Friday, July 31, 2009

Local Cab Franc Terroir Musings

A bunch of random thoughts on Santa Barbara Cab Franc. Go!

- Foxen Vineyards' estate vineyard, the Tinaquaic Vineyard, consists of three varietals: Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Seems like an unlikely trio juxtaposing Burgundy, the Northern Rhone and the Loire Valley south-east of Santa Maria. I haven't tried any of these Foxen wines, but their story of dry farmed vines grown above the canyon floor in sandy clay soil is pretty compelling. If the weather in this section of the valley is moderated by the coastal fog, this vineyard is thus prime territory for growing grapes such as Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Franc that flourish in cooler climates. I guess I'll have to give at least one of these Foxen wines a try to see if they work out as well in practice as they do in my mind.

- Along the lines of pairing cool climate grapes, I'm going to propose another location for Cabernet Franc: Santa Rita Hills. This is Chardonnay and Syrah heaven (sound familiar?) due to a very pronounced cool, coastal influence. Now, everything begins with Pinot and ends with Noir in Santa Rita Hills. But if Cab Franc were grown in an area with sufficient sun exposure and allowed to mature slowly during the growing season, perhaps the results would be compelling. The biggest problem with Cab Franc in the region is excessive alcohol, and reducing sugar accumulation with lower temperatures could be a good approach. It's no coincidence that some of the best local Cab Franc I've tasted has been from the similarly cool Los Alamos area adjacent to Santa Ynez and Santa Rita Hills.

- Which brings me to those chalky white hillsides in the Santa Rita Hills. These consist of diatomaceous earth. At first I wondered if this was related to limestone, but limestone is mostly Calcium Carbonate. Diatomaceous earth is made of tiny, prehistoric sea creatures that are chemically heavy on Silicon Dioxide. The best Cabernet Franc terroirs in the Loire are limestone based. But the same might be said of Pinot Noir vineyards in Burgundy. Perhaps silica-based soils are good for both? It's probably not a coincidence Chinon is nearly due west of Nuits-Saint-George. By this logic, indeed, someone should throw a few million dollars at a white hillside via a Cab Franc planting in Santa Rita Hills.

This is all speculation on my part, of course. I'm no geologist, nor am I am ampelographer or enologist. But I am a Cab Franc partisan.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Another Santa Ynez Trip

I haven't followed up with notes from Paso Robles despite there being some truly worthwhile words to be written with respect to producers like Villa Creek and Caparone. And yet I'm already out tasting again. This time it's another run through Santa Ynez.

We hit Foxen Vineyards for a second go-round, this time before the Happy Hour hordes descended. The initial impression stands: ripe, generous and well-made. Their 2006 Block 8 Bien Nacido Pinot Noir was the wine of the day due to its curiously French aromatics juxtaposed with rich California fruit flavors. The aromas were a mix of floral and funky "forest floor" smells with just a bit of ripe red fruit showing through as well. Good acidity produced a suitable balance and a long finish. Although there's no subtlety, this is just an alluring wine that I'd even dare suggest is worth its $54 price tag if you have the means. I suspect we tasted from an especially great bottle of a very good wine, but those are indeed the most memorable wines.

Foxen also managed to put together a rare 16% alcohol wine that held together, the 2006 Williamon-Dore Syrah. While there's no mistaking the viscosity of the ethanol and the depth of extract, it's not a hot or awkward wine. In fact, it's effusive in its bouquet and seamless on the palate. I'd still classify this as a cocktail wine, but it's one of the best entries in the genre I've encountered. I do wonder, though, if there's any point to aging a wine that is so youthfully exuberant and delicious. Meanwhile, their whites were wonderfully crisp and their Mourvedré rose showed a layer of earthiness that's not often found in pink wines. There's a real diversity of wines being produced by Foxen, all of which are well-made.

