We had our first two seminars at WOPN, and two more different sessions couldn’t be imagined–although both were based, of course, on Pinot Noir.
The first was called Not Pinot Blanc, Not Pinot Gris, it’s White Pinot Noir!? It was moderated by the inimitable Fred Dame, M.S., who reminded us that white Pinot has no real historical record in either California or Burgundy. He remembered Caymus’s Oeil de Perdrix from the old daze; I remembered Edmeades’ Opal, but these were outlier wines. The three wines we tasted, all called White Pinot Noir on the label, were Domaine Carneros 2011 (Carneros, $50), Erath 2011 Le Jour Magique (Dundee Hills, $55) and J.K. Carriere 2012 “Glass” (Willamette Valley, $22).
All were bone dry and fine in acidity, and made the case for white Pinot Noir. All are produced in small quantities, so even though the first two are expensive, their winemakers (Zack Miller and Gary Horner, respectively) argued that they had no trouble selling the wines–and they reminded us that, as they’re using their best grapes and the winemaking technique on these wines is elaborate, they actually lose money on them.
For me, the J.K. Carriere stole the show. Actually a rosé, its dry, crisp complexity (the wine did not undergo the malolactic fermentation, and was aged on Chardonnay lees), highlighted by subtle flavors of strawberries, white pepper, cream and tobacco, made it delightful. Winemaker Jim Prosser calls this a “back patio, sophisticated” wine, which means that it’s easy to drink on a summer evening, yet elegant and supple. I would gladly drink this wine all the time if I had any.
Fred Dame said, concerning the white Pinots, “These wines stretch the envelope.” Each was excellent in its own way, and if you couldn’t describe them collectively with any particular profile, each was savory and great in its way. Yet I doubt if White Pinot Noir will become a cult wine anytime soon. Consumers don’t understand what it is. As several people at the tasting remarked, people will think that a winemaker used her less successful grapes in a white Pinot Noir–even when, in the cases of these three wines, that is not true. They are true labors of love.
The second seminar, also moderated by Dame, could have been called the Fred-Dennis-Gary-Michael Show. That would be Fred Dame, Dennis Koplen, Gary Pisoni and Michael Brown. Dennis is proprietor of the Koplen Vineyard, in the Olivet Lane section of the Russian River Valley. Gary Pisoni is the well-known founder of his Pisoni Vineyard & Winery, in the southeastern part of the Santa Lucia Highlands. And Michael Browne is the co-owner of Kosta Brown Winery, which produced the six wines in the flight. It was a loud, boisterous session, filed with anecdotes and laughter, but also plenty of thoughtful information.
These Kosta Browne Pinots are, of course, cult favorites, very difficult to obtain–even for me. There were six: three appellation blends (Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands and Sonoma Coast) and three single vineyards (Pisoni, Gap’s Crown, Koplen). They all bear the same signature: big, rich, wines, dark in color, highish to overtly high in alcohol, and stuffed with ripe fruit. They typify a certain style, not to everyone’s liking, but vastly popular among a segment of the collector crowd. I do not regularly review the Kosta Browne wines, but if I’d done these six, I’d have scored them form the high 80s to the low 90s. The basic Russian River Valley blend showed especially well on this occasion.
At the end of the flight, Fred Dame posed a great question: “Are we coming to a cru system in California?” He meant that, 10 or 15 years ago, we would speak of a Russian River Valley or a Green Valley Pinot Noir. Now, we can zero in on a Sebastopol character, or a Petaluma Gap character, or a Fort Ross-Seaview character. And more: We can specifically reference a Gap’s Crown, or a Marimar Torres, or an Allen Vineyard, wines now with enough history to be able to credibly build a case for consistency of terroir and style.
An interesting concept, one worth developing at length in future posts.
I made it down to Shell Beach on the 101 in an easy 4 hours, including a nice walk with Gus at the rest stop just north of Paso Robles. Beautiful drive: blue skies, warm temps, no traffic. The Salinas Valley was all green in row crops, but the Santa Lucias were ominously brown: the winter grass is already dying. It’s barely rained for two months and people are starting to worry. There’s some rain forecast for midweek, but I don’t know if it’s a big storm or just the kind of piddling ones that marked January and February.
