I’ve followed Benziger’s fortunes for decades, and one thing I can say, they’re always striving to boost quality. The Benziger family began with the hugely successful Glen Ellen Winery, which pioneered “fighting varietals,” before launching their boutique Benziger brand, which they sold to The Wine Group in 2015. These five wines are the first I’ve tasted since the sale—although all five of them were made prior to it. We’ll have to see if the winery continues on a quality trajectory under the new ownership. The Cabernets are from the estate vineyard, in Glen Ellen, the heart of Sonoma Valley, on slopes of Sonoma Mountain. The Pinot Noirs hail from the estate de Coelo Vineyard, way out on the coast between Freestone and Bodega Bay. I first visited it years ago when it was being developed. My sneakers sank inches into the deep, seabed-derived Goldridge soil, as fine as moon dust. One of the best soils for Pinot Noir in the world, Goldridge drains readily, and lends the wine an expressive elegance.
Here are the wines, in the order I tasted them.
Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Terra Neuma” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 14.0%, 230 cases produced. This is from a higher-elevation block of de Coelo. The color is pale and translucent, hinting at delicacy. As in previous vintages, the alcohol is lowish, giving the wine a light, silky mouthfeel. Dusty tannins give it plenty of grip. The fruit suggests persimmons, with tarter cranberries, highlighted by mouthwatering acidity. There are more exotic notes of green tea, white pepper, Chinese 5 spice, and wild mushroom. The finish is severely dry, which is a compliment. Yet, toasted oak barrel aging lends it a vanilla sweetness. Complex and elegant, and so easy to love, this beauty will age for at least eight years. Score: 94 points.
Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Quintus” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 625 cases produced. The family resemblance with the other wines from de Coelo is marked in this block-derived wine, which is lower in alcohol than Terra Neuma. It’s slightly tarter and more delicate, but the same persimmon, raspberry, cranberry, tea, orange peel, mushroom and white pepper notes carry through, as do the silky tannins and magnificent acidity. This is exactly what we look for in Goldridge-derived Pinots: enormous complexity, delicacy undergirded with power, extreme drinkability. If there is ever going to be a Freestone appellation—and there ought to be—this wine could stand as its exemplar. I cannot imagine a better companion for lamb or steak. Score: 94 points.
Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Arbore Sacra” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 641 cases produced. Another block bottling from the estate vineyard. Aromatically it’s a little shier than the other two, showing more mineral and earth notes, like tree bark, brittle, dried leaves, cloves and dust. But the fruit is there: raspberry tea, pomegranate, orange peel, tart cranberry. There’s also a crispness that lends vitality to the mouthfeel, but the tannins are as light as air: they give a hint of astringency. The mouthfeel is as silky and delicate as an old tapestry, yet the depth is very great, with complex impressions extending out through a long, spicy finish. Of the three wines, I’d have to say this is my favorite. It is ultra-refined and elegant, a wine that would have been unthinkable in California not that long ago. Score: 95 points.
Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Obsidian Point Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $65. Alc. 14.4%, 486 cases produced. This is a very proper Cabernet, by which I mean it is classic, balanced and delicious. It’s one of those wines that you take a sip of and think, Wow, is this going to be easy to like. Bone dry, with thick but fragile tannins and just-in-time acidity, it’s rich in black currants, anise, unsweetened cocoa powder, sweet toasted oak and just a hint of herbaceousness: sweet green olive especially. The grapes are from Benziger’s estate vineyard, in the heart of Sonoma Valley on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain, and were biodynamically-grown. I have not been an ardent supporter of biodynamique, but there is a purity to this wine that is notable. Interestingly, the wine is already throwing some tannins. Drink now-2020. Score: 93 points.
Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Sunny Slope Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $59. Alc. 14.5%, 562 cases produced. The wine is just a little bit less concentrated than Obsidian Point, but it’s also six bucks less. It’s quite lovely, with classic black currant, cassis, cocoa and green olive flavors, enriched by 20 months of aging in French oak. It has an inherent elegance due mainly to the splendid acid-tannin structure. It’s not clear to me that it would be worth aging this wine for any length of time, but it is an enjoyable, complex sipper. Score: 90 points.
