If I asked you which aspect of terroir–soil or climate–the French attach greater importance to, which would you pick?
I bet you’d say soil. And yet, twenty-six years ago, in Friends of Wine magazine, Emile Peynaud, undoubtedly one the greatest enologists of the 20th century, and the father of modern cult winemaking, said, “I think it is really climate that makes the difference [in wine quality], not the soil,” when he was asked why Bordeaux is such a great winemaking region.
Climate! How very Californian. Still, Peynaud himself seemed as puzzled by this complicated equation as the rest of us; and he returned repeatedly to the subject of soil in his writings. In the English translation of his masterwork, The Taste of Wine (1987), he writes of the importance of the “soil” of the vineyard to wine quality: and breaks soil down into “the surface soil, the subsoil and its water content, and exposure.” Barely a word in this section (p. 226) of climate or weather; instead, “Wines can be classified according to the topology of their vineyards”—river wines, coastal wines, mountain wines, plateau wines, foothill wines, valley wines and wines of the plain. Peynaud’s use of topology suggests he was well aware that the physical parameters of the site—and not just the climate—were co-influencers of the wine.
Of course, implicit in any conversation about wine is the assumption—not really an assumption, since, in the case of France, it’s backed up by a thousand years of evidence—that certain varieties are best suited to certain climates: Chardonnay in northerly Chablis, for instance, and Grenache in the warmer south. That this is patently true is beyond dispute, given France’s reign at or near the top of the wine world. It also is true that Cabernet Franc, say, or Sauvignon Blanc might perform splendidly in Chablis. Wouldn’t the latter love Chablis’s chalky soil? But we will never know, at least, not anytime soon, given France’s stringent appellation controllée laws. So this is at least indirect evidence that terroir is shaped by culture and law.
I am, as my readers know, a climate guy. I don’t dispute the importance of soil, but I’ve long held that any soil can be amenable to great wine, provided (a) that it’s well-drained and (b) that the variety is suitable to the climate. In Willamette Valley, you have marine-sedimentary soils, for instance, at Adelsheim’s Calkins Lane, and volcanic basalt at Penner-Ash. Both produce high-level Pinot Noir; Wine Advocate, to cite but one critical source, routinely rates both from the low- to the mid-nineties. What they have in common is the northern Willamette’s cool, maritime climate.
Peynaud, in his formal analysis of terroir and cru, adds a puzzling element to the list of their constituent parts: reputation. Readers might not be blamed for scratching their heads at this point. Reputation? What does that have to do with the fixed and immutable aspects of cru? Yet so important is its role that Peynaud insists, “If one of this roll call were missing there would be no cru.” No “reputation”, no cru, and therefore no wine quality. So we have to inquire what he means.
It’s not that reputation, per se, determines the qualities of any particular wine. That would be very odd. But from a “nature vs. nurture” argument, reputation is the nurturing aspect, terroir the nature aspect. Every winemaker producing wine in a recognized region is aware of the context of his activity; winemaking seldom occurs in a vacuum. If I am making Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley, I know its long and historic reputation (and if I were making Pinot Noir in Vosnes, its reputation would be even more daunting). I therefore would craft my wine in such a way that it would be a worthy reflection of its appellation. I would try and let my site “speak” in its own voice, but as the winemaker I would be in ultimate charge of making sure that voice came across in a pure way, a Russian River Valley (or Vosnes) way. I would not want the critics to howl at my wine being “atypical,” a cuss word among that elite group. Winemakers, too, feel these pressures. Next time you hear one say he does nothing but “let the vineyard speak,” realize he’s saying something he thinks he’s supposed to say. He may even believe it. But he’s also working within a rather narrowly defined context, and that context is reputation.
Indeed, this is why, in Taste, Peynaud concludes his section on Cru with this quote: “The cru is the qualitative expression, more often than not based on taste, of the biogenic capability of the environment.” He means that “the biogenic capability”, which is the natural components of terroir, is a mere potentiality that can be realized only by the taste, i.e. the consciousness, preferences and will, of the winemaker, who is aware of the region in which he labors and seeks to make wine compatible with its reputation. “The wine is made in the vineyard,” therefore, is a misleading, if humble, statement. As with all human creative activity, wine is made, first and foremost, in the mind.
This is my take on the situation. I hope to hear from you about yours. Agree, disagree, whatever you add will be appreciated. Thanks.
