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.
When did all this talk about unicorns get so crazy? Suddenly, it’s unicorn this, unicorn that. Fifty-five million results on a Google search, of which this one, published earlier this year in Fortune, is most explanatory: “a unicorn is a private company, valued at $1 billion or more, and they’re seemingly everywhere, backed by a bull market and a new generation of disruptive technology.”
New, over-priced tech companies. Hmm. We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? Back in 2000 we called it the “dot-com bubble,” the catastrophic melt-down of a short era in which seemingly any company that ended with a dot-com enjoyed meteoric growth on the stock market. A good example was a startup called onsale.com. It was popular for a while after amazon.com got too expensive for most people to afford. I should know; I bought a bunch of onsale, and got slaughtered when it collapsed, along with all the other phantom dot-coms.
Now, the word “unicorn” is being applied to wineries. Wine Spectator picked up the term from Twitter back in 2013, quoting Raj Parr’s tweeted definition: “A [unicorn] wine that is ‘rare,’ ‘not seen much’ ‘special bottlings.’ Not always the most expensive but just hard to find.” By 2015, unicorn wines were all the rage in somm circles: the Wall Street Journal said “they confer[red] status not by cost but by the skill—or luck—it takes to acquire one.” Eater jumped into the fray, describing unicorn wines as “a new category of wine taking hold in Manhattan—the once in a lifetime bottles that every sommelier dreams of drinking, and bragging about, before they die.” Eater’s list was exclusive to Old Europe, mainly France. You would never find a California wine on a unicorn list, especially not in Manhattan.
Most recently, here’s Wine Spectator again, with Dr. Vinny asking the question, “What is a unicorn wine?” and pointing out that the opposite of unicorn wines are “first-growth Bordeauxs, or ‘cult’ California Cabernets.” Interesting. Not that long ago “cult California Cabernets” were the hottest wines in the world, coveted by everybody. Can it have been only eight years ago that the San Francisco Chronicle called Aubert, Ovid and Sloan “six cult wines to covet”? Today, you won’t find them on anyone’s unicorn list. They’re more like your great-grandfather’s wine than something the cool kids drink.
By the way, the hashtag #unicornwine still gets a lot of play on Twitter, although the category finally seems to be opening up to include California wine—as long, that is, as it fulfills the requirements of being rare and impossible to get. Someone tweeted a link to an Instagram post from “Mcvino82,” who posted this pic of an Inglenook 1978 Petite Sirah with the hashtags #unicornwine and (funnily) #whereisfreddame.
So a nearly 40-year old California Petite Sirah just might qualify as a unicorn. Story time: Years ago, I was on one of my first assignments for Wine Spectator, to interview a wealthy rock-and-roll lawyer who lived in the Hollywood Hills and was a bigtime wine collector. As I pulled into his driveway, a UPS truck was unloading case after case of Dominus, Dunn Howell Mountain, Opus One, Petrus, Tignanello—you get the idea. As we shook hands I tried to make small talk and said, “Man, I see you like the good stuff.”
He pointed with his chin to the stacks of cases on his driveway and said, “That? Nah, I hate it.”
Wow. “Then why do you buy it?” I asked, mentally doing a financial calculation of the cost.
“Look,” he explained, “those are what I call ‘pissing wines.’ You know how, when you’re kids, you have contests to see who can piss the furthest? Well, ___ and ___ [and here, he mentioned some real Hollywood heavyweights] invite me to their homes, and they serve Petrus ’66, so I have to invite them here and give them Petrus ’64.”
I took that in. Then I asked, “So, if you don’t like these wines, what do you like?”
“Ahh!” he grunted, grabbing me by the elbow. “Let me show you.” He led me to his backyard, where he’d dug a storage cellar into the hillside. Rummaging through the racks, he pulled out a bottle. It was a Petite Sirah from San Benito County whose producer, even on that day 25 years ago, was long defunct. “This is what I like!” he exulted.
“What do you like about it?” I asked.
“I like it,” he replied, “because no one else can get it!”
That was the rock-and-roll lawyer’s unicorn wine. So, you see, there’s nothing new about the concept, only the word. And while we’re on the topic of fantasy, it looks like Napa may be getting ready to allow marijuana dispensaries within the city limits. It’s far from a done deal, but I can see a time when upscale tasting rooms selling sips of unicorn wines will also offer unicorn weed to inhale, leading to the very real possibility that tourists emerging from these establishments, staggering down the street, may visualize actual unicorns.