OAKLAND FIRE VICTIMS
A Pinot Noir tasting in San Francisco
You can take the boy out of the wine business but you can’t take the love of the business out of the boy.
Or something like that. Anyway, although I formally retired from my career on Sept. 2, I still have “wine in my blood,” so when the invitation came to go to PinotFest, the big annual Pinot Noir tasting held at Farallon, near San Francisco’s Union Square, I doffed my cap and BARTed in on an absolutely splendid Autumn day, and had some excellent Pinots. But I wasn’t there to review, only to sip, see what’s up, and connect with old friends.
Honestly, when you’ve been in the biz as long as I have, you somehow manage to accumulate a lot of friends. Here are a few. John Winthrop Haeger is of course the famous author of North American Pinot Noir, published by my publisher, University of California Press.
It’s always a pleasure to run into John, whose opening lecture at the World of Pinot Noir I always used to look eagerly forward to.
The first thing Diana Novy said to me when I saw her was, “I bet you’re surprised to see me here,” by which she meant that her husband, Adam Lee, who usually does the Siduri pouring at events, had been delayed, so Diana was substituting.
I missed seeing Adam, but Diana more than made up for him not being there. I profiled them in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, and Siduri is owned by my former employer, Jackson Family Wines, so I got to work closely with Adam.
Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi took over Bonaccorsi winery after the unexpected, tragic death of her husband, Michael, in 2007. Jenne makes ardent wines of great delicacy and inner power, just like her. She is one of the gentlewomen of California winemaking.
Jon Priest is at the helm of Etude, the great Pinot Noir house in the Carneros.
I can’t even remember how long ago I met him—I think Tony Soter was still running the winery. I told Jon I’d recently opened his 2005 and 2006 “Heirloom” Pinot Noirs, and both were showing well.
Then there’s Josh Jensen.
My profile of him and his winery, Calera, was among the first I ever wrote as a professional. I well remember when Wine Spectator sent me down to Mount Harlan, around 1993; what a thrill that was for an up-and-coming wine writer! Josh remains a gentleman and a scholar, and can always be counted on to be wearing something colorful. He’s very tall and, as you know, I’m not, so I asked him to crouch down a little bit, so the picture wouldn’t look like an avocado next to a broom.
Jonathan Nagy was another colleague of mine at Jackson Family Wines.
He presides over Byron Winery, down in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. When I left J.F.W. I knew Jonathan had embarked on an exciting new project: making single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from purchased grapes grown at some of Santa Barbara’s top vineyards. The wines are now in bottle. We tasted through some of them, and man, Jonathan is at the top of his game. But you know what my favorite was? None other than the Julia’s Vineyard, whose grapes Jonathan shares with sister winery Cambria.
It’s still fun for me to go to these events and taste the wines–if, that is, I’m lucky enough to be invited. If you see me at one, come on up, and say Howdy!
Why I Fight Drumpf
“Do not hesitate. Fight in this battle and you will conquer your enemies. Fight you will, your nature will make you fight. Your karma will make you fight. You will fight in spite of yourself.”
— Krishna to Arjuna, The Mahabharata
Maybe it was because I was brought up on the mean, hardscrabble streets of the South Bronx, where a skinny little kid had to learn how to fight to survive.
Maybe it was because of my many years of karatedo training, in which we were taught never to initiate a fight, but to resist violently if someone else started.
Maybe it’s the latent Jew in me. We weren’t raised with “Turn the other cheek.” For us, it was “an eye for an eye.”
Whatever the reasons, my inclination is to fight, fight, fight against this monster, this dybbuk, this aberration of a normal man, this drumpf.
In my twenties came a period during which I was a hippie, steeped in that Sixties thing of “love and peace.” I believed it. I studied it and tried to practice it. Loving your enemy seemed the right thing to do. Hadn’t Jesus? Hadn’t Buddha? Isn’t that what the Beatles preached?
