa Barbara is as foolish as saying the only great Northern Rhônes are those of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage and not Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage or Saint-Joseph.

The sooner the better, when we can all learn to appreciate terroir related qualities; not ones differentiated by artifice or concepts as inane or useless as numerical scores.

Cowboy at Paso Robles fairgrounds