I love it when the 101 makes that little grade and twist at Avila Beach and suddenlyl, Boing, the Pacific leaps into view. That’s my exit, Shell Beach, where World of Pinot Noir has been held for 13 years now. Gus and I checked into The Cliffs (76 degrees on my dashboard thermometer), relaxed in the room for a while, then I took him for a walk after dark, on a sultry, quiet evening. The tents were all set up on the bluff above the beach, looking white and fluffy and eerily empty in the darkness. Today and tomorrow, they’ll be rocking and rolling with Pinotphiles.
It’s still before 7 a.m. here, time to take the beast for a walk and then take the other beast (me) out to find some breakfast. I’ll be updating my blog frequently throughout the day, reporting on what’s happening at WOPN, sort of like a tweet, but longer. So check in from time to time.
My head should be filled with thoughts of Cabernet Sauvignon, after spending a large part of last week at Premiere Napa Valley and its associated events. Most of the more than two hundred barrel lots were from the 2011 vintage. Despite much chatter among winemakers about the season’s difficulties, I found the wines I tasted concentrated, balanced and delicious, and not too high in alcohol. Ageworthy, too. But then, two things have to be pointed out: Napa Valley has the best grape sorting regimes in the world, and these Premiere Napa Valley lots are the best wines the winemakers can produce. They may or may not be indicative of the commercial releases, which should start appearing in 2014. But I strongly suspect we’re going to see a solid vintage.
However, it’s Pinot Noir I’m thinking about, because I’m leaving this Wednesday for the the 13th annual World of Pinot Noir, one of my must-attend events of the year. I’ve been going since the very first one. It started off as a modest little thing, sponsored by Central Coast wineries. But over the years, WOPN has expanded its reach, attracting winemakers from around the world, and is now the premier Pinot Noir event in California.
I remember being so impressed by that first WOPN that I told Wine Enthusiast they ought to figure out some way to co-sponsor it. They did. Keep in mind, WOPN was launched well before Sideways, at a time when California Pinot Noir wasn’t exactly a household name.
Historians will someday pinpoint just when California Pinot took center stage. For me, I felt it coming before it actually arrived, which is why I went to WOPN in the first place. It was in Shell Beach, a pit stop on the drive between S.F. and L.A., and that first year attracted only a handful of wineries. But something told me both that Pinot was about to erupt, and that WOPN had the potential to be important.
Why did I think Pinot Noir was on the verge of fame in 2001? Because I’d been following it for a long time. It’s like anything else that has to do with intuition or hunches; you have a feeling of growing momentum. During the 1990s there had been interest in Pinot among the people who mattered: writers, critics, educators, somms, even some forward-thinking collectors (the words “forward-thinking” and “collectors” do not often unite in comfort). The California wine community was a very small town back then (in some respects, it still is), and information passed quickly. I heard about Williams Selyem and Rochioli by 1990, had begun visiting, and of course had known about Richard Sanford in Santa Barbara County, even though I didn’t get down there for a few more years. It was the excitement of the older professionals I knew, my mentors, that infected me and informed me that Pinot Noir was the coming variety.
Even though I began writing for Wine Enthusiast by 1993, for various internal reasons I didn’t start reviewing wines for them until the mid- 1990s. I just looked up my earliest Pinot reviews and they make for interesting reading. My top names from that era remain some of the best Pinot houses around today: Testarossa, Fess Parker, Hanzell, Iron Horse, MacRostie, Acacia, Robert Mondavi, Talley, Marimar Torres. When I look at the prices for vintages from the 1990s, they were high for back then, but have remained relatively stable ($35-$50) over the years, showing that Pinot Noir has not experienced the same price inflation as Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps Pinot producers remember the bad old days, when everybody said California was patently too hot for Pinot Noir; maybe they think they lucked out, and that to raise prices to triple digits would kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Whatever the reason, consumers are the beneficiaries. Compared to dozens of Cabernet Sauvignons that cost in excess of $100 (often far more), Pinot Noir is a bargain.