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Pinot 1.0 extended from approximately the Repeal of Prohibition (1933) through the 1950s. Growers knew they wanted to plant Pinot Noir because it was the great grape of Burgundy. But they had little or no concept of where it grew best, so they installed it in places they had already cultivated for varieties like Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc: Napa Valley and the eastern Russian River Valley around Santa Rosa. The climate wasn’t always right, growers didn’t have access to good clonal material, and they didn’t understand that Pinot Noir isn’t vinified the same way as Zinfandel. The result was wines that were not outstanding. As late as 1986, Friends of Wine magazine—then the leading consumer wine magazine in America—stated categorically, “California Pinot Noir has yet to achieve an acclaim parallel to that of Cabernet.”
This began to change with the advent of Pinot 2.0. It was an extraordinarily creative time. Beginning with tentative efforts in the late 1940s (Tchelistcheff going to Carneros, for example), growers gradually understood with more precision that Pinot Noir needs to be planted in cooler coastal areas. By the late 1960s, the race was on, towards places like western Santa Ynez Valley, the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Anderson Valley, Carneros and the central and westerly stretches of the Russian River Valley. The quality of the Pinot Noirs improved, especially with the importation of Dijon clones in the late 1980s-early 1990s and a more thorough understanding of winemaking technique. Critics began to sit up and take notice.
Pinot 3.0 was simply an extension of this trend. Growers began to discover specific terroirs within the cooler regions, and to further adapt their plant materials and techniques to those particular micro-climates and soils. For example, the greater Russian River Valley began to be understood in terms of smaller sub-regions within it: Laguna Ridges, the Middle Reach, the Santa Rosa Plain, and so on. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw a huge improvement in the quality of Pinot Noir: riper wines, more delicious and savory and balanced, that, in the view of many, gave Burgundy a run for its money. Then came Sideways, and the public eagerly hopped onboard.
But enough is never enough when it comes to fine wine. Pinot 4.0 began in the last several years, encouraged to some degree by the rise of organizations like In Pursuit of Balance, and spurred by a new generation of sommeliers. But this new phase of exploration seeks wines that go beyond mere hedonism and deliciousness to capture what the wine writer Richard Olney calls Pinot Noir’s “mysterious, sensuous, transcendental, ethereal” nature.
How does a winemaker capture such a will-of-the-wisp transcendence? Olney says it is only through “the genius of the terroir,” a concept the Burgundy expert, Allen Meadows, further elucidates in his analysis of La Romanée-Conti itself. Its terroir is such that it produces “subtle and reserved, even austere” wines that do not “shout or call attention to themselves, but require the connoisseur to come to it rather than it coming to the taster.”
This is a momentous step. It’s no longer enough for the greatest Pinot Noirs to appeal only to the senses. Pinot now must appeal to the intellect. It becomes a cerebral experience: more French New Wave film than Hollywood blockbuster. Wines, to paraphrase Meadows, that require us to sit back and think and talk about them.
Now that we have identified, in California as well as in Oregon, the cool-climate sites, we can take this journey to the next level: which is to explore individual vineyards of extreme interest and complexity. These generally are hilly. Their soils are austere, with no water-holding capacity. Weather conditions may be marginal, such that not every year will be a “vintage year.” The challenges to grapegrowing in such sites—from frosts to pests and steep slopes—are daunting: they require the most intensive viticulture. But the results, which will take winemakers many years to fine tune, are bound to be amazing. Pinot 4.0 represents, in California and Oregon, the most daring challenge to Burgundy that has ever been mounted.
Every once in a while you have a winetasting you know you’ll long remember. Yesterday’s Zinfandel romp was one. We’ve had a lot of amazing tastings over the last year and a half, but this was one for the books.
Yesterday I suggested that Zinfandel has always been a bit of an under-achiever, in my book. We talked about this at the tasting: somebody wondered why Zin never gets perfect 100s. I speculated that it could be for two reasons: First, that it’s not really a “noble” variety and thus not capable of perfection. Secondly, that it would take a considerable amount of courage for a professional critic to give a Zinfandel 100 points. Wine Advocate, for instance, has never given more than 98 points to a Zin, nor has Wine Spectator given higher than 96 points. Maybe there’s just something inherently rustic about even the best Zinfandel. We can argue endlessly about why this is.
