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PinotFest 2019: Reviews and an Appreciation

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You can take the boy out of the wine critic business, but you can’t take wine criticism out of the boy…or something like that. All of which is to say that, although I’ve been happily retired for years, I still love wine tasting. It’s given me pleasure since the 1970s; why stop now?

PinotFest is a big event in San Francisco, especially since In Pursuit of Balance went out of business. It’s the annual Pinot Noir tasting, held at Farallon Restaurant, to benefit The Watershed Project, which seeks to protect the vulnerable, fragile watersheds of the Bay Area. So you not only get to taste some terrific Pinot Noirs, you also help the environment! (And thanks to Peter Palmer for always inviting me.)

One thing that’s so much fun about tasting wine is to experience how different two wines can be even when they’re grown in close physical proximity. For example, the Byron 2014 Julia’s Vineyard (94 points) and the Foxen 2016 Bien Nacido Vineyard Block 8 (92 points) were grown within about 400 yards of each other; both vineyards are on the Santa Maria Bench. And yet the wines are utterly different: the Foxen big, dark, ripe and juicy, loaded with fruit, while the Julia’s is pale in color, delicate and pure, with a tea slant to the fruit. Granted, the Byron is two years older, and the clones and vine age are different. But Bien Nacido Pinots always show this power, while Julia’s tends towards elegance. Incidentally, Foxen’s co-owner, Dick Doré, was doing the pouring honors. Great to see him looking so good.

At the same time, the Foxen 2016 Julia’s (93 points) was very close in style to the Byron ’14: pale-colored and delicate, with tea, spice and raspberry flavors. It gave me great pleasure to see these two Julias drinking so well, as that was a vineyard I was fond of even before I went to work for Jackson Family Wines. During my tenure there, I spent a lot of time in the vineyard, and watched the Jackson team work very hard to refurbish the Julia’s Pinot Noirs (which had been selling for very inexpensive prices) and boost the quality. It was crazy to name an under-$20 Pinot Noir for Jess Jackson’s and Barbara Banke’s daughter, Julia; surely that wine deserved more attention and a higher price, both of which it now has. Julia—a lovely person, who recently lost her home in the Kincade Fire—must be proud to see her namesake wines doing so well.

It also was lovely to have Byron’s winemaker, Jonathan Nagy, pour for me. I got to know Jonathan well while I worked for the Jacksons, and you couldn’t ask for a nicer man, as well as a more accomplished winemaker. He poured me the Byron 2012 Monument Pinot Noir (93 points), from the Nielsen Vineyard, on the Santa Maria Bench hard-by Julia’s. At the age of seven years, it was really beautiful: perfectly aged, a supple, lively mouthful of Pinot Noir goodness.

A few tables down from Byron’s was Calera. Now, one of the first stories I ever was assigned when I wrote for Wine Spectator was on Calera. I remember the long drive down and up into the isolated hills above Hollister, where the owner/winemaker, Josh Jensen, did me the honors of touring and tasting. Josh and I both are older now; the first thing he told me was, “I’ve retired.” Good for you, Josh: join the club! He poured me his 2016 Jensen Vineyard (94 points), from Mount Harlan, a wonderful wine. I wrote “Shows the spice and fruit and balance of this famous vineyard, but very young. Needs time.” While I was with him, Josh had me taste his 2016 Central Coast (90 points), which retails for $29. It reminded me of the old Central Coast bottling of Ken Volk’s Wild Horse Pinot Noir (a tremendously successful restaurant wine in its day), rich, fruity and racy, with some real complexity, and a good value.

Reverting back to my Santa Barbara County theme, I wandered over to Au Bon Climat’s table, hoping to catch Jim Clendenen. Sadly, he wasn’t there, but I tasted his 2016 Bien Nacido “Historic Vineyard Collection” (95 points). I last tasted that wine in the 2010 vintage, when I gave it 96 points.

I’ve always admired ABC’s wines, and this one didn’t let me down. It somehow combined that fruity power of Bien Nacido with Jim’s ability to wring elegance and translucence out of his wines. A superb Pinot Noir that will improve with time.

Etude was there, admittedly not a Santa Barbara County winery but a famous Carneros one. I used to admire their Heirloom Pinots, even as I recognized they can be bruisers when young: thick and a little heavy, loaded with fruit. So I tried the 2016 Heirloom (90 points). Yes, it was still like that. “A bit rude,” I wrote. I’d love to try some of these Heirlooms when they’ve acquired, say, 15 years of age, but I never have and probably never will.

When I saw Kathy Joseph presiding over the Fiddlehead table, I beelined over. I have fond memories of Kathy: once, when I visited her vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, she made me a lunch of homemade tacos (I think beef, but they could have been chicken) and served one of her Pinot Noirs. It was fabulous: a perfect pairing, simple and delicious, and of course the fact that I was sitting with the winemaker, in the middle of the vineyard where the wine was made, added to the charm. Her Fiddlehead 2013 Lollopalloza, Fiddlestix Vineyard (94 points), was drinking very well, turning the age corner a little bit, but dry, crisp, subtle and complex. “Superb!” I wrote. Kathy’s 2014 Seven Twenty Eight bottling (89 points) is a sort of poor man’s Lollapalooza, a perfectly drinkable, fruity wine for drinking now.

There was a winery there I’d never heard of, Lando. They started up in 2012, the year I retired from formal reviewing and went over to Jackson Family Wines. The Lando 2017 Russian River Valley (92 points) was classic, with masses of red berries and fruits, root beer and spices, with good acidity and lots of class. The 2017 Sonoma Coast (93 points), which I believe is Petaluma Gap, appealed to me slightly more, with bright acidity and bright fruit. “Super yummy!” I wrote (that’s winespeak for delicious).

Finally, I just had to stop by Siduri’s table to pay my respects to the great Adam Lee, more white-haired than last I saw him but, hey, at least he has hair! I’d known Adam before I went to work for Jackson Family Wines, which bought Siduri in early 2015. In fact, I’d profiled Adam (and his wife, Dianna) in my 2008 book, New Classic Winemakers of California, so when Adam joined the Jackson team, I was delighted. He was pouring his 2018 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir (89 points), a blend of Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. A nice, fruity wine with some class, and easy to drink. Far better was Siduri’s 2016 John Sebastiani Vineyard Pinot Noir (92 points), from the Santa Rita Hills. “A huge wine,” I wrote, “tons of fruit. Could be more delicate, but fresh and savory.” (As I write these words, I ask myself if it’s fair to expect a “huge” wine to be “delicate,” as these terms seem oxymoronic. Maybe that’s the essence of a great wine: it combines contradictory qualities.)

Here’s to California Pinot Noir and the wonderful women and men who produce it! Salud!

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