While I'm impressed with Foxen and their Bien Nacido Pinot Noir topped my list on the day, I once again have to come back to Longoria Wines as my personal favorite. Top to bottom, Longoria is the best I've come across in Santa Ynez. I can only hope that the Sea Smoke band wagoners don't learn of Longoria's Fe Ciega vineyard, because Longoria is just toeing the "affordable luxury" line as it is. With Longoria's multi-cuvee approach to his various Pinot Noirs, I get the sense he has a certain French ideology towards terroir and his wine in general. There are blends for early drinking, and there are blends for aging. And virtually every wine has a good acidic backbone leading to a fresh juiciness that leavens the fruit and alcohol in his larger framed wines. Where Foxen's wines lean towards the Parker style of excess, Longoria's always seem to hit that magic balance between California fruit and European structural balance. All of Longoria's 2007 Pinot Noirs in particular are superb, and the 2006 Fe Ciega Pinot Noir seems structured enough to evolve from its current embryonic state into a wine of tremendous nuance and complexity.

Although Foxen and Longoria differ stylistically, there is one commonality worth noting: they've both been making wine in the region for quite a while. That's always something to keep in mind with so many wealthy hobbyists jumping into the wine making game with much enthusiasm, but little experience. There's something to be said in terms of evolution, both of the individual sort via experience gained over decades and survival of the fittest.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pinot like Syrah? Or Pinot like Grenache?

While tasting an interesting and delicious blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedré (60%-30%-10%), I couldn't help but think it was like a Pinot Noir on steroids. Grenache tends towards a true red color instead of the deep purple of Syrah, and its fruit profile also tends towards red fruit like cherry and raspberry (at least with the younger vine versions of the varietal). This wine in particular had a good bit of earthy and savory elements, perhaps from the Mourvedré or the fermentation techniques. The end result was a blend with the qualities of an very ripe, yet complex Pinot Noir that nonetheless carried its weight more gracefully than a Pinot of that size.

This has me thinking a bit. Even the most powerful of Power Pinots is not likely to be mistaken for Syrah, but it's common to say Power Pinot tastes like Syrah. Of course there are similarities that warrant the comparison, like black fruit flavors and copious tannins. But my thinking is that jammier high alcohol Pinot really has more in common with Grenache than Syrah because of the fruit profile. The comparison to Syrah becomes even more tenuous when the Pinot in question is over-oaked. Syrah is not a varietal that benefits from oak in the same way that Cabernet does, in my opinion. It's already so well-rounded that the oak unbalances the wine, whereas oak seems to complement Cabernet that's not overripe. The overroaked Pinot is, well, just overoaked.

Maybe I'm just overthinking this. A little hyperbole--who spiked the Pinot with Syrah?!?--enhances the impact of the statement. But I think most of these bigger-styled Pinot Noirs have more in common with Grenache-heavy Rhone blends than New World Syrah.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

TN: Dr. Jebediah Drinkwell's 2007 Meritage

Although I usually avoid bottles with catchy labels, I couldn't resist picking up a bottle of Dr. Jebediah Drinkwell's 2007 Meritage at Trader Joe's. The primary reason was the blend: 60% Cabernet Franc, 27% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot. The producer is labeled as the Central Coast Wine Wearhouse, and I suspect this is wine left over from another project or a failed experiment that didn't fit into a blend.

Unfortunately, this wine does not deliver. The aromas are muted and show mostly oak spice. More importantly, the wine is utterly deficient in acidity. It's so flabby, it drinks like grape juice. There's nothing off-putting in this wine and it's easy to drink other than being youthfully tannic. But there's no balance. To quote a famous wine movie character, this wine is "hollow, flabby and overripe," not to mention reminiscent of the equally mediocre Happy Canyon 2007 Chukker. In fact the blend is eerily similar to the Chukker; could this be a Chukker in Dr. Drinkwell's clothing?

Not recommended as I think Two Buck Chuck is better balanced at a fourth the price.

Score: 75-79
Price: $9 from Trader Joe's

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A new Jay Miller controversy?

Three months ago, Dr. Vino broke a story questioning the impartiality of Jay Miller's reviews published by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. The issue was centered upon the appropriateness of Miller accepting hospitality from importers and producers when reviewing their wines, particularly when Parker's own policy is to pay his own way. Miller's tendency to rate a surprising quantity of wines highly no doubt added fuel to the fire. Whether or not Miller actually accepted gifts in return for positive reviews, there was still an appearance of impropriety.