Anyhow, when you do a blind tasting that thrills you to the marrow, it’s terrifically exciting to remove the bottles from their papery shrouds and see what’s what. This was certainly the greatest Zinfandel tasting I’ve ever attended and I’m tempted to say it’s one of the best that’s ever been held. It wasn’t big—only thirteen wines—but it did represent a critical best-of-the-best. Should other wines have been included? Sure. You can’t have everything. Should we have had bottles from Paso Robles and the Sierra Foothills? Probably. But I have to draw the line someplace, so I held it to Napa-Sonoma-Mendocino—with that one outlier from the Oregon side of Columbia Valley, Sineann.
Here are my results (not the group’s):
98 Hartford 2012 Old Vine Fanucchi-Wood Road Zinfandel (Russian River Valley): $55, 14.6%. This was quite simply the greatest Zinfandel I’ve ever had. It immediately followed the spectacular Martinelli [see below] and was so different in style, it momentarily caught me off-guard. But then I realized the wine’s magnificence. My notes as I wrote them: “Black! Huge, deep, dark, brooding. A helluva Zin. Massively compact: raspberries, blueberries, cherry pie, dates, bloody meat, bacon, sweet oak, spices. Ultra-rich, yet balanced and silky. Really a super-Zin, distinguished and terroir-driven. An almost Oriental complexity.” During our subsequent discussion I compared it to a Bach fugue: So many levels, all playing contrapuntally off each other.
96 Martinelli 2014 Jackass Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $95, 16.6%. It should be noted that this is not the winery’s Jackass Hill Zin, which is grown on a far steeper slope. I wrote: “A ripe, flashy, approachable style, but enormously complex. Strawberries, raspberries, vanilla bean, cocoa dust, toast, mocha, orange zest and masses of spice. Simply delicious and easy. Silky sweet tannins, the perfect glass of Zin, oaky-sweet.” Another taster found white chocolate. The alcohol was enormous, but the wine wasn’t hot at all. Just a lovely effort from Martinelli. It stood in contrast to the Fanucchi-Wood: The Beatles, say, instead of Bach.
96 Hartford 2013 Old Vine Highwire Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley): $55, 15.5%. A spectacular Zin. What a roll Hartford is on! From century vines, including some Carignane and 55% new French oak, which it easily handles. My notes: “Very bright, uplifted nose. Super-briary and brambly, classic Russian River Valley Zin.” (Yes, I nailed that!) “Wild raspberries, chamomile, cedar, menthol-eucalyptus. Tons of sweet raspberries, spices (clove, pepper, cinnamon). First-rate Zin, delicious and satisfying.”
95 Novy 2013 Papera Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $33, 15.8%. Another old vineyard, planted in the Laguna de Santa Rosa section, and a field-blend of various other varieties. It was interesting to compare it to the Williams Selyem [see below], which also was from Papera fruit. My notes: “Dark. A lush, ripe, fruity style. Flashy and delicious. Raspberries, mocha, red cherries, smoke, brown sugar, cinnamon. Very delicious, complex, a real beauty. Lots of zesty acidity, with a long finish.”
94 Sineann 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel (Columbia Valley); $39, 15.2%. I included this because I wanted a ringer in the group, but also because Wine Enthusiast gave it 95 points while Wine Advocate said, “To be totally honest I find this difficult to even think about swallowing in a[n] appreciable measure” and declined to give it a rating. My notes: “Lively, clean. Nice burst of acidity, smooth, silky tannins. Rich, spicy raspberry, cherry, persimmon fruit. Scads of spices: white pepper, clove, cinnamon. Orange zest, vanilla, cocoa, smoke. Drinkable now.” So I guess I agree with Wine Enthusiast on this one!
94 Edmeades 2013 Perli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge): $?, 15.5%. Edmeades is fortunate to have access to this and other high, remote mountain old-vine vineyards in this gorgeous part of Mendocino County. The grapes grow on 60% slopes at 1,500 feet, which no doubt accounts for the intensity. I wrote: “Black! Very rich, almost candy-sweet in cherries and dates. Smooth, silky tannins, nice smokiness, a fleshy note of pork belly. Fat, gras, glyceriney (high alcohol). Hedonistic, heady, a great example of a big, rich, ripe Zin.”
