Posts Filed Under on the road
Well, you may actually know about it, but that would certainly put you in better shape than I was when my friend and sommelier legend Randy Caparoso kidnapped me from Premiere Napa Valley in February, insisting that I spend some time in Lodi to see some down-home, old school wine farming.
What I wasn’t entirely prepared for was just how old that old school was going to be.
As in, going on 126 years old, old. Think about that the next time you read the words “old vines” printed on a wine label; you know, right before you think “well, hell, I know some really old vines, suckah!.
What Randy insisted on showing me first was Lodi’s Bechthold Vineyard, nestled in the Mokelumne River area and home of Cinsault vines planted in 1886 on their own roots (on which they remain, thanks to sandy soils and a deep root system preventing the vine-killer phylloxera from picking them off) by German immigrant Joseph Spenker; the place has been continuously dry-farmed – and family-owned – ever since.
And the place is nothing short of magical, if you’re a real wine geek. Because older souls you are not likely to encounter in California, unless your house is haunted or you live among the redwoods. And when you’re done reading this, you hopefully won’t wonder why I went ga-ga over the Single Vineyard concept for WBW75 (and be thirsting for some Cinsault, or Lodi wine, at least)…
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The best way to introduce you to Cathy Corison, I think, is by telling you what happened when I said goodbye to her.
I was making my way out of her Route 29 winery building in St. Helena, having just wrapped up a short bit of video for Wines.com with the diminutive (even by my modest vertical viewpoint), soft-spoken, but not-to-be-trifled with winemaker (example: during a retrospective tasting over lunch, one of the things she told me was “the word ‘No’ is, in fact, a complete sentence”). We seemed to be waiting for the least-awkward moment, an opening for my exit (if that makes sense), when Cathy began… gardening.
She semi-nervously began picking out dead plants from a colorful bunch of small flowers planted atop barrels in the entranceway to the winery. I am familiar with this sort of habitual behavior, tidying up, constantly feeling as though you have to do something; she didn’t know it but I silently bonded with a small part of her psyche at that moment. Since I can’t stand even nanoseconds of silence, I stoked up a lead-in to a goodbye conversation.
“See you tomorrow at Premiere?” I asked.
“No, I won’t be pouring,” she answered, then stopped tending the flowers and looked up at me, squinting in the sun through her schoolmarm glasses. “Galloni is coming to taste tomorrow.”
That’s Antonio Galloni, who has taken over the CA wine reviewing beat from Robert Parker at The Wine Advocate. To briefly summarize why that might have gotten Cathy into flower-weeding mode, I’ll refer you to this statement from NYC’s California Wine Merchants: “Robert Parker has not published ratings on [Corison’s] wines since 1995, and really never awarded them with scores above the low 90s anyway.”
“Oh,” I said. “Does that make you nervous?”
“Do you know my history with Robert Parker scores?” she countered.
“Cathy… I don’t really know anybody’s history with anyone’s scores” I replied.
“Well, bless you for that!”
And so it goes with Corison, both a matriarch and a wine that, when you start peeling back some of the layers, reveal a series of contrasts: a winemaker not courting high scores but hosting critics and garnering a boatload of acclaim; an anachronistic woman making anachronistic wine, one that is produced in modern ways but with nods to the ancient past (the artistic busted-pottery artwork adorning the labels wasn’t put there without some forethought, I gathered); and someone who came into winemaking “old school” but now is totally killing it with her customers on twitter (more of that coming up soon on the Wines.com blog) and recently hired wine media maven Hardy Wallace…
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It’s not a stretch to say that Philippe Melka is, right now, the hottest winemaker in all of the Napa Valley (hottest as in “most in-demand,” and not as in “most hunky,” though admittedly I’d be a pretty poor judge of the latter). He’s got a 100-point Wine Advocate review under his belt with Dana Estates (no denying the power of that, no matter what your take on wine scores might be), and is now riding high on Dana’s stunning 2012 Premiere Napa Valley auction lot, which took the top-grossing slot at $70K.
So it’s interesting, in retrospect, that he was… let’s just say cautiously optimistic about Californian winemaking potential when coming to Napa from France with Dominus in the early 1990s. Being skeptical is part of the French culture, of course; and being skeptical about Napa wine is probably even more understandable when you’ve cut your winemaking teeth at Bordeaux stalwarts Haut Brion and Pomerol darling Chateau Petrus.
“In France I kept hearing, ‘in California they make good wine, but they have no sense of terroir’” he told me over lunch in the trailer that now marks the entrance to what will become the Napa Valley tasting room for Melka Wines, the only brand to which he’s attached his now-famous (in winemaking terms, anyway) surname. “And to some extent, they were right. I mean, everyone was planting Cabernet Sauvignon no matter what – regardless of the soil, the sunlight, everything. I was looking for limestone in Napa. I am still looking for limestone in Napa!”
Fast forward twenty-some-odd years from those cautiously-optimistic days, and through the thoroughly French exterior, you find someone that seems thoroughly Northern Californian at heart – a laid-back, down-to-earth surfer-dude of a winemaker. Philippe now consults on wines from the elegantly powerful (Vineyard 29, Parallel Wines, Entre Nous) to the sometimes-just-too-damn-powerful (Gemstone and Moone-Tsai), and he’s involved in at least one worst-kept-secret “cult wine” Napa project that I’ve tasted (if you’re wondering if that last one is worth the ton of money it would cost to try it, I’ll say this: I’ve had few wines that were bigger, but also few big wines that were better, and it’s got the purest black licorice and dark chocolate aromas I’ve ever encountered in a wine, period)…
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