Italy’s northwestern region of Piedmont gets a lot of attention in the wine media world. Or, I should say, its tiny subregions of Barolo and Barbaresco, the anointed spiritual homes of the Nebbiolo grape, get the lion’s share of the area’s wine media attention – the rest of the dozen or so winemaking appellations in northern Piedmont more or less get ignored by all but the geekiest among us.
Which is both a curse and a blessing: on the curse-this-damned-oppression side of things, it means that the other areas in Piedmont struggle to achieve recognition and market share; on the bless-me-I’m-rich-in-all-things side, wine lovers can grab elegant, food-friendly, and extremely long-lived Nebbiolo wines for prices that, while still expensive, can be a fraction of what the most celebrated Barolos and Barbarescos command. And I suspect things are likely to stay that way, given that these wines are such a “hand sell” at the moment – they need food, and in many cases a lot of time in bottle to round out. But in terms of value for money? They might just be poised to clean Barolo’s clock…
The trick is that you need to be down with Old School wine. And when I attended a Wine Media Guild of New York luncheon at Felidia in NYC to taste wines from one of those competing northern Piedmontese wine regions – Gattinara – things were definitely old school. Ever met Ed McCarthy? He was our M.C., and he is totally awesome – but totally awesome in a totally old school way. And the wines of Gattinara, when done well, are similar to Ed – awesomely old school. As in earthy, a little funky, and making the most sense when put into proper context: in this case, after aging to let those massive Nebbiolo tannins and acid settle down and smooth out, and put into your mouth when eating good food…
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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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