Thursday, May 14, 2015
TAPAS Before We Kill Again--Part Dos
If you’re like me (God forbid), every time you taste a lousy wine at a large public tasting like TAPAS, you automatically think about all the really good wines you’ll leave without tasting. It’s the equivalent of going to a restaurant and wishing you’d ordered the dish the guy across from you is eating. Or that you were sitting with his date instead of yours, which is what your date is thinking. There were more than a few lousy wines at TAPAS, but at least you have to admire the effort to produce Spanish and Portuguese varieties in California, Idaho, Oregon, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas—states represented at TAPAS, and states where, for the most part, they don’t treat people who speak Spanish all that nicely. It’s a lovely irony.
Like the Rhône Rangers tasting, TAPAS didn’t seem especially well-attended. They had papered the house with lots of media (i.e., bloggers and other freeloaders, like me), but it looked to me as if the actual paid attendance rivaled the recent day game at Baltimore’s Camden Yard. I wonder that people who claim to want to learn about wine don’t attend events like TAPAS. Maybe they never hear about them. Or maybe they have no interest. It’s hard to tell. But so many wine events now are like Diana Ross concerts—the vanity of the star demands a large venue which then has to be filled with people who’ve been given free tickets in order to create the illusion of popularity. But, like Diana’s eight remaining fans, I’m grateful TAPAS continues to perform. I enjoy it. The folks serving their wines at TAPAS cannot afford to take themselves too seriously, and that’s refreshing. You feel like you’re in the struggle with them, which, I promise you, you will not feel at a Napa Valley Cabernet tasting.
When I think Spanish red, I think Tempranillo, the great grape of Rioja and Ribera del Duero. It’s been too long since I last tasted Vega Sicilia, or Pesquera, or any of a number of great Rioja Gran Reservas (Faustino’s 2001 is a modern classic—and stupidly cheap for the quality and history of the wine). They leave little doubt that Tempranillo is a variety capable of producing great wines. It seems that in the New World, we just have to find the right place for Tempranillo—is it Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, or Texas Hill Country, or the Sierra Foothills? Time will tell.
I’d run out and buy the Irwin Family 2012 Tempranillo Sierra Foothills. Derek Irwin is incredibly passionate about Spanish varieties, and he’s a vineyard guy as well as a talented winemaker, a potent combination. His 2012 Tempranillo pops. After tasting a lot of drab efforts, and TAPAS was crawling with them, you notice when a wine sings when you put it in your mouth. I told Derek that his ’12 reminded me of Pesquera (the wine that nearly singlehandedly put Ribera del Duero on the modern map of wine), but, truthfully, it was near the end of my tasting day and I was prone to exaggeration. Hell, I was nearly in the prone position. But I wasn’t anywhere near drunk. My GPS gave me the wrong directions to drunk and was recalculating. I never did get there. Anyhow, I think Irwin Family is one of California’s best Tempranillo producers (though I’m a fan of Yorba’s Tempranillo, not featured at TAPAS, too). The ’12 is luscious, with sweet red cherry fruit, juicy plum and just a kiss of oak. It’s all of $24. And it’s distinctly Tempranillo. Derek told me he’s begun making a Tempranillo in a Gran Reserva style—but his will be two-and-a-half years in wood, two-and-a-half years in bottle. I’m looking forward to tasting that one day.
At Verdad, Louisa Sawyer-Lindquist was pouring both her ’11 and ’12 Tempranillo, produced from grapes from her vineyard in Edna Valley. I liked both equally, though they are very different wines from divergent vintages. The Verdad 2011 Tempranillo has more earthy and tobacco tones to its lively cherry fruit, where the Verdad 2012 Tempranillo has sweeter fruit without much in the way of earth tones, but perhaps has a bit more depth and intensity. The vineyard is farmed biodynamically, so you shouldn’t drink this with a full moon—only take your pants down halfway. Louisa is doing great work at Verdad, and she seems to be one of the guiding forces behind TAPAS, and one of the lights in the California Spanish movement—the Lone Spaingers. Or not. Every one of her wines was damned fine. My favorite red of hers, for the moment, was her Verdad 2012 Graciano Ibarra-Young Vineyard Edna Valley. It struck me as almost a Spanish version of Barbera. Lots of acidity, very bright cherry fruit, with a seamless kind of purity that was very appealing. Plenty of structure to the Graciano, and I suspect it will age quite gracefully, even if it doesn’t develop enormous complexity. Guesswork, of course, pure guesswork, but isn’t that some of the fun when it comes to wine? Wine is like relationships—you never know which ones will last a long time, and which ones will start to smell really bad after a year or two.