93 Williams Selyem 2013 Papera Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley): $55, 14.8%. This was the first wine in the lineup and I loved it instantly; we all did. But sometimes that first wine tastes better than it really is, so I went back to it several times. I wrote: “Good saturation. Gorgeous perfume: raspberry, cocoa dust, violets, black pepper. Burst of acidity. Smooth, sophisticated. Huge blast of raspberry and spice. A touch of raisining. Some heat, not much. Nice herbaceousness. Classic Zin.” Clearly the Papera Vineyard gives ripe, balanced and elegant fruit.
93 Carlisle 2013 Carlisle Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley): $47, 15.0%. I “discovered” Carlisle years ago at the old Hospice de Rhône event in Paso Robles, when Mike Officer was pouring his Two Acre. I thought then it was one of the best blends I’d ever had, and gave him, I believe, his first major review. His estate vineyard, like Papera, is in the Laguna de Santa Rosa, and is a field blend containing who knows how many other varieties. I wrote: “Lovely aroma, all wood smoke, raspberry preserves, clove-cinnamon spice, sous-bois. Good fruit, sweet, silky tannins, with a minerality.” Initially, I found the wine overly tart, which was a turnoff that caused me to lower my score. However, over time, I found myself liking it more and more. My 93 point score may be generous, though. I’d like to try this wine another time.
93 Limerick Lane 2013 Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $56, 15.0%. Spectator gave this 96 points. I didn’t like it quite so much, but it is a very nice Zinfandel. I wrote: “Dark! Very young, tight aroma…closed, dumb. Hints of forest, wild herbs, blackberries, smoke. Closed, tannic, muted in the mouth. But feels fine, high quality. Give it 4-5 years.”
92 Edmeades 2012 Gianoli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge); $31, 15.5%. Another of those fabulous mountain vineyards Edmeades sources from. My notes: “A lighter color. Easy-breezy Zin, super-drinkable, likeable now. Silky and balanced, with tons of sweet red fruit, toast, marzipan, macaroon. Zesty acidity. Well-made, with some raisining.”
91 Turley 2013 Zampatti Vineyard Zinfandel (Sonoma County): $65, 15.9%. The tiny vineyard is in Santa Rosa and qualifies, I believe, for a Russian River Valley appellation, although it doesn’t say so on the label. It was planted in 1915. I wrote: “Good ruby color. Delightful aroma, clean and classic Zin. Briary, brambly, with wild cranberry, persimmon fruit. Deep, broad flavors, polished, silky, very appealing. Not a profound wine, but with vast appeal.”
90 Robert Biale 2013 Grande Vineyard Zinfandel (Napa Valley); $50, 15.4%. The vineyard was planted in 1920 on the Silverado Trail, in what is now the Oak Knoll District, and is another multi-variety field blend. This was definitely a wine that improved in the glass. I wrote: “Bigger, riper, raisiny [compared to the Williams Selyem that preceded it]. For me, though, a bit too big, alcoholic, almost a Port except it’s bone dry. Rather soft, too.” But as it showed more complexity and an almost intellectual component over time, I ticked my score up a few points.
87 Novy 2013 Limerick Lane Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $34, 15.3%. This was a big disappointment, especially because the Limerick Lane Zin was so much better. I wrote: “Reduced (sulfur). Not blowing off. Somewhat tough and astringent. Full-bodied, with blackberries, but outclassed in this flight. Somewhat heavy.” It did improve with time in the glass, but sadly, 87 points was the best I could do. Others found it more appealing.
I’ll be tasting a bunch of Zinfandels today as you read this. It’ll be the first time we’ve tackled Zin in my regular tastings at Jackson Family Wines; until now, we’ve done Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignons and red Rhône blends.
I guess I’m like most people in that I consider some varieties more “important” than others. I know that’s irrational, but there it is. I know that Zinfandel is one of those varieties that can be stunning, but for some reason it doesn’t leap to the front of my mind when I think of California’s best wines, the way Pinot and Cab do. Perhaps it’s because there’s no great European analog to Zinfandel.
Maybe I’m wrong, and in a way, I hope I am. Historically, you don’t get any greater than Zin. But maybe it was Zin’s very association with Nonno and homemade wine that tarred its reputation. When people began to get serious about it during the boutique winery era, it looked for a moment like Zin might become very important. But it didn’t happen: Cabernet so overwhelmed the red wine category that people started ripping out their old Zin vines, a catastrophe that was temporized only by the unforeseen popularity of White Zinfandel.
