Thursday, March 26, 2015

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, MADD World of Pinot Noir--PART THREE

World of Pinot Noir isn’t an industry tasting, that is, a tasting that is invite only and aimed at the trade, but a large public tasting. There’s a considerable difference. The large public tastings need “anchors,” just as shopping malls do, to attract the public. Malls have Nordstrom or Macy’s. Pinot Noir tastings have Kosta Browne or Williams Selyem. WOPN had both. The anchors are there to attract consumers who might then also buy something at Radio Shack or B. Dalton books (yeah, I know, bankrupt and no longer, but that’s my point). Or, in WOPN’s case, taste the Pinot Noir from Michigan or Canada. But when you go to the mall, there’s never anybody in the Radio Shack, they’re all at Nordstrom. And when you go to WOPN, they’re lined up at Kosta Browne, while the person serving the Michigan wines is looking like the forlorn puppy in the ASPCA ads, the one about to be incinerated unless you help. As our culture struggles with the Grand Canyon between the Haves and the Ain’tGotShit, so, too, do new and small wineries struggle with getting anyone to care about them. Yet, most of the time, they’re making the most interesting wines. If you attend these kinds of tastings, I’d urge you to spend more time at the tables of the wineries you’ve never even heard of, and less time imagining that you’re hip and in-the-know because the guys at the famous wineries know you.

I do want to talk about some of the wines that stood out to me over the weekend, in no particular order. There were many wineries I wish I had had the time to visit. So it goes. I spent very little time with Russian River vintners because it seemed stupid to drive six hours to taste wines from my own backyard. I tried to taste the “oddball” wines, wines from other places like South Africa, Michigan, New Zealand, Canada and Australia, and also wines from producers I had never heard of, as well as the wines from winemakers I admire, which I use as a kind of touchstone. I would guess I formally tasted about 150 wines over the weekend. A few stuck with me.

I fell in love with a Tasmanian sparkling wine, Jansz NV Brut Rosé. The Jansz sparkling wine was the very first wine I tasted at WOPN, and I was smitten. No one would ever mistake it for Champagne, which is, in some ways, to its credit. It’s not trying to be Champagne any more than I’m trying to be Terry Theise. To my credit. Very fine bubbles, beautiful red fruit running up and down its sturdy spine, clean, refreshing, a beautiful Pinot Noir base wine, and all of $25. Jansz only makes sparkling wine (I think), and this was my first experience with any of their wines. While this certainly does not compete with the great Brut Rosés from Champagne, not in style and not in quality, it is as much fun to drink as any sparkling wine I’ve had in a while. I retasted it on Saturday, and liked it as much as the first time. If I were still a working sommelier, I would be serving this by-the-glass. Obscure and good? It’s what sommeliers live for. Though an awful lot settle for just obscure.

As long as we’re traipsing around the Southern Hemisphere, I want to mention a few wines that captured my imagination for their very strong and distinctive voices. You walk around a large tasting like WOPN, and the vast majority of the wines are of pretty high quality. I ran into a few wines I intensely disliked, but only a few. But another few, these from New Zealand and Australia and South Africa, seemed to sing their own songs, speak with a beautiful and distinct voice, show beauty and charm and quirkiness, and made me smile. Maybe that’s a definition of terroir, though it could as well be mental illness. No matter. I just loved these Pinot Noirs.

Firstly, Felton Road 2013 Bannockburn Central Otago. Felton Road is one of the great estates in New Zealand for Pinot Noir, the inspiration for so many others to believe in Central Otago as a great Pinot Noir appellation. I hadn’t tasted one of their wines in many years, but one sniff of this wine and I flipped all over again. It’s a red fruit nose, but laced with a bit of earthiness, and a clear streak of savouriness, that umami thing. If you ever wonder what wine writers mean by saying a wine has “great energy,” or as the French say, “nervosité,” just taste this Felton Road. It’s a living thing on your tongue, and who doesn’t like that? Truly gorgeous to drink, the red fruit is luscious, the wine vibrates beauty, and the finish is lingering and harmonious. Cool wine.

