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Best Of The West: Has Pinot Noir Found A New Spiritual Home In West Sonoma Coast?

Vinted on August 25, 2011 binned in California wine, elegant wines, kick-ass wines, on the road

Burt Williams might speak softly and have a relatively unassuming appearance, but when it comes to age-worthy, elegant Pinot Noir he is one hundred percent deadly Jedi Knight.

That much was clear during the recent West Of West festival in Occidental, CA (I attended as a media guest), where Littorai’s Ted Lemon interviewed Williams to kick things off.  It was tough for me to pay attention, because a) there were Sonoma Coast Pinots sitting in front of me ranging from `96 to `01, and I was ready to geek out, and b) I found the entire event confusing, because I’m an anal Right Coast guy who requires exposition and purpose stated clearly up-front, and the WoW Fest proceedings launched without much detail on either.

Fortunately, possessing a formal plan is not a prerequisite for making great wine.  In fact, to hear Williams tell it, very little about Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir was planned in the early days when he first starting making Williams Selyem wine in his ‘spare’ time. “We got a call from an ATFA agent,” he mentioned, “who basically told us that we should get bonded before we got arrested; so, we got bonded.”

Williams also told us that “if the wine is balanced… if you pick the fruit before it’s really ripe… I know Sonoma Coast [Pinot Noir] can age!”  Proof is in the vinous pudding: the 1996 Williams Selyem Riverblock Pinot Noir (about $100 if you can find it, and an ‘A’ rated wine if I’ve ever had one) is delicate, earthy and svelte, with cherries, plums, spices and hints of game meat. The finish could accurately be described as gorgeous; it’s a wine that doesn’t smack you over the head, but seduces you.

And it’s in drinking wines like that 1996 Pinot – wines which seem to be made at a more-than-expected frequency in the West Sonoma Coast area – that you say to yourself (if you’re me, anyway): F*ck Napa Valley Pinot – this is where it’s AT!”

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Foley, Food Porn, And A West Coast Wine Geek-out

At the end of July, I wound up at the top of Chalk Hill in Healdsburg.  It was one of those events that I should be used to by now but that make me slightly uncomfortable anyway because they a) are held in lavish settings that seem to cost a billion dollars, b) usually end three and half hours late with an over-the-top, impeccably prepared/served lunch cooked by a French chef (and likely weighing in somewhere in the neighborhood of a billion calories – food porn coming in a minute or two, I promise), and c) have winemakers who’ve been flown-in from all over the place, any of whom may or may not be all that interested in making small-talk with you.

Events unfolded pretty much exactly to that plan during my visit to The Hill, though thankfully the folks who make up the winemaking crew of Foley Family Wines, whose portfolio we were tasting through, proved an amicable bunch.

Far and away the most exciting thing for me at these events is not the lavish stuff – and there was no shortage of that shizz: Chalk Hill’s pavilion, where we tasted and then lunched, has a 21-foot limestone fireplace, a panoramic view of the estate, and an Olympic-sized dressage riding arena made of Alaskan golden cedar that required a highway shutdown to transport, in which the horses ride (I am not making this up) on imitation dustless “dirt.”  Not that the setting is intimidating or anything…

Anyway… for me, the most exciting bit is always tasting the wine.  Is it any good? Is it worth the price?  Does it have a story it’s trying to convey?  Having the winemakers there just adds exponentially to the geek-out factor, and so eventually my nose gets in the glass, the surroundings get tuned out, and I enter geek-the-hell-out mode.  And it turns out, in a rare convergence of high incomes and good tastes, that the Foley portfolio has a lot in it that’s worth geeking-out over…

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Virginia Wine Brings Its “B” Game (Roasting And Toasting With The Best Of Virginian Wine At Monticello)

Thomas Jefferson had a strong love of wine (and beer), an historical tidbit that seems to have glued itself with more stickiness than an Rutherglen Muscat to our collective national legacy of our third President, right up their with tales of his intelligence, his elegant correspondences, and the fact that he finally checked-out on July 4th – U.S. Independence Day – in his eighties (and up to his eyeballs in debt).

Less well-known is that Jefferson touted Scuppernong as the next big thing in American winemaking, telling Washington Judge William Johnson in 1817 that it “would be distinguished on the best tables of Europe for its fine aroma, and chrystalline [sic] transparence.”

It seems ol’ T.J., in focusing on potential, lacked first president George Washington’s uncanny ability to see things for how they really were (at least when it comes to vino). Because Scuppernong wine is like… well, let’s just say we can poke fun at most Scuppernong because it’s Scuppernong.

Given the beauty of Jefferson’s Monticello estate, which was on full display (along with, less romantically, the oppressive Northern VA heat & humidity combo) at a mass-tasting of Virginian wines held there during the recent 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference, one might forgive T.J. for erring on the side of vinous over-optimism.

Given what I tasted that evening (even despite the mile-wide-inch-deep approach that is the bane of any grand tasting), the Virginia wine industry might be forgiven the odd bout of over-optimism as well, because the winemaking situation there is clearly on the right track, if not quite yet delivering fully on its promise as the next big thing in American wine.

Ahh, T.J…. you were only off by about 194 years! But you were a total Mac Daddy with the WBC11 ladies (see inset pic for photographic proof), so maybe we shouldn’t hold it against you.

Anyway… let’s talk about what went well in Virginia, vinously-speaking, of course!…

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Dance On A Volcano: Grapegrowing At The Edge Of Time At Clos de los Siete

Vinted on July 7, 2011 binned in elegant wines, kick-ass wines, on the road, overachiever wines

“This…. this was all vineyards of Malbec…”

They say the Italian influence runs strong in Argentina, and nowhere does it look stronger than in the face of our driver, Carlos Tizio Mayer – Plump, Roman-nosed and topped with a wavy shock of grey hair, he could be any of a dozen Italian uncles plucked straight from of the memories of my youth growing up in Wilmington’s “Little Italy.”  He is driving with one hand, and waving to articulate his words with the other (as they saying goes, if you want to get an Italian to stop talking, hold down his hands).  He’s waving towards the South American urban sprawl passing through the view from my passenger-side window.

Even his cadence seems Italian – or, I should say eeeeee-TAL-haaaaahn – deliberate, slow, and almost bearing a sing-song quality.  I have plenty of time to consider the nuances, as Carlos is talking nearly non-stop during a two hour pickup truck ride (with me, uncomfortably, in the back “seat”) from downtown Mendoza to the small town of Vista Flores, home to the winemaking properties of Clos de los Siete, and the vineyards which Carlos maintains as their General Manager.

Carlos is holding court with his captive audience during our drive, but I’m only paying half attention.  For one, Argentina’s roads aren’t exactly conducive to legible pen-and-paper note-taking; for another, I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes off of the view to our west, where Tupungato, the massive Pleistocene-era statovolcano, is also holding court. Tupungato is a giant among giants, towering over most of its Andean neighbors in a stunning, unmoving testament to the immense pyroclastic forces that, an immense amount of time ago, poleaxed an equally-immense stretch of land between what is now Chile and Argentina.

While I stare out the window waiting for the morning sun to get high enough to change the snow-capped peaks from auburn to bright white, Carlos continues without pause his history lesson of Argentine grapegrowing.

“We had fifty thousand hectares, now, it’s about thirty thousand” he says.  The vineyard plantings around Mendoza gave way to sprawl in the 1980s, when local consumer tastes changed.  Domestic per capita wine consumption here in the last twenty-five years has decreased from eighty liters a year to “less than thirty.  The younger generation is drinking soda… and beer.”…

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