But the Sixties was fifty years ago. A lot of water under the bridge.
Among people I know—good liberal-humanists—there is currently a debate going on, in the aftermath of the Nov. 8 results. Option #1: accept this unacceptable President, accept his hateful minions and the awful legislation they will craft, and give him a chance. Option #2: oppose him and his dreadful movement every step of the way. This debate is tearing people apart. They really are not sure which way to go. After all, we criticized Mitch McConnell’s statement of utter opposition to Obama—before the latter was even sworn in—as deplorable. It angered us. “How could you be so against him when you don’t even know what he’s going to propose?” And we were right to take that attitude.
Now, the republicans are turning that argument around and asking us, “How can you oppose trump before he’s even taken the oath of office?”
Well, let me explain the difference. The promises Obama made—to unite the country bipartisanly, to end wars, to get along with foreign countries, to rescue the financial system which was dying due to the Bush Great Recession, to respect the environment and be kinder to gay people, to understand the needs of the poor and of immigrants, to respect science, to be a gentleman, to have a clean administration based on high principles—these spoke to the heart and soul of liberal-humanists. When McConnell issued his belligerent threat, we thought, “How could he be against all that?”
Drumpf on the other hand made other promises. Every one of them was based on hatred of “the other,” except for his promise to “Make America Great,” as banal a platitude as ever issued in any soap commercial. Now that we’ve had a sniff of his appointments, there’s every reason to assume the worst: this awful person will divide the country and is a threat to the things we hold dear. He is a last gasp of male, heterosexual, Anglo-Saxon, lower-middle-class, under-educated, bigoted, resentful white supremacy, the latest incarnation of the Know-Nothings, the McCarthyites, the America Firsters and Father Coughlins and Dixiecrats, all of whose sociopathic unreason did such harm to America (and all of whom have been roundly condemned by History). Therefore, to oppose this drumpf is to stand for the best American values of inclusion, fairness, equality, progress and love.
Yes, love. Not some kind of hippie love. This is not the time to move to the woods and meditate and pray to the Spirit Guide, or Mother Earth, or whatever you wish to call it. Sure, if you want to sit zazen and go Ommm, feel free. It can’t hurt.
But the spirits will not protect you when the shit hits the fan and the government comes under the control of the radical theocrats and paranoid militias that form drumpf’s shock troops. When he reverses Obama’s great work, it will take more than a groovy feeling to keep this nation from sliding into darkness. It will take active resistance.
I was never a protester in the Sixties. I went to one anti-Vietnam march, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in New York, but it wasn’t so much because I was anti-war (although I was, in an inarticulate kind of way), but because my friends wanted to go, and I thought it would be fun. So I’m not really a born street demonstrator.
But the times have changed. This catastrophe, drumpf, is looming over America like a toxic cloud. I’m afraid of him, and I’m more afraid of the evil forces he has unleashed: the anti-semites, the KKK, the Muslim haters, the Mexican haters, the anti-government open-carry crazies, the homophobes, the anti-science types like Pence and Huckabee and Franklin Graham, the crypto-nazis like Steve Bannon, the bullies like Giuliani and Christie. These are the termites that have been allowed to burrow into America’s foundation, and, left unchecked, they will cause dry rot leading to collapse.
So when I suggest that this old guy—me—is a fighter, it’s because that’s what I believe in: fighting for what is good, and against what is bad. I always looked forward to a peaceful retirement, but this is no time for complacency. The future of our country, and the world, is at stake. Look, drumpf ran the dirtiest, sleaziest, most mendacious and vulgar campaign in modern American history; it was an insult to my parents and grandparents, who believed that voting was a sacred duty…an insult to all people of intelligence, to our nation, its history and political legacy. This creature of television and greed does not deserve the title deeds to our proud, progressive country. I urge you not to accept a drumpf presidency. They—the tea party, the white nationalists, the right wing theocrats—do not want to get along with us; they have repeatedly proved that with their deeds. They want their own exclusionary society. If you think you can go along to get along, you are in the same boat as the “good Germans” who allowed Hitler to triumph. And look what happened.