I was also quite taken with the Burn Cottage 2012 Central Otago. It caught me offguard when I tasted it at the Media reception. I’d never heard of Burn Cottage, so I glanced at the tech sheets and noticed that the winemaker is Ted Lemon, of Sonoma County’s “Littorai” fame. That explained it. Naturally, the vineyard is biodynamic, though in New Zealand the manure coils in a clockwise direction (due to the Cowiolis Effect). The wine is cherries and red plums, with a dash of anise. It’s powerful but with a really delicate touch, with that ineffable aliveness and energy that really good wines have. Ted Lemon’s wines always have integrity, not false note in any of his wines, a purity that makes them racy and alive. Though Burn Cottage sounds like where they hold Celebrity Winemaker Roasts.

When you think of great Pinot Noir regions, Australia doesn’t exactly kangaroo to mind. Drinking Australian Pinot Noir is like going to a sushi restaurant and ordering the chicken. That image may be changing, albeit slowly. I tasted two very interesting and dynamic Pinot Noirs at the Australia table at WOPN, neither of which, thankfully, was down under. The first was Ocean Eight 2012 Mornington Peninsula, a lovely, very bright and vibrant Pinot Noir, brimming with red fruits, underneath which is what I’d call a leafy character, which sounds like something out of Tolkien, an Ent perhaps, but isn’t. This is brilliant wine, in a very graceful and elegant style, that drew my nose back into the glass repeatedly. I’ve learned to notice how often I feel compelled to smell a wine, even as I converse with the sales rep, because it’s that complexity and interest that makes for the finest wines. Brutish wines, that is, big, chewy, extracted wines, can smell fantastic, and be very compelling, but just as you get tired of sniffing them when you're at a wine tasting, you will certainly also get tired of them as you drink them with a meal. I compare it to people. Who would you rather have to dinner, the big, loud, in-your-face person, the one who dominates the conversation with his bravado and bluster, or the person who’s bright, subtle, witty and endlessly interesting? Wine’s the same way at the table. This Ocean Eight Pinot Noir is perfect dinner company, it was endlessly interesting to me.

The other Australian Pinot Noir that intrigued me was the BK Wines 2013 Skin & Bones Pinot Noir from Adelaide Hills. I think I’d like to meet the guy (Brendon Keys) who made this Pinot Noir. I can’t say I’ve ever had a Pinot Noir anything like it, and as much as I liked it, I’d also caution anyone weird enough to ever take any wine advice from the HoseMaster that this isn’t at all typical Pinot Noir. The wine is macerated on its skins for 90 days, there’s a fair bit of carbonic maceration as well, it’s unfined and unfiltered, and probably spends six months in a marsupial’s pouch. Yet all that winemaking seems to be done with intent and focus, as the Pinot Noir doesn’t taste like someone’s science experiment. The nose almost reminded me of Nebbiolo, as did the rather pale color. But the carbonic seems to whip it back to the Pinot Noir fold, and the abundant red fruit is lovely in the nose, with just a hint of that carbonic, yet there’s also a lot of spice and even a bit of pepper, maybe even bacon fat. Yeah, I know, strange. Yet it holds together, delivers pleasure (which too many odd wines don’t), and was unique in a giant room filled with cookie-cutter Pinot Noir. If you’re feeling adventurous, try it. Just don’t expect Sea Smoke Pinot Noir.

I also want to mention a South African producer new to me, Storm Wines. At the first evening’s reception, I swooned over the pretty and precise Storm 2012 Vrede Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Pinot Noir. I kept going back to it, primarily for its haunting aromatics, red fruits and floral notes. It has the kind of delicacy mixed with power that draws me to great Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay). Foolishly, I did not try the Storm Wines from Santa Barbara (the winemakers are brothers). I have no idea why. I think I got distracted, as one does at large wine tastings, and wandered away. But I loved the South African Storms. Though they seem to be very small production wines and may be hard to track down, for which I apologize.

