Thursday, January 16, 2014

Halcón You Do Me Like You Do?


Halcón Vineyards Wines I’m Using to Talk About Myself
Halcón Vineyards 2012 Prado Alder Springs Vineyard Mendocino County 180 Cases $32
Halcón Vineyards 2011 Alturas Syrah Yorkville Highlands 175 Cases $38
Halcón Vineyards 2012 Esquisto Yorkville Highlands 220 Cases $32

I’ve spent most of my adult life evaluating wine, in one way or another. In hindsight, this seems outrageously stupid. And yet, here I am, still writing about it, still tasting it, still evaluating it. It’s such a magnificent obsession, I even measure my life like a vertical. Let’s see, the 1999, that was a great year, very satisfying, and still holds up today. The 1989, well, just a terrible vintage, dead from the time it was opened—I hate that year. All the critics thought 2013 would be a great year, but that’s why I never believe any of that prognostication. Overall, my 2013 was a disappointment, and smelled moldy. It’s an illness, this passion for wine, for which there is no cure. Except maybe reading wine blogs.

The one thing I’ve learned from a career tasting wines is that there is no foolproof way to evaluate wine. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Every methodology has its weaknesses. Some are far worse than others. Attending a large tasting in a gigantic banquet hall smelling of mildewed carpeting, sweat, and putrid marketing materials, a hall filled with hundreds of people, half of them drunk, the other half gatecrashers, and then reporting scores? Just dismiss the dolts who do that. It might be the only way they have available to taste a lot of different wines, and that’s fine, but pretending their evaluations have any meaning is arrogance. Buying wine based on that sort of recommendation is like choosing a make of car after watching a demolition derby.

Tasting at the winery with the winemaker or owner? It’s a good time, and it’s educational, but there isn’t anyone who can’t be swayed by the experience. And let’s not forget that owners and winemakers frequently lie to wine writers, sommeliers, and anyone else within hearing. Not all of them, not every time, and sometimes just for sport, but often enough that you should be wary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a winemaker swear he doesn’t filter his wines only to spot a filter in the corner of the winery—and it isn’t dusty. And if you ask around, absolutely no one adds MegaPurple to their wines. (This might be feasible considering Trader Joe’s blends reek of it, so they must buy a lot.) I was at a tasting several months ago of Pinot Noirs from the far west coast of Sonoma County. Most of the wines were from the dreadful and wet 2011 vintage, several smelled like the inside of a hoarder’s house. I asked every winery about the vintage, and every single winery, about 25 different wineries, told me they picked “before the rains.” Wow. So why were the rains a problem? I asked a few producers if any wineries in attendance hadn’t picked before the rains. No one would be specific (I didn’t expect them to be), but most said a few they knew about had picked after, or during, the rains. None of that matters to the wine evaluation; it’s what in the bottle that counts. My point is an awful lot of wineries will simply tell you what you want to hear. You report it, it becomes fact. It’s on the Intergnats, it has to be true.

Blind tasting? For judging, it’s best. Especially when there are lots and lots of wines to evaluate, say, for a wine competition, or a wine publication. Yet it seems nuts to spend a lifetime accumulating knowledge, then discarding most of it when you taste a wine. That’s the pattern of someone who’s been divorced five times. (Yes, I’ve been divorced once—from reality. Trust me, when it comes to reality, get a pre-nup.) And do scores or ratings get changed when a wine is revealed after being evaluated? A basic understanding of human nature would make you think absolutely they get changed at times.

Tasting alone is different than tasting with a panel. And, most importantly, drinking is completely different than tasting. There are so many variables in wine evaluation, it almost makes it seem useless. OK, you said it, not me.

On a practical level, if you want to be famous, want to be known for your wine tasting acumen, you have to judge lots of wines, and write about them. I don’t want to be famous, nor do I worry about my acumen. When I read a wine blog about a junket, or a visit to a winery with the winemaker, it seems all I read is a predigested testimonial carefully served to a marginally talented writer, much like how a bird feeds its young by regurgitation, which he or she then dutifully repukes onto the screen. Who believes that crap? If those pieces were judged on a scale of objectivity and truth, most would be lucky to score 82 points.