Fresh on the heels of this public black eye, Miller is now caught up in an ugly incident where it appears a producer pulled a bait and switch with a wine he rated at 96 points, the 2005 Sierra Carche. Message boards here, here and here are discussing the likelihood that the wine Miller reviewed was substantially different than the wine imported into the US. While it seems unlikely Miller was involved beyond tasting the wine, his tendency to taste under conditions determined by importers certainly exposes him to ugly situations like this one. He certainly didn't help himself by sitting on a bottle of this wine a collector asked him to re-taste for nearly a year.

The emerging story seems to be that the producer bottled multiple lots, with one of the later runs being vastly inferior to the original wine Miller tasted. Adding to the intrigue, apparently there are bottles numbered XXXX out of 20,000 and XXXX out of 16,000, while the importer claims 20,000 bottles produced. Something certainly seems fishy here, though perhaps there's a sensible explanation for the bad bottles and non-standard math.

The moral of the story: don't buy on points! The wine in question here seems to be a blend cooked up by a marketing group in partnership with a Spanish producer. In all likelihood, the label/brand was made first, then Parkerized (or perhaps Millerized?) wine was contracted to fill the bottles. If there's no vineyard source known and the producer has no history or a reputation to uphold, how do you know what's actually going into the bottles that aren't presented directly to a critic over a nice business dinner?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

TN: Martin & Weyrich 2003 Nebbiolo "Il Vecchio"

Ah, Nebbiolo. The light red color of a Pinot Noir. The searing acidity of a Sauvignon Blanc. And the drying tannins of a Petite Sirah. With some many disparate elements to balance, it's no coincidence Nebbiolo is reputed as one of the most challenging varietals to grow. Although my point of reference is mid-level Nebbiolo from Piedmont, I'm pretty certain the Martin & Weyrich 2003 Nebbiolo "Il Vecchio" is on target, particularly given the price point.

The bouquet is heavy on cigar box--pipe tobacco and cedar--as well as black cherry. Rather interestingly, the producer states the wine is "redolent of cedar, spicy tobacco and black fruit aromas," while another review of the wine observes "layers of cedar, cigar box, tobacco leaf give way to dark berries, plums and raspberries." This is a surprisingly consistent set of independent observations. The mid-palate is round and perhaps a bit flabby, but there's plenty of acidity and tannin that balance out on the finish. It's a bit overripe because of the higher alcohol and some dried fruit characteristics, yet this wine overflows with character and structure. Maybe it will benefit from more age, but the tannins are mellow enough to approach now.

Definitely one I'd recommend to try side by side with a Langhe Nebbiolo. It's a bit richer and fruitier than the Piedmont equivalents I've tried, yet still shows varietal character. I've seen Martin & Weyrich wines in some grocery stores in Southern California, so their Nebbiolo may be readily available depending on where you live.

Score: 87-90
Price: $22 from Martin & Weyrich Winery

Monday, July 13, 2009

TN: Trader Joe's Petit Reserve 2007 Cabernet Franc

In general, I have mixed feeling on Trader Joe's wine. There's a lot of outright plonk, especially when it comes to their imports, and there's also a lot of generic mass-produced domestic wine. Occasionally, though, a high quality wine with a nice discount or a negociant wine bottled especially for TJ's will show up. For example, a $9 Trader Joe's Reserve Petite Verdot turned out to be declassified wine from Ancient Peaks Winery, whose Petite Verdot retails for over $30.

The latest find is a $6 Paso Robles Cabernet Franc labeled as "Trader Joe's Petit Reserve." My expectations weren't especially high, but this is killer stuff considering the price. The only objection is one of balance since the oak use is very heavy-handed. I suspect this should integrate with some time in bottle, though it's not going to disappear. The effect is a very creamy, rich mid-palate, which while rather generic, makes this an easy wine to sip. The tight nose does show hints of tobacco and black currant, while there is genuine concentrated fruit and acidic structure evident on the palate. I left this bottle open overnight and it actually improved; usually cheap wine falls apart after as little as an hour open. There's no jammy or fakey fruit in this, nor are there strange chemical odors. In other words, while this is very New World in style, this juice definitely was not originally fermented with the intention of selling for $6.

I picked up a few more bottles and am curious to see if they will express more varietal characteristics with some bottle age. Incidentally, the label indicates this wine was produced by Familia Nueva in Creston, CA. Creston is in southern Paso Robles where Ancient Peaks winery is based. Could this be another TJ's Ancient Peaks special under an assumed name? The balanced acidity, alcohol (14.1%) and fresh fruit flavors point towards a cooler part of Paso Robles like Santa Margarita. Given that 2007 was an especially good vintage, this may turn out to be a mega-QPR for me.

