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Randy Caparoso's Culinary Wine & Food Matching is everything you wanted to know about wine in the context of food, sans the usual gibberish and vague generalities.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The question of minerality

The author with 7th generation Arroyo Seco grower Luis Zabala in his "Macho Block"

Is it okay to talk about terroir in terms of mineral sensations?

The following post is a revision of a column originally published as one of the author's Bottom Line columns in the April 2012 issue of Sommelier Journal (now known as The SOMM Journal).
When you become a sommelier, and are privy to tastings of wines from around the world, you invariably develop an increased appreciation for wines tasting distinctly of their “sense of place” – commonly known as terroir. The current obsession with concepts like “balance” in lieu of sensations associated with oak, overripe fruit, alcohol or other excesses is, in one sense, really an expression of our longings for wines that taste more of vineyards or terroir, rather manipulations thereof through the heavy handed intervention of winemakers. 

I have always thought of terroir as like a tree falling in the forest. Just because you can’t hear it, it doesn’t mean there is no sound. As subtle as terroir related sensory delineations can be, they often aren’t. A Chablis, for instance, is far less weighty than a Puligny-Montrachet, even though both are grown in Burgundy and made from Chardonnay. The difference between a Chablis and Carneros grown Chardonnay is even more graphic – more acid, less alcohol/body, and far less tropical fruit aromas. The impact of terroir – entailing everything defining a vineyard or region, from soil to climate, aspect to temperature, altitude to latitude, viticultural decisions to winemaking practices, et al. – can be so big, wines made from the same grapes often barely resemble each other.

Practicing the fine Mendocino art of stuffing shit into cowhorns with vintner Paul Dolan
But what of aromas and flavors commonly found in wines that are usually described as some kind of minerality? Chablis is commonly identified with sensations of chalkiness, Pouilly-Fumé by a flintiness, Savennières by a somewhat loamier flintiness, and Mosel-Saar-Ruwers by an entire range of sensations suggesting slate or flint. In the past, these would all be examples of wines with characteristics traditionally attributed directly to components contained in the soils in which they are grown.

“Bullshit,” I once heard Santa Barbara’s Peter Cargassachi say, “vines do not have the capacity to uptake the taste of minerals through root systems... that’s been proven over and over again.” Who can disagree with that? We all know, of course, that aromas and flavors of wines are not directly related to biological factors such as soil. When you describe a Riesling as flowery, a Chardonnay as tropical-fruity, or a Zinfandel as peppery, it doesn’t mean there are flowers, mango, pineapple or peppercorns growing in the ground below the vines, directly effecting the taste of resulting wines. By the same token, mineral sensations in wines do not come from minerals in the ground. But if this is so, where do sensations of minerality come from?

In a piece by Jordan Ross called “Minerality, Rigorous or Romantic?” published in Practical Winery & Vineyard Journal (Winter 2012), scientists like Alex Maltman (University of Wales), Anna Katherine Mansfield (Cornell Department of Food Science) and Carole Meredith (U.C. Davis Department of Viticulture & Enology) are all quoted to say basically the same thing: tiny amounts of dissolved ions are typically absorbed by vine roots, but none of them are of sufficient enough efficacy to contribute to actual sensations of minerality in a wine’s aroma or flavor.

The author with winegrower Ken Wright during 1999 Willamette Valley harvest
But it is no coincidence, Ross explains, that sensations of minerality also happen to correlate with wines grown in colder climates – wines, as such, retaining higher natural acidity. In his article, Ross cites Grégoire Pissot of Cave de Lugny in Mâcon as saying, “’Mineral’ is, at times, used when ‘acid’ would be more appropriate.” The Mosel’s Nik Weis concurs, drawing attention to the fact that, although grown in similar gray slate, a higher acid Ockfener Bockstein will always taste more minerally than a lower acid Piesporter Goldtröpfchen, basically because Goldtröpfchen is a warmer site.

Still, as sommeliers we know that minerality is not an abstraction – we can taste it. An Ockfener Bockstein, for instance, retains mineral notes that are slightly different from that of nearby Üziger Würzgarten. The question is, are the differences logically attributable to the high iron content of Würzgarten’s red slate encrusted slope, as opposed to Bockstein’s gray slate and sandstone? Würzgarten, after all, does not translate as “spice garden” for nothing.

Whether or not the differences among Germany’s great Riesling growths are directly related to soil variation, the fact remains: under similar cold climate conditions, the minerality of a Bockstein is different from the minerality of a Würzgarten; just as both taste different from a pungently minerally Maximum Grunhauser Herrenberg, and the oft-times dramatic, pervasive earthiness found in Rieslings grown in even warmer sites, such as the Rheinhessen’s Nackenheimer Rothenberg and the Pfalz’s Forster Ungeheuer. Soil distinctions may not have a direct effect on flavor, but are undoubtedly one of the factors.

Memories of Rheinhessen's Weingut Gunderloch with the amazing Fritz Hasselbach
Yet the connection between minerality and acidity makes sense. A few years ago I spent a day studying Chardonnays grown on four different slopes in the immediate vicinity of Thomas Fogarty Winery, 1700 to 2000 ft. up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. All four vineyards were planted in the early 1980s on identical trellis systems, and all to Clone 4 Chardonnay (California’s most ubiquitous selection, known for its tabula rasa amenities). No question:  across multiple vintages, Fogarty’s two coolest, slowest ripening sites (Portola Springs and Albutom Estate) consistently taste more minerally – like the common taste of “wet stones” – than the two warmer sites (Langley Hill and Damiana Vineyard). Higher acid sensations also correlated with increased minerality. Moreover, the more a Fogarty Chardonnay tastes of ripe, sweet toned peach, pear or apple-like fruit, the less minerally the flavor.

Then there is the consistent inverse relationship between high pH in soil and lower pH in wine, which is another reason why wines grown in more alkaline, calcareous soils are often associated with increased minerality. Nonetheless, warmer climate wine regions that have calcareous soils with off-the-charts alkalinity, such as much of California’s Paso Robles AVA, are not nearly as closely associated with wines replete with minerality as colder climate calcareous terroirs such as those found in France’s Burgundy and Loire Valley. Climate clearly trumps soil when it comes to higher acid wines with actual imprints of minerality.

Still, as difficult as it is to prove direct connections between minerality and soil composition, there will always be hard working vignerons who will vouch for it. WillametteValley’s Ken Wright (Ken Wright Cellars), for instance, is as respected as they come. He says that it is precisely because there is a “symbiotic relationship” between positive microorganisms in soils and healthy plants that there is a direct contribution to wine flavor from soil via root systems.

Ridiculously steep red slate slope of Mosel's Urziger Wurzgarten
“As someone who has planted many a vineyard over 35 years,” says Wright, “I can say that without question, when vines roots reach the mineral rich parent material something wonderful happens.” Wright’s conclusions are based upon his own lab reports tracking soil composition as a result of farming improvements documented over several decades: the higher the uptake of ionic minerals through enhanced root systems, the higher the clarity of resulting wines. “Wines from these vines go from being muddled and indistinct to having recognizable, crystal clear aromatic and flavor traits.” Wright, however, is not talking exclusively about sensations associated with minerality. He cites aroma-related flavors such as “chocolate, tobacco, anise, or cola,” on top of “increased profiles related to iron/stony qualities, which remain consistent from year to year.”

They say a good winegrower knows his wines like a mother knows the smell of her babies. Okay, so I just made that up, but it illustrates my abiding respect for Mr. Wright. His truths are always in his bottlings, reflecting intimate relationships with vineyard sources.