When I decided to write these occasional Wine Essays, I decided I would write about wines that were offered to me, essentially unsolicited, and that I would drink each bottle with a meal, often over the course of two or three days. Most wines don’t deserve that kind of attention, that’s for certain. I go to as many tastings as I can, visit wineries all the time, but that’s for personal fulfillment. I don’t write about those experiences, except satirically. I want to get to know a wine or winery before I spend all this time writing this baloney. A lot of wineries are loathe to send samples, don’t want to cede any sort of control to a puny little wine blogger who actually knows something about wine, and I’m fine with that. I’ve been lucky, and have received wines from terrific sources like Gramercy Cellars, Rocca, Loring, Fulcrum, and Mathis, to name a few. And, no, I don’t claim objectivity or truth. Just passion.

Last June, my beautiful wife and I dined at Scopa Restaurant in Healdsburg for her birthday. Wonderful restaurant, by the way, if you’re in the neighborhood. You really don’t want me doing restaurant reviews. I’m a foodie like I’m a fartie—I just do it, I don’t brag about it. Anyhow, on Wednesdays during the summer, Scopa has winemakers come in and serve tastes of their wines, talk about their wines, and sell wines to patrons. On Kathleen’s birthday, it was the nice folks from Halcón Vineyards--Paul Gordon, the owner, and Jackie Bracey. We tasted the wines, were very impressed, even bought a glass or two, but I was more focused on my beautiful wife, and we were drinking a lovely bottle of Ricasoli 2006 Casalfero with our dinner, so I wasn't that focused on the Halcón wines. I gave Paul my HoseMaster card (I get looks), and that was that.

Several months later I received an email from Paul offering to send me his new releases. I’m glad I accepted his offer. Halcón was new to me at Scopa, but I’m a fan now. I think their wines have everything going for them. And if you’re a fan of Syrah, and the other Rhône varieties, you must, you MUST, I tell you, get on their mailing list.

Halcón Vineyards are way up in the Yorkville Highlands, a relatively new appellation that overlooks Anderson Valley from the southeastern edge of Mendocino County. The vineyards are at 2500ft, making Halcón one of the highest vineyards in California, excluding Pisoni, but for a different reason. And, here’s where it gets crazier, the vineyards are planted to 2200 vines per acre. That’s denser than a Rudolf Steiner lecture. Planted in 2004, and it must have been crazy expensive to plant 2200 vines at 2500ft in the middle of damn nowhere in Mendocino while wearing bulletproof vests, it’s still a young vineyard. I want to go there. They say that the altitude, soils and exposure of  Halcón Vineyards create a climate similar to Côte-Rôtie. Where I come from, them’s fightin’ words.

Their white wine comes from purchased fruit, but Alder Springs is a great vineyard way out on the coast in Northern Mendocino. Their vineyards must be above 2000ft. The Halcón Vineyards 2012 Prado is 50% Marsanne and 50% Roussanne from Alder Springs Vineyard. Does it seem to you that the white Rhône variety wines from California are getting better, but never really taste like their Rhône counterparts? I think that’s a good thing, honestly. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a Viognier from California that reminded me of Condrieu, for example. Just an observation. The Prado was delicious, and one of the better California white Rhône blends I’ve tasted. It was very slow to open, testament to its tightly woven structure. When it did, the wine had a gorgeous perfume of apricot, white peach and honey. Oh my, it’s lovely. Yet it’s best when you drink it and feel the tension of its acidity. It’s a high strung wine, vibrant and edgy, and very nicely assembled, with loads of personality. Making a white wine like Halcón’s Prado is like working without a net. One false move, the tiniest loss of balance, and it plunges to its death. Man, I make that sound so melodramatic. It’s just really tasty wine.

On to the estate wines, though I hate to leave that pretty Prado. The Halcón Vineyards 2012 Esquisto is 65% Grenache, 30% Mourvèdre, and 5% Syrah. “Esquisto” is Spanish for “shale,” and, believe me, this wine is fracking good. If you’re thinking Australian GSM, you’re way off track. My first note for this beautiful wine spoke about its obvious cool climate upbringing. Cranberries and cherries dominated the fruit notes, but there’s a decided herbal edge, I thought it was closest to sage, and the unmistakable savoriness of Mourvèdre. It’s very graceful and enticing on the palate, more ballet than tap dance. It seemed a bit light when first tasted, but it kept gaining size and weight as it opened, like a snowball running downhill. With a simple piece of beef, which, luckily, was very lightly seasoned, it was illuminating. I love restraint and subtlety in wine, they allow the fruit to show all its contrasts, and the 2012 Esquisto is a hallmark of that style. I’m guessing it will be gangbusters in four or five years.