Price: $6 at Trader Joe's
Score: 82-87

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Another one bites the dust

Way back maybe 6 months ago, I added a bunch of wine blogs to Google Reader. Much like with wine, what I liked or found interesting some time ago often loses its luster. There are, of course, blogs like The Wine Whore that are so blatantly crass in their conception that they never make it into my regular rotation. Then there are those like Appellation Feiring that are worth the time to read because they're provocative and outside the box, though the personality of the author routinely inspires a love/hate reaction for me. Others like Steve Heimoff's blog have grown on me over time and changed my perceptions. Finally there's Vinography, which I voted off the virtual island this week.

Vinography's author, Alder Yarrow, by any measure is a thoughtful and skilled writer. I love the style of his tasting notes, and especially the context that he provides with respect to each wine. To a large extent I model my wine notes after his. I can quibble with his near singular focus on ultra-premium wines as well as a tendency to apply ratings to dozens of wines during mega tastings--really, how accurate can your impressions be with 100+ wines in a crowded room, tasting over several hours. But that's his niche, and he does what he does very well. Although I'm not all that attracted to coverage of the luxury wine scene and its image-driven posturing, the following statement really pushed my buttons in all the wrong ways:
It took me a long time in my evolution as a wine lover to truly understand the amount of money and sweat and energy that goes into building a world class winery over decades, even centuries.

Many wine lovers early in their education (and in their earning power) are often flummoxed by prices for wines that start to head north of $80 or $90 per bottle. Should they pursue their love of wine long enough to really learn (and see for themselves) what kind of work goes into some of the world's best vineyards, and to taste the wine that they produce, such prices no longer seem outrageous.

This is nothing more than saying "if you don't buy $100+ bottles of wine, you won't ever get wine, but I get it because I have both money and the inclination to use it." While I can't argue that the greatest wines are invariably expensive, the suggestion that price is a particularly good proxy for quality or indicative of the actual cost to produce a wine is off target. This is wine snobbery at its best as it suggests not only the consumer must spend exorbitantly, but the producer also must invest from every angle. Only a wealthy vintner can make wines worthy of the distinguished palate of his well-off customers, it seems.

Let's be honest here. It does take investment and effort to make wine that rises above generic plonk. A $50 wine is indeed more likely to blow your mind than a $15 wine, though gains in quality do become marginal above a certain price level. I think there's a particularly noticeable improvement in quality going from the $5-$10 range to the $15-$30 range. But a price tag alone does not mean that mother nature or a heavy-handed or untalented vintner did not turn out over-priced junk in a given year. Taking into consideration the wide spectrum of subjective tastes, there's even a possibility one may not enjoy a wine that's objectively very good because of its stylistic approach.

What's particularly interesting is that while Rochioli is cited as an example where costs incurred by the producer justify the bottle price, I suspect a producer like Rochioli that owns its own vineyards and is well established likely has much lower overhead than younger labels that must purchase fruit, rent space in a winery, or pay off debt for that fancy new tasting room. The justification of the cost is not the raw materials; it is the finished product, which must both be very good and very rare to fetch such a high price. Arguing that the producer pampered his Pinot at every corner is not a logical justification for $100+ prices. If he or she can't make a healthy profit at that price, it's time to look at the business model. I've seen well-respected estate wineries cite a cost per bottle of about $10, which suggests it would take quite a bit of spending to make 750 mL of juice cost $30+ (pre-profit, of course).

Yet it's not so much this content that upsets me as the context. A recent post titled The Travesty of Wine and Social Class in America on Vinography argued against wine snobbery. If you're a fan of serious hypocrisy, then this is the wine blog for you. Be a snob. Or be an anti-snob. If you are good at your chosen angle, I'll appreciate it. But you can't take both sides. If your blog is devoted to praising cult wines and luxury cuvées, you should be aware of where you stand.