Photo credit: goodmenproject.com
I take Reka Haros’s point that there is “deep confusion around the term ‘marketing,’” specifically that marketing all too often is “confused with sales and… marketing tactics confused with marketing strategy.” I’ve been in this business for a long time and even I can’t be sure of the differences; but after all, these are only words we use to describe slippery and overlapping concepts. Let me explain.
Haros, a marketing manager who wrote her op-ed piece in the “Trends” blog of the alternative closure company, Nomacorc, identifies three phases of marketing (similar to my five-phase analysis of West Coast Pinot Noir), stretching from the 1950s (think of T.V. automobile commercials of that era), to Marketing 3.0, our present time, when the Internet has empowered people, leading to all sorts of challenges to marketers.
What kinds of challenges? Marketers, says Haros, now need “to access [consumers’] hearts too,” through such concepts as “emotional marketing,” which itself is based on establishing “trust with consumers through identity, integrity, and authentic image.”
It shows a mom and her little boy, on their way presumably to or from school. The little boy wears a Mackintosh (raincoat to you non-Brits) made of Burlington’s waterproof fabric. The ad capitalizes on the emotional bond between mom and son, on her sense of security that her boy won’t get wet in the rain, on the boy’s innocent trust, and on the “comfort and safety” Burlington Industries provides to Americans in the everyday pursuit of their lives. That is emotional marketing from nearly sixty years ago, right down to the scrawled drawing in the boy’s hand, of a sun shining on a stick-figured little boy much like himself.
The problem with wine marketing today, says Haros, is that the wine industry has “a confused idea” of what it means. She accurately concludes that, too often, social media is used by wine marketers as a strategy, rather than the mere tactic it actually is. Haros also accurately understands that marketing and sales people speak entirely different languages: marketers propose, but sales people dispose; and sales people—hard-driven road warriors, as opposed to the desk-bound creators in marketing–can be “hard to convince.”
For these reasons, Haros concludes that “wine marketing is still in its first stage of evolution.” It is here, however, that she runs out of solutions: it’s easy to diagnose a problem, hard to fix it. Granted that wine marketers need to develop “a long-term vision,” but this is easier said than done. The chief obstacle to this development, as I see things, is that marketing, as classically understood, may be an anachronism. [Italics mine] Marketing used to be based on the [true] assumption that most consumers were idiots who would fall for craftily-conceived campaigns designed to convince them to buy products and services they might not even really need. Using “emotional” and other [misleading] tools, marketing agents could appeal (often subconsciously) to consumers’ secret fears and desires, manipulating them in desirable directions. To refer back to the 1950s again, this approach worked: Marketers (and advertisers) were dealing with a naïve, credulous population that proved over and over again that it could be manipulated, even without being aware of it.
We have now in America, by contrast, an entirely different population, especially the young. No longer naïve, they are suspicious to a fault. No longer credulous, they believe practically nothing, except if their friends believe it. They particularly disbelieve anything deriving from authority. If it’s a billboard, a pop-up ad on the computer screen, a television commercial, a radio pitch between songs, it’s automatically tuned out.
If marketing indeed is as outmoded as rotary phones, then why do wineries still engage in the practice? Because they know that, if they do nothing, the chances are close to zero that they will continue to exist. This is their dilemma: thrust between the devil and the deep blue sea (or a rock and a hard place), they see, on the one hand, the necessity of spending time and money in a practice with no guaranteeable results and, on the other hand, doing nothing, in which case the result is guaranteeable: catastrophe. Given such a choice, it’s easy to see why wineries continue to engage in marketing.
And the truth is, every once in a while, lightning strikes: a marketing tactic actually achieves something. It’s also true, though, that serendipity is probably as effective as marketing; sometimes you just need to be in the right place, at the right time, and then do nothing to screw things up. As for marketing strategy as opposed to tactics, well, it sounds grandiose, but it’s really a unicorn. I’m not big on strategies, which our modern world seems to dismiss.