Many of the Zins we’ll be tasting today are from those remaining old vines, particularly from Sonoma County and most particularly from the eastern parts of the Russian River Valley, around the Laguna de Santa Rosa. Here’s the lineup:
- Edmeades 2013 Perli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge)
- Novy 2013 Limerick Lane Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
- Novy 2013 Papera Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
- Hartford 2012 Old Vine Fanucchi-Wood Road Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
- Hartford 2013 Old Vine Highwire Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
- Edmeades 2012 Gianoli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge)
- Carlisle 2013 Carlisle Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
- Limerick Lane 2013 Zinfandel (Russian River Valley)
- Turley 2013 Zampatti Vineyard (Sonoma County)
- Robert Biale 2013 Grande Vineyard Zinfandel (Napa Valley)
- Sineann 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel (Columbia Valley)
- Williams Selyem 2013 Papera Vineyard (Russian River Valley)
- Martinelli 2014 Jackass Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley)
Pretty cool, no? Edmeades, Hartford and Novy are, of course, Jackson Family wines. It’s important for a winery to taste its wines against the best of the competition, and the other Zins are wines that traditionally get high scores from the critics, including me. The Sineann is from Washington State: I wanted to include it because it’s been getting some good scores, and also I like to include in these blind tastings “ringers.” I’ll tell the other tasters that one of the wines is an outlier and we’ll all try to guess which it is.
You have to be very committed to Zinfandel in order to do it at the level of these wineries. Zin remains a tough sell. If it’s expensive—and these are—people wonder why they should buy Zinfandel instead of, say, Cabernet, Merlot, Petite Sirah, a Chilean Carmenere or Argentine Malbec, or some other full-bodied red wine. The “Zin and barbecue” formulation is true enough, but it’s become a journalistic cliché, encouraged by editors selling advertisements. And producers don’t want the public to think you can only drink Zinfandel when ribs are grilling on the barbie. Zinfandel acreage in California is actually up in the 2000s, although not by much: in Sonoma and Napa, it’s virtually unchanged, which shows that growers don’t place much faith in its future.
But as I say, the wineries we’ll be tasting today believe in Zinfandel, and each of them has their loyal fans. I’ll report on our tasting tomorrow, and on whether or not we were able to nail the Sineann as the outlier.
These Pinot Noirs are marked less by distinctions of terroir than by a similarity of winemaking style. All are quite ripe (and the 2014 drought vintage gave exceptionally concentrated fruit). Such qualitative differences as there are amongst them are more a matter of personal preference. Having said that, all are very good: my scores range between 92-96 points, except for one, as you’ll see. These are quintessential New World or Californian Pinot Noirs, lush, broad and delicious. I do wish that Brian Loring had held the wines back for another 12 months before releasing them: they all are extremely young and somewhat grapey. But you can age them yourself. All will be better by late 2017, and all the wines, by the way, are closed with screwtops. As a P.S., I will add that the official alcohol on all the wines is 14.3%, which I find bizarre. Draw your own conclusions.
Loring 2014 Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands). A very fine Rosella’s, which is to say, a very fine Pinot Noir! Great structure, with a mouthwatering hit of acidity highlighting deliciously complex flavors of raspberries, red cherries and persimmons. At the same time, there’s a grounding earthiness that reminds me of Portobello mushrooms, oiled and grilled: a savory umami thing. There’s a leatheriness that comes through the tannins but also a beef jerky note that brings additional umani-ness. The more I taste this wine, the more impressive it gets. Wildly tasty. As with the rest of Loring’s ‘14s, it’s super-young, but one of the few that is absolutely compelling now, although if I had a case, I’d drink a bottle or two a year through the early 2020s. Score: 96.
Loring 2014 Rasi / Three Barrels (Santa Rita Hills); $42. This wine was included in the samples Loring sent me, but I’m not sure if they mean for the brand to be Rasi or Loring; the labels don’t make it clear, so I’m calling it a Loring wine with a proprietary Rasi name. The winemaker is Rachel Silkowski, Loring’s assistant winemaker [Ra-Si: a contraction of her first and last names, pronounced “racy”]. At any rate, the wine is a small-production blend of the Kessler-Haak, Clos Pepe and Rancho La Viña vineyards. It is more powerful than Loring’s vineyard-designated bottlings, with concentrated raspberry preserve, chocolate and ultraripe plum flavors, and a caramelly, toasty coating of French oak. A big, intense wine, yet it remains delicate, pure and lilting. Scores high on the deliciousness scale, and benefits from real complexity. Score: 95.
