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Randy Caparoso's Culinary Wine & Food Matching is everything you wanted to know about wine in the context of food, sans the usual gibberish and vague generalities.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

When it comes to top Pinot Noir, terroir trumps varietal valuation

I was contemplating a 2013 Failla Pinot Noir from Occidental Ridge Vineyard (Sonoma Coast) at the most recent World of Pinot Noir – a yearly two-day event that took place in Santa Barbara this past March 2015.  The Failla’s color was a deep, vivid, almost blue-tinged red, and the nose was gushy with strawberry-like varietal fruit, infused with whiffs of woodsy forest floor.  Tannin and flavors seem appropriately aggressive, considering the nose and the wine’s youth, but seemed to plop like a dead weight on the palate, like an over-floured gnocchi kneaded by a clumsy novice cook.

As Dylan once sang, I’ve been through this movie before... with this particular wine tasted right out of the gate, which can come across as gawky, one-dimensional, or slutty to an uncomfortable point of artificiality  – like a pretty girl in unnecessary makeup.  The question was:  Why can’t Failla’s Occidental be a little finer, limber, more lifted and delineated in its woodsy, strawberry perfumed intensity – qualities I found abundant in, for example, the 2012 Baxter Pinot Noir from Mendocino Ridge’s Valenti Vineyard that I had tasted moments before?

The answer struck me – not then and there, but hours later after tasting nearly 100 more Pinot Noirs, as I was organizing my thoughts on the “best” wines tasted that day.  A young Failla Occidental Ridge can’t be as “fine” as a Baxter Valenti because it’s grown in a deep, foggy pocket of Sonoma encircled by lush stand of evergreens; whereas the Valenti is high up on a Mendocino ridgetop, also surrounded by woods but well above the clouds.  Different strokes, different Pinots.

No matter what, a young Failla Occidental Ridge naturally comes out rambunctious, whereas a Baxter Valenti is well heeled from the get-go.  Heck, it’s not even so much a question of age – it’s fundamentally ingrained, like DNA, in the wines themselves.

Of course, we could, and should, trot out the T word – terroir – to explain this simple concept of Nature-compelled differentiation.  So let’s just say it:  terroir should always trump varietal character (or, for that matter, elusive notions like “balance,” which many confuse with scale these days) when evaluating top-flight Pinot Noir.

For many of us in the wine trade, the overwhelming compulsion, when tasting dozens or over 100 wines in a day, is to evaluate wines in terms of varietal character rather than terroir or origin.  This Pinot Noir tastes fat, fruity and clumsy, whereas that Pinot Noir is zestier, more delicate, and less obviously fruited.  We don’t do this so much when we compare Burgundies or Bordeaux; because the French make it easier for us by reminding us from the get-go that we’re tasting regions and vineyards, not varietal categories.

I, for one, still find myself wrestling with that compulsion, as cognizant as I am of it.  On the first day of this year’s World of Pinot Noir I actually “marked down” (although I don’t do scores) a 2012 Merry Edwards Meredith Estate, thinking its strawberry/raspberry concentration too blatant, ripe and preponderant; until I reminded myself that I’m tasting Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, not one from McMinnville, Central Otago or Mendocino Ridge.

I found that forcing an open mind even allowed me to better appreciate wines that I previously found weak or wanting – like the 2012 Adelaida from Paso Robles.  On paper, the thought of Paso Robles Pinot Noir seems ludicrous – it’s too darned hot there.  But when you consider the fact that Adelaida’s Pinot Noir is crafted from historic 50-year old vines (some of the oldest in the state, originally part of the old Hoffman Mountain Ranch, where Andre Tchelistcheff famously consulted) on limestone slopes at about a 1,700-ft. elevation, then the wine’s dull, faded nose suddenly turns into a gentle, subtle, intoxicating bucket of wild cherries, and its scrawny frame suddenly tastes sleek, zesty, sexy.  It may be all in the mind, but then again, pleasure is always a perception.

No doubt, an Adelaida Pinot Noir, or even an unevolved Failla Occidental Ridge, might get “destroyed” in a competitive double-blind tasting (the whole idea of wine "competitions" suddenly sounds stupid), when we line them all up and let the chips fall.  What a shame.  Because when you taste terroir driven wines within their own context – like we do, in fact, when we taste French crus or châteaux – then it’s amazing how bright and diverse the wine world turns out to be.