Starting this Thursday, I’ll be blogging live from WOPN, including throughout the weekend; I am, it seems, the Official World of Pinot Noir Blogger! I’ll be talking about the best wines, the most interesting winemakers, the food, the personalities and whatever nuggets of news and information I can gather. Twitter too.
With Monday evening’s induction of Robert Parker into the HOF, that august society now has its first-ever wine critic. Would John Daniels or Robert Mondavi be scratching their heads? I suspect as much.
Actually, the walls began to stretch in 2010, when Randall Grahm was inducted. Granted, he won for his lifetime achievements, not so much for his activity on social media. But the fact is that Randall is very active in social media, and so was the first of that genus to get his bronze plaque in the coveted Barrel Room at the Culinary Institute of America. I guess you could also argue that, with Gerald Asher’s 2009 induction, the nominating committee gave an ink-stained writer an award for the first time. So actually, the walls have been stretching for the last few years.
Still, if you look at the vast majority of the 44 inductees since 2007, they’ve been winemakers. White winemakers. Wine male winemakers. White male winemakers from California, and mainly from Napa Valley. Sure, there’ve been outliers: Carole Meredith won in 2009 as a university researcher, Zelma Long was admitted in 2010 as a winemaker, and this year, as I blogged yesterday, I had the pleasure of introducing Merry Edwards as only the fourth woman ever so honored. (Jamie Davies won, with her husband Jack, in 2009.)
So it’s been pretty white bread stuff at the Hall of Fame. But I have a feeling that’s about to change.
After the ceremony, I ran into Andy Beckstoffer in the kitchen. (Where else would the guests go after a long induction ceremony at the C.I.A. than to the kitchen?) Andy, who’s on the nominating committee, told me that as far as he’s concerned he’s looking for a more expansive list of nominees/winners next year. Well, they’ve now let a critic, a writer and a social media guy in. Who’s next? The rules say the award is for “men and women who have been responsible for the growth and worldwide prestige of the California wine industry.” In that case, how about restaurateurs who’ve played a role in promoting California wine? Merchants? Distributors? Politicians, for that matter. How about Julia Child? She was always pushing wine in her books and TV shows, and often enough, it was California wine.
But here’s my suggestion to Andy: John DeLuca. He led Wine Institute for decades during some of its toughest challenges. He was successful at them all. California wine has never had a more avid defender. If the Vintners Hall of Fame is serious, John DeLuca needs to be up there next year, accepting his induction.
I had the distinct pleasure and privilege last night of introducing Merry Edwards at her induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame, in a glittering ceremony held at the Culinary Institute of America.
Seldom is so much star power gathered into a single space. Had one of those errant meteors hit the CIA yesterday, the California wine industry would have been decimated. Fortunately it didn’t! And it was wonderful as always to see people whom I’ve now known long enough that I can call them old friends: Bill Harlan, Andy Beckstoffer, Tim Mondavi, Archie McLaren, Randall Grahm, David Breitstein and far too many others to mention.
Merry had asked me to introduce her because, as she told me, I’m “an historian.” So in my prepared remarks, I gave myself the liberty of placing Merry and her accomplishments into what I perceive as California’s historical sweep. [For the full text of my remarks, see below.] Merry had emphasized, as I knew she would, that she didn’t see how “the woman thing” had been a factor in her career; but of course, it was, and had to be stated.
First, a word on the other award recipients. Two were deceased: César Chavez and Frank Schoonmaker. Mr. Chavez needs no introduction to readers of this blog. Accepting the award on his behalf was his young, energetic grandson, Anthony Chavez. Anthony gave a powerful, passionate and, yes, political speech that galvanized everyone in the room and reminded Napa Valley that it’s not only about glamor and glitz, it’s about leading the way in worker’s rights and even on subjects far beyond but inevitably related: food safety and climate change.
