Wednesday, April 21, 2010

From the Petaluma Wind Gap, with Love

After hearing "you have to try such and such wine" or "so and so started this fantastic new winery" several hundred times, you start to get a little jaded. Especially when making the trek to this new 'hot' winery or tasting a few bottles from a new 'it' label produces nothing but disappointment and fatigue, not to mention burning a lot of time and gas. But there are times when either something about the description piques your interest, or the source is highly reliable and trusted, and you just go. That is what I did when my friend Dan told me to show up in Forestville on Saturday for an open house at Wind Gap.

Trust is a must when the trip involves veering of the 101 for 30 minutes and does not include a view of rolling hills covered in grape vines. But Petaluma, Sebastopol, Forestville and the rest of that area having enough vines, not to mention beautiful pastures and farm animals, to make it a scenic trip. Everyone has a different definition of cool, to be sure probably a few versions of it too, and for me one these has to be finding small, rural-ish towns not too far from a major city with a rustic, worn around the edges-type feel. Welcome to Forestville; almost worth the trip before exiting the vehicle. And after a little poking around and an attempted cellphone call (warning: weak signal area), you may find the Wind Gap Winery. Of course, this would require either a) inside information or b) an ability to infer that you are in the right spot by reading the sign which says 'American Wine Company'.

The winery is one of the oldest in the region and has been restored, at least enough to once again become a working winery, by Pax & Pam Mahle. Now this is really hitting the sweet spot of my definition of cool. And speaking of cool, that is one of the defining characteristics of the 'Petaluma wind gap' area of Northern California's wine country. Another 'cool' thing: serving great local food that pairs well with your wines. Waiting for everyone who came were sweetwater oysters, a cheese wheel, fresh bread, cured meats and lamb chops. How awesome is that? But I digress as this trip was really about the wine (or was it the food? or the people?)! I've long been a fan of Pax's wines, particularly the syrah's. His 2004 Alder Springs Vineyard Syrah is one of my absolute favorite bottles produced in the first decade of the this century and there are at least a half dozen still in my cellar. So, onto the wines...

2009 Trousseau Gris - Fannuchi-Wood Road Vineyard - Russian River Valley
Ever heard of Trousseau Gris? No? Neither had I. It is green apple, melon and peach...almost with the crispness of a Sauv Blanc however, there is more viscosity to this wine, not unlike a Viognier. Chill it, sip it, and/or pair it with some shellfish and kick back with an ear to ear grin for you just 'discovered' a new varietal that few folks have:-)

2008 Chardonnay 'Yuen' - James Berry & Brossaue Vineyards - Central Coast
I wondered why Pax would blend Chardonnay from two different vineyards...why not express the terroir of one or both of these terrific sites? So the clones are the same and both have mature vines...but all he had to do was tell me the definition of 'Yuen' - a Chinese word for 'connection that was meant to be'. Got it. That and the fact that it is a low alcohol, low pH, chalky wine with great minerality and flavors of stone fruits.

*Both of the above wines were fermented in concrete, egg-shaped tanks and some stainless steel. I've never seen these concrete tanks before and have to say it's pretty wild!

2008 Chardonnay - Sonoma County
A Chablis-style Chardonnay that while lacking the level of minerality of the Yuen, is still a very elegant wine with citrus, sweet orange and honey flavors. Whole cluster pressed and fermented in a combination of stainless steel, year-old French oak and neutral French oak barrels. The fruit was sourced from two vineyards I know well...Gaps Crown and Obsidian, both of which are ancient volcanic sites and the soil is perfect for making this style of Chard.

2007 Syrah - Sonoma Coast
This is definitely a 'lighter' style of Syrah, but it is not what you would describe as a light wine. It's a concentrated Northern Rhone-like wine with amazing herbal, pepper and olive notes on the nose, soft supple tannins and a surprising burst of currant and blackberry.

2007 Syrah - Castelli-Knight Ranch - Russian River Valley
Layers of rich dark berries and spice permeate your nose and cascade across your palate while black pepper hits you on the finish...completely opposite the Sonoma Coast Syrah. This is another highly concentrated wine that is layered and textured and finishes long.

2007 Syrah - Griffin's Lair - Sonoma Coast
This wine is a knockout! I don't know what to else to say other than grab the bottle with two hands, hold tightly that delicate stemware and be prepared for a rich, dense and powerful Syrah saturated with ripe blackberries, plums, meat jus and tar...from start to finish this was ridiculous. And to think that it will probably get better with a few years of age - if I can hold out that long.