Bottom line: It's okay. Go ahead and talk about perceptions of minerality in terms of terroirs of individual vineyards, and even characteristics of whole wine regions; as long as you're correctly defining terroir in terms of entire ecosystems rather than strictly soil content. Don't let "terroir naysayers" tell you otherwise. We all know it when we're tasting it; even if, like the proverbial tree falling in a forest, it is a philosophical as much as metaphysical discussion.

Thomas Fogarty winemaker Nathan  Kandler in one of his Santa Cruz Mountaintop growths

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

2016 World of Pinot Noir: Are American Pinot Noirs from “good” vintages actually good?

Entry to Bacara Resort in coastal Santa Barbara
As in previous years, the 2016 World of Pinot Noir in coastal Santa Barbara’s Bacara Resort this past March 4-5 was an incredible opportunity to glean the state of American Pinot Noir; particularly California Pinot Noirs from the 2013 vintage which, by all accounts, was a remarkable one (re the California Institute’s detailed,unequivocally positive report on the “warm and dry spring with near ideal conditions for bringing grapes to maturity...”).

But do remarkable vintages equal remarkable wines? Permission to speak frankly, if somewhat like a wine geek spoiled by the recent embarrassment of richly endowed, undeniably world class Pinot Noirs currently being grown up and down the West Coast, from British Columbia to Santa Barbara: the 2013s in general are not blowing my mind -- at least no more than the fewer 2012s and 2014s tasted over the past weekend.

Sure, there is the usual spate of fantastic wines among the 2013s, giving you everything you want in an American Pinot Noir:  generous, beautifully perfumed varietal fruit; silken, layered texturing; lively yet unrepentantly opulent feels (this is America, mind you, not Burgundy, France) with a sense of proportion.

But overall, there was also a disconcerting number of 2013s that seemed to sacrifice other varietal traits – namely, spice, some semblance of delicacy, floral notes (especially rose petal) or terroir related transparencies (i.e. scrubby or loamy nuances) – for a sheer, ripe opulence. A good number of 2013 California Pinot Noirs were smelling, and tasting, downright sweet – more suggestive of red cherry or cranberry than of raspberry, blueberry or even strawberry – which led me to even think, is this a “White Zinfandel” vintage for California Pinot? In a number of less pleasant examples, this sweetly perfumed fruitiness was not helped by intrusive levels of volatile acidity (i.e. VA), adding that duller-sweet, vinegar-like quality to aromas and flavors.

2013 Pinot Noir in Laetitia Vineyard (Arroyo Grande Valley)
Yet here’s the paradox: neither excessive alcohol nor oak or actual residual sugar seemed to be real issues. Most of the 2013s hovered near or just above 14% alcohol, which is about par in this day and age, even with the usual label-fudging. I didn’t taste one Pinot Noir that came across as sweetly (i.e. overly) oaked; unlike what was more typical of American Pinot Noirs 10, 15 years ago. And much of the overt sweetness of fruit came across as retro-nasal – sweet sensations more strongly influenced by aromatic tones in the nose rather than on the tongue – since residual sugars seemed no higher, and no lower, than in “normal” years of late.

Example: I watched one super-experienced sommelier (tasting alongside me) pick up a single-vineyard 2013 bottling by one of Sonoma Coast’s most prestigious Pinot Noir specialists, and physically wince when tasting it. “I mean, I always love their Pinots,” she said, “but I can’t believe how over-the-top this wine is.” I poured myself a taste and found an ultra-ripe cherry/berry aroma and full (14.4% alcohol) yet tightly wound wine; densely layered with tannin and glycerol, while finishing completely dry. Yet the sommelier was entirely correct – the wine also came across as over-the-top in a perceptively sweet fruitiness, despite its dryness, crossing a line into the realm of annoyance.

Here’s the thing: I happen to have huge respect for American Pinot Noir producers. Unlike, say, most Cabernet Sauvignon producers, most of them don’t seem to be seduced by the almighty 100-point score. They are genuinely interested in achieving terroir driven expressions, especially in single-vineyard bottlings. They don’t believe in “200%-new-oak.” They tend to err on the side of lower intervention winemaking. And unlike most Chardonnay or Zinfandel producers, they are not overly obsessed with achieving “varietal” consistency; graciously acquiescing to vintage variations (which can be hell on artisanal Pinot Noir). Not all of them, of course, but a good chunk; which is why so many of us love American Pinot Noir.

Press room at 2016 World of Pinot Noir
So what’s up with the 2013s from California? (There wasn’t enough representation from Oregon at WOPN to draw conclusions). Curious about the gulf between what I know about the vintage and what I actually tasted in Santa Barbara, on Sunday after I got home I picked up the phone to call my old go-to for honest and authoritative information on anything related to Burgundian grapes: Greg La Follette of La Follette Wines.

Quoting Mr. La Follette, in so many words:

2013 was a very good year for California Pinot Noir; and in similar ways, so was 2014. But in a lot of ways, these “good” years can be just as problematic as the “tough” years. Certain things, like wild fermentations, are endemic to so-called “easy” vintages. In years when there is plenty of sugar and the grapes are coming in great shape, you can just as well end up with sluggish fermentations and secondary microbiological super-bugs running around wreaking havoc, which is exactly what happened. We saw a lot of stuck fermentations and VA in 2013.

There are a lot of receptors sensitive to those conditions, which can be exacerbated by use of less SO2. You end up with a big bloom of VA and stinkiness in the fermentors. We are going through one of those cycles right now, where the trend is to back off on SO2. Everybody’s questioning how much SO2 to use; when really, the question should be when and how to use SO2.

Plus, for whatever reason, a lot of winemakers have been getting away from the use of microscopes. They have less training. Many of them don’t even know how to use a microscope. There is less knowledge of fundamental aspects of fermentation. You become susceptible to the influence of trends, which are hard to do without the basics. This sort of reminds me of many of the problems we saw in the early 1980s.

Greg La Follette in Sangiacomo Vineyard (Sonoma Coast)
As you know, I have never practiced “safe winemaking.” Pinot Noir responds famously well to unsafe winemaking, but there are pitfalls. The collective action of Pinot Noir producers diving into the latest batch of trends can have an adverse effect on what you may now perceive as a byproduct of a vintage. Is 2013 a “sweet” vintage? Well, in both 2013 and 2014, a lot of the sweetness that you find is not so much because grapes are picked at higher sugars, but because of the nature of the sugars.

Ripened grapes accumulate primarily two types of sugars, glucose and fructose. In a good year, when grapes are in balance, the temptation is to turn to wild yeasts, which are wimpier yeasts that preferentially consume more glucose, leaving fructose sugars behind. In a year like 2013, you might end up with slightly more residual sugar than normal – 1.5 to 2 grams, as opposed to 1 gram or less. That’s okay, you’re still below the threshold; but the tricky part is, wild yeasts leave more fructose than glucose behind, and fructose tastes twice as sweet as glucose. So your 1.8 grams of fructose sugar tastes more like 3.6 grams of glucose.

Another trend is towards increased use of whole cluster. In 2013 we had riper stems than normal, which is a good thing. Therefore it was a good idea to do whole cluster fermentation; which, as you know, also builds fruity aromas called esters – the fruitiness often associated with wines like Beaujolais Nouveau. Esters only increase aromatics that can be perceived as sweetness. Together with higher amounts of fructose in the residual sugars, you end up with your phenomenon of a “sweeter” tasting vintage.

I’m glad we got that straightened out. 

As for the wines themselves: each year I am pleased to find a slightly different line-up of wines at World of Pinot Noir that strike me has having a leg up – or at least a more shapely, or seductive, leg up – over others. First, I was mightily impressed by two producers in particular – Patz & Hall and Rusack Vineyards – which I have not counted among my personal favorites in previous tastings, at least not in recent years.