Loring 2014 Rancho La Viña Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills). The vineyard is located on the far western edge of the appellation, on the south side, which is an exceptionally chilly area. Despite some intense raspberry and persimmon flavors, there’s a cut of Heirloom tomato, wild mushroom and leather, giving the wine an animal and earthy herbaceousness that is by no means unpleasant. There’s also a firm electric wire of acidity that brightens and heightens the flavors. With a jacket of smoky oak and firm but ultra-refined tannins, it’s a silky, beautifully complex wine for drinking now, and should develop bottle complexity over the next six years. Score: 94.
Loring 2014 Graham Family Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley). The vineyard is in the Green Valley, north of Graton, a center of cool-climate Pinot Noir. It’s a young vineyard planted to Dijon clones and the Swan and Calera selections, and the wine tastes primary-fruity and juicy. Raspberries, cherries, pomegranates, you get the idea, with crisp, Lifesaver candy acidity and a gentle scour of tannins. There’s oak in there, not too much, and the alcohol is moderate. The result is a savory, delicious wine for drinking now and over the next five years. The smokiness suggests lamb chops, and you can throw in some roasted new potatoes with butter and rosemary. Score: 94.
Loring 2014 Aubaine Vineyard Pinot Noir (San Luis Obispo County). For those who drive along the 101 Freeway in this part of the Central Coast, the vineyard is south of flag-draped Laetitia, in the area of Arroyo Grande Valley. It is planted to the Dijon clones 667 and 777. The wine is exceptionally fruity, brimming with ripe raspberries, plums, cranberries and pomegranates, and is finished with a stimulating spiciness. The acidity is just fine. There is also a welcome animal-earthiness suggesting wild mushrooms and blood-rare steak. Like Loring’s other ’14s, it will benefit from additional time in the bottle. Drink after 2017. Score: 94.
Loring 2014 Keefer Ranch Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley). This long has been a coveted source of grapes for wineries lucky enough to buy them. The vineyard is in Sebastopol, in the Green Valley. It’s a cool region where the grapes don’t reliably ripen, subject to the chilling winds off the Petaluma Gap, but in a successful vintage, which 2014 was, the wines can be quite good. It was the earliest harvest ever due to warmth and the drought, yet the wine feels crisp and balanced. It’s juicy in cranberry, strawberry and persimmon fruit, with a nice coating of smoky oak and a long, dry, spicy finish. Drinks well now, and should hold in the bottle over the next six years. Score: 93.
Loring 2014 Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands). An impressive Pinot Noir, clearly New World in style, showing its California roots in sunshiny ripeness, yet with a crisp bite of acidity. Is it particularly Santa Lucia-ey? Not really, but it is definitely coastal. You’ll find upfront sour red cherry candy and bitter cranberry flavors, but also a tannic edge of black tea. The finish is wonderful: dry, long, rich and spicy. It’s a wine that grows more complex as it breathes and warms in the glass, offering ever more earthiness, mushroominess, minerality. I wish Loring had held it back from release for another one or two years, but it does show the pedigree of this fine vineyard, located in the tenderloin of the appellation. Score: 93.
Loring 2014 Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills). The vineyard is, of course, one of the best known in the appellation, originally planted in the 1990s, only the ninth vineyard in that area. It’s in the northern part, just west of Babcock and Melville, in other words a cooler section in the tenderloin of Pinot country. In addition to wines from the Clos Pepe brand, many wineries, including Siduri and Loring, have sourced its grapes. The vineyard was bought last year by Napa Valley’s Hall; we’ll have to wait and see what happens. This ’14 is young, for sure. It’s all about primary fruits: cherries, cranberries and plums, and firm tannins, as well as mouthwatering acidity. The finish is thoroughly dry, and shows a spiceiness of nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, anise and black pepper. It’s very good, but, as with the rest of Loring’s ‘14s, rather young. Give it a few years in your cellar, then twist that screwtop off. Score: 93.
