“…any food product that feels compelled to tell you it’s natural in all likelihood is not.”—-Michael Pollan
Thursday, July 18, 2013
Glass Half Empty, or Glass Fulcrum?
Fulcrum Wines I’m Using to Talk About Me
Fulcrum Wines 2010 Pinot Noir Londer Vineyard Anderson Valley $54
Fulcrum Wines 2011 Pinot Noir Gap’s Crown Sonoma Coast $57
Fulcrum Wines 2011 Pinot Noir Brosseau Vineyard Chalone $54
Fulcrum Wines 2011 Pinot Noir Wildcat Mountain Carneros $54
It’s been a couple of months since I last tried my hand at reviewing wines. (“Tried my hand” is an odd phrase, when I think about it. Reads like a diary entry from my high school prom.) I don’t solicit wines for review. But now and then a regular reader, or a marketing person who follows the Poodles, perhaps cleaning up after them with a shovel, offers to send me wine. I never promise to write about the wines, and I’m not certain anyone cares. I’ve had many winery marketing directors tell me that HoseMaster of Wine™ is the very last blog they would choose to submit their wines for review. I like to believe that’s because they fear that I may just tell the truth about their wines, but that’s my own egotistical fantasy. What’s closer to the truth is that they just don’t see HoseMaster of Wine™ as a wine blog that is taken seriously, or has any sort of influence. And, even closer than that to the truth, they think many in the biz find my blog distasteful and, therefore, they want to steer clear of this place. They’re probably right.
David Rossi, whom I’ve never met, has been an occasional commentator here. (I prefer the word “commenter,” though I don’t think it’s in the real dictionary, because “commentator” sounds like a Russet or a Fingerling. But I digress.) I once idly mentioned, in a response to one of his comments on a blog post, that I’d never tasted his wines. He kindly offered to ship me a few bottles. This was a few months ago, but I like new vintages of wines, newly shipped, to rest a bit before I drink them. I wasn’t sure, after consuming them, that I was going to write about Fulcrum’s Pinot Noirs. But, after some recent experiences, I decided I’d take a crack at them.
A lot has changed around California Pinot Noir in the last ten or fifteen years. While Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has always had a large number of “cult” wines, beginning with Yverdon in the late ‘60’s and followed by Heitz “Martha’s,” Caymus “Special Selection,” (both Heitz and Caymus have seen better days than recent releases), Grace Family Vineyard, Bryant Family, Harlan Estate, and, the Easter Seal poster child for “cult” wines, Screaming Eagle, in recent decades Pinot Noir has captured the public’s desire for trophy wines. Williams Selyem seems to have started that trend. History will look back at what Burt Williams accomplished with Pinot Noir in California with awe and reverence. Yes, there were others before him, Tom Dehlinger and Joseph Swan most notably, but it was Burt Williams and Ed Selyem who made Russian River Pinot Noir desirable to influential wine buyers with money. Starting as Hacienda del Rio (I’ve never tasted or even seen a bottle of the original Hacienda del Rio—but it would be cool to run into one some day), they had to change the name when they were threatened with a lawsuit by Hacienda Winery (once a pretty good winery, but now something of a dumping ground for reprehensible plonk). That name change was their first bit of luck. Hacienda del Rio? Pretty stupid name. Sounds like the slutty sister of Dolores. Or was that Vanessa?
After Williams Selyem’s incredible success came Marcassin and Kistler, and then Kosta Browne, and now Pinot Noir possession had the same bragging rights as owning a vertical of Colgin Cabernet. As a sommelier with all that cult stuff on the wine list, I started to see demand for those Pinot Noirs skyrocket. There was a brief time, really the ’85 vintage, when Oregon Pinot Noir was the choice of wine trend chasers. That didn’t really last. But, suddenly, a few years after that, I couldn’t keep up with the demand for Williams Selyem and Kistler, Marcassin and Rochioli Reserves. And that demand hasn’t seemed to have let up.