Patz & Hall kicked Pinot-butt by balancing the 2013 vintage’s fruit intensity with keenly focused vineyard delineations: particularly a 2013 Patz & Hall Gap’s Crown Vineyard from Sonoma Coast (the west facing slopes of Sonoma Mountain, looking into the Petaluma Gap), exuding black fruit and spice sprinkled strawberry fruit, dense, velvety and full without being weighty or cumbersome. You could contrast this with the more floral, fluid, strawberry and kirsch layered 2013 Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard from Carneros (on the Napa Valley side), revved up by bright natural acidity. The 2013 Patz & Hall Chenoweth Ranch from Russian River Valley (Green Valley) seemed to hold back with a quieter, strawberryish concentration in the nose, and then kick into a couple more gears on the palate with a vibrant, round, fleshy, seamless wall of flavors, inundated by the bright red fruit feathered by foresty, spiced notes.

I don’t know exactly what it was, but in the middle of going through over 60 Pinot Noirs on the first day of WOPN, I seriously started thinking about the crazy-catchy opening chords of T-Rex’s Bang a Gong when tasting the 2013 Rusack Solomon Hills Vineyard from Santa Maria Valley – the violet tinged, physically drippy, juicy, wild raspberry/strawberry fruit driven like a rhythm guitar by spiky acid and ample tannin (wellyou’redirtyandsweet, cladinblack, don’tlookback...). Maybe it was the beat, but more likely the wine, but I found the same satisfyingly metered, lip smacking energy in the 2013 Rusack Sta. Rita Hills (50/50 from Fiddlestix and Sebastiano Vineyards), veering more towards cherry cola tinged by a dried leaf earthiness. On the other hand, the 2013 Rusack Santa Catalina Island Vineyards was shyer in the nose – more of a reticent cherry/pomegranate than the exuberant, lush red fruits of the mainland Santa Barbara bottlings – yet finished surprisingly on the palate, with an almost sticky fingered, brightly acid driven intensity, offset by politely silken texturing.

The banging music mercifully stopped, as it were, just after I tasted the Rusacks and moved on to the Patz & Halls; and I started hearing more majestic, and appropriately meditative (at least for Pinot Noir exercises), Borodin strings.

The author with Geoff Rusack in Santa Catalina Island Vineyards
Among other producers sporting a lyrical array of single-vineyard cuvées, I confess that the 2013 Côtiére Presqu’ile (Santa Maria Valley) was my personal favorite – primarily because I’m a sucker for lighter, feminine, flowery perfumed (in the Presqu’ile, more like spicy rose petal potpourri) styles with noticeably sharp acid. During that, I think I was hearing Mozart. The 2013 Côtiére Laetitia (Arroyo Grande Valley) is crafted in the same flowery, tart edged vein, with an even more upbeat cherry perfume, tinged by a lavender-laced, almost herbes de Provence–lke sweetness. The 2013 Côtiére La Encantada (Sta. Rita Hills), however, is denser, meatier, more savory on the palate; juxtaposing plummy, dark cola notes alongside flowery perfumes – finishing with that levitating Côtiére touch. Bravo!

If forced to make a second Sophie’s Choice of favorite Pinot Noir of the weekend, it would probably be the 2012 Kitá Hilliard Bruce Vineyard (Sta. Rita Hills); one of the few 2012 California bottlings shown, with an enthralling peppercorn/cardamom spice (a nuance lacking in the unruly 2013s), lacing rose petal, raspberry and smoked meat qualities in a zippy yet broad, judiciously full flavored palate-feel.

From among the few Oregon producers present, the Pinot Noirs of Patricia Green Cellars stood in graphic contrast among the sea of hefty fruit bombs from California. The 2013 Patricia Green Estate Etzel Block (Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley) had that beautiful-ex-girlfriend appeal – pretty cherry/berry perfume highlighted by peppermint spice plus a sullen side of somewhat old fashioned rubbery/leathery boot; nonetheless couched in a compellingly lean, lanky, zippy, medium sized body. Love it or leave it. The 2013 Patricia Green “Dijon 115” Freedom Hill Vineyard (Willamette Valley) was a little more grippy in its black cherry concentration; with a nice, if nervy, tart edge snap (think Rosamund Pike’s spooky-seductive smile in Gone Girl).

Out of the hundred-something tasted, a few more of the more impressive wines swaying down the runway at the 2016 World of Pinot Noir:

2013 Freeman, Akiko’s Cuvée (Sonoma Coast) – Floral/rose petal laced raspberry/cherry Pinot fruit shines brilliantly through with a remarkably light and delicate feeling on the palate; with a zesty edge, and an entirely finesseful, elegant touch. My kind of wine.

2013 Talley, Rosemary’s (Arroyo Grande Valley) – Focused (make that laser-like) nose of strawberry, underlined by the slaking “acid” scent of cranberry or pomegranate; these bright fruit sensations playing out in a silky, meaty, sinewy body, electrified by lip smacking acidity. I also wrote, more succinctly, “wow.”

2012 Flying Goat, Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard (Sta. Rita Hills) – Flush with luscious strawberry and blackberry toned fruit aromas, with notable yet altogether compelling toasted oak spices; bright and upbeat on the palate, the yummy (yeah, I occasionally use the prissy term), spiced fruit qualities extending over a long and silky frame.

2013 MacPhail Family, Mardikian Estate (Sonoma Coast) – The word now out is that it’s best to enjoy winemaker James MacPhail’s distinctively crafted wines – known for his aggressive yet undeniably fine touch with the grape – while you can, since he has recently relinquished control of his eponymous brand and operation to its parent company (Hess Collection). I could comment on this being another example of corporate management not quite getting what makes businesses successful in the first place (the little things that mean tons to Pinot Noir lovers; like terroir focus executed with vision, originality and artistry), but I won’t (whoops, too late). As in previous vintages, the 2013 Mardikian is heady, densely muscled, shamelessly opulent, meticulously rounded; at the same time, not without its peculiarities, like a pungent, wild-brushy herbiness and licoricey spice – the oft-times feral imperfections that make Pinot Noir so deliciously “Pinot.”

2013 Maggy Hawk, Jolie (Anderson Valley) – Speaking of peculiarities: I found myself dallying over this wine – from Anderson Valley’s Deep End (the AVA’s westernmost, cooler climate sites) – spending a good 5 minutes sitting and pondering its exuberant, sweetly spiced nose, puntuated by caraway (or a vanillin licorice) and exotic floral notes upon which I could not quite put a finger (I’m leaning towards earthy/sweet Oriental lilies). Neither is the Jolie a light-weight (14.5% alcohol) on the palate; yet the sensations still come up finesseful and pinpoint with plenty of natural acidity, lighting up the strangely scented fruit.

The author with James MacPhail
2013 Stephen Ross, Stone Corral Vineyard (Edna Valley) – Intoxicating, sensuous strawberry/black cherry perfumes with an allspice "complexity" (I hate that word in wine lingo, but there you go). Pinot purity in the mouth; soft, velvety entry, becoming broad, round, downright voluptuous in the middle, and dense and layered towards the finish. 

2013 Ancien, Toyon Farm (Carneros) – "Super spice" was my first impression (no, I didn't start singing Curtis Mayfield; although I am now, as I write). Whatever the case, the nose is pungent with peppery spiced black cherry, backed by perhaps a slightly unfashionable toasty oakiness; medium-full yet fairly thick, dense and sinewy on the palate; the spiced black cherry fruit becoming meaty, almost toothsome. 