Can sales succeed without marketing? Probably. If a winery has to choose between the two, obviously sales is vastly more important. You do need a properly educated sales force, one that has at least some grip on the winery’s basic facts and ideas, but this isn’t necessarily hard to do. At some point, though, you have to wonder whether or not classic marketing can be updated to the 21st century, or whether it’s time has come and gone. If there’s a next phase of marketing, I don’t know what it is…and neither do marketers.
That old saying “It changed the conversation” needs explanation. Not everybody in America is talking about the same things at the same time. We say Donald Trump has changed the conversation but there are lots of people who couldn’t care less about him. We say Ellen DeGeneres changed the conversation about gays when she came out on T.V. but there were millions of people who didn’t know that and wouldn’t have cared if they had. We say mounting evidence of massive, manmade climate change has changed the conversation, but we all know there are still so many Americans who refuse to believe even the basic science. So we have to be careful when we talk about conversation changers.
Now consider In Pursuit of Balance. It too is said to have changed the conversation, specifically about Pinot Noir, and more specifically, about West Coast (California and Oregon) Pinot Noir. Did it? I can speak from my own experience: Yes, it did. I’ve been a staunch defender of Pinot Noir for years and battled against what I perceived as IPOB’s irrational stance towards alcohol levels. I will yield to no critic for having done more to protect Pinot Noir from assault. I have the scars to prove it. I maintained from the get-go that just because a Pinot Noir was below 14% didn’t automatically make it “balanced” and just because a Pinot Noir approached 15% didn’t make it unbalanced. I consistently argued that if the wine tastes good, who cares what the alcohol is?
But slowly I’ve been looking at things differently. This has been evolving over the past two years. It actually began with my tasting Raj Parr’s 2012s from Domaine de la Côte. Those wines were quite low in alcohol (Bloom’s Field is 12.5%, La Côte is 13%), and while I was prepared to dislike them, after Raj’s execrable 2011s, they actually blew me away, and I began to think that maybe there was something to this low-alcohol thing after all.
Since then I’ve been finding more and more Pinot Noirs excessively heavy. These are mainly the 2013s: celebrated as a near-perfect vintage, it did result in grapes that were intensely fruity, but in many instances I’ve thought it was more successful for Cabernet Sauvignon than Pinot Noir, because Cabernet’s bigger tannins and structure can carry more fruity weight and oak. Pinots that are super-ripe (and oaky) can be heavy, hot and monolithic, lacking the delicacy and cerebral complexity that the wines should possess.
Every once in a while I’ll taste such a West Coast Pinot Noir and think, Wow, this really needs steak or something to balance it out. When the wines are that dark, tannic, ripe to the point of raisins, hot and oaky, they can be hard to appreciate; but rich, fatty fare will take care of that, right? Of course, as a former critic, I’m aware that when we taste wine, it’s without food: you’re sampling the wine in and of itself, without ameliorating factors. Maybe that’s unfair. Probably it is. Normal human beings don’t drink wine (especially red wine) without food. Wine is made to be drunk with food. Still, you need to have consistent rules about wine tasting, and you can’t taste every wine with food. So we taste without food.
But if I think, “Wow, this Pinot is so heavy, it needs beefy fat to balance it out,” isn’t that making excuses for the wine? It’s like a pit bull that snarls and lunges at you on the street, scaring you, but the owner insists “Oh, Molly is a goofball, you should see her with little kids.” You think, “If I had little kids I wouldn’t let them anywhere near Molly,” and you think that Molly’s mommy is making excuses for her out-of-control dog: She doesn’t even realize that Molly is a ticking time bomb. So when I taste a big, thick, heavy Pinot and think “Steak!”, am I Molly’s mommy, making excuses for my pit bull of a wine?
Would I have been thinking along these lines had it not been for IPOB? It’s a hypothetical, but I think the answer is that, as harshly as I criticized IPOB for being ideological, they have changed my way of thinking about Pinot Noir. For the better.