I'm a snob. You're a snob. We're all snobs. I can stomach it, even if you feel you must berate someone with less than diverse tastes to elevate your own sense of self-importance. I'll be right there next you saying there's a genuine correlation between price and quality (that nonetheless weakens significantly for bottles priced well-above cost). But don't be a hypocrite. You can't go around playing the elitist card left and right, then act like your legal name is Joe Pleb of the Proletariat. Vinography is thus off the RSS reader by a 1-0 vote.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

WN: Owen Roe 2006 Rosa Mystica Cabernet Franc

On the recommendation of several other bloggers (Jeff of Viva la Wino and Vinagoth), my girlfriend and I made a slight detour on a trip south to pick up a bottle of the Owen Roe 2006 Rosa Mystica Columbia Valley Cabernet Franc. It's more expensive than what we usually drink as it approaches the $40 point, but given the Independence Day holiday weekend, it was justifiable to drink a higher priced wine hailing from the state named after our first president.

Owen Roe Winery is not quite as straightforward as one might think; it's not a guy in Washington named Owen Roe making wine. It's a guy in Oregon named David O'Reilly making wine from Washington and Oregon fruit whose winery is named after a 17th century Irish patriot named Owen Roe O'Neill. Owen Roe is considered a top producer in the Pacific Northwest, hence my willingness to seek out his interpretation of Cabernet Franc.

It's always interesting to see how the producer's notes and one's own tasting notes compare. Here's what the winery says about the 2006 Rosa Mystica:
This Rosa Mystica Cabernet Franc has elements of Old World charm and fragrance, yet its bright berry and plush richness is all New World. Three vineyards are situated on hillsides high in the western Yakima Valley. The fourth small block is from Dr. Steve Elerding’s Six Prong Vineyard along the Columbia River in Alderdale. Ripening their small crops in late October, all the vineyards yielded wonderfully rich fruit flavors with nice acidity. In the winery, we’ve been careful not to employ too much new oak, trying to gently coax characteristics that are expressive of this fragrant and complex varietal. This 2006 wine has all the hallmarks of a world-class Cabernet Franc and its ripeness and power do not overshadow the delicacy of its cedar fragrance, olive flavor and beautiful berry fruit.
My tasting notes read:
Initial impression of leather, smoke, bell pepper and tobacco. Flavors are closed, some heat shows on finish. Complexity showing, but not all that enticing. Opens up with food. Jalapeno raspberry glaze on pork chops accentuates chipotle pepper quality of wine. Mid-palate takes on weight, finish is earthy. Tobacco leaf, chipotle and leather on nose. Now it drinks like a Pinot Noir in style, but with Cab Franc varietal characteristics. Good acidity, light tannin, minimal oak influence. Elegant with prominent green accents. Reminiscent of Loire Cab Franc with similar affinity for food, but less minerality and more fruit on palate.
Sometimes a producer's notes just don't describe what's in the glass. However, the notes from the winery, which I hadn't read before tasting the wine, are right on par with my experience. The Old World-New World dichotomy and the mention of minimal oak influence sum up this wine perfectly. The only major difference is in the relative prominence of the flavors where in my bottle I found more herbaceous qualities than the producer's notes suggest.

This is by far the closest thing I've found to Loire Cab Franc coming from the US. The leather, pepper and tobacco aromas and the slightly herbal finish combined with otherwise ripe berry flavors are classic Cabernet Franc. It's also elegantly styled and moderately extracted with light oak influence, thus more closely resembling a New World Pinot Noir than a modern Cabernet Sauvignon in style. Moreover, the wine needs food to really show its best.

However, there are a couple of qualities that are holding me back from fully recommending this wine. It doesn't quite have the supple texture, seamlessness or length in its finish that I look for in a really great wine, nor is the elusive floral expression of Cab Franc evident. It's certainly an intellectually stimulating wine that will draw you back to find different qualities as it evolves. And the style is ideal for transparently expressing all that Cabernet Franc has to offer. But I didn't feel that "wow" factor where the bouquet and flavors made the wine irresistible. At the $40 range I really expect the "wow" factor to emerge. I think one can find a wine with a similar flavor profile (but perhaps with less fruit and more minerality) that costs around $20 or $30 from Chinon or Bourgueil. So it comes down to QPR on this wine more than anything else.