2012 Fiddlehead, Seven Twenty Eight - Fiddlestix (Sta. Rita Hills) – Another 2012 that I found a refreshing distraction from the fruity 2013s; the Fiddlestix vineyard’s signature bass toned, loamy/earthy notes underlining a harmony of black cherry and darker berry fruit qualities; good zip, meaty density and fluidity to its length of earth toned flavors.

2013 Hilliard Bruce, Sky (Sta. Rita Hills) – In 2013 this vineyard estate’s Sky cuvée positively soars with high toned, flowery, raspberry/cherry perfumes that manages to avoid overly sweet confection; instead, the fruit is manifested by exceptionally fine, tight, medium-full sensations; pleasingly sharp, harmonious, tightly wound on the palate.

2014 ROAR, Gary’s Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands) – Lusciously rich strawberry nose with the herby, scrubby sensations (sagebrush, pennyroyal, bay laurel) that make Santa Lucia Highlands wines so compelling; deep, fleshy, round and, again, sticky-rich and unimpeachably balanced on the palate, in the appellation’s perennial defiance of the usual nattering nabobs of negativity's protestations about alcohol (14.9%).

2013 Bruliam (“Bu”), Gap’s Crown (Sonoma Coast) – Does the hat (i.e. vineyard) make the man (producer), or vice-versa? I lean towards the hat, because this vineyard source sure makes this producer look good – beautifully round, yet fleshy with tannin muscle below, eschewing the licentious, perfumey fruitiness of the vintage for a more compact mix of cherry, black-towards-blue berries, and subtle spices (pepper, star anise).

2013 De Loach, Olivet Ranch (Russian River Valley – I was attracted by the coiled, sleekly textured yet edgy (with bratty teen-tannin) qualities of this medium-full bodied wine; the nose, more floral than fruit driven, heightened by the lacy perfumes intertwined with subtle yet intriguing spices (pepper, nutmeg, and the requisite, albeit tastefully restrained, French oak).

2013 Timbre, Bien Nacido Vineyard “Old Vines - Lead Vocals” (Santa Maria Valley) – You say ee-ther and I say eye-ther. Especially sommeliers, who often ask for this style of transparently pigmented, light-weight Pinot Noir that some may call feeble, but others call gentle, feminine, “balanced.” What you cannot dispute is that this gimmicky-named Timbre bottling retains a pretty clarity of cherry/berry perfume, complimented by sweet kitchen herb spices.

2013 Gypsy Canyon, The Collector’s (Sta. Rita Hills) – While, in this instance, I don’t think it’s meant to appeal particularly to sommeliers – but rather, to reflect this tiny estate’s rugged, sandy terroir, hidden in a narrow nook well off the beaten track of Sta. Rita Hills – this producer has been consistently exploring the light, lacy, ultra-fine side of the varietal profile, which doesn’t keep it from billowing with flowery, cherry-berry perfume, inundating the senses through a gently tart finish.

2014 Laetitia, Whole Cluster (Arroyo Grande Valley) – Among the few 2014s being shown, I liked this one for its infusion of sweet cherry, dried kitchen herbs and licorice in the nose; a zesty medium-to-full body pinned down by zippy acid and moderate yet firm, youthful tannin.

2014 Melville, Block M (Sta. Rita Hills) – Another one of the more impressive 2014s – very pretty, lifted raspberry/strawberry fragrance; very fine, silky, and lively with snappy acidity, imbuing the pristinely poised fruit with crinkly, palate freshening qualities.

2014 Siduri, Pisoni Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands) – This combination of steady winemaking hands and iconic vineyard source more than meets expectations; tightly wound yet focused, with black fruits dominating red berry perfumes, tweaked by scrubby notes of sagebrush and sweet peppercorn; dense, thick, layered “awesomeness” (why did I write that?) on the palate.

2014 Westwood Estate, Pommard Clone, Annadel Gap Vineyard (Sonoma) – From, evidently, an up and coming property adjacent to Sonoma Valley, between the Sonoma Mountains and Hood Mountain, a laudably intense, nostril tingling wine, teeming with smoked pepper-spiced black and red berryish fruit; rounded with a good girth of meaty tannin and generous, pliant fruit.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Zinfandel (and ZAP) at a crossroads

Wintering 100-year-old Zinfandel in McCay's Lot 13 on Lodi's east side

This is the Big Week for Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (a.k.a. ZAP): their annual Experience in San Francisco, self-billed as “the world’s largest single varietal wine tasting event.”

This year, three days of seminars and parties are capped by a “Grand Tasting” at Pier 27 on the Embarcadero on Saturday, February 27, 2016; when consumers may pick and sip among hundreds of wines, produced by California’s finest Zinfandel specialists. A literal Bacchanal.

Though, these are funny times for Zinfandel. As a varietal, it is still an awkward, bratty, painfully hormonal adolescent. Yet in many ways, it is thanks to the founders of ZAP – classic producers like Ridge, Ravenswood, Rosenblum, and a meritocracy of a few others – that the Zinfandel grape avoided what looked like an inevitable demise as a major red wine varietal, back in the mid-1990s.

Those were the days, many will recall, when most of what was being grown was being churned into the discernibly sweet, fruity pink wine we know as White Zinfandel.

Not that there’s anything wrong with White Zinfandel. Lovers of sweet, fruity pink wines deserve their desserts, too.

But instead, the positively huge response to ZAP’s yearly events lit up renewed ardor for the grape in its true, black skinned guise: as a lush, generous, oft-times spicy red wine. Delicious with an endless variety of foods; delicious by itself, in all its big, bad, brazen badda-bing badda-boomness.

The trend of “serious” producers dropping the varietal from their lines in favor of so-called “classic” varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir was suddenly reversed. New fangled specialists, such as Turley and Robert Biale, also popped up, creating almost cult-ish followings for pricey, single-vineyard bottlings. At a time when video had killed off the radio star, Zinfandel was being saved!

Or was it? Somewhere along the line, Zinfandel began to lose some of its luster. The latest Nielsen market reports are showing a slight decline in consumer interest in the grape as both a red and pink wine. You can chalk this up to the fact that almost all trends eventually putter out. Chardonnay sales, for instance, have been leveling off, and Merlot has never quite recovered from its post-Sideways malaise. Yet, on the other hand, interest in Cabernet Sauvignon is still growing through the roof; and Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, of all things, are more popular than ever.

Are today's consumers still amused by Zinfandel's big, bratty styles?

So what’s up with Zinfandel? For one, the very things that made Zinfandel such a favorite red varietal 10, 20 years ago. When ZAP began heating up the ‘90s, consumers were just “discovering” the joys of big, juicy, jammy and, frankly, sweetly oaked red wines, and Zinfandel fit the bill. “No wimpy wines!” was a popular mantra, and the t-shirt is even enshrined in the Smithsonian.

Well, guess what: many wine lovers, especially younger ones, now seem to be gravitating to “wimpy.” They want their wines a good 2% or 3% lower in alcohol. Dryer and edgy with tartness rather than annoyingly fat or fruity. Many of them hate the taste of oak; and the smoky, sweet, pungent, caramelized, oft-times furniture polish-like taste of oak is practically a Zinfandel signature, even if barrels have nothing to do with the natural taste of the grape.

Here in our second decade of the new millennium, we seem to be living in a wine world heavily influenced by sommeliers. Everyone is studying to be a sommelier. Like Spartacus, everyone is a sommelier, whether or not they are working in a fancy restaurant.

But take a look at the long, seemingly all-encompassing wine lists being written by top sommeliers in the best American restaurants today. Find any Zinfandel on those lists? Maybe one or two, if not zero; but certainly nothing comparable to the long lists of Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignons, or even wines that many sommeliers wish people would drink more of (i.e. Riesling, Ribolla Gialla, MencíaBlaufränkisch, etc.). Today’s Zinfandels, it seems, are not quite up to snuff in the sommeliers’ world.