Cotiere winemaker Kevin Law

That said, my favorite Pinot Noirs at the 2015 World of Pinot Noir were varied, in the spirit of terroir-cracy; and as always, personal – anyone who can’t acknowledge that whim, time of month or time of season, mood, atmospheric pressure or even BD calendaring (whether we’re aware of it or not) has an effect on choices is just kidding him- or herself.

I was especially impressed by the latest set of wines by winemaker Kevin Law under the Cotiere Winery label (formerly called Luminesce – same outfit, just a name change for legal purposes).  I’ve never had a problem coming up with descriptors for any wine, but all I could think of was “exquisite” to describe the seamless, silky texturing and brilliant, fragrant perfumes emanating from the 2012 Cotiere Pinot Noirs from Presqui’le Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley) and Laetitia Vineyard (Arroyo Grande Valley).  I don’t know which I like better – although coming from two different regions, both are fashioned in a more petite, feminine, finesseful style that I’ve always been sucker for.

Another stand-out for me was the 2012 MacPhail Family Mardikian Estate; from a vineyard planted in one of the coldest corners of Sonoma Coast by owner/winemaker James MacPhail with the help of crack viticulturists Jim Pratt and Sander Scheer.  The Mardikian Pinot Noir is deep, meaty and full-structured in the MacPhail signature style, but amazingly fine, balanced, baby-bright and exuberant at the same time.  This winemaker/vineyard interaction reminds me of when Lennon met McCartney – a brazen edginess collides with melodic sweetness, resulting in some phenomenal music. 

MacPhail Family's Mardikian Estate

Incidentally, the 2012 MacPhail Family Pinot Noirs from Sangiacomo Vineyard (Sonoma Coast; powerful organic earth qualities underlying exuberant, strawberryish varietal purity) and Gap’s Crown (also Sonoma Coast; fleshy, sonorous sensations) – always a fascinating comparison of Petaluma Gap plantings, one perched on the west facing slope of Sonoma Mountain, and the other on a cobbled, ancient riverbed at the bottom of that same slope – were also tasting as great as ever.

It was also gratifying to find the 2013 Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards (Sonoma Coast) tasting so fantastic (how’s that for a descriptor... too plebeian?... see if I care).  But when you taste a 100 Pinot Noirs in a row, and find one in the middle that just seems to leap from the glass with an hallelujah chorus of fragrances, and then caress you with perky, prickly, silky, intoxicating sensations, what can you say?

I felt similar vinous unholiness when I tasted the 2012 Wayfarer Vineyard (Fort Ross-Seaview).  Unlike all the other growths mentioned so far, I have never visited Wayfarer, and so I’m not prejudiced by that personal familiarity – this is simply a fine, penetrating, gracefully layered and elongated Pinot Noir, epitomizing what we used to call the “true Sonoma Coast” style.

Phil Baxter at 2015 World of Pinot Noir

From Santa Barbara, I found two more epiphanies in the 2011 Flying Goat Cellars Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard (Sta. Rita Hills) and 2013 Gypsy Canyon (Sta. Rita Hills).  Again, I’m compelled by Pinots that exhibit longer-than-average length carried by pincushion acidity and meaty flavor/tannin phenolics – effusive varietal aroma really isn’t an issue with the majority of top Pinot Noirs these days – and these two bottlings had “it.”

You don’t really go to World of Pinot Noir to catch up on all the latest Willamette Valley bottlings, but there was some representation.  Out of those, I was most impressed by the gentle yet snappy, brightly scented 2011 Ann Amie Vineyards (Yamhill-Carlton).  In a similar vein, the 2012 Witching Stick Dowser's Cuvé(Anderson Valley) blends two vineyards in Anderson Valley and two in Mendocino Ridge; turning out lighter weight, acid driven, full of the upbeat, floral raspberry/cherry character I've always associated more with Willamette Valley than anywhere in California.  Not that a California Pinot should ever taste Oregonian, but to me it's a positive, and not entirely inappropriate for cooler climate pockets of Mendocino.