Meanwhile, new techniques for making Pinot Noir started to pop up. I’m far from an expert on this sort of thing, so far I shouldn’t even mention it. But introducing enzymes during fermentation for more extract and color started to make much beefier and darker Pinot Noir. It wasn’t always a dollop of Syrah that made a Pinot Noir dark and intense. Pinot Noir got oakier and oakier. (A winemaker once said to me something I’ve never forgotten, “Oak is catnip for humans.” Yes. So many people say they don’t like much oak, but then they drink wines with lots of it and swoon.) A lot of Pinot Noir tasted like it had been picked at 28 Brix and then watered back. I’m fine with any sort of technique a winemaker chooses to employ—it’s their wine, after all. I don’t take advice about what I do on HoseMaster of Wine™ very seriously, otherwise I’d spend all day attempting to place it several feet north up my inseam tunnel. But too often the prettiness and delicacy of Pinot Noir was left behind for boldness, while an exaggerated texture substituted for actual depth of fruit. If that reads like gibberish, that’s probably because it is. I think I’m saying that, in many cases, Pinot Noir got too ugly for me. Like the Republican Party, though they could actually use more extract and a lot more color.
Fulcrum Wines only makes Pinot Noir. I always wonder if that’s a good thing for a winery, even a small one like Fulcrum (it seems David’s production is fewer than a thousand cases). Wouldn’t you get bored just making one variety when there are six thousand others to play with? It’s sort of like monogamy when you think about it. It seems like a good idea, and every vintage is a challenge, but there are a lot of varieties to explore that you’re pretty sure you could put your thumbprint on given the chance. Hey, some might even want to try a hybrid, that’s kinky. But David Rossi chose grape monogamy. You won’t catch him getting his pipette wet with some strange.
David gave me his four current release vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs. It’s a privilege to be able to taste them individually, with a meal, and over the course of a day, and mostly two. You get a sense of the house style, of what David is trying to do with Fulcrum. It’s a long way from going to a big public tasting and putting an ounce in your mouth, then expectorating into a disgusting bucket full of wine-people spit. I taste wines that way, but I’d never consider reviewing wines that way, and never believe the reviews of others who do. Tasting wine and drinking wine are two different things entirely. It’s like reading only one chapter of a book and then raving about it (this from a guy who reviews books without reading a single word, of course). It just makes very little sense. As for Fulcrum, if you like Pinot Noir that is intent on purity and delicacy, on aromatics and subtlety, on the conversation between winemaker and vineyard, on Pinot Noir as the prettiest girl in the room, I think you’ll like Fulcrum Wines.
The 2010 Fulcrum Pinot Noir Londer Vineyard Anderson Valley is sourced from one of the great Pinot Noir vineyards in Mendocino County, and that’s saying something. (Remember the old Rowan and Martin’sLaugh-In bit?…If Anderson Cooper married Rudy Vallée, and the Supreme Court says he can, he’d be…well, he’d Anderson Vallée married to a dead guy.) This was the first Fulcrum wine I drank, and it proved to be a bellwether for the brand. It leans on its aromatics, which are compelling and beguiling. Red fruits dominate, but it’s the floral aspect I liked. I thought of violets, and I liked the tension between the dark floral notes and the lighter red fruit notes. It was something interesting to talk about. And it captures the beauty of Anderson Valley Pinot Noir nicely with its grace, and with its touch of earthiness that speaks to the coolness of the place. Very refined, and very pretty, but, at first, I found myself subtly wishing for more power. But the longer I sat with the wine, the less I cared about the sort of tastebud-numbing power we too often associate with greatness these days. We forget that grace has its own power, and a more genuine power. And here I’m thinking of Nelson Mandela as an example. Wines, these days, could use more grace and a bit less power. There’s beauty in that.