Score: 86-89
Price: $38 from Woodland Hills Wine Company

Sunday, July 5, 2009

WN: Due Dolcetti

Or perhaps a Dolcetto duel? Either way, the entrants into my latest side-by-side tasting are the Palmina 2007 Santa Barbara County Dolcetto and the Bricco del Cucù 2005 "Bricco San Bernardo" Dogliani. Both are priced just under $20 per bottle and both have good pedigrees. Palmina is Steve Clifton's Cal-Ital label, and his work with Italian varietals in Santa Barbara is generally well-regarded. I had previously tasted Palmina's single vineyard Dolcetto and really liked it, thus my expectations for the appellation designated Dolcetto were similarly high. Meanwhile, Dogliani is a DOCG devoted solely to Dolcetto. DOCG roughly translates to Guaranteed Controlled Domain of Origin, meaning any wine sold with DOCG on its label must meet strict legal criteria and demonstrate typicity for the region and varietal. A DOC label is used for wines that display "correct" characteristics for a given region; a DOCG label in principle suggests the wine should be an outstanding exemplar for that style and region. However, as I've learned repeatedly, price, appellation or producer is never a true guarantee.

Dolcetto is a varietal indigenous to northern Italy that is typically grown in Piedmont along with Barbera and Nebbiolo. While Nebbiolo is considered an age-worthy and truly noble varietal, Dolcetto is thought of as a simpler wine intended for enjoyment in its youth without much pretense. It's a dark grape that according to different sources is either tannic and low in acid or acidic and low in tannin. I have no idea what's right, but terroir and wine making usually overshadow the varietal anyway (one can limit tannins by reducing the amount of time the juice is in contact with grape skins, for example). The ultimate truth is what's in the bottle.

As it turned out, both wines showed a common characteristic of spice of the nose. The Palmina in particular had what came across as ginger, while the Bricco San Bernardo was more subtle in its expression of cooking spices and floral aromas. Both showed some dark fruit and a refined character (i.e. not rustic), but the ginger of the Palmina was the star of the show.

The two wines differed greatly in their flavor profiles, though. The Palmina, listed at 14.7% ABV, tasted very sweet, almost like caramel, in comparison to the Bricco San Bernardo. Although both wines were likely fully dry, alcohol imparts a sweet flavor, and in the Palmina this was a dominant feature. Predictably, there was also some heat on the finish. The Bricco San Bernardo was more acidic, yet also showed more fruit as well. Neither wine was heavily oaky, while both showed copious, but soft tannins on the finish.

My preference was for the Bricco San Bernardo, which was much better balanced. Despite the interesting bouquet, the Palmina tasted overripe and one-dimensional. This was a bit perplexing given how much I liked their Honea Vineyard Dolcetto, but the tasting notes on the single-vineyard version may hint at why I preferred it:
Not one to shy away from a challenge, in 2007 Steve expanded the cane pruning experiment he began in 2006 in the Dolcetto block at Honea Vineyard. Once again, the crop size was smaller, the clusters longer and heavier and each one uniformly ripe. Picked at lower sugar levels than in the first year, and with a gleam in Steve’s eye, the whole clusters were placed into 1.5 ton open top fermenters, cold soaked for a few days and then fermented with stems. At the completion of fermentation, the cane-pruned Dolcetto aged for 11 months in French oak.
The Honea Dolcetto is pruned differently, harvest at lower sugar ripeness, and fermented on the stems. Certainly the complex aromatics and earthy flavors of the Honea Dolcetto reflect less ripe fruit with some "stemmy" (in a good way) qualities. The Santa Barbara County Dolcetto is most likely a mix of wine that didn't make the cut for the Honea bottling and other vineyards that produce less balanced grapes.

The verdict here is the Bricco San Bernardo is the better value. The Palmina Santa Barbara County Dolcetto is also a good wine with a bit of unique character, but needs more Ital and less Cal on the palate. I'll probably look for the Honea Vineyard Dolcetto if I'm going to buy a Cal-Ital Dolcetto in the future.

