Thursday, March 17, 2016

The HoseMaster of Wine™ at a Spottswoode Vertical Tasting

The first time I tasted a Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon I was at Robert Pepi Winery. For all the Millennials who read HoseMaster of Wine™ (yeah, right), Robert Pepi Winery is now Cardinale, a property of Jackson Family Estates, located on Highway 29 in Napa Valley directly across from Far Niente. Pepi was once a reputable winery, though now the label is a dumping ground for some pretty miserable wine. Tony Soter was Bob Pepi’s winemaking partner at Robert Pepi Winery, and Tony had taken on Spottswoode as one of his first (if not his first—I don’t remember) winemaking clients. (Tony also sold his first vintages of Etude at Robert Pepi Winery, including, if memory serves, a pretty terrible Rosé of Pinot Noir.) The ’82 Spottswoode, their first commercial release, was being bottled at Pepi, and Bob asked me if I wanted to taste it. Does a dog lick his nuts?

Bob pulled a bottle of ’82 Spottswoode from the bottling line, we opened it, and it was damned tasty. Banged up from the bottling, maybe a bit shut down, but it was quite delicious. That’s about what I remember. So, with Bob’s blessing (though it wasn’t his wine), I took a couple of bottles. “Stole” would be the accurate verb, but let’s not quibble. At the time, I didn’t have any idea that Spottswoode was destined to become one of the great estates of Napa Valley. Imagine having tasted the very first vintage of Chateau Margaux when it was first bottled. How cool would that have been? Let’s ask Michael Broadbent, he was there. There’s a chance I was the first person to ever taste Spottswoode from the bottle. Now there’s a lede for my New York Times obituary. “Ron Washam, First Sommelier to Taste Spottswoode, Author of Stupid Wine Blog, dead at 99.” To be humble, I’m sure my obit will be below the fold. Though there won’t be any goddam folds by then. Only homeless paperboys.

On the Friday following my debacle at the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium, I was invited to Spottswoode to participate in a vertical tasting of ten vintages of Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. Others in attendance included Ray Isle, Andrea Robinson MS, Linda Murphy, Lana Bortolot, and Virginie Boone. Begs the question, what the hell was I doing there? Comic relief. Spitbucket Monitor. Seat Filler. I’m a triple threat.

I love everything about Spottswoode. Mary Novak, and her daughters Beth Milliken and Lindy Novak, and the rest of their family, resurrected and elevated one of the great wine estates of California. Theirs is a remarkable achievement, and they are remarkable women. I remember the first time I visited the property, and that gorgeous old Victorian home surrounded by Mary’s beautiful gardens, I was amazed at how the wine barrels were crammed underneath the house. It looked like a dipsomaniac squirrel had stashed them there for the Winter. Which is not a nice thing to say about Tony Soter.

The vineyard itself is 40 contiguous acres, and there I was, its long lost mule. I’m not sure why, but being at Spottswoode always made me think of “Gone With the Wind.” You can gaze out over the vineyards and you can almost hear the vineyard workers singing old spirituals, like “La Bamba.” I’m being my usual stupid self, but, truly, it’s an enchanted place, and I cannot drink a bottle of Spottswoode without envisioning the magnificent estate’s warmth and beauty. Its one of wine’s chief pleasures, I think. How you are able to taste a glass of wine and travel in your mind to the place where it began, recall the way the place looked in the Fall, the way the air smelled, the palpable energy of a vineyard bursting with fruit. Beer cannot do that, nor anything distilled. Walk a great wine estate and the wines produced there never taste the same again. Wine connects us to our senses, and to the places we’ve been, and the trajectory of our life. I know of nothing else that can make that connection. Wine grounds us on this beautiful planet. Maybe if the world had more wine drinkers, we wouldn’t have ruined it so carelessly.

There’s an argument against blind tasting in there somewhere. Though blind tasting isn’t about pleasure, blind tasting is about a false sense of objectivity. I would not want to taste Spottswoode blind, though I have. Once, many years ago, at a blind tasting of California Cabernets sponsored by Far Niente (I could be wrong about Far Niente), I managed to identify three of the twelve wines rather precisely. The other nine I was trying to identify simply by region. I struggled with one, couldn’t quite pin it down, and finally decided it was from Alexander Valley. It was Spottswoode. Spottswoode! I was personally humiliated. I love Alexander Valley Cabernet, but that was like taking a bite of sirloin and declaring, “Wow, great halibut!” Tasting it blind robbed me of the pure joy I feel when I drink Spottswoode. It’s like being blindfolded for a first date, then finding out the next day you had clumsily groped Charlize Theron. Yeah, like that would happen. But you get the idea.

