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’s Laugh-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.

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Thomas said...

Once again, nice reviewing.

Now, about this: "Oak is catnip for humans."

A winemaker once told me, "Sugar is the opiate of the masses."

What happens when you marry catnip with sugar?

You start a cult.

Marcia Macomber said...

Your reviews always make me want to go out to find the wines and stick in my head much longer than the usual reviews. (Of course, I rarely read any except here, so no wonder they stay in my head!)

I love that you state the obvious about the Petaluma Gap! For years I've thought about where the pants store must be but never said it out loud. Ah, the blessings of a comedy writer to state the obvious. :-)

Samantha Dugan said...


Now you know this one, "What happens when you mix catnip with sugar?" it's Cougar Juice my friend, good old Rombauer.

Ron My Love,
I'm with Marcia here, every time you write I wish to devour what it is you're writing I am especially partial to the posts where you write about my absolute favorite, You. I love reading your notes Babe and I love you so!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks. I'm not sure who made the catnip remark to me, it was a LONG time ago. But it stuck with me. He (and it was a he) said that although people will deny they like oak, they actually love to roll around in it like cats roll around in catnip. Over the years, it seems he was right.

"For oaknips" might be a good tasting note.

Every now and then I get the urge to actually write about wine. Well, about wine, and how I think about wine. Some folks, like David Rossi, have been kind enough to send me wine unsolicited, without expectation (expectoration?) of a review (mainly because a HoseMaster review has all the clout of an Albino Medal from the Appalachian Inbred International Wine Competition). And when the urge hits me, I wax poetic (or Brazilian, it depends) about the wines. It's a luxury for me to do, though I think most folks tune out two paragraphs in and wish I'd written jokes instead.

Next up, at some point, Stolpman Vineyards.

My Gorgeous Samantha,
Not sure I'm worth devouring, Love. I start out OK, but, in the end, I'm way too flabby.

I love you too!

Samantha Dugan said...

Sigh....rebuffed yet again. Guess I'll just have to stick to my hard as nails, firm, sharp and mouth-tingling Frenchies then.

Unknown said...

You were right Ron my eyes were starting to glaze over by the LL joke.. not as bad as that recent RJ bj on Krug.. by the time I got to the 99 point score with the rapid bubbles I rolled my glazed eyes and said, jeesusus RJ you must have a hot date coming up and really need some free champagne...

Ron Washam, HMW said...

You need to start your own blog so you have something you like to read.

I wish I could say that I write HoseMaster for my audience, but that would be a lie. I write it for the literary exercise, for practice, for the fun of playing with tone and voice and pacing. "Eyes glazing over" is a useful device in writing. Many great novelists will insert pages of dull exposition (well, dull to me) in the middle of novels just for pace. That's not really what I'm doing, but it serves the same purpose. Changing the way this stupid blog is read.

I also happen to like to write about wine, though I don't do it here very often. I don't do what Richard Jennings does, and have no desire to. He wants to be a critic, I have no ambition to be one. I want to talk about wine, and specific wines provide a springboard. If it's not interesting to you, or anyone, I can't say I care. It's an interesting exercise for me, one that makes me think about how I think about wine. I only publish these because it kills another post. I know that they are everyone's least favorite editions. I can hear the collective yawns. Doesn't bother me. My satire gets the same response most of the time.

Unknown said...

I don't yawn when you write wine reviews. I like your wine reviewer voice as much as I like your satirist taking aim at the many various absurdities within the wine industry voice. You are a good writer, have more than one club in the bag, and play them all well.

I once thought that your wine reviewer voice would take away from your satirists voice, but it doesn't.

Write for yourself. If you are pleased, if you laugh or smirk or groan, we will too.


Thomas said...

"Write for yourself."

John, that's the purest form of writing, and also the surest way to never get paid for it. ;)

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks. I do write for myself, for the most part. And, as Thomas wisely points out, for free.

I think if I got paid for most of this crap, I'd feel guilty.

I appreciate that you get the difference between the HoseMaster and my reviewing voice. They're related, but entirely different. Like James and Paula Deen.

Unknown said...

Honored that you would mention them. Although I would have hoped you would have been more glowing in your praise. In the future I would like to write the reviews myself and then just send them to you for publication. Just think of the time it would save!

Thanks again.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Good idea, David, you'd probably even get the facts straight.

Thank you for giving me your lovely Pinot Noirs. Very stylish and pretty wines. And, after tasting a lot of other 2011 Pinot Noirs from California, many that were truly lousy, I appreciated their quality even more.

Unknown said...

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”
― Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey, now I do have Allen and Rossi on the same blog!

As Ms. Atwood recommends, I most certainly assume no one reads this crap, though, apparently, a few folks do anyway. Thanks for the quote from a writer I've long admired.

Truth is a slippery business. But in the wine business there's truth, half-truth and marketing. I try to live in the first one.

Thomas said...

Ms. Atwood's quote points out exactly why memoirs are largely marketing.