I could go on – every year Pinot Noir just seems to get better and better – but I won’t.  Suffice to say, it was a good weekend; not so much because of the plethora of fabulous wines as the joy of seeing more and more of them tasting less like “winemaker’s art” and more like the places from where they come.  American Pinot Noir may finally be growing up!

MacPhail Family's James and Kerry MacPhail

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

What a wine lover really wants

Author as a burgeoning sommelier (1982)

Is there a new American wine?

In an 2014 piece published in The Washington Post, longtime industry observer Dave McIntyre projected the evolution of what he calls “the new American wine,” strongly influenced by steadily growing consumer interest in wines grown and produced in states other than California (i.e. the “drink local” mantra), where the sun so easily engenders such rich, full bodied wines.  Writes McIntyre:

What does the new American wine taste like?  Because so much of it is coming from outside California (although the Golden State still dominates every statistical analysis of U.S. wine production), the wines are less ripe and alcoholic, combining a European sense of balance with American flair.  They might use unusual grape varieties, such as Petit Manseng or Chardonel, as vintners discover which vines grow best where.  Grape varieties could become less important as winemakers focus more on expressing the voice of their vineyards, often with blends that don’t follow traditional wine paradigms.  The new American wine is a wine of place, proud of where it comes from and proud of its diversity.

As for California wines, McIntyre adds:

These trends are happening inside California as well... we will hear more about moderating alcohol levels as winemakers, such as those in In Pursuit of Balance and other groups, redefine ripeness.  The sledgehammer wines with 15% alcohol might not be extinct, but their heyday has passed.

Artist Kathy Womack's depiction of today's wine lovers

Is the heyday of big alcohol wines – like big hair, or big fins on cars – coming to pass, or is this simply another case of a journalist closing his eyes and tapping his heels three times to wish something along?

When I started in the business in 1978, almost all wines were finished at about 12% alcohol (or 13%, if you really wanted to go wild).  Anything near 14% was considered weird, a freak of nature.  Most California red wines were aged in tree-sized redwood vats until their varietal fruit qualities were smoothed (or dried) out, and virtually no white wines saw aging in small “center of France” oak barrels.  Yet this was just the thing for grandpa and grandma, happily consuming these low-key wines by the gallon-jug from stubby glasses, or that restaurants served by the 1-liter “carafe” day and night.

The reason why Californians, in particular, were producing less ripe, lower alcohol style wines prior to the 1980s was because in those days they didn’t have better ways of doing it:   trellising and viticultural practices of the past made it difficult to grow grapes beyond 22° or 22.5° Brix (sugar levels that convert to just 12% to 13% alcohol and, thus, diminished fruit expression).  It wasn’t so much a style choice as an only choice.

Yet McIntyre makes a good point about the increased exposure to European wines influencing contemporary Americans’ taste in wine.  The European model is generally lighter and leaner – closer to the 12% alcohol and low emphasis on fruit that suited grandma and grandpa just fine – which is why it’s always such a shock when you find the occasional European imports made in softer, heavier, fruitier, woodier styles just to please us dumb Americans.

Optimal consumer segment:  female, early to mid-30s.

But let’s face it:  the reason why 14% alcohol wines are considered light by today’s standards, and why ultra-ripe, oaky styles have became so popular in recent years, was not only because viticultural and winemaking improvements made it possible, but also because consumers (not to mention 100-point critics) have liked them that way. Wine drinkers are like voters:  we like our big mouthed, obnoxious, even dim witted politicians, and continuously complain once we put them in office.

Still, today’s producers are always feeling the pressure to produce wines that fit the 100-point media’s criteria for what constitutes “good wine,” since media response is very much a part of the sales process.  But this does not keep consumer tastes from forever being in a state of flux.  Consumer tastes are constantly evolving, with or without media input.

Change is inevitable – it’s just that it’s never overnight, and there is always segments of the  wine consuming public that have to be dragged along kicking and screaming.  For years now, much of the public has been deriding the fat, fruity styles of California Chardonnay, but it’s not as if the cougars enjoying these wines will suddenly go extinct.  Many of them will continue to demand their butterball Chardonnays the same way that Aunt Gladys clings to her White Zinfandel, or the way Uncle Bob is perpetually suckered into his over-priced, over-hyped Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that he does more looking at in his cellar rather than actually drinking.