Mary Novak made an appearance at the blind tasting. It was great to see her, and she looked fantastic. She is one of the grand and great ladies of Napa Valley. It’s almost impossible not to smile when Mary is around. I had been carrying around all that guilt from stealing two bottles of ’82 Spottswoode thirty years ago, so I finally confessed to Mary that I had done so. I offered to pay for them. I asked Beth what the release price was for the 1982 Spottswoode. It was eighteen bucks. Eighteen bucks! Hell, I wouldn’t have stolen them if I’d known they were only eighteen bucks! I told Mary I owed her thirty-six dollars. She laughed and told me, “It’s OK, Ron, I think we can afford that.” That Friday night—the first good night’s sleep I’ve had in thirty years.

Beth, Mary, and Lindy
Lindy Novak was also there. Lindy just makes me laugh. I’d be presumptous to declare us friends, but we share a mutual fondness. Did growing up at Spottswoode contribute to Lindy’s loveliness, warmth, wit and beauty? Or is Spottswoode such a beautiful place because the Novaks tend to it? From my perspective, people who tend to a place for a long period of time, and the Novaks bought Spottswoode in 1972, influence the attributes of the land at least as much as the land influences the people. Let’s say my family bought the place in 1972. The land would be a trailer park by now, and I’d be serving samples at Napa Valley Premier Crack Week. Luckily for all of us, the lovely Novak family has been the steward of Spottswoode. It’s equally lucky for Spottswoode.

Beth Novak stayed for the tasting. I adore Beth, too. Aside from our annual allocation fight, I always look forward to seeing her. She has her mother’s sweet energy and determination and smarts, and all of them have that lovely quality of being humbled by the estate they so gracefully manage. There is so little arrogance in the room you can’t believe you’re in Napa Valley. Maybe Alexander Valley…see, I was partially correct. I shudder to think of Spottswoode ever being sold. Spottswoode is the Novaks, and the Novaks are Spottswoode. The wines of Spottswoode are so often described with adjectives like graceful, elegant, beautiful, powerful, and restrained. Sounds a lot like the Novaks themselves. OK, maybe not restrained.

The vintages we tasted were ’85, ’87, ’91, ’95, ’01, ’05, ’10, ’11, ’12, and ’13. Spottswoode’s current winemaker Aron Weinkauf was there to answer questions and pretend he thought we knew what we were talking about. Those ten vintages represent the efforts of four other winemakers besides Aron—Tony Soter, Mia Klein, Pam Starr and Rosemary Cakebread. Usually, one would be worried about following an Aron; but, in this case, Aron had to follow a lot of home run hitters. It’s nice to report he’s doing just fine.

Tasting the ten vintages side by side spoke to, I felt, the slow discovery of what the Spottswoode estate vineyard had to say. I won’t bore you with my descriptions of the ten wines individually. There really wasn’t a dud in the bunch. My least favorite wine was the 2005, which seemed like an anomaly in the lineup, though I’d gladly gulp that wine with a grilled lamb chop. The ’05 struck me as very brooding and unevolved, not descriptors I usually associate with Spottswoode. Actually, I’m often called brooding and unevolved, but that’s a different story.

The first couple of wines from the ’80’s were lovely, but stylistically have very different taste profiles. You sense a winemaker feeling his way with a vineyard, trying to see what works. But then the 1991 starts to say Spottswoode to me. It had great persistence, and enormous presence, two attributes that are hallmarks of a great wine. 1995 Spottswoode dials that up a notch, and at 21 is, you guessed it, at drinking age. And just gorgeous. 1999 was the year I was married, and though it wasn’t in this lineup, I have had it many times and I can tell you it smells exactly like bliss. All through the ‘90s, a lot of Spottswoode’s vineyards had to be replanted, and I’m certain a great deal of thought went into clonal selection and rootstock and all the other stuff that makes a vineyard (how authoritative is that?!). The property was evolving.

And you can taste the Cabernets starting to progress, to hone in on what the vineyard has to say. Some vineyards won’t shut the hell up. Colgin won’t shut the hell up. Spottswoode whispers. The 2001 is very seductive, and focused on the dark black and borderline blue fruit that I associate with Spottswoode in a classic vintage. The 2005 just seemed in a time warp to me, but it will be just fine.