I’ve been hard on the Republican Party for being such ideological purists that they can’t compromise with Democrats (or anyone else) on anything. So in my guise as the F.F.W.C. (former famous wine critic), along the same lines I have a few observances about In Pursuit of Balance.
IPOB, as many of you know, was the non-profit organization formed in California for the purpose of promoting the production of Pinot Noirs that are lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than some, or many, other Pinot Noirs, especially those produced around the time of IPOB”s founding, in 2010.
In that year, the Pinots emerging onto the market were of the 2008 vintage, or possibly 2007—two warm vintages that produced ripe, lush, soft, full-bodied wines. IPOB’s precise goal, however, was never entirely clear. Their website says it was “to promote dialogue around the meaning of balance in California pinot noir and chardonnay,” but certainly, the public and the wine media perceived it as more than the mere promotion of dialogue. Most people saw it prescriptively. In the popular mind (and IPOB did nothing to dissuade people from thinking this), IPOB was saying that Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) should be below 14% in alcohol.
It’s true that Raj Parr, IPOB’s most visible representative, never came right out and said so, at least in my presence. In fact I heard him once welcome us to an IPOB tasting (at RN74) by stating that he was emphatically not referring to specific alcohol levels. But if there was no specific recommendation along those lines, people were scratching their heads and wondering just what else “balance” could mean that was not merely an arbitrary quality in the eyes of the beholder.
I sure wondered. In the four years after IPOB’s founding, and before I quit Wine Enthusiast, I strove mightily to understand. (Perhaps that’s what IPOB meant when they said they wanted “to promote dialogue.”) I decided that the question was meaningless, because no two people, no matter how competent they are, are ever going to agree all the time about so elusive and subjective a concept as “balance.” That was fine with me: wine writers, critics, producers, consumers and restaurateurs love to gab about wine, and IPOB provided plenty of gabbing opportunities.
Still, IPOB had an overall negative impact. It divided Pinot Noir people into two opposite, warring camps. IPOB’s tastings never made any sense. They were fun to go to, in that they let us taste many famous, small-production Pinots we would otherwise miss. But I always wondered why IPOB’s gatekeepers, who included Jasmine Hirsch, allowed some wines in, while shutting other wines out. For example, Calera was there—no one ever accused Calera of making low alcohol wines—while some fine low alcohol Pinot Noirs from the company I started working for in 2014, Jackson Family Wines, were not. I think that’s why people who were not fans of IPOB started calling it “the cool kids’ club.” It reminded me of the cafeteria in college, where the jocks and cute chicks gathered at their tables, while the geeks, freaks and nerds (of which I was one) had to scramble to figure out where to sit.
This was not a happy development. IPOB caused divisiveness within the ranks of Pinot Noir producers and critics; and while I’m sure it was a fabulous marketing tool for Hirsch Vineyards, Sandhi, Domaine de la Côte and other IPOB favorites, I do not in retrospect think it contributed much that was positive.
