Fox Farm Wines I’m Using As An Excuse to Talk About Me
Fox Farm Vineyards 2010 Pinot Noir Williamette Valley $28
Fox Farm Vineyards 2010 Pinot Noir Ana Vineyard Dundee Hills $42
Fox Farm Vineyards 2010 Pinot Noir Madrona Hill Vineyard Chehalem Mountains $32
I don’t remember what year I attended Oregon Pinot Camp, but it was after 2001 because I remember going through airport security. The line took forever, but, in hindsight, I know now not to get in line behind Edward Scissorhands. Or Mary Switchbladetits. I had never been to Oregon’s wine country, and I was pretty excited to go. I boarded a plane in Burbank, Bob Hope International Airport (“But I want to tell ya…I don’t mind having a full body scan at airport security. When the officer asked if I had anything to declare I said, ‘Yeah, can you make my nuts look bigger?.’ I’m not saying the airline I was flying had trouble being on-time, but the stewardess was Amelia Earhart. Gorgeous girl, I didn’t mind her going down in a plane.”), and landed a couple of hours later in Portland.
I had a blast at Oregon Pinot Camp. Those junkets are ostensibly about the wines, but, in reality, they’re about being drunk all day away from home, and, to a lesser degree, networking. It was at OPC that I first met Dini Rao, now one of the head honchos at Lot18 (which is, sadly, always preceded by the words “troubled startup,” which reminds me of my rental car at OPC). We bus-bonded, which is not a kinky public transportation game, though it would bring a whole new meaning to “Yank the cord if you want to get off.” Years later, I worked for Dini procuring wines for Lot18. But that’s a story for another post.
The restaurant where I was the sommelier had been an early supporter of Oregon Pinot Noir, which is how I got invited to OPC. When I started working at the restaurant, the list already had a nice lineup of Williamette Valley Pinot Noirs, mostly from the much-talked-about-at-the-time 1983 vintage, from notable producers such as Eyrie, Ponzi, Knudsen-Erath and Adelsheim. I tasted through them, one at a time, and don’t recall being very impressed. In fact, over the years I’ve only rarely been wowed by a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir. It happens, but not nearly as often as I am awed by wines from Burgundy, the Russian River (particularly Pinot Noirs grown on Goldridge soils), and the Santa Cruz Mountains. After that we can talk about Anderson Valley, the Sta. Rita Hills, and Edna Valley. And then there’s New Zealand. Everybody wants in on the Pinot Noir gold rush. Have you tasted director Peter Jackson’s New Zealand Pinot Noir? Kind of a cute name, “Mordor Merrier.”
OPC is a three-day brainwashing for people in the wine biz, those referred to now as “Gatekeepers”—sommeliers, wine shop owners, wine writers… We’re like Saint Peter, we decide who gets past the Pearly Gates. What wineries don’t know is they’re already dead when they finally get to us. OPC is as well-run an industry junket as I’ve ever attended, which is a low bar to get over. And I came home from the experience with newfound enthusiasm for the Pinot Noirs of the Williamette Valley, as well as some kind of rash on my battonage.
I dutifully began to recommend the wines frequently. Everyone seemed to like the wines, and, truthfully, what’s not to like, but I began to notice that customers rarely returned to them on their next visit. Sure, they enjoyed the Oregon Pinot Noir last time, but tonight they wanted something else. In general, once a regular restaurant customer falls in love with a category he usually marches through the rest of the category like Dominique Strauss-Kahn through hotel maids. (I think DSK misunderstood when they said he could have chocolate on his pillow at night.) In my experience, this didn’t happen with Oregon Pinot Noirs like it often did with California Cabernets or Chateauneuf-du-Papes or even Baroli. I’m not sure why, but the wines didn’t seem to excite anyone so much as they simply played the role of Tonight’s Bottle of Wine. There was an incredible buzz about Oregon Pinot Noir in the late ‘80’s and early 90’s. Every wine shop had a big collection of the wines for sale. Where did that excitement go?
As often happens in the wine business, now that the buzz has gone away, the wines have gotten better. I always felt, and this is just a feeling, unsubstantiated by facts, because, really, facts have a way of ruining conversations, that the wines back in the ‘80’s were far too uniform, as though the entire state of Oregon had planted only the Pommard clone of Pinot Noir (I read much later that, essentially, Oregon wineries only had three clones to choose from at the time). It’s kind of like how 50% of the kids in Florida have Shaquille O’Neal for a dad (which is a fact, or as they say when a fact comes out of your butt, a factoid). Now when I get a chance to taste some Oregon wines, I’m more impressed, at least with their widely differing personalities. I do know I’ve been wanting to revisit the Williamette Valley again.
Thomas Ratcliff and David Fish met, according to their website, at OPC in 2005. The OPC is a cesspool of coincidence. After OPC, they ended up starting Fox Farm Vineyards. I’m writing a fucking blog. So I win. David, a regular reader here, a man of exquisite taste, recently sent me three bottles of Fox Farm Pinot Noir. Drinking those bottles over several evenings brought back those OPC days. The hills around Dundee and Newberg, about an hour west of Portland, are beautiful, even from the window of a bus full of drunks, an OPC experience eerily similar to the bus stealing scene from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” only without the hookers. (If you’re listening, junket planners, hookers are a nice touch.) Wine’s intimate connection to memory is what has enchanted humans for 6000 years. (Now it seems Turkey may be the original winemaking site—at least that’s the newest speculation based on the discovery of an ancient amphora, thought to be 6000 years old, that Michael Broadbent drank upon its release at his college graduation.) Sure, there is pleasure in a beautifully made wine, and lots of it. But there is joy and laughter, enlightenment and grace in the memories and experiences that same wine summons almost mystically from the darker corners of our brains And it's those memories we share when we share wine with those we love, not descriptions and numbers and ratings. That's what loving wine is about, and always has been. One may come to understand wine from ratings and descriptions, but one comes to love it from the opposite direction.