Daniel Patterson’s first attempt at this Oakland space (2214 Broadway), which he called Plum—located at ground zero of the city’s hot Uptown District–was a failure. Plum just didn’t work for Oakland. It’s true that Commis, James Syhabout’s Michelin-starred restaurant on nearby Piedmont Ave., had succeeded with expensive conceptual food, but there’s probably just enough room in Oakland for one such place. Besides, Piedmont, about a mile away, has an entirely different vibe from Uptown: whiter, less edgy, and more receptive to upscale dining; Bay Wolf was there for decades. Uptown was scruffy Downtown until a few years ago, when the Chamber of Commerce types reinvented it. Still, for the fancy new moniker, Uptown remains a little scroungy and rough, which is the way we like it. It’s most successful fooderies for years have been Ike’s Place (awesome sandwiches to go) and Luka’s Taproom, a neighborhood pub, where the old Hofbrau used to get all rowdy on Raider nights.
Daniel Patterson eventually learned—third time’s the charm–from looking around at his neighbors. What Uptown likes is good but casual food, served up in a friendly environment that reflects the town’s urban sensibility. Plum, which was fussy and precious if not pretentious, had none of that. As Eater explained in 2014, Patterson “struggled to find [his] footing,” which “made it hard for it to establish a consistent voice.” If Patterson hasn’t exactly pulled a Syhabout*, he has at least paid homage to the concept that a Michelin chef can also sell street food, with pride.
After Plum closed, other restaurants (including Patterson’s Ume, which featured haut-Japanese fare) tried their hand, unsuccessfully, at the space, which is just off the busy Broadway-Grand Avenue intersection. Patterson, though, apparently is not a man to accept the sting of defeat. He still runs Plum Bar, just next door, in the same block, and now, he has opened Loco’L,
which he dubs “revolutionary fast food.” With nothing on the menu more than $7, it goes to the opposite extreme of the old Plum: to get cheaper food, you’d have to go to Subway, around the corner.
Patterson’s (and co-founder Roy Choi’s) concept with Loco’l is “to compete with the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King, especially in low-income neighborhoods.” The idea, says the San Francisco Chronicle’s Paolo Lucchesi, is “bringing good food to the state’s food deserts – on a large scale.” Another Loco’L supposedly is set to open in San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin District, with a third launching in L.A.
I don’t particularly see Uptown as “low-income” or a “food desert”—if anything, it’s just the opposite, especially judging from the legitimate concerns on the part of locals that they’re getting gentrified out of Oakland. Just two blocks down Broadway from Loco’L is the new Uber headquarters, while kitty-corner across the street are two of Uptown’s most expensive and prestigious restaurants, Pican and Ozumo. Still, the neighborhood (let’s define it as ten blocks in all directions) has plenty of people who are looking for a good deal. They will appreciate good food at Loco’L’s prices. And judging by the crowd last night–largely ethnic and young–that’s exactly what Loco’l is going to draw.
And what of the food? You order at the register—soon you’ll be able to do it from a countertop computer—then stand in line beside the counter until they call your number.
Even though the line was getting long, service was fast. But there are a few wrinkles to iron out. For instance, there’s no alcohol served in the restaurant. I asked an employee about that, and she said I could take my food—“pack it out,” in her words (put it into to-go containers)—
and bring it next door to Plum Bar.
Which is exactly what I did, only to be told by Plum Bar’s bartender that this was not allowed. So clearly, this is something for Daniel to rule on. (Please, Daniel, let us eat at the bar!!!) Besides I’m not sure that I’d like to eat at Loco’l’s seating, which is rather fundamental (the seats are hard upright rectangles and so are the tables).
At the bar, I ordered my standard Vodka Gimlet ($12) and set myself up.
I had three things: a carnitas foldie ($3), a noodleman bowl ($7),
and a chicken nugs crunchie ($4), for a total of $14 before tax. The foldie was awesome: A soft, flat tortilla-type dough, stuffed with spicy meat, greasy and endlessly satisfying. The noodleman was a bit of a disappointment: filling enough, with spicy, chile-hot noodles, scallions and carrots, but it could have had more flavor. Then there were the crunchies, which I devoured: your basic fried, breaded chicken nuggets, but super-good, filled with dark meat flavor, moist and savory. For fifteen bucks and change, this was a hearty, satisfying and delicious meal. Nothing fancy, but fun and oh, so Uptown. I think this time Daniel has got it right. Loco’l will be a huge success. I just hope (memo to Daniel) they let us take the food and eat at the bar.
A few years ago, James Syhabout opened Hawker Fare, an inexpensive joint featuring the Thai street food of his youth. It’s about two blocks from LocoL; nothing costs more than $18.