But time is a bitch in that it never, ever quits.  We all need time to gravitate to lower key sensations:  to think of lightness as a quality rather than flaw; to appreciate sharpness instead of softness, earth and minerals instead of tropical fruitiness, and subtle, barely noticeable complexity rather than obvious, brutal intensity.  But eventually we come around to that because moderation and subtlety is closer to the style of more timeless classics – that is, wines consumed in countries with a far longer history of appreciating wine.

A “new American wine” is on its way.  It’s just a matter of waiting for it, and...

Ancient Lodi vines:  strong sense of place

The final step:  appreciation of wines’ sense of place

The best wines in the world have always been defined primarily by how distinctly they taste of where they come from.  This is why, after centuries of winegrowing culture, all of the official quality classification systems in Europe are based upon identification and regulation of regions, sub-regions, and vineyards – not so much grapes, brands, producers, winemaking standards, etc.

How far along is the American wine industry on this path?  Honestly, not very far.  Most consumers, as well as industry movers and shakers, still define the quality of American wines primarily in terms of “varietal character,” or sheer intensity of fruitiness.  When it comes to wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, it is all too obvious that the more oak flavor in a wine the better.  Industry pundits even use the expression “200% new oak” – use of new oak barrels plus extra oak amendments during fermentation and élevage – to describe what is necessary to score 95 points or higher.

100-point score systems clearly exacerbate this misappropriation.  No matter how you slice it, assigning numbers to wine is an infantile way of looking at it.  There is no objectivity, but in this world you voluntarily suspend rational disbelief.  If wine critics were beauty pageant judges, they would be judging strictly on the size and perception of breasts.  But that’s okay, because most Americans (including media and trade) are still babies when it comes to subtlety or sophistication.  You have to start somewhere; and besides, babies are cute, aren’t they?

Still, we’ve come a long ways:  40, 50 years ago the vast majority of American wine drinkers were consuming generic wines like “Burgundy,” “Chablis,” and “Vin Rosé.”  Appreciation of varietal wines – at first, wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, then Chardonnay and White Zinfandel, progressing later to Merlot, Pinot Noir, red Zinfandel, Syrah/Shiraz, and most recently, “new” (although ancient in Europe) varietals like Tempranillo, Albariño, Verdelho, Sangiovese, and Grüner Veltliner – has really been a fairly recent development for most American consumers, but still a major step in the right direction.

Barrel topping in Halter Ranch Vineyard, Paso Robles

Appreciation of brands, winery styles, and even individual artisanal winemakers, has also been part of the evolution, but the next step is appreciation of wines in the way of the oldest winegrowing region in the world:  in terms of sense of place first – how well and distinctly they express where they are grown in real, tangible sensations – and only after that, appreciation of producers, and arbitrary notions like “varietal character” or “brand” styles.  That’s the natural order of things.

The finest wines have always been, basically, agricultural products.  They may be manufactured to some degree, since humans have a direct hand in the viticulture and science of the winemaking process.  But ultimately, both quality and appreciation are determined by characteristics derived from natural conditions within given regions and vineyards, down to smaller blocks of vines and individual plants, on this particular pocket of soil, exposure or climatic corner.  This is when fine wine really gets interesting – when Nature is given the final say on what you get in the bottle.

There are already, of course, tons of American wine lovers who are into that. They are enjoying American wines the way classic European wines have always been enjoyed (not, mind you, the modern day European wines that also employ 200% new oak to kiss up to the critics).  It’s only a matter of time before significant chunks of more wine lovers go for that, too.  And when that happens, most American wine producers will feel less compelled to produce wines kowtowing to 100-point critics (and maybe, just maybe, even the critics will develop more sophisticated tastes).  Praise the lord, and pass the bottle.

True-blue, crazy-about-wine consumers, after all, aren’t exactly stupid.  They’re just doing what they’re supposed to be doing – continuously learning, and expanding their horizons – along with our nation’s growers and producers.  For me – after all these years in the business of tasting, buying, selling, and writing about wine – the process is still an exciting one, and gets better by the day!