It's easier to write a version of the truth if you cloak it in fiction--or satire.

It is always version of the truth because, having been a journalist, I know that truth does not exist; unless you are a wine critic; then, it's ratable.

Unknown said...

Re Hacienda del Rio: the Hacienda people (now long gone except as a brand in Fred Fs portfolio) sued Ed and Bert so they just changed the name.

Ben Papapietro still has a Hacienda del Rio t shirt. And he can fit into. Me jealous.

Re oaknip:
I remember Bob Thompson reviewing a bunch of wines and saying he liked them because they weren't oaky...every one of the wineries involved bought lots of barrels from me.

This stuff happens all the time.

PaulG said...

I see nothing wrong at all with oak nip as long as the fruit remains intact, the wine is balanced, and the alcohol isn't in the stratosphere. But I do take umbrage, sir, at your hasty dismissal of the excellent Pinots from Oregon. I challenge you – Poodles at dawn! And I will be awaiting you, with baited pen, when I post up Monday's blog.

WineKnurd said...

Writing about wine now Ron? That award must have changed you. Absolute power corrupts absolutely!

Chris / 'Knurd

Ron Washam, HMW said...

The "oak" character in wine always attracts interesting comments, and differing opinions. See it all the time at wine competitions. Different judges have far different tolerance levels, or perception levels, of oakiness. As Paul notes, if the wine is well-made, oak is a terrific component. When the first thing you notice about a wine is that is has a lot of oak aromas, then, for me, I'm not that happy about it. However, when I first started in wine, and first began tasting expensive Cabernet, I liked oak a lot more than I like it now. Now it often tastes like dollar signs to me.

Yeah, making blanket statements about wine is always stupid. Making blanket statements about blankets is stupid, for that matter. I like Oregon Pinot Noirs, and there are many that are damned good, but, as a category, it doesn't get me excited, not like Hermitage or C-D-P, Chablis, Barolo, Burgundy, or even Howell Mountain Cabernet. Just personal taste.

But, then again, who doesn't like a good Poodle fight?

I've written about wine (archived under "Wine Essays") for a while now. Breaks up the monotony--well, actually, it creates the monotony I break up with the comedy.

What award?

Unknown said...

Ron, I could go on and on about what makes a good barrel etc. I refuse to bore the Hosemaster and his pals. Those wanting to be bored can look at my website.

What amuses me is when I see writers dump on the idea of wines having residual sugar, too much oak and/or too much alcohol and then praise the wines with these qualities.

Thomas said...

"I like Oregon Pinot Noirs"

Yeah, and making blanket statements about a state isn't so smart either ;)

How do you feel about Italian wine?

Sam, get on his case for these blanket pronouncements--he loves you better and can take it from you.

Samantha Dugan said...

You think I have any, ANY, control over this one?! Pah-lease. In fact I think he might be more willing to do things just to rile me up. But thanks for the vote of confidence.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

You know, I'm sure I've been guilty of describing a style of wines I don't like, but then liking one that exactly fits the description of the wine I supposedly don't. It seems to me that wine is much more complicated today than it was 30 years ago, as every year seems to bring new "innovations" in winemaking. It's scary to look at a catalog of all the tools in the winemaker's bag now. And I think it's that scary toolkit that also drives the "natural" wine movement to a degree as well.

Sometimes, with wine, I don't want to look behind the curtain.

In general, you're right.

My Gorgeous Samantha,
In general, I love you.

I love you!

Prince of Pinot said...

Ron, the Brousseau Vnyd is in Chalone AVA, not Santa Cruz Mtns - I am sure you are aware of the mistake.

Secondly, if you want to see unopened bottles of Hacienda del Rio and old bottles of Willams Selyem dating to the first release under that name, visit Nikolai Stez at Woodenhead (at winery, not tasting room) - it is a sight to behold!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Rusty,
If you're that Prince of Pinot...

Yup, quite the boner on my part with the AVA. I acknowledged it in a footnote in the post. Embarrassing mistake. I didn't just change the piece and then pretend it never happened, as so many bloggers do. Always best to just cop to being fallible, or downright stupid. I recently corrected a horrible grammatical error over at Terroirist (the Best Overall Wine Blog 2013 Poodle winner), the author wrote "so him and his wife decided...," in a comment. They fixed the grammar and deleted my comment. Silly, but I wasn't surprised.

I'll make a point of seeing the old Hacienda del Rio bottles at Woodenhead--I know Nick trained with the Williams Selyem gang (I just visited Denise Selyem at WesMar yesterday--lovely 2010's!). What are the odds I can get him to open one? Million to one?

Thanks for reading and chiming in.

PaulG said...

Yo, Mel, what's with the critic bashing? The goal is to be objective. I may indeed give a good review to an over-oaked, palate-burning fruit bomb – not because I like it, but because it is well made in a style that some readers will. It's not my job to impose my personal taste on the world, simply to recognize quality work in a wide range of styles. If that includes some of your overpriced wood, so be it. Mazeltov!