Bokisch Vineyards was also serving a Graciano, their Bokisch Graciano 2012 Terra Alta & Las Cerezas Vineyards Lodi. If Verdad’s was like Barbera, the Bokisch was more like Zin. But those are just my stupid impressions. The difference would seem to be ripeness, Edna Valley vs. Lodi. The Bokisch shows some jammier characteristics, but I was impressed by the fleshiness of the wine, and it’s sizzling, almost white pit fruit, acidity. And there’s also a bit a savoriness here, a dash of earthiness and minerality—yes, it’s sort of a rocky Graciano (oh, man, that’s stupid). Graciano is an old and distinguished variety, and judging from the Verdad and Bokisch, one I am drawn to. The Bokisch is $23! On this planet, that’s a deal. The Graciano is a knockout (OK, stupid again--and I hate boxing).
Morgan Winery has a line of Spanish varieties under its Lee Family Farm label, and I quite liked the Lee Family Farm 2013 Tempranillo Monterey County made from fruit from Ventana Vineyards. It has a nice juiciness to its plummy fruit, a nice use of oak, a little herbal character, and a clean and bright finish. It maybe didn’t scream Tempranillo, but it’s completely delicious, and I’d gladly drink it. Though I think I’d much rather drink the Lee Family Farm 2012 Grenache Monterey, which is also rather simple, but has all that sweet, appealing, cherry-berry character I love about Grenache. It’s also a little bit bloody, a firm iron backbone running through it. Like a lot of winemakers who are good with Pinot Noir, Dan Lee seems very surehanded with Grenache, too. This is a very stylistic and pure Grenache. Especially for $24.
Speaking of price, isn’t the biggest hurdle for these domestic wines competing with Spanish wine prices? There are so many wonderful Spanish reds that sell for less than $25. One of the big reasons Napa Valley can charge so much money for Cabernet Sauvignon is because they are pricing on the coattails of Bordeaux. Whereas there are only five First Growths in Bordeaux, Napa Valley wineries believe they are just about all First Growths. Napa has more Growths than the Elephant Man. In Napa, 90% of the wineries think they’re in the top 5% of the wineries. You could argue that California and Oregon Pinot Noir prices reflect Burgundy’s prices. But Rioja prices have always been, and continue to be, ridiculously low, even in these days of the Euro—low considering the ageability and quality of the wines. So if you’re growing great Spanish wines in Lodi, as Bokisch is, or in the Sierra Foothills, as Derek Irwin is, even at $24 you’re getting top-notch Spanish prices—only you’re not making any money at those prices (or not much). And when I see a price for domestic Tempranillo around $30, I automatically think of several dozen Spanish wines that are cheaper and better. That’s very tough on these TAPAS folks. How do you get to be a wine Starbucks and charge six bucks for coffee worth a quarter? Offer free Wi-Fi? I don’t envy the folks dedicated to the Spanish varieties (which are also, for the most part, a lot of the Rhône varieties, too). As in most areas of life, passion can lead you straight to the poorhouse.
Lastly, there is Monastrell/Mataro/Mourvèdre. Mourvèdre has more common names than everyone in Korea. Is there anything better with duck than Monastrell? Yeah, I know, how often do we eat duck? It’s also perfect with cassoulet, a dish that always makes me think of a fat singer working as a bullfighter. (You know, I just let my mind wander in these pieces, I don’t pretend to be editing this crap.) There were better Mourvèdres at Rhône Rangers (especially the Skinner Estate 2012), but I was duly impressed by the Bokisch 2012 Monastrell Belle Colline Vineyard Clements Hills Lodi. At $23, well, it’s striking. Blueberries and plums with a whisper of smoke, and an umami finish—my first impression was simply, “Delicious.” It has delicacy and definition, and has the kind of texture and sweetness one might taste in a good Monastrell from Jumilla. Turns out I like the Spanish varieties from Lodi a lot more than I like the Zinfandels.
Regrets? I have a few. But then again, too few to mention. I did TAPAS my way. I do wish I’d tasted Abacela’s Tempranillo (I’ve liked it in the past), and that I’d tasted the Texas Tempranillos. There seems to be some buzz about Texas Tempranillo and I’d like to quash it. I didn’t get to Twisted Oak, which always strikes me as the Tobin James of the Sierra Foothills—more laughter than substance (that sounds familiar—Ju? Milla?). And I missed out on Quinta Cruz, a winery I’ve heard good things about. So it goes. My apologies to those folks, and anyone else whose wines I didn’t taste.
Hope to see you next year.