My biggest problem with IPOB was the way the mainstream wine media treated it so worshipfully, without questioning the process or the assumptions behind it. This wasn’t journalism; it was lazy reporting by press release. Unimaginative wine writers considered themselves lucky to be invited to IPOB, and to be feted by such famous personages, so they failed to write with due diligence. I had the same problem with the mainstream media during the recent election process. It was awful the way they accepted pretty much all of the Donald Trump scandals with a shrug of the shoulders, while relentlessly pursuing Hillary Clinton’s emails as if they were the biggest security scandal since Benedict Arnold, with Hillary actively working for ISIS. The email thing, of course, turned out to be absolutely nothing: a non-issue in every respect. But every media outlet in the country, print and broadcast, jumped on it like junkyard dogs and refused to let go, even while practically ignoring Trump University, his late-night infomercials on how to get-rich-quick through real estate flipping, not paying his bills, rape charges, lies, smears, prejudices, unproven allegations, insults, his current wife’s questionable background, his ties to Russia and foreign plutocrats, his taxes, and above all his utter ignorance of the issues. This glaring irresponsibility will be a sorry chapter in American journalism.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley, in her summation of IPOB’s final event on Nov. 14, at least did yeoman’s work in backing up far enough to write objectively about it. She praises it, not for dramatically changing the style of Pinot Noir in California (it didn’t; style is defined by climate, soils and viticultural practices, not by ideologies), but by making us all think a little harder about Pinot Noir than we might have otherwise. That’s a good thing, but I wouldn’t want future wine historians to overrate IPOB’s importance. It was not up there with the French Paradox or the Paris Tasting or Sideways. IPOB was a curiosity, a sort of hippie movement that flourished at a particular time and place, but whose import now has passed.
I couldn’t be more pleased with my tasting yesterday, but I don’t give the credit to myself; I give it to the wines. The idea was to taste some of our Oregon Pinot Noirs to a select group of people in Marin County. In many respects, this was the best tasting I ever went to, because it satisfied the requirements of a good comparative wine event. The wines were conceptually linked: all Oregon Pinot Noirs. Seven of the eight wines were current releases, although they weren’t all from the same vintage. The eighth wine was from 2005, but from the same winery and vineyard as one of the current releases, so we could see how these fine Oregon Pinot Noirs age. And there was a ninth “surprise” wine, much older than even the ’05, that I’ll describe shortly.
But the best part of the tasting was the logic of the order of wines. Seldom have I experienced a better gradation from lighter and more accessible to richer and more ageworthy. I didn’t really understand how compelling this spectrum would be until I arrived early to open the wines and taste. It was so obvious, like ascending a ladder or climbing a mountain, as it were. To a wine taster like me, this is glory, this is as good as things get, when the order of a lineup makes perfect sense. It is a thing of beauty.
I started with the lighter wines, of course, worked my way through the more complex ones, and then there was that 2005, so you could see that we don’t only say these great Oregon Pinot Noirs are ageable, we demonstrate it. Here was the order of the lineup, with very brief notes.
La Crema 2014 Willamette Valley. It was what I think of as the La Crema style: broadly appealing, fruity, easy to like, with some complexity. The alcohol was the highest on the table, some 14.5%. It was easy to appreciate (and I say this as a Jackson Family Wines employee, but also as an objective reporter) why these La Crema wines have been so successful in the marketplace.
Siduri 2014 Willamette Valley. There was a definite step up in complexity here, not just fruit but tea, mushrooms, earth notes. Still a wine to drink now.
Siduri 2014 Chehalem Mountains. Even earthier than the Willamette Valley, with oodles with cherries and wild mushrooms. One of the guests, a restaurateur, said he would make a porcini mushroom risotto with this.
Penner-Ash 2014 Estate. So new is JFW’s acquisition of Penner-Ash that not even I have all that much familiarity with it. This is their estate vineyard, formerly known as Dussin Vineyard. It represented an entirely new leap into complexity, starting off a bit closed due to tannins, then erupting into pomegranates, tart cranberries and a wonderfully earthy mushroominess. I would surely age this wine.
Gran Moraine 2013. A new winery from the JFW portfolio, and so complex. It elicited a fierce discussion from our group concerning what to drink it with. Quail, veal, risotto, salmon, steak, take your pick. A mineral-driven wine of great terroir and ageability.
Zena Crown 2013 The Sum. This is another wine that was new to me. Wow, what complexity. Very low alcohol (12.9%), dry, fairly tannic in youth, and mushroomy, with a sassafras and cola taste many of us noted. Lots of acidity, a serious, intellectual, ageworthy wine.