Many of you probably never heard of Frank Schoonmaker, who died in 1976. But wine writers know him well. He was one of the earliest and best wine writers post-Prohibition (in addition to founding his eponymous importing company), and I have several of his books in first print. They have been a source of enormous knowledge and insight for me. Perhaps Schoonmaker’s chief claim to fame in the wine industry was his absolute insistence, in the 1930s, on varietal labeling. He won that fight, of course. Now, you can argue the case of varietal labeling for and against. It has its pros and cons. But there’s no question that it’s better than the stupid, phony Ports, Sauternes, Champagnes and Sherries that dominated California during the 1930s, and for that, Schoonmaker deserves his bronze plaque.
Robert Parker, alas, was a no-show. He’d evidently hurt his back and was too much in pain to travel. But he did thoughtfully send a pre-recorded video in which he humbly apologized for not being there and seemed genuinely touched by the honor. He was introduced by an old friend of his, an elderly collector from back east who told us a little bit more about his 81,000-bottle wine cellar than I think we needed to know.
And then there was Merry. Accepting her award, she wept; so did many in the audience.
Here’s my intro:
Merry Edwards is in an ironic position. She’s a famous, successful woman winemaker, in a field that was notoriously unfriendly to women until comparatively recently. And yet she’s also a human being who says, quote, “I had been totally unconscious of my sex. I consider myself a winemaker first, and I don’t see how gender comes into that.”
Well, gender shouldn’t come into that, of course, any more than race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Ability is what counts, and Ability is why Merry Edwards is being honored today. But she did have to struggle to get where she is precisely because she is a woman. And this fact cannot and should not be overlooked.
Today, she can chuckle at her war stories: Of the time a Napa winery owner wouldn’t even consider hiring her at a job interview solely because of her gender. Of the tendency in the 1970s to relegate women to the laboratory because they were not considered suitable as winemakers. Of the Old Boy’s Network at U.C. Davis, under which male professors made sure their favorite graduate students–invariably men–got the good jobs. I said she can laugh at these things today. But at the time, these were stinging humiliations, and more: obstacles to be overcome. As with any struggle involving prejudice and civil rights, it takes a certain righteous anger to break down the barriers. Merry Edwards possesses this quality, too. She lets nothing stop her.
The first commercial Pinot Noir she made was at Mount Eden Vineyards; she was working for the late Dick Graff, who had co-founded Chalone. Dick was gay; so was the late Maynard Amerine, at Davis, who was indirectly responsible for Merry getting the Mount Eden interview. Merry once told me, “I had this little group of [gay] guys who understood that I was in the same position they were”–that of being isolated and rejected. “They were my moral support team,” she recalls. Just as she was mentored on her way up the ladder, Merry formed within herself the core value of helping others. Asked what she considers among her signal achievements, she cites her support of young women coming into the industry.
From Mount Eden she went to Matanzas Creek, where she was an early champion of French clones. Along the way she had two kids, and married her now husband and business partner, Ken Coopersmith. Her own Merry Edwards brand was slow in coming, because nobody handed her anything on a silver platter: It wasn’t until 1997 that she launched it, and it wasn’t until 1998 that she first planted her Meredith Estate.
Today, as the world knows, Merry Edwards is celebrated as one of the California’s greatest Pinot Noir masters, although it has to be pointed out that her Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay also are excellent. Merry has overcome every obstacle that Life threw her way, and done so with dignity. She’s now been in the business close to 40 years, but whenever Ken asks her if she’s going to retire, her response is: “Winemakers don’t retire! They just keep going until they drop by the side of the road.” Well, I think the road ahead for Merry is a long and productive one.
I’ve come down with a nasty case of the flu even though I got my flu shot last November. How can this be? I put it up on my Facebook page and a lot of people said the same thing happened to them. So does the flu shot work, or doesn’t it? Anyhow, too feverish and achy to post today. I’ll try for tomorrow. Send me good thoughts.