As I mentioned in a previous post, there had to have been at least 500 wines at each day’s WOPN tasting. I didn’t taste anywhere near even 15% of the wines available. Aside from the crazy numbers of wines, there are also a lot of distractions for someone like me who has spent a lifetime in the wine business. Having “HoseMaster of Wine” on your name tag doesn’t help. But there are also old friends in the business who are kind enough to glance surreptitiously at your name tag and pretend, relatively convincingly, that they remember you. Which comes from a place of kindness, so I didn’t mind. I’m not a memorable person in real life. I seem to cause blunt force head trauma just from meeting me, with serious short-term memory loss. I’m a walking NFL. I’m about as unforgettable as an Oscar speech. I just want to emphasize that I only tasted maybe 150 wines all weekend. So my notes are simply my experience at WOPN, not a genuine reflection of how another’s experience might have been. I won’t insult you with scores, especially scores appended to several hundred wines ostensibly tasted objectively. That kind of crap is just for winery marketing departments, and is essentially a blogger's lazy way of begging for more invites on junkets and more free samples. I don’t much care about either.

I don’t want this piece to be too long, I know the attention span of most of the people who read wine blogs is shorter than Sean Hannity listening to the truth, but I do want to give credit to the best Pinot Noirs I tasted. For those of you still reading. Both of you.

I’d heard their wines were good, but I still walked away from Dragonette Cellars very impressed with the two Pinot Noirs they were showing. Both the Dragonette 2012 Radian and the Dragonette 2012 Fiddlestix were terrific. You have to admire the sheer craftsmanship of these two wines, their purity and seamlessness. I’m tempted to say that they are almost too sculpted, except they’re also incredibly delicious. The Radian really impressed me with its power mixed with restraint, that lovely quality that allows a wine to unfold in front of your eyes over the course of a meal, the kind of slow striptease that makes up the best kind of seduction (if I remember correctly, or at all). It’s simply lovely, very sexy and unmistakably Sta. Rita Hills. Whereas the Fiddlestix was darker fruit, considerably more open-knit and generous right now, but still had the winery’s elegant fingerprint. I slightly preferred the Radian, but that’s so subjective and based on so little (a few sips of each) that it seems stupid to quibble. I’d gladly drink either one. (Sadly, both wines appear to be sold out at the winery, but I thought about joining their wine club based on these two wines—maybe you should.) I now understand the buzz about Dragonette Cellars, and hope I get to taste their Rhône varieties one day soon as well. In my experience, a winemaker who is good at Pinot Noir is usually also very good at Syrah and Grenache. (Why aren’t you at the Rhône Rangers Tasting, Dragonette? I’ll be there! Where are you?)

He doesn’t need my endorsement, but the wines of Paul Lato were the epitome of what I mean when I say I love wines that match delicacy and power. Paul, quite the charmer, was serving three of his 2013 Pinot Noirs, from Solomon Hills Vineyard, Sebastiano Vineyard, and Drum Vineyard. I slightly preferred the Sebastiano, but I seem to be drawn to this vineyard because I love The Ojai Vineyard’s version as well. But it’s fair to say that any of Mr. Lato’s wines are worth buying. His wines are all about purity and finely delineated fruit, the word “vibrant” appeared in every tasting note I wrote about his wines, and he just seems to be born to make Pinot Noir. Judging from WOPN, a lot of people think they’re born to make Pinot Noir, but, then, a lot of people think they’re born to review wines, and you see how foolish that is. If you love Pinot Noir, and the Pinot Noirs of the Central Coast, it seems to me you should certainly be on the Paul Lato mailing list.

Ryan Cochrane was standing quietly behind his table waiting to pour his eponymous wines, one of those Ain’tGotShit wineries in the crowded room, so, having never heard of him, I stopped and tasted. Hey, these are very, very good Pinot Noirs. He had both his ‘12s and ‘13s from the aforementioned Solomon Hills and Fiddlestix Vineyard. Ryan’s wines were, well, tasty. I love tasty. He seemed to use a bit of whole cluster fermentation, but that bit of stemminess was appealing and seemed to fit in perfectly with those two vineyards. I preferred the ‘13s to the ‘12s, they seemed to have better balance, better acidity and richness, perhaps part of his learning curve as a winemaker. Ryan, according to his website, came from advertising. Seller to cellar. I wish him luck. And all his Pinot Noirs were $43, which is eminently fair.

