I have, quite clearly, met my match when it comes to quirky wine interviews.
His name is Les Claypool, and he’s probably most famous for fronting the talented and popular hard rock band Primus (who are on tour this Summer).
As a (wannabe) bassist (going on 20 years) myself, I’ve often found Les’ music and technical proficiency inspiring. I recall being an undergrad in university and hearing Primus’ live album Suck On This! for the first time; “this kicks ass,” I thought, “but I doubt anybody but bass geeks like me would get into this stuff.” Thankfully for millions of music fans everywhere, my prediction was very, very wrong. Primus went on to release two Platinum and one Gold album, achieving impressive chart success with their singles and wildly eccentric videos.
What many people might not know about Les is that he’s also been a filmmaker, as well as the driving force behind multiple successful and stylistically diverse rock bands such as Oysterhead and Flying Flog Brigade. He has, somehow, also managed to find time to create a wine brand – Claypool Cellars, which produces a promising and very enjoyable Russian River Pinot Noir (“Purple Pachyderm”) with help from Shad Chappell at Vinify Wine Services. Les’ description of the `07 Pinot:
“We’ve ended up with a California Pinot with a fairly low alcohol content (13.9%), strong color, and good extraction that gives complexity without being overly “jammy.” Coupled with a moderate amount of French oak and some whole cluster fermentation, we have a vino that sits silky in the mouth with a finish that glides away with elegant authority.”
`08 was a bit of a different story, as heat in the RRV made trying to render a low alcohol Pinot much more challenging. I tried samples of two bottlings of the 2008 Claypool Cellars Purple Pachyderm: one a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (307 cases, about $42), the other an RRV Pinot from Hurst Vineyard (110 cases). Both are big and expressive, just like Les’ music; while some might shy away from the boozy palate on both of these wines (each is around 14.4% abv), few would deny that the red berry fruit on the nose packs a substantial amount of depth and intensity while deftly avoiding the dreaded “jar of red jam” territory, despite the heat.
I managed to catch up with Les via email during a break in Primus’ current tour, to talk shop on the wine front. I still count Suck On This! and Tales From The Punchbowl among my favorite albums – and after 20 years of bass playing, still have trouble copping Les’ intricate, driving and chord-driven bass lines (though I’m making good progress on “Southbound Pachyderm”…) – so this interview was a particularly fun and inspiring one for me. I think you’ll find it fun as well, especially after witnessing how effortlessly and eloquently Les one-ups me in the quirkiness department.
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Has the case for excellent Walla Walla Syrah been definitively demonstrated? Q.E.D.?
I’m not going to go quite that far. But I will say that they might be pretty damn close, especially in those cases where the balance beats out the brawn in their Syrah bottlings.
Two wine producers that I encountered recently in Walla Walla (while there for the 2010 Wine Bloggers Conference) in particular made good cases (ha-ha!) for Walla Walla Syrah being the wave of the future; one which officially took part in the WBC activities, and one that didn’t (in fact, their winemaker skipped town during the event).
The first of these was Rasa Vineyards, led by the Naravane brothers who have engineering backgrounds, and are fascinating folks to talk to, provided you can follow their scientific leanings. They were part of a panel about WA wine at Three Rivers Winery (part of the WBC events), and certainly talked up the potential of Walla Walla Syrah when I asked the panel what they thought the future held given that Walla Walla is still a relatively young wine producing region.
The proof, fortunately, was in the juice, and their appropriately-titled 2007 QED wine, sourced from Walla Walla and Yakima fruit, is powerful, expressive, but balanced; it’s also expensive at $50 – but overall a decent value when compared to more expensive but not-quite-as-solid Syrah-based wines being made elsewhere on the Left Coast.
The second was pretty much the entire portfolio of wines from Rotie Cellars, who were kind enough to host a handful of us bloggers in their downtown Walla Walla tasting room while lunch activities took place during day one of the WBC. Winemaker Sean Boyd is certainly playing with fire with their wine names (“VdP” for example), which I am sure the French would be none-too-happy about, but he has some Syrah-based wines with significant promise; they might have been some of the most deftly balanced WA reds that I’ve ever tasted.
But with all of this focus on the future going on, the WA wine scene, I quickly learned, would do well not to forget its past…
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By the time you’re reading this, I’ll be on the Greek island of Santorini (press junket via Wines of Santorini and the Brand Action Team) to get a first-hand view of Greek wines, Greek wine history and winemaking, and seeing if I can vigorously outrun anyone offering me a glass of Retsina.
The Greeks have, of course, been making wine since ancient times, not that you’d know it from any recent marketing pushes (or lack thereof) made by Greek winemakers and/or the region in general. In fact, at first blush I’d say that Greek wine generally (and wines from Santorini in particular) has a very rough and very long marketing road ahead of it if it wants to wine over the American market. Look at it this way:
- There has been little-to-no effort to exploit the amazing history, breathtaking winegrowing landscapes, and food-friendliness of Greek wines.
- Most wine stores in the U.S. treat Greek wine as an afterthought, giving it little shelf-space likely due to the fact that it doesn’t sell like hotcakes because…
- …consumers are scared to death when they see grape names like Assyrtiko, Mavrotragano and Nykteri that a) they can’t pronounce, b) most wine pros can’t pronounce, either, and c) they have no idea how they taste because so few restaurants offer them.
- Adding insult to injury, regions like Santorini sell the majority of production and therefore have little incentive overall to compete on price, which is usually $5-$10 more than comparable wines on the shelf made from grapes that consumers in the U.S. can pronounce and are familiar with.
Yeah – not quite as rosy a picture as those photos of the Santorini sunsets, is it?
We’ll see soon enough, I suppose – more reporting to come! In the meantime, we’ve got Walla Walla coverage and an amazing interview coming up this week here on 1WineDude.com. Enjoy!