Palmina 2007 Santa Barbara County Dolcetto
Price: $18 from East Beach Wine

Bricco del Cucù 2005 "Bricco San Bernardo" Dogliani
: 87-89
: $17 from K&L Wines

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Paso Robles: Day 1

As promised, here's a more detailed run-down of my recent Paso Robles trip. Since my girlfriend and I don't know the area that well, this is not an ideal cross section of the region. We focused on tasting rooms on the west side of the 101 freeway, which is generally cooler than the east side of the appellation, but Paso doesn't exactly divide up neatly into an east-west dichotomy. Moreover, the location of a winery and the source of its grapes are often two entirely different things. Our tastings were a combination of a desire to taste wines from cooler vineyards as well as the necessity to make our visits in a geographically logical order. Also, we generally avoided wineries with mostly Zinfandel and Syrah because often times producers of these varietals aim for high alcohol fruit bombs. I have no doubt there are myriad exceptions to the rule, but without knowing any specifics, we just skipped those wineries. There's always next time!

The first stop was at Red Soles Winery. Red Soles is owned by Randy and Cheryl Phillips who have been growing wine grapes in Paso Robles for about two decades. Only in the last several years have they started making their own wine, though they still sell most of the grapes to other larger wineries. Randy was pouring in the tasting room and was incredibly enthusiastic about his new enterprise (and wasn't shy about mentioning his displeasure with certain corporate wine manufacturers who had previously purchased his grapes). Although there were a few varietal wines like a Viognier and a Cabernet Sauvignon, the wines covered the spectrum of whites, rosés and reds with just about every permutation and combination of blend possible from Chardonnay, Viognier, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Cabernet. If you're looking for a blend of Chardonnay and Viognier, this is your place. A 50-50 Syrah-Petite Sirah mix? Yup. Syrah cofermented with a bit of Viognier? Again, yes. All four reds together? No problem. At a certain point it became difficult for me to differentiate the blends that differed by about 20% of one varietal or the other. But the wines were uniformly delicious in a very fruit forward way generally without seeming too heavy or alcoholic. I'd also bet that the owners/growers/winemakers know which vineyard blocks work best for them, and sell off the rest of the grapes to other producers. The whites were around $25, while the reds were generally pushing $40 per bottle. At these price points, you're not looking at great value and the only real question is whether the wines perform. If you like their style, I'd say the answer is yes.

Wines of note:

2008 Flip Flop - 50-50 Chardonnay-Viognier. Crisp and floral with good balance.
2008 Viognier - Orange creamsicle, summer white peach, nectarines. Thick, good weight.
2007 Petite Sirah - Bacon, berry and banana. Smooth and tannic.
2007 Achilles' Weakness - 50-50 Syrah-Petite Sirah. Tannic, dark and sinister. Bigger and masculine.

Stop number two was at Dark Star Cellars. Dark Star is a small entirely family-run operation that focuses on Bordeaux varietals with some Zin and Rhone varietals mixed in for balance. Aside from a rosé, Dark Star produces only red wines in the $2o to $35 price range. Perhaps it was palate fatigue carrying over from Red Soles, but the first several wines poured weren't that exciting. These included their Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah. But these were also priced closer to $20 than $40, so perhaps expectations should not be excessive. Regardless, these wines were good, fruit-driven offerings, but just not all that nuanced. Their Zin, however, did show lively acidity and were a bit more intriguing. The tasting picked up with their blends: Ricordatti (40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 10% Cab Franc, 5% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot), Soft Shoulder (60% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Mourvedré) and Left Turn (60% Zinfandel 30% Syrah, 10% Mourvedré). The blends were around $35 and delivered with more complexity, depth and structure. Again, I wouldn't say there are any great values, but the better wines were worth the price.

Wines of note:

2005 Ricordatti - Big fruit, rich, viscous and tannic. A little tar and pepper.
2006 Soft Shoulder - Lighter body, but not thin. Funky, earthy bouquet and spicy finish. Certain Pinot-like qualities.
2006 Left Turn - More bramble-berry. Higher acidity and good depth of flavor.