Csaba Szakal sent me some of his En Garde wines to taste, so here we go.
I preferred the Cabernets/Bordeaux blends, which are from Diamond Mountain, to the Russian River Valley/Green Valley Pinot Noirs. En Garde’s style veers in a bigger heavier direction, making the Cabs lush and flashy, but I wish the Pinots were more delicate–with the exception of the very good ’13 Gold Ridge. The Pinots are also quite oaky. They are all 2013s, a great vintage; no problem with ripeness and lots of fruit. The Cabs were split between 2011 and 2012. The ‘12s are riper, plusher and richer than in ’11 – and higher in alcohol, too, which doesn’t mean the ‘11s aren’t good. They’re a little leaner but more elegant, although if I had to choose, I’d go with the 2012s. There was one Petite Sirah, from Livermore, and quite good in its own right.
The Cabernet Sauvignons
95 En Garde 2012 Adamus (Diamond Mountain), $100. More Cabernet in the ’12 Adamus than the ’11, and higher alcohol (14.8%), too, all of which makes for a better wine. It has the black currants and cassis, the macaroons, the smoky blueberries and the chocolate, but that herby, olivey tapenade of the less ripe 2011 is gone. It’s richer, smoother, deeper and ultimately more satisfying and fun to drink. Really lovely and complete, and the famously hard Diamond Mountains tannins have been buffed as soft and satiny as a pearl. Delicious now, and will age seamlessly for at least ten years.
95 En Garde 2012 Le Bijou du Roi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain), $118, 14.9% alcohol. Fascinating to compare the ’11 and ’12 Bijous. The latter is of course higher in alcohol by a fairly significant amount because it was a warmer, drier vintage. It is thus richer, rounder and more opulent. Like the ’12 Adamus, it is also higher in the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, presumably because the Cab got riper in ’12. The result is a seriously good wine, delicious right out of the bottle, with soft, complex tannins framing blackberry jam, crème de cassis, dark chocolate, espresso and anisette flavors that finish long and spicy. As rich as the wine is, it’s dry, and the alcohol contributes a welcoming note of warmth. I’m not sure I would age this much beyond six years, but it sure is a rewarding Cab that shows the pedigree of its Sori Bricco Vineyard origin.
93 En Garde 2011 Le Bijou du Roi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain), $108, 14.2% alcohol. This is from the Sori Bricco Vineyard, whose grapes have gone to such wineries as Sterling, Stonegate and Nickel & Nickel. En Garde gets a significant quantity of fruit. The blend is 92.5% Cab, the rest being Petit Verdot and Malbec. As might be expected from a Diamond Mountain, the wine is very dark and quite tannic. For an ’11, it’s a big success, but the vintage, much maligned, was far from bad in the Napa mountains, where rainfall drains right off and the grapes did just fine. The wine brims with young, jammy blackberries and cassis, and the 100% new French oak in which it was aged seamlessly adds notes of vanilla and smoke. This is a gorgeous, sumptuous, elegant and rather fleshy young Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, full-bodied and powerful. Already throwing some sediment, it needs time. Give it at least six years, and it should hold and change in the bottle for a good many years afterwards.
93 En Garde 2011 Adamus (Diamond Mountain), $100, 14.2% alcohol. I must admit it’s not clear to me why En Garde bottles both the Adamus and Le Bijou du Roi. Both are Cabernet-based Bordeaux blends from the Sori Bricco Vineyard. The Bijou has more new oak and a little more Cabernet, and it costs a few dollars more, but still, they’re pretty similar, although I suppose the Bijou is worth an extra point for additional concentration. This ’11 Adamus, like the ’11 Bijou, is very rich and full-bodied. Packed with black currants, macaroons, vanilla and spices, it’s a young wine that really needs time. Like the Bijou, it has a suave, smooth, earthy fleshiness: think olive tapenade. Fancy and elegant, it’s a mountain wine of great intensity that will be better after 2018, and should last a long time.
91 En Garde 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain), $78. There’s been some noise out there in the critical community that 2011 was a bad vintage because it was so cold. What they’re not telling you is that some appellations did better than others, and one of the exceptions is Napa Valley mountain Cabernet. This wine is lighter in body than you’d expect from a Diamond Mountain Cab, but it’s still quite tannic, with a fine core of blackberry and cassis fruit. And it’s very low in alcohol, compared to the winery’s previous vintages, only 13.6%, as opposed to, say, the 2008, which was 16%. The result is much more elegant, as opposed to opulent, with a sleek, streamlined angularity that makes you yearn for food. I would not age this wine beyond 3 or 4 years, though.