A few nights later we opened the Fulcrum 2011 Gap’s Crown Pinot Noir. Gap’s Crown Vineyard is in a very cold part of the Petaluma Gap (come on, who doesn’t hear that as a place to buy pants?), yet another interesting place for Pinot Noir. Again, this Pinot Noir is driven by its gorgeous nose, an entirely different nose than the Londer. As it should be, and can be, when you focus on the fruit and not the oak regimen or extraction. The fruit here is darker, and more feral. That feral quality, sort of like forest floor mixed with a sage character, a wild and untamed impression, is a quality I seem to get often in Petaluma Gap Pinot Noirs—some from Sangiacomo Vineyard have it. It’s a quality that pairs really nicely with earthy foods--mushroom enhanced meals, or duck, maybe cassoulet. But I thought this was beautifully rendered wine, with Fred Astaire-like masculine grace, and I was very impressed by how the flavors lingered. Like Astaire, not just style, but grace.
David is savvy enough to seek out a Pinot Noir vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, for me, maybe the best appellation for Pinot Noir in California (though I can certainly live with the Russian River Valley being called that). I saved the Fulcrum 2011 Brousseau Vineyard Chalone to drink when I wanted something really good— and it was the appellation that made me assume it would be special. From my early days of drinking wine and “discovering” Chalone, Martin Ray, Mount Eden, David Bruce and the old Ken Burnap Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards, I’ve loved that area. Toss in Calera after that, and now Rhys, and that’s a damned impressive roster of Pinot Noir. And it’s the limestone that does it, I’m certain. Hard to find limestone soils in California wine regions, but the Chalone appellation has plenty. They yield wines of uncommon and distinctive beauty, as they do in Burgundy. And this was my favorite of the Fulcrum Four. Spicy and dark fruit dominate, and while it ends up being another aroma-driven Pinot Noir, it takes a lot longer for this wine to open up. It was far prettier the second day, and the blackberry/raspberry fruit was joined by a nice herbal presence, lavender, I thought, a dash of pepper, and thyme. My feeling is (and I’m probably just making this up in my head—you may have noticed I do that a lot) that the limestone soils contribute a vibrancy to the fruit that’s unique. The wines seem more alive. And it’s structure is more seamless that the others, the tannins more aligned, and that also contributes to its sense of grace. I just adored this wine.*
*Much of what I wrote here is true, but, as my alert reader Anonymous 1 pointed out to me in a private email, the Chalone appellation is nowhere near the Santa Cruz Mountains. In fact, it's in the Gabilan Mountains east of Salinas. Duh. It's still limestone soils, and in a very cool region, but it sure as hell ain't in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Luckily, none of this hurts my credibility. I don't really have any. My thanks to Anonymous 1 for beginning my day with a large serving of humble pie.
Finally, and thank you for reading through all this, even if your eyes are glazed over like Lindsay Lohan at an acting seminar, we drank the Fulcrum 2011 Wildcat Mountain Carneros Pinot Noir. It must be said that as much as I like Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir, I don’t tend to be enamored of Carneros Pinot Noir. There’s always something undernourished about them. They often strike me as muddled, windswept and ungenerous (like my blog, really, which may be why I don’t like them very often). This is dangerously general, like Egypt, but I’m simply trying to explain my own prejudices. And from the very first, the Fulcrum Wildcat Mountain smelled like Carneros. That sort of leaner, greener, thinner version of Pinot Noir, though it’s better than that, really, and does have nice fruit aromas, though it’s simply not as lovely to me as the other Fulcrum Pinot Noirs. It’s clean and well-made, has elegance and style, but it was my least favorite.
Fulcrum’s wines aren’t cheap. Not sure how they could be given the quality of the fruit sources and the obvious care they receive. Are they worth it? Hey, they’re your pockets, I don’t know how deep they are. They’re certainly worthy of your attention, and I suspect they will emerge from a bit of cellaring, say six or eight years, with even more depth and complexity. They’re all made in lots of about a hundred cases, but for the Gap’s Crown, which is 200 cases. Not much wine, really, so many thanks to David for sharing. And a quick suggestion, David, how about an Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Russian River to fill out your portfolio? Make an old comedy writer happy to drink an Allen and Rossi.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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