Windward Vineyards was next on the trip. Windward produces only estate Pinot Noir, which is somewhat surprising even in the cooler confines of the Templeton Gap. It appears they have a secret to succeeding: they really know what they're doing. They've selected four "old" clones of Pinot Noir, including the clone used by Paso Pinot Noir pioneer Hoffman Mountain Ranch. Trendy "new" clones such as the Dijon 115, 667 or 777 less ideally suited for their terroir are not planted in their vineyards. Since they've been making Pinot Noir for nearly two decades, their experience has resulted in consistent, elegant and multi-faceted wines. While one might expect their wines to be bigger and fruitier than cooler-climate Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, the exact opposite is true. I tasted their estate "Monopole" and "Gold Barrel Select" wines from 2005, 2006 and 2007. The Monopole is a blend of all four clones and is a more floral, feminine wine. The Gold Barrel Select is richer, more tannic and more fruit driven, and represents only 2 or 3 of the clones grown on their estate. It's worth noting that the 2007 vintage was particularly good in Paso Robles according to more than onme winery we visited and the Monopole from that vintage compared favorably to the '05 and '06 reserve bottlings in terms of its concentration. At $36 (versus $60 for the Barrel Select), the Monopole (regardless of vintage) is the better value, though perhaps the reserve version is better structured for those interested in aging their wine. Once again, whether the price is right comes down to one's personal tastes. Unfortunately, $30 to $40 seems to be the going rate for most Pinot Noir with a designation more specific than Central Coast.

Wines of note:

2005 Monopole - Woodsy, earthy aromas. Perfumey. Lighter body with a long finish.
2005 Barrel Select - No Pommard clone. Fuller, rounder with more fruit on the nose, but still earthy. More tannic.
2007 Monopole - Forward earth, slightly funky. Darker color. Very round fruit flavor. Less earth on the finish. Similar to '05 and '06 reserve bottlings in intensity.

Based on the recommendation of Randy Phillips at Red Soles, we stopped at Terry Hoage Vineyards. Terry Hoage is a former NFL safety who starred for the Philadelphia Eagles during the late 80's when the team's defense was historically good. His wines reflect his background as a football player with names like "46," a reference to Buddy Ryan's famous defensive formation, "The Hegde," an homage to his alma mater The University of Georgia, and "The Pick," in honor of his most vital interception. Additionally, though these wines are produced by a safety, I'd label them as "linebacker wines" because they tackle your mouth. (The 46 defense required aggressive play by the defensive backs, thus the distinction between linebacker and safety is a blurry one in that context.) The majority of the wines are dominated by Syrah, and as a result they are generally full bodied, mouth coating wines. For my palate, they are a bit heavy and seem high in alcohol, though The Pick, which is mostly Grenache, is more elegant. With most of the wines priced around $40, this is the only winery where value is not a taste-based judgement call. High octane Syrah is pretty readily available for $25 if not $15, and at least for the '06 vintage wines, the extra degree of balance isn't there to justify the price for me. On the other hand, this is a popular style, and a lot of people would probably like Terry Hoage's wines more than I do.

Wines of note:

2006 The Pick - 55% Grenache, 27% Syrah, 11% Mourvedré, 6% Counoise. Candied cherry, caramel, earth/brush. Thick, round attack. A little heat on an earthy finish. Yum.
2006 The Hedge - 100% Syrah. Clove, bacon-berry. Thick, powerful, viscous. High ABV?

The final tasting room of the day was Martin & Weyrich Winery. Their selections are largely Italian and significantly more budget oriented with prices in the $10 to $30 range with a few outliers at higher price points. The wines largely fall into the "good for the price" category. They are not life-changing, but are fairly priced. The Paso Robles Cabernet, for example, has a nice disposition of bright cherry fruit and good tannic structure, but otherwise didn't stand out. Their Pinot Noir was similarly varietally correct, yet not as polished as a really good Pinot Noir. I did enjoy their Nebbiolo, and it was interesting that they were pouring both their 2003 Reserve Nebbiolo and 2004 Nebbiolo. Though I don't have a real reference point in terms of high-quality Piedmont Nebbiolo, Martin & Weyrich's offerings do have the intriguing aromatics and acidity that are typical for the varietal. I wouldn't bet on them aging like a Barolo. But for about $20, what wine does? All in all, they're worth a stop for the less familiar Italian varietals and the possibility of picking up a few bottles of wine that won't force you to declare bankruptcy after you see the credit card bill.

Wines of note:

2004 Nebbiolo - Leather and spice. Acidic and tannic with a little heat.
2003 Nebbiolo Vecchio Reserve - Tobacco and kitchen spice. Tannic.
2005 Sangiovese - Earthy, floral and herbaceous. Good acidity, but also some heat and noticeable sweetness.