Recently, speaking of reviewing wine, over at Jeff Siegel’s blog Wine Curmudgeon, Jeff quoted from my “The Golden Age of Wine Writing?” post thusly:
“The Hosemaster of Wine, best described as the Wine Curmudgeon on an especially bad day, wrote a very nice bit that I wish I had written:
Much of what bothers me about wine writing is how uncritical it is. I love wine as much as anyone I know, but I also really dislike boring wines, stupid wines, and what I think of as fatuous wines. And there are lots of them. I see them getting 91 points, or A-, or somewhere between 9 and 9.5 (so, 9.23567?) from people with the qualifications of a raccoon.”
Nice of Jeff to mention the HoseMaster. In a comment, Rusty Gaffney, who blogs as the Prince of Pinot (I’m never sure if he’s royalty or a short, black, gay wine writer) wrote:
1) The problem with brutally honest criticism of wine based on a personal opinion, unless it is absolutely warranted (ie the wine is flawed), is that it can potentially and irreparably damage a winery's reputation and ultimately put it out of business.
2) There seems to be a fan base for wines regardless of how "fatuous" they are. One critic's boring, stupid wines are another man's preferred drink.”
Does this make sense to anyone? Criticism of any art form is, by definition, based on personal opinion and experience. If you’re a film critic and a movie sucks, your job is to say so, not worry about ruining a director’s career. He should be pursuing a different career. If you go to a restaurant and the food is disgusting, witness the New York Times recent review of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen, it’s your job to say so, not worry about how it affects Guy Fieri, now host of the new game show, “Minute to Hurl It.” But if you’re a wine critic you’re not supposed to do that? Wow, is that ever crap. The job of a critic (and I’m not a critic, I’m just a guy who likes to write about wine now and then) demands honesty; it’s not about being right, or doing the right thing. People heed your opinions because they respect them, and if you pull your punches, you haven’t earned anyone’s respect. Not even your own.
There are only one or two critics who could destroy a winery with a poor review, and the Prince of See No, Hear No, Pinot Evil ain’t one of them. Neither am I.
|Wrong Vintage, but cool critter label|
I sat down one night and opened both the 2010 Williamette Valley Pinot Noir and the 2010 Ana Vineyard Pinot Noir with the intention of just drinking half of each bottle the first night, the remainders the following night. After drinking a glass of the Williamette Valley Pinot Noir I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be that good the next day. But I’m often wrong about these things, so I stuck to my plan.
The 2010 Williamette Valley Pinot Noir didn’t thrill me. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s pretty, it has a simple approach of red fruit and spice, but it never finds its way. Looking for a style from Fox Farm Vineyards, I wouldn’t be able to find one here. Maybe that’s too much to ask from a general appellation bottling. I liked it right out of the gate, but then it faded on me, just like so many of the horses I used to bet on at Santa Anita, the ones now gracing menus at Guy Fieri's place. On the second evening, as I’d feared, it just didn’t have much left. This is unimportant if you just want to drink a bottle of wine and not overanalyze it. I think one could be very happy slugging this wine down. Maybe that’s what I should have done.
And it wasn’t fair tasting it next to the spectacular Fox Farm 2010 Ana Vineyard Pinot Noir. Ana Vineyard is one of the more famous vineyards in the Dundee Hills, sourced by many of the elite Oregon producers. I was surprised to read that the vineyard, which is about 35 years old, is planted on its own roots. It took guts to plant a vineyard on its own roots in the ‘70’s, the Golden Age of Phylloxera and Richard Nixon, a couple of louses fixed on graft.
The Ana Vineyard 2010 Pinot Noir took about an hour to blossom in the glass. If I had judged the wine only from the first few sips, I wouldn’t have rated it very highly. One might sense its potential, but also hesitate to bet the farm on it. Yet after an hour or so, and certainly the second day, I found it immensely satisfying and delicious. (I often say, “Wine’s first job is to be delicious,” which even I’m sick of hearing.) There is a lot to talk about when you drink this wine, from its wonderful depth of fruit to its youthful acidity, which would seem to promise a long future. I remarked to my wife that the wine certainly had the characteristics of great Pinot Noir from the Pommard clone--the vibrancy of the fruit, the seamless texture, the spiciness, and the earthy edge. It really took me back to tasting wines during OPC, which is how this essay got started. Like the best wines, it just picked up steam the longer it was open, gaining depth and richness and complexity. Now the bad news. Fox Farm only produced about 75 cases. Grab some if you’ve been down on Oregon Pinot Noir for a while, it’s easily worth the price, especially in this age of corporate plonk that sells for a lot more money and delivers very little personality.
The Ana Vineyard is a hard act to follow, but I very much enjoyed the 2010 Madrona Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir. It has a racy structure in common with the Ana, clearly a signature of the Fox Farm style, but is entirely different. It was far more accessible right out of the bottle, had a youthful exuberance and embrace, and seemed eager to please. One of those wines that comes right up to you and licks your face, like a puppy, or that creepy guy wearing a Hot Dog on a Stick uniform even though he doesn’t work there. The wine has personality and energy, and is very fairly priced. But, again, only 68 cases were produced. David, come on, stop wasting them on damned Poodles.
OK, here’s a link to the site. You can’t order there, apparently the website is also planted on its own roots, but it has the information for ordering from David. Considering quality and price, damn nice wines.