The final four wines are yet another step forward in the evolution of a great wine estate. The vineyards all reaching maturity, and the wines singing. I don’t have the talent to describe a wine like Spottswoode, not adequately. But so often greatness in wine is about great power matched with great delicacy. I think of Baryshnikov or Venus Williams. I think of their focus and balance, of their imagination, of their confident swagger. The 2013 has that swagger. If you can afford the $185 price tag, I’d get some. It’s a lot harder to steal now. Even in a terrible vintage, weatherwise, like 2011, the vineyard manages to show its greatness. Even on a bad night, I imagine Barysnikov was still better than most.

And the 2012 Spottswoode? It’s going to be legendary wine. Bank on it. I tasted it and I was transported--both into the past, when I first had the sense to keep an eye, and my sticky fingers, on Tony Soter’s new project, and into the future, hoping that I’ll be able to taste this masterpiece as I check out from a lifetime of wine. As a reminder of what a beautiful time and what a beautiful place I lived in.


Unknown said...

Amen, I mean women.

Goddess of Wine said...

Ron, I love your humor and the way it just bubbles up out of your control. But your sincere and serious love of wine is what brings me back to you week after week.

"Wine connects us to our senses, and to the places we’ve been, and the trajectory of our life. I know of nothing else that can make that connection. Wine grounds us on this beautiful planet. Maybe if the world had more wine drinkers, we wouldn’t have ruined it so carelessly."

I wish I had written that.

Ron Washam, HMW said...


Thank you, those are kind words. I think if I look back at my life, I've had three serious passions (not counting the women I've been lucky enough to love)--baseball, writing comedy, and wine. And the older I get, the more passionate I am about each of them.

No higher compliment for a writer than to say "I wish I had written that." So thank you, you made my day.

Jim Caudill said...

With annual inflation from 1982 to 2016 averaging 2.75% per annum, you actually owe them $90.58 which is still an unremittingly remarkable value. Sorry, that's all I got, your beautiful tone poem has reduced me once again to sputtering. I wish I'd...well, you know....

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,

Dammit, I love it when you talk wine to us, you go all wispy and gentle and junk. Makes me wanna rub your belly and drink some wine with You. I'm with you, I tend to gloss over tasting notes and winery focus pieces but, well there is something about your gift that reels me in, over and over again. Thanks for the ride.
I love you!

Blaise said...

This was yet another seriously good piece of writing, Ron. When I find that beautiful terroir - people and place as products of where they evolved - I feel great. I don't know the Novaks but I am glad you do.

Tom Riley said...

I very much enjoyed this look at Spottswoode, but now you have me thinking that quitting their list last month was a HUGE mistake. I might have to call them up and beg for mercy. And, here's to us being less careless as we get more people to drink more wine. Cheers!

Marcia Macomber said...

Loved it! You have a gift for lodging memories more tangibly than 99.9% of tasting notes -- a much stronger distinction than the majority of wine writers. And it's quite fun as you don't follow any formula for similes or metaphors, leaving the humor to jump out unexpectedly and stick like glue to the old gray cells. More, please!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I feel much better knowing that I ripped Mary off for more money than I thought! Thanks for that.

My Gorgeous Samantha,
For my part, I just get a break from writing in that nasty HoseMaster voice everyone seems to like, or at least read. He's not that much fun to channel, believe me. Writing about wine, as everyone knows who tries it, is very challenging. I don't care about describing wine, I care about communicating about wine. Different approach. If anything aside from inebriation, wine is about memory and joy. Spottswoode has given me plenty of both.

I love you, too!

Thank you, that's very generous. I'm glad I know the Novaks, too. Spottswoode, for more reasons than I mentioned here, has powerful meaning for me. My late friend Dr. John Peters, right before he died, gave me one of his magnums of Spottswoode, knowing how much that it meant to me, for example. When I open that bottle, it will be an extraordinary experience for me. Only wine can work that kind of magic, evoke that kind of memory and joy. Only stupid people don't know that.

Well, the '13 "only" received 97 points (I think) from Parker, where the '12 got 100. Pshaw. Numbers are especially stupid in this kind of situation. 2013 is classic Spottswoode, and so is 2012. How is '13 three points lesser? That's seriously splitting hairs, and mildly ridiculous. Which is what wine reviewing is about. Maybe it's three points less for missing a field goal.