115-year-old Zinfandel in Harney Lane's Lizzy James Vineyard

In a post in his popular blog Vinography this past November, Alder Yarrow fesses up to some of his own reasons why his enthusiasm for Zinfandel has waned like a shrunken orange in recent decades:

Let me begin with total honesty. I fell out of love with Zinfandel. When I first got into wine, I loved the carefree jubilation that spilled out of every bottle of Zinfandel I opened. Zinfandel is a wine that makes no apologies for its exuberant fruit.

As authentic as this personality can be, Zinfandel all too easily strays into the realm of caricature. If its boisterous blackberry, black pepper, and blueberry essence is good, surely a bit more of that is even better, right?

Wrong. As much criticism as California Cabernet receives for a shift towards bigger, better, richer, and riper in the last 20 years, in some ways Zinfandel's shift has been even more egregious.

Zinfandel probably started off riper than Cabernet to begin with, as it easily strays into the high 14% and low 15% range while continuing to develop those rich flavors that so many seek from the grape. But in addition to being left longer and longer on the vine beginning in the late 1990s, winemakers in California began to apply increasingly higher levels of new oak to the wines, resulting in bigger, richer, jammier, and sweeter versions of the grape. After a while I just got tired of it.

Apparently I do have a threshold for fruit overload, especially when that fruit is offered almost in singularity, with few other dimensions of interest. And this is precisely what became of California Zinfandel until recently. Many, many of these wines left behind nuance for power of fruit, and as a result, became less interesting to me.

But then recently...

And, ta-da! Yarrow goes on to describe a recent taste of an Amador County grown Zinfandel plus, “around the same time... a box of six Zinfandels from Lodi, all bearing the same label, but from different producers.” It was Yarrow’a discovery of six 2012 Lodi Native Zinfandels – deliberately crafted in a lower key fashion to emphasize the taste of vineyards rather than the sweet, jammy, oaky taste typical of the varietal – that Yarrow found to be “transformative, not only for my vision of what California Zinfandel had become, but also for my opinion of what Lodi was all about. I was back in bed with Zinfandel.” And not only that, the Lodi Natives “also inspired my faith in the future of California wine.”

Lodi Native winemaker/growers

Here’s the thing: most Lodi grown Zinfandels, like most commercial Zinfandels from everywhere in California, are still produced primarily to appeal to consumers with a  yen for the jammy, sweetly oaked taste commonly associated with the varietal category. But if you go to the ZAP Experience Grand Tasting this Saturday, you will be able to taste a small but growing number of Zinfandels made more in a style similar to the Lodi Native project.

That is, more Zinfandels that

1. Put on an emphasis more on earthy tastes associated with particular vineyards, not just exaggerated varietal fruit character.

2. Veer away from the heavy-handed oakiness.

3. Are mercifully lower in alcohol (closer to 13% rather than 16%).

4. Have a lip smacking tartness, rather than fat fruitiness.

As we said, these are funny times for Zinfandel. Grower and winemaker styles are transitioning, slowly but surely, in order to keep up with evolving consumer preferences, and the tastes of all those pesky, slow-to-buy-in sommeliers. We have the three Rs (Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum) to thank for firing up the popularity of the grape, which still dominates the Lodi landscape. But the crafting of Zinfandel as more subtle expressions of terroir (i.e. sensory sense of place), rather than brand or varietal caricatures, is still a long time coming.

But you know, the darkest hours are still in the ‘80s or ‘90s. No one here in the Delta is really afraid that Zinfandel will go the way of radio, or video, stars. There are too many consumers in Europe and Asia now clamoring for varietal bottlings, even if consumption in the U.S. is in a slight funk. Now there’s Cuba, plus that giant continent down below that, as Randy Newman sang, stole our name (South America). Things are looking good. We're going to be great again.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we are also trying to take that next step: popularizing the grape as a more delicate, floral, earthy style of red wine, which Lodi seems to naturally engender.

2014 ZAP trade tasting

Friday, February 5, 2016

Is there such a thing as "Zinfandel Grand Crus" in California?

Room set for ZAP's annual Flights! tasting

Is there such a thing as “Grand Crus” rankings of California wines? No, there isn’t, and for good reason: the California wine industry is continuously discovering “new” vineyards of undeniably wonderful quality and interest. We’re not like places in France, where they carry children around in baskets and vignerons have had hundreds of years to figure out where the best wines are coming from.

In a recent blogpost on Tim Atkin MW’s, Ron Washam made some devastating comments on one attempt to do so; citing James Laube, who “wrote California’s Great Cabernets, a book published by ‘Wine Spectator Press’ in 1989.” Quoth Washam,

You read that right — “Wine Spectator Press.” Why does that bring the Special Olympics of Publishing to mind? In California’s Great Cabernets, Laube, in his adolescence as a wine critic, took it upon himself to classify California Cabernet producers into Five Growths — think Bordeaux’s 1855 classification... The book is a study in hubris, as well as cheap paper.

The point is that as soon as you make a list of the top 50 or 60 vineyards where the best Cabernet Sauvignons are coming from, another 50 or 60 vineyards pop up that seem to be just as good or better. It’s more like the book, Millions of Cats – an exercise not so much in hubris as futility. The California wine industry is growing too darned fast to make even tentative choices.

Lodi Zinfandel lover at ZAP

And so why, you may ask, is Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (a.k.a. ZAP) putting on a Zinfandel tasting of bottlings that, in their words, “sets the stage to push the conversation about California's own Great Growths” representing what might be considered the top of the top of our old vine Zinfandel plantings? This tasting takes place on February 26, 2016 in San Francisco, as part of the “Flights! Forum of Flavors” segment of ZAP’s yearly, three-day-long Zinfandel Experience.

On their Web site, ZAP goes on to say:

The Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 ranked France's best wines according to a château's reputation and trading price and is still in use today. Ultimately 61 out of 5000 wine estates were given the highest ranking and are sometimes referred to as Great Growths or Grand Crus Classés... Is there a congruence between old vine vineyards and European great growths? 

The simplest answer to ZAP’s question, even before this tasting takes place, is: No. It is an exercise in futility, although we shan't say hubris (we love ZAP, and all great Zinfandels). Oh, it may be an amusing activity, but there are reasons why it can't be much more than that:

First: old vine vineyards are not necessarily the “grandest” sources of Zinfandel. Two of the highest rated Zinfandels in recent blind tasting competitions, for instance, have come from vines less than 10 years old (namely, Sam J. Sebastiani’s La Chertosa from Shake Ridge Ranch in Amador County, and the Mikami Vineyards Zinfandel from Lodi). Sure, no one goes around breathlessy proclaiming “Young Vine” Zinfandel; but doggone it, Zinfandel from young vines can be good, especially from fantastic sites cultivated by top-notch growers and finished by crafty winemakers.

One of James Thurber's most famous cartoons (The Thurber Carnival, 1945)

Secondly: neither critics nor consumers can ever agree on a criteria as to what constitutes the "best Zinfandels." The ZAP organizers, for instance, plan to present Zinfandels from seven vineyards to start their conversation about a possible “Grand Crus.” Five of those vineyards are located in Sonoma County and two of them from Napa Valley; and they all produce the deeply colored, densely textured, opulently fruited style of Zinfandel that many Zinfandel aficionados have come to love.