Finally, and aren’t you glad Halcón only sent me three wines, there’s the Halcón Vineyards 2011 Syrah Alturas Yorkville Highlands. No one would mistake this for Côte-Rôtie, friends, though Jeb Dunnuck says he did (he mentions “liquid mineral” in his tasting notes—what the hell is that? Lava?), but I love this Syrah! When a wine is this seamless, this evocative of its variety, this interesting and graceful, I refer to that wine as having integrity. One can describe it, try to explain its ineffable appeal, but when criticizing it, one is nitpicking. I haven’t the wit to nit, though I’m a nitwit, so I’ll paint a word picture. From a cool vintage in a cool vineyard, it shows Syrah at its blue fruit and white pepper best. I was smitten as soon as I sniffed. When tasted with roasted lamb chub (I often awaken to a lamb chub, but that’s different), the Syrah blossomed. The 2011 Alturas has the bones and intensity for the long haul, though it may need a bit more stuffing, a symptom of its youthful vines. I have this weird hunch that Alturas might become one of the state’s signature Syrahs. Time will tell, of course, and ratings. But I’m a believer.

Halcón Vineyards


Steve Lay said...

I am a fan of your blog. Maybe that does not speak well of my intellect; so be it. Well your latest musings on Halcon, dining with your bride in Healdsburg, and tastings (all in one blog)was a great read. I would add one other tasting method in assessing whether I like a wine--Sipping. Here is how I work this subjective method. After dinner I often have red wine left in the bottle. With that bottle in hand I sit down in front of the TV or computer and then start the technical aspects of sipping-no food, just sipping. If I still like the aroma's and balance it is good. If it doesn't hold my interest I use it as a rust remover.

Unknown said...

Interesting stuff Ron.. but I notice when you review wines, you never come down hard on any of em and usually rave about em.. not every wine you get sent can be that good..
I get this food blog, the Ulterior Epicure and it always hacked me off that he insisted that he didn't get comped.. he wrote this post recently called blurred lines, where he admitted he got comped occasionally, but he hoped it didn't affect his criticism...
I posted on his blog, what criticism?? The only time I've seen you slam a restaurant in 3 or 4 years of reading your blog, was Paula Deen's crapola place.. big step off there... I said you're getting comped left, right and center, and I got no problem with that, what raises my hackles is when you keep insisting that you're not.. he lists like over 300 restaurants that he ate at in the past year, and expects us to believe he only got comped for about 10 of them.. yeah, and Santa Claus just came down the chimney... and it didn't affect his criticism at all...

Steve Lay said...

David, well said. I once worked at a company that told their people in marketing and pr that they were not allowed to take anything for free or at a significant discount. Seems like the wine blogs should follow that same dictate. Or, at least say if they are reviewing a wine that was a comp and how many bottles were given to the writer.
In CA you see Gold Medal winning wines touted by wineries, and so down the line to winner of Wood Medal winners. Even those semi self annointed winning wines I find to be worthless. The industry in general is based on a "you scratch my back and I will scratch yours" mentality.

BobFoster said...

Ron-you got me interested so I went to the winery's web site thinking I'd order a bottle or two. Can't do it. The web site talks about the wines, the winemaker, the land, etc but there is no way I could find to just order wine. Sigh

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks for being a fan. I knew I had one.

I often leave the wines I review overnight and retaste them the second day, and sometimes the third. Often the food I'm having changes the wines entirely, which tells me a lot about their structure and balance. If, as you remark, it sucks the second day, it's hardly worthy of enormous praise. Unless it's very cheap.

I don't blame you a bit, but you haven't read my Wine Essays very thoroughly. When I reviewed a bunch of wines from El Dorado County back in September I panned quite a few of them. And I've also been very nonplussed by certain wines from wineries I otherwise liked. Tom Stolpman is still hoping I'll like his Sangiovese one day. I clearly didn't like all of Loring's wines I was sent as well.