A quick mention of a few other wines that I loved. Charles Heintz 2013 Swan Clone was gorgeous, a bit earthy, very rich, very satisfying Pinot Noir. Heintz’s wines are now made by Hugh Chappelle, once Lynmar’s winemaker in the days they routinely scored huge numbers. I wasn’t at all surprised at how good Hugh’s wines for Heintz were.  The whole lineup of 2013’s from Cotiere Winery was excellent. (Formerly Luminesce Winery—poor guy got sued by somebody, I presume the makers of Luminesce face cream, which claims “cellular rejuvenation”—so rub some on your busted iPhone, see if that works. Who the hell is stupid enough to confuse anti-aging cream with Pinot Noir?—oh, that old woman with purple skin. Fucking corporate lawyers.) All five of his Pinot Noirs were interesting, had great juiciness and intensity, and, amazingly, all tasted different! That’s not often the case when tasting a winery’s single-vineyards. The 2013’s from Freeman Winery were also brilliant, but I always love their wines. The Freeman 2013 Keefer Ranch is a classic, from one of the great vineyards in the Russian River appellation. And the Freeman 2013 Akiko’s Cuvee is also wonderful; it just struck me as one of the absolutely prettiest Pinot Noirs of my weekend.

Who else? (I feel your attention wandering, friends.) The 2012 Hanzell was very rewarding, with a ridiculously long finish—though at $98 it’s no longer the steal it once was, yet it’s still nice to see this old guard Pinot Noir having a popular resurgence. The MacPhail 2012 Mardikian Estate also impressed me, but was probably the biggest Pinot Noir that I would be willing to drink. I don’t usually like my wines this extracted, and the pH seemed a bit high, and there was a lot of oak, but somehow it worked. Those lined up at the “anchor” wineries probably missed this wine, but they would have loved it. Patz and Hall worked their usual magic with their 2012 Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir, and their 2013 Gap’s Crown. The Hyde is all about texture, as most great wines are, and its subtly powerful fruit, where the Gap’s Crown is, even though younger, more ebullient and luscious.

Let’s end with someone who may be an up-and-comer, Cris Carter of Weatherborne Wine Corp. Here’s a classic “garagiste” winery (another word I hate, like “barista”, a fancy French word that’s completely unnecessary, like Gérard Depardieu), and the two wines I had, the ’12 and ’13 Weatherborne Sta. Rita Hills, both showed great promise. The ’13 was better, I thought, again, maybe just experience instead of vintage, but both were great examples of Pinot Noir from their appellation. Flashy and fleshy, yet bragging bracing acidity and vivid Pinot Noir red fruit, Weatherborne is a good way to get familiar with Sta. Rita Hills. And for $35, they’re a good deal, too.

This piece was way too long, and not nearly comprehensive. Sounds like my usual drivel. My thanks again to the organizers of WOPN who invited me and paid my way. And to all the folks who said kind things to me about HoseMaster of Wine™. The best thing anyone has ever said to me about my blog was said to me three times at WOPN by three different people who told me that they had never read anything on HoseMaster of Wine™ that wasn’t the truth.

People drink way too much at these things.


Martin said...

Wow, you wrote an 'I went to a tasting and these are the wines I liked piece'. Clearly you're losing it. I mean that's what ordinary wine bloggers do and I never read them.

Please get back to being vitriolically sarcastic and funny or I'll have to stop visiting your site!
Martin Moran MW

Martin said...

Oh and by the way, glad to see you're playing catch up with Aussie pinot noir. Victoria in particular has been good fr several years.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I'm not losing it. I never really had it. Every once in a while I like to write down my memories of wines I have at tastings like this. I agree, it's pretty boring. I like to think it's not quite as boring as most wine blogs, but that's simple self-delusion. I do know that when I write a piece like this, most people quit after the first paragraph.