Ah, but what of the far less opulent, lower alcohol, decidedly more acid-driven styles of Zinfandels grown in, say, Mendocino Ridge? Or the more moderately structured yet suave, brightly balanced styles of Zinfandel coming out Sierra Foothills regions like Amador County, El Dorado and Calaveras? In both Paso Robles and Contra Costa County they grow full alcohol Zinfandels that often combine opulence of ripe fruit with almost improbable acid balance. Here in Lodi, we have recently come to appreciate a more delicate, perfumed, feminine (if you will) and often earthier style of Zinfandel.

Hey, don't ask us. It has been critics like Alder Yarrow, who in his widely followed Vinography blog last year (re The Lodi Zinfandel Revolution Continues) said that wines like the Lodi Native project Zinfandels "not only significantly redeemed my dissatisfaction with Lodi Zinfandel, it also inspired my faith in the future of California wine," while talking about the "incredible diversity and complexity" of Zinfandels from Lodi's better growths. They like us, they really do - sometimes more than others.

Lodi Native Zinfandels poured at 2015 ZAP

Point being: not everyone believes that the best Zinfandels are made in the big, black, thick and jammy fruited styles typical of much of Sonoma County and Napa Valley. Some critics actually hate that; preferring kinder, gentler, or more restrained, less obviously fruity styles. So by what standards do we devise a Bordeaux style classification of Zinfandels, sub-dividing “Grand Crus” growths into, say, five levels of “grandness?”

We don’t. Not so long as there is disagreement about such fundamental issues as: Is bigger better? Are the best Zinfandels the ones with lean and edgy acid balance, or the ones that bounce like a Sally Rand balloon? Do we give extra credit for earthy, non-fruit complexities, or do we measure by sheer amount of classic "jammy" fruitiness. Do we like Zinfandels so rich and dense with tannin they can absorb tons of pungent, sweet oak, or Zinfandels so delicate that the barest whiffs of wood will bruise it? Are not floral or more subtle berry fragrances better?

Then again, that’s the great thing about ZAP’s yearly Zinfandel Experience. There's no better place to be for a Zinfandel lover, which is why Lodi's finest will be there. if you have the stamina or wherewithal to sip and spit rather than swill everything in sight, you can experience well over 100 different Zinfandels in myriad styles from California’s fantastic multiplicity of regions – and then decide for yourself what is best, maybe even “Grand.”

Without any pesky list-makers telling you what's what!

Unsung hero: 115-year-old vine in Lodi's Marian's Vineyard

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Is California Grenache on a cusp?

Bokisch Vineyards Garnacha, lit up like Christmas during veraison

Letting a grape finally sing

Earlier in the month (May 2015), I endeavored to take a measure of California grown Grenache in a tasting of the very best varietal bottling of said grape.   

The tasting was a long time coming – I first thought about doing it at least five years ago, after tasting a pair of pure Grenache bottlings produced by Harrison Clark Vineyards, grown on a spectacular chalky hilltop estate in Santa Barbara’s Ballard Canyon AVA.  These sensuous, scintillating, ultra-spiced red wines were like a proverbial epiphany to me.  Never knew a California Grenache can taste so "complete."

Harrison Clarke's calcareous hilltop estate in Santa Barbara's Ballard Canyon AVA

It took a while to put together something of a definitive tasting, but I’m glad it’s finally done.  My thoughts on the matter...

First, over the past four, five years we have been hearing the rumblings; mostly out of the mouths of wine savvy friends and colleagues in the wine industry.  “Grenache is now my favorite grape.”  “Nothing is better than a good Grenache.”  “God, I love Grenache.”

I don’t know how much of this has been genuine, or just attributable to a coolness factor.  Certainly, we all occasionally do and say things just to be cool or different (or at least to make ourselves think we’re different).  But the point is:  I’m not the only one who’s been harboring a growing fondness for Grenache.

Michael McCay, Randy Caparoso & Markus Bokisch in Lodi Lake Park

Not, mind you, the usual Grenache based blends with SyrahMourvèdreCarignan, or other grapes deliberately used to beef up Grenache in some way, shape or form; based on the seemingly obvious assumption that Grenache makes too simple or feeble a red wine to stand on its own.  Bonny Doon Vineyard, for instance, has been on a tremendous winning streak with recent vintages of its Grenache driven Clos de Gilroy – buoyant, bosomy, irrepressibly lush and delicious red wines. 

Clos de Gilroy, however, is rarely more than 65% or 75% Grenache.  Grenache, as Randall Grahm contends, is “really the star” in his blends; but I still feel like you’re not really getting the taste of the grape in pure, unadulterated form.  What you’re getting is something of an “improved” Grenache – like the wonderfully improved versions of Barry Bonds (I was a big fan, and still am) in his latter years.

To appreciate Grenache, I think you need to accept the fact that, ultimately, the grape produces a lighter style of red wine than even the most moderated “GSM.”  It’s never going to soar as high as the finest Syrahs, and it’s never going to have the soulful, sonorous meatiness of Mourvèdre.  So what?

Grower Phil Abba and winemaker Michael McCay in Abba Vineyards (Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA)

I submit that the recent surge in interest in 100% pure Grenache as a varietal red is, more than anything, a sign that a growing segment of the wine market is finally willing to perceive subtlety as a quality, as much or even more so than sheer weight or intensity.  A wine need no longer be “big” or “powerful” to be impressive. 

It’s a mental thing, as much a shift in taste.  It entails dishing out "points" for expressions of less, not more.  Pure styles of red Grenache definitely fall within the softer, gentler, more floral spectrum of red wine styles; more often than not with its own modest complexity of red berryish fruit (often suggesting cherry, strawberry, raspberry or pomegranate), tinged with spice (black pepper or brown kitchen spices).  But if you expect power in the nose, or phenolic muscle in the body, you will usually be disappointed. 

Bottom line – the more you appreciate delicacy in red wine, the more you appreciate Grenache!

One of our tasters, noted Lodi winemaker Chad Joseph

McCay Cellars’ Michael McCay has been fond of describing Grenache as “Lodi’s Pinot Noir.”  McCay is alluding to the Lodi AVA’s Mediterranean climate – which is the natural environment for Grenache (but not so much for Pinot Noir, which reaches heights in colder climate regions) – as well as to the finely perfumed, mildly spiced, Pinot Noir-like qualities of the varietal. 

But red Grenache, of course, is not Pinot Noir; nor is it Carignan, Sangiovese, or any other variety with propensity towards red fruit fragrances and softer tannin structures.  It comes in its own package of attractive attributes; fairly defined only on its own terms.

Last year the San Francisco Chronicle headlined a story on Grenache’s recent “star turn,” describing the varietal as “the perfect Mediterranean grape” while proclaiming, “Now is the moment to embrace one of California wine's great successes.”  20 years ago, there was no way anyone would use words like “star” or “great” in the same sentence as Grenache.  There seems to be, borrowing Star Wars lingo, a “strong disturbance in the Force” – or rather, among those with say in the wine world.

Bokisch Vineyards' Markus Bokisch

Four of us, tasting from paper bags

For our blind tasting, I gathered 15 examples by producers who I believe are producing the finest pure styles of California Grenache today.  Oh, I may have left out another two, three, or even four, five other producers of merit.  But you have to start somewhere, and I choose to start from my own tasting experiences (never believing what I’m told or what’s being written).

Since it was easier to do this tasting in my own home in Lodi, I invited three of Lodi’s most respected vintners to help evaluate the wines along with me:  Markus Bokisch of Bokisch Vineyards, Chad Joseph of Harney Lane Winery and Oak FarmVineyards (plus three more Lodi based wineries), and Michael McCay of McCay Cellars.

Among the line-up, as it were, were the 2012 Bokisch Terra Alta Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Garnacha (Bokisch grows a clonal variant of the Grenache grape from Rioja Baja in Spain) and the 2012 McCay Cellars Lodi Grenache.  The various other Grenaches represented growths in Sonoma Valley, Inland Mendocino, Paso Robles, Santa Clara, Santa Barbara, Amador County and El Dorado.