Millennials:  the face of future and present-day wine consumers

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The 2015 ZAP Experience: Is Zinfandel the new noir?

ZAP Sommelier & Winemaker Workshop speakers:  Matt Cline (Three Wine Company); Randy Caparoso (The SOMM Journal); Tegan Passalacqua (Turley Wine Cellars); Jamie Harding (Cavallo Point Lodge)

This past January 28-31, Zinfandel Advocates &Producers (a.k.a. ZAP) held its 24th full-scale “Experience” in San Francisco’s Presidio.  ZAP 2015’s theme:  Zinfandel is a rising star... reach out and grab it.

Zinfandel, of course, is not exactly a “rising” star.  It has been a major varietal since producers such as Ridge in the sixties and seventies, Ravenswood and Rosenblum in the eighties, and Robert Biale and Turley in the nineties began leading the way; fueling consumer mania for the grape’s more obvious features, such as big, lush, jammy fruitiness.

At the same time, Zinfandel producers have always been acutely aware that Zinfandel has never really caught on with the on-premise trade – particularly sommeliers in high-end restaurants, hotels and resorts. 

In turn, much of the on-premise trade has never made any bones about its perception of the category’s shortcomings over the past twenty years:  particularly the fact that most commercial Zinfandels almost seem to be crafted for lowest-common-denominator tastes.  Measured by girth rather than balance, Zinfandel tends to be over-oaked, overripe, often annoyingly sweet and rarely capable of expressing subtleties of terroir or origin.  

Zinfandel, in other words, usually ends up tasting too much like “Zinfandel”:  defined by trendish conceptions of “varietal character,” almost always at the expense of sense of place – a tragedy, considering the historical nature and complexity of field mixes common to so many ancient vine plantings.  The entire premise of ZAP, after all, is that Zinfandel is America’s heritage grape – to be treasured, and preserved.  I’m there, and not only that:  from experience, I know that Zinfandel is probably the most food-versatile red wine in the world (take that, Barbera and Pinot Noir).

ZAP Media & Trade Panelists:  Tim Fish (Wine Spectator); Lulu McAllister (NOPA); Wilfred Wong (; Randy Caproso (SOMM Journal)

But if you’re still not understanding why I can be such a cheerleader and, at the same time, critical of the varietal, let me put it this way:  how many Zinfandel specialists do you know produce multiple bottlings of single vineyard designated wines, which all taste the same?  

That’s what drives me nuts about even the finest Zinfandels.  All too many of them are crafted with an obsessive need to achieve a numbing uniformity of “varietal character,” usually with a heavy-handed dose of some kind of predictable “house style” (using the same yeasts, the same enzymes, the same re-hydration formulas, the same alcohol, pH and T.A. levels, the same oak dust and barrel regimes, ad infinitum).

I don’t care what a super-duper, revered Zinfandel specialist may say:  a Zinfandel made from a 100-year old vineyard from one vineyard or region should not be barely distinguishable from a Zinfandel sourced from another 100-year old vineyard from a different vineyard or region.  Hey, I get the importance of branding; but it’s a damned shame when “style” runs roughshod over terroir related distinctions.

Hence, ZAP’s “rising star” mantra at the 2015 Experience in San Francisco may, in fact, be very apropos.  As popular and as good as it can be, Zinfandel still has a ways to go towards “grabbing” the attention and respect of certain members of the trade.  Call fussbudgety sommeliers (or speaking for myself, sommeliers-turned-journalists) what you will, but I think we have a beef.

But not with all Zinfandels, of course.  There has been a very positive, growing movement afoot during the past few years, which has really been turning sommeliers on.  Those sommeliers, that is to say, who haven’t remained stubbornly close-minded about Zinfandel.  It will take a while before many of them become aware of what Christopher Sawyer – the former wine director of Sonoma’s Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar – shared with me following this year’s ZAP.  

According to Sawyer, “The 2015 ZAP may represent a huge awakening for people who thought all Zinfandels were big, sweet, and high in alcohol.  Instead, we’re starting to see a paradigm shift towards a new breed of young, adventurous winemakers who are putting more emphasis on elegance and food-friendliness – especially those working with ancient, heritage plantings from less familiar regions, such as LodiEl DoradoMendocinoLake, and Contra Costa counties.”