I think I make it clear that for my Wine Essays I don't solicit wines. I don't publish my shipping address anywhere on my blog either. A winery or winemaker contacts me, offers to send me samples, and I either accept the offer, or don't. I have turned down offers, mostly from big corporate wineries or wineries I already know I dislike. I also make it clear that I haven't paid for any of the wines. And I can't remember the last time I went on a junket.

That said, I have received samples from wineries and not liked any of them. I'm not a wine reviewer. These essays are supposed to be about my lifelong enthusiasm for wine, my experience in wine, and wines that have interested me, excited me, rekindled that love for wine that crappy wine tends to extinguish. I could write a really nasty review of a winery, but, for me, there's no point in that. And, truly, the Wine Essays are all about me.

Yup, kind of a primitive site. It is kind of annoying that such smart and talented people can't find someone to create a useful website, but it's their business.

Here's a link to a pdf for Halcon's newest offering.

Tell 'em the HoseMaster sent you.

voice of reason said...

nice article- you had me at
"buying a car / demolition derby".

as a past recipient of HMR reviews of Fox Farm Vineyards, I want to tell you that your review hangs proudly in our tasting room and I send folks to your site.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

One day I hope I get to see that review hanging in your tasting room. Though most folks would rather see me hanging in your tasting room.

And thanks for the support. I'm up to twelve readers now.

renzo said...

With all due respect to my fellow common taters, David and Steve--no, they haven't been reading your blog carefully.
David is exactly off base and failed to note that you rarely wear the reviewer/shill/prostitute hat. And never surreptitiously.
Steve on the other hand has somehow missed your major beef about the compromised position of so-called and so many wine reviewers who accept "goodies" in return for totally unbiased views. Yeah... I've got a bridge to sell too!
Perhaps I'm misreading? If not, credit where credit is due. Even if our humble host accepts the disrespect in stride.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

A Fool like me has to be able to take everything in stride because I hurl endless crapola at everyone. Steve and David have their own impressions of my work, and they're loyal common taters, so it's all fine with me.

The Wine Essays are always the most work to write, and are the hardest to make readable and interesting. I only succeed to a modest degree. A post like "What Not to Publish on Your Stupid Wine Blog in 2014" generates unbelievable traffic, but it was simple to write in that aggressive, insulting voice. This piece has about 10% of the traffic, and is far harder to write. Poodles really love to read about and talk about themselves even more than they like to read about wine. I only occasionally insult wine bloggers these days, though their banality is an infinite source of comedy. I don't care about the traffic, I care about the work.

Thanks, Renzo. I appreciate your support and regular common tater contributions.

Marcia Macomber said...

I'm late! ...a very busy week. As always, I love the Wine Essays as I learn new things with each one -- most particularly I usually learn about a new winery I've not heard of that (from the sounds of your description) I should get a few bottles of their wine. What you remember for the reviews is usually the information of most value to you. Hence, negative feedback fades into the background.

I hadn't remembered the negative feedback on some of the El Dorado wines; I only remembered the ones you DID like.

In regards to the "HMW Sample Policy" (as if you would bother with something so formal!), it is the rare publication that pays for the goods to be reviewed. Only Consumer Reports comes to mind, and let's hope they don't attempt much (they gave it a go a couple years back, yes?) in the way of wine reviews. ("Aroma of 'new car vinyl.' Brakes a little to the left in the mouthfeel...")

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Marcia Love,
I was wondering where you were. But I knew you'd turn up eventually. Thanks for joining in. I do think you'd like the Halcon wines. Very compelling in that cool climate kind of way.

I don't have much of a Sample Policy, but that I don't ask for them. I've hinted, it's true. But never directly asked. And I put a lot of time into the Wine Essays, which I think the wineries appreciate. Though I'm guessing they'd rather have high numbers, or gold doodads. Doesn't matter. Blogs don't sell wine.

Which reminds me, where's Puff Daddy to say he wishes I'd give the wines numbers? He's MIA lately, and I don't mean Farrow. Oh well, gain a common tater, lose a common tater.


Weston said...

I bought some Halcon off last bottle because they were cheap and someone mentioned they'd be good for the price, they were great, and like you I'm hooked, now granted I did pay $20btl, so yeah buy em at that price for sure

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks for the positive vote on Halcon. The wines are a flatout steal for $20, and even at full price they are worth the money.