McCay's 2014 Mokelumne River-Lodi Grenache harvest

Lest you think otherwise, none of our Lodi winemakers ended up recognizing their own wines in this blind tasting – not an uncommon occurrence in my experience, tasting with even the sharpest winemakers.  This means our Lodi guys were not predisposed towards Lodi grown wines while proffering their opinions and, in the end, picking out their favorite wines in the tasting.

Not only were none of us able identify the Lodi Grenaches among the others, following our discussion and voting of our favorite wines, we were actually shocked to discover that the Grenache everyone lauded as being the most intense in terms of spiciness, earthiness and perfume was, in fact, the 2012 McCay Cellars Grenache grown in Lodi.  Of course, we did not all agree that more was better, but c’est la vie.

Our "top 3" Grenache reds

Between the four of us, we came up with a total of 7 wines singled out as our three “favorites.”  We didn't "rate" the wines - all of them were damned good - but we jotted down our personal preferences, mostly for the sake of discussion.

Winemaker Jordan Fiorentini in Epoch's calcareous Paderewski Vineyard (Paso Robles Willow Creek District)

Full disclosure:  I picked the Lodi grown McCay and Bokisch Grenaches #1 and #2 – under the mistaken notion that these wines were more likely from Santa Barbara.  The wines I thought were from Lodi actually ended up being from Testa Ranch in Mendocino and the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard.  If I’ve grown a “Lodi palate,” evidently it’s been by accident. 

In any case, my #3 choice was Epoch WinesSensibility, grown in the steep, white, calcareous shale slopes (+1,200-ft. elevation) of Paso Robles’ newly recognized Paso Robles Willow Creek District AVA.  Aside from the Baiocchi (Fair Play/El Dorado) and Neyers (Sonoma Valley), the Epoch was just about the most aggressive, full and densely structured Grenache in the bunch, exuding a pervasive, ringing peppery spice.  Mr. Joseph, on the other hand, found the Epoch to be a shade “clunky.”  A well-made wine is like a mountain – everyone looks at its features from slightly different angles.

Mr. Joseph, as it turned out, really loved the two Ballard Canyon/Santa Barbara bottlings from Harrison Clarke Vineyards, picking them as his #1 and #2.  All I can say is, he has very good taste.  His #3 choice, for the record, was the Lodi grown McCay.

Unbeknownst to each other, Mr. McCay and Mr. Bokisch ended up picking the exact same wines as their 1, 2, and 3:  first, the full bodied (by Grenache standards), fleshy, richly layered Baiocchi from El Dorado’s Fair Play AVA; followed by the more feminine, flowery, silky A Tribute to Grace from Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, and the 2011 Harrison Clarke (the slightly leaner, yet somewhat brasher, of the two vintages of Harrison Clarke in the tasting). 

A Tribute to Grace winemaker/owner Angela Osborne in Amador County's Shake Ridge Ranch

In alphabetical order, more detailed notes on the seven wines that ended up among our “top 3”:

2013 A Tribute to Grace, Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard Grenache (about $50) – From a remote, high elevation (3,500-ft.) vineyard located in an even warmer site than anywhere in Lodi; furnishing more than enough proof that perfectly refined, feminine, silky yet zesty, upbeat Grenache can be grown in a place that is the opposite of “cold climate” (and is also why, when the French and Spanish talk about Grenache, they gleefully proclaim the merits of “hot climate” viticulture).  McCay described the finely wrought elegance of this bottling as “Sinatra-like,” and Mr. Bokisch loved the way its low-key cedarbox-spice/oak melded with its fragrant raspberry/cherryish fruit.

2012 Baiocchi Wines, Sharon’s Vineyard Fair Play (El Dorado) Grenache ($39) – Focused strawberry/plummy aroma backed by a faint note of minerality, mingling with a scrubby spice; firm, fairly full bodied style (relative to the rest of the Grenaches, which were by and large moderate in weight), with attractively round, fleshy, balanced qualities to the mineral-tinged fruit intensity.

Bokisch Vineyards' Rioja Baja Garnacha clonal selection

2012 Bokisch Vineyards, Terra Alta Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Garnacha ($23) – This planting – grown on the rocky, clay loam soils of Lodi’s Clements Hills AVA – comes across as notably svelte, refined, yet zesty.  The varietal qualities are properly soft and strawberryish – described as “bright” and “lifted” by Chad Joseph – augmented by a whiffs of leafy-greenery which added (for me) a nice complexity; the medium-weight, fruit-focused sensations coming across as gentle yet exuberant, stretching gracefully across the palate.

2012 Epoch Estate Wines, Paso Robles Sensibility (about $50) – Although in the past this winery has blended small proportions of Syrah in their Sensibility bottlings, their 2012 is 100% Grenache; evoking ultra-intense, almost heady strawberry/raspberry fruit with a cracked peppercorn spiciness, leaping from the glass; with a notably thick, full, bold yet typically soft (for the varietal), silken textured feel on the palate.

Harrison Clarke co-owner/winemaker Hilarie Clarke

2010 Harrison Clarke Vineyards, Ballard Canyon-Santa Ynez Valley (Santa Barbara) Grenache ($32) – This estate planting – on a dusty-white, calcareous limestone-replete hilltop in Santa Barbara’s Ballard Canyon AVA (a sub-appellation of Santa Ynez Valley) – remains one of my all-time favorite sources of Grenache.  The wines are unfailingly spicy and mobilized by zesty, fresh fruit acidity (high pH soils being more favorable to lower pH wines).  In this bottling, a fragrant, flowery red berry perfume is infused with an aromatic minty/sweet herb spiciness; tied together on the palate with still-youthful tannin, filling out a firm, medium sized body.

2011 Harrison Clarke Vineyards, Ballard Canyon-Santa Ynez Valley (Santa Barbara) Grenache ($32) – This vintage produced a slightly leaner prickly, layered, silken Grenache; with a brazen, generous fruit dimension verging on blackcurrant-like berryishness, tinged with fresh Bing cherry and mildly sweet oak flourishes; finishing fresh, sleek, lissome, lively.

2012 McCay Cellars, Lodi Grenache ($28) – From trellised vines in Phil Abba’s meticulously farmed Abba Vineyard, located on the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA.  Notably the most pungent, perfumed, sweet black peppercorn spiced, veering on peppermint, Grenache in this tasting, with Old Worldish whiffs of organic loaminess (also the earthiest wine in this tasting).  The feel is soft, round, fairly fleshy, with mouth-watering zip.  Mr. Bokisch described its nose as “Santa Rosa plum and strawberry,” while Mr. Joseph singled out its “mineral texture” and “rich strawberry jam” qualities.

Baiocchi Vineyards owner/grower/winemaker Greg Baiocchi

The others – a litany of Grenache “stars”

I have done tastings, even entire judgings, where none of entries are “second-rate” – every wine a winner in any given wine aficonado's book.  This was one of those tastings, in spades.  We truly felt that the quality of each of the following wines was first-rate – indicative of the high standard of red varietal Grenache reached in California today.

In alphabetical order:

2013 A Tribute to Grace, Shake Ridge Ranch Amador County Grenache (about $50) – With the huge respect we all have for grower Ann Kraemer’s amazing work at Shake Ridge Ranch, the combination with A Tribute to Grace’s Angela Osborne’s customary minimalist winemaking regime – strictly native yeast, partial (50% to 70%) foot treading of whole clusters, neutral wood, et al. – seems like a hand-in-glove fit.  In this bottling, Osborne achieves an epitome of the varietal’s gentle, fragrant, medium bodied charms; the strawberry/cherry fruit spruced up by a cocoa-ish, baking spice complexity; some youthful tannins tightening the finish, which still projects a fine, almost ethereal texturing.