A Petite Sirah
92 En Garde 2013 Ghielmetti Vineyard Petite Sirah (Livermore Valley): $38. Alcohol 14.4%. A fine Petite Sirah, inky black at the center, yet with a gorgeous ruby-crimson hue at the very edge. It smells youthful and rich, giving a whiff of blackberries, blueberries, licorice, mocha and something animal, now sweet leather, now crisped bacon. These flavors are replicated in the mouth. The tannins are big and hard, exactly what you’d expect in a young Petite Sirah, and I would not recommend drinking the wine at this time because of the astringency. But there’s an impressive core of sweetness, just waiting to burst out. Best after 2020 and possibly well beyond, as it throws sediment.
The Pinot Noirs
92 En Garde 2013 Gold Ridge Pinot Noir (Green Valley): $54, alcohol 13.8%. The color is lighter and the mouthfeel more delicate than En Garde’s other 2013 Pinots, no doubt because the alcohol is considerably lower. The Gold Ridge soil in which the vines are growing is coveted in the Russian River Valley and along the Sonoma Coast; known as “desert rain forest,” it drains quickly, making it infertile, which is great for concentrated, complex wines. This is a tremendously enjoyable Pinot Noir, so silky and transparent that you can taste the minerality that girds the tart red cherries and cranberries. There’s a spicy, tannic, green tea earthiness that adds to that notion of terroir. The delicacy is pure joy: the wine is complex and experiencing it doesn’t tire the palate. I’m thinking of lamb chops or a filet of Wagyu Kobe beef when I drink this very fine wine.
90 En Garde 2013 Olivet Court Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley): $54, alcohol 14.2%. One presumes this is from the Olivet Road section of the valley, a cooler area to the southeast open to the winds and fogs of the Petaluma Gap. And in fact it shows juicy acidity that smacks of chilly, damp nights. Flavorwise, it’s rich in cherry pie filling, with sweet, toasty oak and tremendous spiciness. Very good, very easy to drink, very upscale, if a little full-bodied.
90 En Garde 2013 Starkey Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley): $54, alcohol 14.2%. The winery says the vineyard is “just outside” Green Valley; It implies a cooler climate, and the wine does have that signature. It’s ruby-colored and translucent, and feels lightly alcoholic, with delicacy and silkiness. There’s a mushroomy earthiness, but by and large the flavors are of fruits: tart pomegranates and cranberries. It’s an intense wine whose 75% new French oak gives smoky, woody and vanilla-tinged notes. Give it 3-4 years in the cellar.
89 En Garde 2013 Pinot Noir Reserve (Russian River Valley): $60, alcohol 14.5%. This is the most expensive of En Garde’s Pinot Noirs, and also the oakiest. It’s highish in alcohol, and finishes a little hot, but it is very ripe and flamboyant, offering scads of black cherries, red currants, licorice, blueberries and tart cranberries. The oak is obvious, with toast and vanilla layered onto the fruit. It’s a bit ungainly in youth; my former colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Virginie Boone, described the 2012 as “wild and dense,” which applies also to this ’13. Might develop bottle complexity by 2018.
88 En Garde 2013 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley): $38, Medium-bodied and a little hot in alcohol (officially, 14.5%), this is a good, all-purpose Pinot Noir for drinking now. It’s quite rich in red berries and cherries, while oak adds a vanilla-white chocolate sweetness. Nice and silky on the palate, with a pleasant, spicy finish. It’s super-easy to drink, with some fancy qualities, and ideal for a juicy steak or filet mignon.
87 En Garde 2013 Pleasant Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley): $54, alcohol 14.5%. The vineyard is in Sebastopol, in the southwestern part of the valley, a cooler region. Yet this is among En Garde’s riper Pinots. The black cherry candy flavors veer into chocolate-coated raisins, and there’s some heat throughout. Yet there’s a fat deliciousness. The wine needs rich, fatty food to balance it out.
In honor of our men and women who serve to keep us free.