There wasn't enough Aussie Pinot Noir at WOPN, as far as I'm concerned. They were some of the most interesting wines I tasted. I refrained from mentioning all the dull wines I tried, simply because it's not fair to condemn a wine you've tasted in such a miserable environment. But, wow, there was a lot of pedestrian Pinot Noir.

Rico said...

A dash of anise; was that due to the Cowiolis Effect?

Matt said...

Great piece, but you may have accidentally alerted the Terry Theise Hit Squad. I've been on the run for months now. If anyone knows how to call them off, or of a well stocked abandoned armory, I'd appreciate the info. - AwkwardHaiku

napadavid said...

Nice comment there Ron.. appreciate you having to taste all those dull Pinots.. always found Pinot so frustrating.. when it's good it's great.. but oh, when it's bad, oh what rip-off.. twice as expensive as a cab and twice as awful, 60 bucks for Cool Aid??

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Oh, my mistake, that was a typo, I meant touch of, yes, the methane Cowiolis effect.

I've had it in the back of my head to write a Theirry Theisse parody for a long time. But it's hard when they're already self-parody. Maybe I'll get to it, maybe not. Terry is like the Rod McKuen of wine writers.

It seems everyone is convinced Pinot Noir is their doorway to wine riches, only it's like when the Three Stooges used to go through a doorway all at the same time and get stuck. A lot of Stooges making Pinot Noir. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

Rico said...

sorry, i reed inglish phonetically.

Jim Caudill said...

Glad I read to the end of your MacPhail comment, just like I'm always glad to read all the way to the end of the Hosemaster year, you'll be on a WOPN panel, wait and see....

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Oh, I really doubt anyone would invite me to do that. As we say in TV, I don't give good panel. But thanks for reading all the way to the end--I know I didn't write all the way to the end.

Bob Henry said...

Too many Californians are provincial in their championing "home state" Pinots -- and myopic about what Oregon and New Zealand and even Australia are turning out.

The first time I attended an Oregon Pinot tasting was a revelation. (I cut my eyeteeth on Russian River Pinots as a starving college student in the San Francisco Bay Area).

Likewise a revelation tasting for the first time New Zealand Pinots.

Slightly tart Bing cherry fruit. Hints of herbaceousness and earth. Higher levels of acidity. Lower levels of alcohol. Not overly extracted "fruit bombs." Cheaper and more plentiful than red Burgundy. (You can actually buy of case of these wines. The Frogs? Fuhgettaboutit!)

What's not to like?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Most of these newer regions don't have the track record or expertise of Burgundy. Or the prices. Though there are loads of terrific Burgundy at very fair prices these days. The upside of climate change, perhaps.

New Zealand and Australian Pinot Noirs will only get better and better. The same is true, to a lesser degree, in CA. The great Burgundies are nearly unobtainable, or fraudulent. I think Pinot Noir is becoming nearly as international as Cabernet, but more variable. For every terrific Pinot Noir I had at WOPN, I had eight that were meh. And expensive meh. And so it goes.

Not sure what my point is, I'm just heavily drugged.

Nick Katin said...

I've waited for all of my wine drinking life for Aussie pinot's to become drinkable and now that the likes of producers in the adelaide hills, yarra valley, mornington peninsula and my favourite, geelong are finally producing it, I got knocked off by the Kiwi's of Central Otago. To make matters worse some of them have the nerve to offer free freight to anywhere in Australia. Oh what to do!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Angela Lloyd sent me a comment via my personal email:

"a winemaker who is good at Pinot Noir is usually also very good at Syrah and Grenache."

How true, Ron. So may I tempt you to try Newton Johnson Family Vineyards pinot (they make 5 from a variety of sites, inc. the Family Vyds) from the Hemel en Aarde valley. It's generally regarded as among South Africa's top 3. Then you should also try their Granum, syrah with a dab of mourvèdre, conceived with the same tender care & understanding as their pinot.

Pam Strayer said...

Paul Lato also makes a Sauvignon Blanc for Grimms Bluff. The first release just came out.