Shake Ridge Ranch, Amador County

2013 A Tribute to Grace, Besson Vineyard Santa Clara Grenache (about $50) – Ms. Osborne informs us that this is sourced from ancient vines, planted in 1910.  In comparison to her other two cuvées submitted in the tasting, this prettily scented wine seemed to register a slightly lower key expression of the cherry/strawberry varietal perfume, while remaining true to the pliant, feminine personality of the varietal; the nose exuding a flowery note, transitioning into a soft, almost airy, yet appealingly bright, snappy McIntosh apple-like crackle and pop on the palate.

2013 Beckmen Vineyards, Purisima Mountain Vineyard-Block Eight Ballard Canyon-Santa Ynez Valley (Santa Barbara) Grenache ($52) – Few vignerons lavish as much attention on Grenache as Steve Beckmen, and it shows in this bottling from a Biodynamic® farmed block of own-rooted, head trained vines, planted on a sparse calcareous slope.  Vividly rich and compact cherry/strawberryish varietal aroma touched up by a mild herbiness; fairly full, soft and fleshy, but seemingly held back a little by a young, linear, tight tannin component.

Neyers Vineyards winemaker Tadeo Borchardt in Sonoma Valley's Rossi Ranch

2012 Big Basin Vineyards, Coastview Vineyard Monterey County Grenache ($44) – Coastview is as the name implies – a 2,200-ft. elevation planting located in the Gabilan Mountains, overlooking Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley. This was also the only Grenache in our tasting blended with a small dose of Syrah (5%).  Nonetheless, the impression is very much, and thrillingly, “Grenache” – juicy, bouncy, strawberry fruit qualities in the nose and mouth, zipped up by notably bright acidity, a mild tug of tannin and just a smidgen of leafy green herbiness.

2014 Neyers Vineyards, Rossi Ranch Sonoma Valley Grenache ($35) – This was the only barrel sample included in this tasting (owner Bruce Neyers explaining that a bottle of their sold-out 2013 bottling was simply unavailable).  But I was determined to have some kind representation from Neyers; whose formidably talented winemaker, Tadeo Borchardt, has had phenomenal success with fruit from the Biodynamic® farmed Rossi Ranch, tucked away on hillsides not far from Jack London State Historic Park in Sonoma Valley.  This came across as the Grenache with the most intense expression of black-oriented fruit (plum, blackberry); and also as the one wine that could most accurately be described as “opulent,” or voluminous – zesty yet round, fleshy, layered sensations; tightly wound and compact with unresolved tannin, while finishing with a surprisingly sleek sense of grace and texturing.

Winemaker Chris Pittenger in his high elevation Skinner estate (Fair Play, El Dorado)

2012 Skinner Vineyards, Estate Grown El Dorado Grenache (about $30) – The Skinner estate plantings sit on a sandy loam saddle, some 2,700-ft. high in El Dorado’s Fair Play AVA.  This wine is effusive with bright, high-toned strawberry perfumes, complimented by the slightest herbal underpinnings; its medium body buoyed by fresh acidity, lending mouth-watering sensations.

2013 Skinner Vineyards, El Dorado Grenache ($26) – In this blend of estate and non-estate plantings, the nose projects more forward strawberryish qualities with scrubby, sage-like earth notes; and on the palate, the softness of the varietal, sweetened by restrained French oak, finishing soft, easy, ingratiatingly fresh and savory.

2012 Testa Ranch, Mendocino County Grenache ($30) – Grower/winemaker Maria Martison tends to this hidden treasure of a vineyard that has been in her family since 1912.  Employing straightforward, small batch, hand punched macro-bin fermentation, she exacts classically fragrant, flowery red berry/cherry, almost pomegranate-like perfumes and flavors in her Grenache; wrapped in a soft, elongated, easy-going medium body that seem to caress the palate.  Everything that we crave in pure (at long last) Grenache!

Testa Ranch owner/winemaker Maria Martison

Can we talk more?

By and large, all of these Grenache bottlings were sourced from vines growing in moderately warm Mediterranean climates.  Do not pay attention to yabberings about necessity of “cold climate.”  Grenache loves sun, while basking in a fairly wide range of topographies.

Where the wines in our tasting differed was in elevation (the Skinner, Baiocchi, Big Basin, Epoch, and A Tribute to Grace's Shake Ridge Ranch and Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard planted on the highest elevation sites), and soil (higher pH/calcareous soils in the Epoch, Beckmen, Harrison Clarke and Big Basin plantings).  These were nice, but wines grown in less alkaline soil on sub-400-ft. sites (i.e. McCay, Bokisch, Testa, Neyers' Rossi Ranch, and A Tribute to Grace's Besson Vineyard) seemed no less complex and attractive.

If anything, factors such as winemaking and picking decisions were also significant.  For instance, mildly green notes of pyrazine (which I love) indicative of earlier picking – presumably to achieve moderated natural alcohol and crisper acidity – were found in wines as varied as the Bokisch (grown on low-lying hillsides of rocky sandy clay loam), the Skinners (sandy loams at mountain-high altitude), Big Basin (2,200-ft. hillsides with veins of limestone), the Beckmen and Harrison Clarke bottlings (sparse, rocky limestone on hillsides topping out at about 1,200-ft.). 

In terms of style, Bokisch, A Tribute to Grace, and Testa Ranch all seemed to fall into the lighter, reddish berry perfumed spectrum of the varietal by design – a winemaker’s sense of restraint – despite coming from widely varying regions (Lodi’s Clements Hills, Santa Barbara Highlands, Amador County, Santa Clara, and Inland Mendocino).  Winemaking always has as much impact as terroir on finished product.

Skinner Vineyards in El Dorado's Fair Play AVA, on elevations reaching 2,700-ft.

It is interesting to note that with the exception of the Bokisch and Testa, all the wines were crafted by vintners devoted to native yeast fermentation and other methods associated with minimalist winemaking.  This was particularly telling in the comparison of the two Lodi grown wines – the native yeast fermented McCay showing rawer earth and spicy notes, and the inoculated Bokisch focusing on a purer red fruit expression.

Yet the wines falling on the fuller bodied end of the scale also varied.  The Baiocchi came across as successfully well balanced, while achieving a classic red fruit varietal fragrance, even in a riper, weightier style (alcohol hitting 14.9%).  The Neyers was among the fuller bodied wines, while hitting darker fruit notes – no doubt reflective of the classic red volcanic soil of Sonoma Valley.  The Epoch was downright thick, as opulent as the Neyers – you could almost feel the sweet kiss of sun on these shallow, rocky, calcareous slopes – and even spicier than the Neyers and Baiocchi.

Speaking of which, the spice factor:  we found the most intense peppery qualities in the McCay, Harrison Clarkes and Epoch Grenaches.  Again, these spice bombs come from a wide range of regions:  McCay grown in Lodi’s zero-elevation sandy loam; Harrison Clarke on a gentle slope of finely ground limestone hovering around 1,000-ft.; the Epoch on a steeper, mountainous, craggy site climbing above 1,200-ft.  What they do have in common is native yeast fermentation and squarely Mediterranean climate – chew on that.

If you enjoy complexity, Grenache is as much your grape as any other.  In the hands of crafty winemakers such as the aforementioned, any wine lover with a penchant for classic qualities like elegance and subtlety is bound to be thrilled.  I know I am.

Shake Ridge Ranch's owner/grower extraordinaire, Ann Kraemer