Loring 2014 Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast). This famous vineyard is located a few miles southwest of the town of Sonoma, in the flatlands on the border of Carneros, yet within the greater Sonoma Coast appellation. The wine is young and grapey-sappy, almost like grape juice. It would have benefited from more time in the bottle, but you can age it yourself. It’s a fine wine. Bone dry, with adequate acidity and a scour of tannins, it has layers of sour cherry candy, persimmons and orange rind, just enough to satisfy fans of overt fruit. The wine is complexed with an earthiness suggesting tannic black tea and mushrooms. The overall impression is impressive, but too young. If you drink it now, give it a decanting of several hours. Score: 92.
Loring 2014 Russell Family Vineyard (Paso Robles). Your first impression is of power. The fruit kicks in, all baked cherry pie and chocolate-covered raisins, with a nice coating of oak. There’s something candied about it, with soft, just-in-time acidity and broad, furry tannins. The vineyard is in the Willow Creek District, on the cooler western side of the gigantic Paso Robles appellation. Tasty, but it’s the least of Loring’s 2014s. Score: 88.
I’ve held off commenting on Peter Mondavi, Sr.’s death, because it’s been well covered elsewhere, and also because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to bring to the conversation.
It’s already been noted, for instance here in Wine Spectator, how much Mr. Mondavi contributed to modern winemaking techniques, such as cold fermentation and the use of French oak barrels. Important as those were, on reflection I think his greater contribution was to the sense of continuity he brought to a valley in which well-heeled newcomers enter the arena all the time, often acting as though Napa’s history hadn’t really been complete until they arrived.
This is not to say that Mr. Mondavi’s importance simply was longevity, although that, in itself, is an achievement. It also was an achievement of the first rank that he, together with his family, was able to keep Charles Krug Winery strong and in their hands; this was one outfit that, no matter how hard things might have been here and there, refused to sell out, although I’m sure they had opportunities aplenty.
But perhaps Mr. Mondavi’s greatest achievement—which he has bequeathed to Napa Valley—was that of a vision held steadfast. It can be difficult to define “vision.” Wealthy newcomers to the valley have visions, too; of Parker 100s, $300 wholesale prices on their wines, and all the glitz and glamor that go with the cult wine lifestyle. That is, to paraphrase Churchill, at least a vision…but it is not a particularly savory one.
The vision Mr. Mondavi possessed, he inherited from his parents, Cesare and Rosa, themselves saturated in the traditions of grapegrowing and winemaking. From their humble beginnings in Lodi, in the darkest depths of Prohibition, they were practically the living incarnation of the modern evolution of California wine. Peter Mondavi, Sr. and his brother, Robert, you might say, were born in barrels.
Why does continuity matter? It may be that I perceive its value more today than I might have twenty years ago. Continuity, in the person of a man or woman, is the residual compilation of all that has occurred up to that moment: the person becomes the living embodiment of it, and thus worthy of respect. If a wine region such as Napa Valley can be said to have a soul, then that soul resides not so much in its terroir, nor in its buildings, and certainly not in its newcomers, but in its enduring legends. And Mr. Mondavi was an enduring legend.
You know, in the last several years of Mr. Mondavi’s life, his family made a great deal of him walking up and down that famous flight of stairs on his way to work, even at his centennial age. They were proud of his health and grit, as well they should have been. But whenever I read that he was still climbing those stairs, I thought, not just about a single individual, but about Napa Valley. That it is still there, ascending, persevering, reporting to work every day, despite the nonsense that sometimes threatens to overwhelm it and, in our lemming-media culture, usually does. In that sense, Mr. Mondavi was a metaphor for Napa Valley itself. Just imagine what his eyes perceived over his long lifetime: the events, personalities, achievements, the drama, the ups and downs and tumult–a sweep of history encompassing, through his parents and his own life, most of the twentieth century and, through his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, born and not yet born, what likely will be a good part of the twenty-first and even the twenty-second. That is what Mr. Mondavi means to me. If I ask myself who else in Napa Valley is like him, or ever will be, the answer is: No one.
More “aren’t they special” plaudits for young wine bloggers in this op-ed piece from the online edition of beveragedaily.com. The author lets us know that—at long last!—bloggers are “telling the story” that presumably has not been told before: wine lovers now have “real” people, AKA wine bloggers, to help them in their quest to find good wine. Not “technical” academics, not “corporate” hacks, not dinosaur Boomer critics, but “real persons” who can “provide a crucial link between the industry and consumers” and who understand, as never before, the “passion” of winemakers.