Angela Estate 2012 Abbot Claim. This is not owned by JFW but sold in California by Jackson’s Regal Wine Company. For me it was the top current release, although not the most expensive. Gorgeous perfume, with foresty scents and tons of wild raspberries. At four years, it’s starting to show some age; the bottle was throwing some light sediment.
Penner-Ash 2005 Dussin Vineyard. Showing its age: orange-bricky color at the rim. But so clean and vibrant, with marzipan, cocoa, raspberry tea and spice flavors. It had that “sweet but dry” richness you sometimes get from older wines.
I finished with the surprise wine, the Penner-Ash 1998 Dussin Vineyard. This was a Wow! wine for everybody. At 18 years it was still vital and alert, a wine with nervous energy, plenty of spine, pure, bright and delicious, with sweet fruit and a long finish. Some wines of this age die quickly in the glass. Not this one. I brought it with me afterwards to lunch and it was fabulous.
And speaking of lunch, we had our event at Tamalpie, which calls itself a pizzeria, and it does have fabulous pizza, but also does wonderful Cal-Italian fare. I would eat there all the time if I lived closer to Mill Valley.
I’ve been on a sharp learning curve about Oregon Pinot Noir for the past year or so. In all my years at Wine Enthusiast I was “the California guy” and so my exposure to wines not from my state grew increasingly limited—one major negative of being a regional specialist (but the positive, of course, is that you get very knowledgeable about your region).
Because of Jackson Family Wines’ involvement in Oregon, and particularly the Willamette Valley, I’ve been involved in a number of projects that require this study, and have been traveling up there with some regularity. So, when it came time to schedule the latest in my series of tastings at JFW, I decided on Oregon Pinot Noir.
Tasting Oregon Pinot Noirs is more challenging for me than tasting California Pinots. The latter are easier to “get”: generally fruit-forward, riper, softer and lusher. The Oregons, by contrast, have all sorts of earth, mushroom and black or green tea notes, firmer tannins and brighter acidity, all of which can mute them in youth, making them harder than their more southerly counterparts to appreciate straight out of the bottle. So it’s important to let these wines breathe, to see what they might begin to do down the road. Certainly, this was the case in yesterday’s tasting.
My three top wines were Penner-Ash 2013 Pas de Nom Pinot Noir (Yamhill-Carlton), $100, Zena Crowne 2013 Slope Pinot Noir (Eola-Amity Hills): $?, and Siduri 2014 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $24. (These are all Jackson Family Wines, which numbered 9 of the 13 in the tasting.) Almost in the same league was the Evening Land 2013 Seven Springs Vineyard La Source Pinot Noir (Eola-Amity Hills), $75. All of my scores were at least 88 points; most were above 90, and the four I just cited all scored at least 94 points. I found, over the course of 2-1/2 hours of tasting, that I was raising my scores consistently over my initial impressions, which illustrates the point I made in the preceding paragraph about letting the wines breathe. I must say I found the Antica Terra 2013 Botanica ($75) a little too robust for my tastes. There was one wine whose score I lowered over the course of the tasting: The Cristom 2013 Marjorie Vineyard Pinot Noir (Eola-Amity Hills): $65. At first I loved it; everyone else in the tasting pointed out a funkiness that initially eluded me (I called it mushroomy). This resulted in a discussion about brettanomyces, and while I can’t say this wine had brett (because I didn’t do a lab analysis), after a couple hours in the glass the funk really took over, so I lowered my score to a still-respectable 91 points.
Oregon Pinot Noir offers a real counterpoint to its California brethren. It’s not a question of better-worse, but different. The Oregon wines also tend to be lower in alcohol: Of our 13 Pinots, only two were above 14% (Siduri Willamette and Penner-Ash Estate), and those were only 14.1%. All the rest were either in the 13s or, in the case of the Evening Land and the Zena Crown, 12.6% and 12.7%, respectively. These low alcohol levels make the wines fresh, vibrant and delicate, which is what Pinot Noir ought to be. Also, probably, more ageable. In general, I’d say that most of the bottles we opened were victims of infanticide.
This was the table when the tasting was finished.