In my capacity as The SOMM Journal Editor-at-Large, I participated at the 2015 ZAP as organizer and moderator of a panel discussion/tasting strictly for an audience of media and trade on Wednesday, January 28.  Our panel, and the wines presented:

Randy Caparoso (The SOMM Journal)
2013 Lodi Native, Stampede Vineyard Zinfandel, Clements Hills-Lodi (Fields Family Wines)
2012 Lodi Native, TruLux Vineyard Zinfandel, Lodi (McCay Cellars)

2012 Turley Wine Cellars, Pesenti Vineyard Zinfandel, Paso Robles
2012 Hartford Family Winery, Fanucchi-Wood Road Zinfandel, Russian River Valley

Lulu McAllister (NOPA San Francisco Restaurant
2013 Bedrock Wine Company, Evangelho Vineyard, Contra Costa (Zinfandel/Carignan/Mataro/Alicante Bouschet/Palomino)
2012 Ridge Vineyards, Geyserville, Sonoma County (Zinfandel/Carignan/Petite Sirah/Mataro/Alicante Bouschet)

Wilfred Wong (
2013 Cline Cellars, Ancient Vine Zinfandel, Contra Costa
2012 Ravenswood Winery, Dickerson Vineyard Zinfandel, Napa Valley

ZAP Media & Trade Panel Zinfandels

Then on Saturday, January 31, I hosted multiple sommelier/winemaker workshops, focused on terroir related qualities distinguishing Zinfandels from lesser known regions (namely Contra Costa, Lake County, the Lodi, Mendocino and Rockpile AVAs, and the Sierra Foothills AVA’s Calaveras and El Dorado regions).  Our speakers and wines:

LODI AVA - Randy Caparoso (The SOMM Journal)
Tim Holdener (Lodi Native & Macchia Wines)
2012 Lodi Native, Noma Ranch Lodi Zinfandel
2012 Macchia, Outrageous Noma Ranch Lodi Zinfandel
Layne Montgomery (Lodi Native & m2 Wines)
2012 Lodi Native, Soucie Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel
2012 m2, Soucie Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel
2012 m2, Select Block Soucie Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel

CALAVERAS COUNTY & EL DORADO AVA - Tracey Berkner (Restaurant Taste, Plymouth)
Scott Klann (Newsome-Harlow Wines
2012 Newsome-Harlow, Donner Party Calaveras Zinfandel
Jonathan Lachs (Cedarville Vineyard)
2012 Cedarville, Estate Bottled El Dorado Zinfandel
Steve Milliere (Milliaire Winery)
2011 Milliaire, Calaveras Zinfanndel
2011 Milliaire, Heritage Old Vine Ghirardelli Calaveras Zinfandel

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY - Jamie Harding (Cavallo Point Lodge, Sausalito)
Matt Cline (Three Wine Company)
2012 Three Wine Company, Live Oak Contra Costa Zinfandel
Tegan Passalacqua (Turley Wine Cellars)
2012 Turley Wine Cellars, Salvador Vineyard Contra Costa Zinfandel

LAKE COUNTY & MENDOCINO AVA - Christopher Sawyer (Sawyer Sommelier Consulting)
Andy Pestoni (Jelly Jar Wines)
2012, Jelly Jar, Lake County Zinfandel
Rich Parducci (McNab Ridge Winery)
2012 McNab Ridge, Cononiah Vineyard Mendocino Zinfandel
2012 McNab Ridge, Family Reserve Mendocino Zinfandel

ROCKPILE AVA - David Glancy MS (San Francisco WineSchool)
Jeff Cohn (Jeff Cohn Cellars)
2011 Jeff Cohn, Botticelli Rockpile Vineyard Rockpile Zinfandel
2012 Jeff Cohn, Botticelli Rockpile vineyard Rockpile Zinfandel
Clay Mauritson (Mauritson Family Winery)
2011 Mauritson, Rockpile Ridge Rockpile Zinfandel
2012 Mauritson, Rockpile Ridge Rockpile Zinfandel

The question that I dangled throughout the course of both events:  how close is Zinfandel coming to being simpatico with, say, the needs of sommeliers, or any wine lover expecting more from the category than simple, brutal varietal character?