Finally! After centuries of being hectored, lectured and bullied by wine snobs ranging from Thomas Jefferson and Professor Saintsbury to Dan Berger, Parker and (ahem) me, consumers are being spoken to by their peers, people they can trust to not bamboozle them. I wrote the other day, concerning National Drink Wine Day, that apparently anybody can declare a National Something Day, so I’m going to propose that the fourth Thursday of each February now and henceforth forever be #National Wine Bloggers Day. I created that hashtag on Twitter. I’m urging my Congressional representatives to make it a national holiday. No work, no school, fly the wine flag high and let the nation celebrate wine blogging by, well, wine blogging. Remember what Jefferson immortally said: “A nation of wine bloggers will be a bloggy nation.”
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Speaking of Dan Berger, I associate myself entirely with his remarks the other day in his column, in which he cast considerable doubt on the ability of wines to age—even wines that are very expensive and that you think, for perfectly valid reasons, have the capacity to age well.
Dan writes, “I have long noted the utter failure of some expensive reds to taste better with even as little as a year of age.” He adds that, as a reviewer, “It is one reason I am reluctant to assert wine has potential when I cannot be certain it does.” Consumers should take note: Dan Berger has tasted more old wines than most people ever will. I completely agree with his assessment. I’ve stored a lot of wine, mainly red, mainly California Cabernet Sauvignon, in various storages (small fridges, big wine units, professional wine lockers) and I can’t tell you how often I’ve been dismayed at the results. The wines become, not splendidly aged as one would hope, but “tired,” to use Dan’s word.
I believe that critics make far too much of aging wine. Bigtime “name” critics do it first, and then small wannabes mimic them. Consumers are left confused and frustrated, believing they have to age wines but not knowing which ones to age or for how long. I have my own theory how this all started: In France, a long, long time ago, winemakers did not know how to manage tannins. This was a problem compounded by often poor vintages caused by the Little Ice Age that struck Europe. The result was wines that really were “undrinkable” when they were young. Britain was the main buyer of French wine: Bordeaux and Burgundy, and for a while, when Britain was at one of her frequent wars with France, she turned to Portugal for wine, especially vintage Port: another wine impossibly tannic when young. What to do?
Turned out that many British consumers of wine, being wealthy, had large castles (ah, the good old days); and these castles had underground cellars where the temperature never warmed up much beyond the mid- to high 50s. Since these men bought their wines in enormous quantities rather than by the bottle (no corner wine store in those days), they stored the wines in these cold cellars, where they discovered—voila!—that after many years, even decades, the wines finally shed their tannins and became sweetly mellow. In this way there developed the custom of laying down wine for one’s children’s or grandchildren’s 21st birthdays, a custom we still see here in America.
But somewhere along the line arose the modern practice of tannin management, and lo and behold, most wines are perfectly drinkable upon release. They’re riper and softer than ever before in history, which makes them great to drink the first six years or so. My advice: Cellar stuff if you want to. But be prepared to be disappointed, especially with California wine.
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CALIFORNIA’S NEWEST APPELLATION
As far as I can tell, most of the wines from Lamorinda (just approved by the Feds as an A.V.A.) are backyard hobby efforts. The name “Lamorinda” is an concoction of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda, three very wealthy suburban towns just on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel from Oakland, in the county of Contra Costa, so named by pioneers because it lay on the “opposite coast” of the Bay from San Francisco. I have long known men of wealth in that area who planted grapevines in their backyards, on slopes of the East Bay Hills; I’ve tasted some of their wines over the years, and they’re not bad. I don’t think anyone really knows if any one variety or family of varieties is best suited for Lamorinda. People grow everything from Pinot Noir to Zinfandel and, of course, Chardonnay. They even make sparkling wine. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Lamorinda wines to pop up on store shelves or restaurant wine lists. Maybe some local restos, but not otherwise. Nor do I expect the somm community to discover and promote the red-hot wines of this new appellation. But good luck to my through-the-tunnel winemaking neighbors, and congrats on getting your appellation! I know what it takes, because I’m going through the process myself, up in Oregon.