Marcia Love,
You're too kind, as ever. I think most people hate this kind of wine writing. I think I hate this kind of wine writing. But we all need to be self-indulgent once in a while. And I get to do it here, and hope I don't lose too much of my audience. All 11 of them.

Bob Henry said...

"... the 1991 starts to say Spottswoode to me. It had great persistence, and enormous presence, two attributes that are hallmarks of a great wine."

1991 was the year we had no "Summer" weather in California. (The state was blanketed under a persistent marine layer.)

The long, cool growing season produced small Cabernet berries, with a high skin-to-juice ratio.

The 1999 wines upon release were tannic and unevolved. With decades of time in the bottle, they have blossomed into one of California's longest-lived, deepest-flavored "sleeper" vintages ... outlasting the riper, fleshier, flashier wines of that decade (e.g., 1994, 1997).

Well worth pursuing through auction houses.

Don Clemens said...

Several times in my professional life, I've represented the wines - and the people - at Spottswoode. In the final years of my wine life, I once again have that privilege, albeit in a part time role. Lovely wines, lovely people. Great post, Ron. Thanks once again for reminding me of what got me into this silly business in the first place

Thomas said...

Nothing more to say other than: Great wine writing, Ron.

To Don: "In the final years of my wine life"
That phrase made me feel sad.

I like to think there are no final years; rather, a final glass.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I don't think anyone needs reminding why they entered the wine business. You might need reminding why you became a proctologist, but not a wine guy. I've never lost my passion for wine. I did rediscover my passion for writing, and that's been a joy. And I'm grateful to have found such an appreciative, albeit small, audience. Thanks for being one of them, Don.

You mean like Socrates?

Pinotgraves said...

Ron, Ron, Ron--you had me going with all that eloquence stuff and the Zelig-like trip down memory lane or memory cul-de-sac or whatever. But there was a fruit fly in the rhetorical ointment: "begs the question" is not another way to say "raises the question"--and I am just the sort of irritating pedantic so-and-so to point that out. Go, and sin no more until, the next time.

David "PITA" Graves

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Leave my grammar alone and I won't make fun of your punctuation.

You're correct, of course. From a comic standpoint, "begs" is a funnier word than "raises." Call it comedic license. My mother taught English for 30 years and would always send me corrections to my comic ramblings. I use dashes inappropriately, ellipses too often, and I don't use enough semi-colons. I know the difference. But comedy is all about rhythm, and how your eye scans the jokes. I had many arguments with my mother over the distinctions. I never won a single one.

I won't win this one either.

Pinotgraves said...

A semi-colon and a comma walk into a bar....

Thomas said...

"No periods separating sentence-structures already arbitrarily riddled by false colons and timid usually needless commas-but the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases)--"measured pauses which are the essentials of our speech"--"divisions of the sounds we hear"-"time and how to note it down." (William Carlos Williams)"

Jack Kerouac

Unknown said...

"Wine grounds us on this beautiful planet. Maybe if the world had more wine drinkers, we wouldn’t have ruined it so carelessly." Gorgeous phrasing and a great essay Ron.

Dianne said...

Coincidentally, we did a Spottswoode vertical from our cellar last week - '97, '99, '01, and '02. Spectacular and spectacularly different. I love being reminded at how younger wines can act older, older wines can act younger, and well-made wines can truly reflect the harvest. What a winery.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thank you. I've often said I think the Natural Wine movement was triggered by climate change, and our realization that we've pushed our beautiful planet to the brink of disaster. It's a human thing. We royally fuck up, and then try to make good in meaningless ways using meaningless terms.

Yup. A great winery run by great people. And the best part is, the wines came from their cellar, not mine.

Dianne said...

That's definitely the preferable way to do it, and the only way we'd ever get to do it again!

Unknown said...

I love the idea of terroir being the feeling of walking in the vineyard, reflected in the wine.
Great post, thank you

David Larsen said...

I know this comment is so late that it is likely nobody will even read it. But just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post. So well written and I think you really captured the spirit of Spottswoode!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I'll read your comment. Many thanks. I'm hoping you've had a chance to drink Spottswoode, David. One of Napa's great estates, and the epitome of class and elegance. Yup, I'm smitten.

Hey, it's no Soos Creek, but it will do.