Lulu McAllister, wine director at San Francisco's cutting-edge NOPA restaurant, also addressed the trade and media with Wong, seconding his emotion regarding Zinfandel’s role on the table.  According to McAllister, “I have Zinfandels on my list with the structure to handle pork chops and lightness to match fish and vegetable dishes.  I think it’s the fact that many of the best Zinfandels come from ancient, field crushed plantings – vineyards mixed with CarignanPetite SirahMataroAlicante Bouschet and other grapes – that is giving us all the more reason to highlight it in the restaurant.”

Wilfred Wong – a beloved San Francisco based retail merchandiser, now employed by as “Chief Storyteller” – sat on the trade and media panel, and had this to say:  “I happen to believe that Zinfandel is still on the rise, after four decades of tremendous growth.  For the restaurant trade, it has always been one of the most food versatile varietals out there, and most recently producers have been finding a sweet spot between power and balance.  Many of the wines tasted at this year’s ZAP events showed incredible finesse, proving that Zinfandel can appeal to more sophisticated tastes.”

Sommelier/Winemaker Terroir Workshop:  David Glancy MS (San Francisco Wine School), Jeff Cohn (Jeff Cohn Wines) and Clay Mauritson (Mauritson Family Winery) presenting Rockpile AVA Zinfandels

Inevitably there are sobering nays mixed in with optimistic yays.  Ron Washam, well known in the blogosphere as the HoseMaster of Wine, has worked with Zinfandel as a full-time sommelier for over thirty years in the L.A. area, before recently putting himself “out to pasture” in Sonoma County.  With his imitable phraseology, Washam tells us, “Every six or seven years some writer has declared ‘Zinfandel is about to break out.'  Zinfandel has seen so many outbreaks, it's the measles of wine varieties.”

Adds Washam, “I did walk away from ZAP thinking that there are fewer Turley impersonators than there were a few years ago, including Turley.  One of the prettiest Zinfandels I tasted was the 2013 Turley Vineyard 101 – nothing resembling the brutish Turleys of yesteryears.  Overall, I found a lot more Zinfandels that seemed focused on pretty varietal aromatics, and fewer that smelled like they should have that pretty Sun-Maid lady on the label.  I think that will ultimately serve the varietal well.”

Jamie Harding, the wine director at Sausalito’s Cavallo Point Lodge, cites experimental projects like Lodi Native, which focuses on native yeast fermented Zinfandels aged strictly in neutral oak in order to craft delicate, perfumed, almost Pinot Noir-like styles.  Says Harding, “projects like Lodi Native are only going to help producers find Zinfandel’s true expression – the grape seems capable of a lot more nuance and structure than what most people expect.”

Robert Volz of Portland’s pour wine bar & bistro tells us, “I traveled all the way from Oregon to attend ZAP because Zinfandel is my second-favorite grape, after Pinot Noir.”  Like Harding, Volz was struck by the Lodi Native Zinfandels, in which he found “lower alcohol levels and higher organic elements, much like the earthy aspects of a Burgundian or Oregon Pinot Noir.”

Full disclosure:  yes, I live in Lodi and have advised on the Lodi Native project.  But in every presentation to journalists, buyers or sommeliers, I have never suggested that they have to like the wines.  Lords knows, wine professionals make up their own minds, and so far the reaction to the Lodi Native Zinfandels has been overwhelmingly positive.  They get the beauty of lighter, naked Zinfandels.

Still, when all is said and done, Mr. Washam remains skeptical:  “Will the sommeliers of the world go retro and suddenly decide Zinfandel is the Next Big Deal?  I have my doubts.  Restraint may be the trend right now, but I have the feeling that the big fruit bombs of the past will make their inevitable comeback.  Hey, I love Zinfandel, always have – I just don’t think it has to be the next Pinot Noir.  It should be fine being ‘good ol' Zin!’”

Sommelier/Winemaker Workshop:  Andy Pestoni (Jelly Jar Wines, Chris Sawyer (Sawyer Sommelier Consulting) and Rich McNab (McNab Ridge Winery) presenting Lake County and Mendocino AVA Zinfandels

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