Wind Gap Wines

I have to be honest with you. This article was about to be posted without including a single mention of the Agharta project. It's not that I don't like you or want to deliberately hide this wine from the rest of the world...okay, maybe the latter is true. But nobody really reads these posts of mine and Robert Parker already gave the 2004 Argharta a 98 point score, so here we go:

2004 Agharta - Syrah (92%), Grenache (5%), Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne (1% each)
The first thing that you notice is how dark purple the color is...away from direct light it actually reminds me of the night sky when there is absolutely no moonlight and you can barely see the hand in front of your face. Next, the legs...thin to medium thickness streams of wine cling to the side of the glass after swirling. This is not at all fat, and all five varietals are very well integrated. The aroma is complex, to say the least, from smokey cedar and roasted herbs to tropical fruits to blueberry/blackberry and cassis. All of this comes out if you just spend some time with your nose in your glass. And the is classic Syrah in many ways with the rich fruit, smokiness, and forest floor-like earthiness but it is also dry, elegant refined - no doubt from just enough Grenache. The white varietals add to the complexity of the nose (Viognier) and palate (Marsanne, Rousanne) equally. Typically I try not to wax too poetic about wine lest I start sounding like every other wine critic, but this is for me a wine that does inspire and touch the soul. I've had it straight from a just opened bottle, decanted for an hour and somewhere in recommendation is to decant for 20 minutes and enjoy.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Baja Sur-f & 'Turf'

Recently, we traveled down to Baja Sur for a little R&R after discovering an amazing little oasis on the beach in the town of Pescadero. Where? You may be a little more familiar with the town 10 minutes to the north ~ Todos Santos which is kind of like the Sante Fe of the region. Even more famous is Cabo San Lucas (one hour south); La Paz is about an hour to the north. Anyway, if your idea of heaven on earth is a small, quiet beach hotel with a laid back staff and equally chill clientele (no kids under 12!), great food all situated on a pristine beach with 8,000 foot mountains behind you (east) and nothing but gorgeous blue sea and sky in front of you (west), then this is the place. Did I mention that the layout is 'unpretentious Zen'? What we did not expect was to find a wine list chocked full of good/tasty to outstanding Mexican wines. So, where is Mexican wine country and why have I never had anything (at least knowingly) from here? About 70 miles south of TJ is Ensenada; from there you start driving east and quickly the Valles will appear along with a multitude of vineyards and wineries. Now, to be sure we did not actually step a foot in wine country, but learned a lot about it while speaking with the folks at the beach hotel almost 1000 miles away and I can already start to feel a spiritual connection here while planning my first trip to the oldest wine region in North American come August. So, I'm sure that many questions have already popped into your head: What varietals of grapes are grown there? Isn't the weather too hot and/or dry? What is the soil like? Etc., etc. Well, I do not have all the answers (yet) but will share my experiences with the wine on this trip and post more after Fiestas de la Vindemia later this year!

Okay, after 8 hours of driving, flying and more driving before arriving at Rancho around 6pm what do we do? Right, drop our bags and head for the bar. I'm starving and thirsty, not in that order, and want a Corona. Amy wants a Margarita. Done. Now, let me see the dinner menu...oh yeah, and you have a wine list? In a tiny little bach town in Baja Sur? That's cute...what the heck, let me see it. Chile, Argentina, Napa, Bordeaux - right? Wait a second. Mexico, Mexico and more Mexico? Interesting, so THAT is what our trip is going to be like, huh? Well, we did not pick the place for its wine. One beer and I'm over it; if there isn't sawdust on the floor and a game on the t.v. I want my wine. We'll try a white...something called 'Double Blanc'. Tasty and refreshing, I'm slightly impressed but mostly just happy. There is still half a bottle left but dinner is coming and I want a red: we try the Vinedos Don Juan (the name makes me smile and crack a corny joke). It is rather nice - different, but good. With my interest more than piqued, I state a new mission for our stay: taste every local wine on the list. That's 8, plus a few that Danny the Bar Manager tells me he has but aren't yet on the list, and we are only staying for 5 nights. Ouch!

Well we managed to taste 6 of the wines and brought home 4 bottles, which was all that I could fit in my suitcase. On the whole, the wines ran the gamut from lightweight (for certain reds) to a little disjointed to fresh and lively to full-bodied and intense. Basically, our experience tasting wines from the Baja 'turf' while taking in the 'surf' was remarkably similar to tasting wines anywhere else in the world, but most pleasing of all was that they possessed a uniqueness that imparted a sense of place on us.

2008 Baron Balch'e Double Blanc ~ Sauv Blanc & Chenin Blanc; pretty nose, good fruit, crisp and refreshing yet nice body and weight to it.

2005 Vinedos Don Juan Meritage ~ Cab Sauv, Merlot and Syrah; medium-bodied, fruit forward with decent mouth-feel and finish. Interestingly, on the second day it morphed into a much more decadent and richer wine with flavors cooked cherries, dark chocolate and tobacco. Very nice.

2007 Paralelo Ensamble Arenal II ~ Merlot, Cab Sauv, Petit Sirah, Barbera and Zinfandel; light- to medium-bodied with bright fruit, smoke, herbs and white pepper; very smooth finish and my favorite of them all.

2008 Vinas Pijoan Paulinha ~ Merlot, Zinfandel and Petit Sirah; a rose blend of these three varietals which did not impress; pleasing enough but it was too heavy up front and too light on the finish; it felt awkward but it does its job while chilled on a warm summer afternoon.

2007 Santo Tomas Tempranillo ~ lightweight for this varietal, possibly with RS as it seemed quite sweet; could be the fruit or the soil and my palate not being familiar, but it was my least favorite of the bunch.

Paralelo Ensamble Colina I ~ Merlot, Cab Sauv, Petit Sirah, Barbera and Zinfandel; lighter weight than the Arenal, probably from having more Barbera and Zin? Still a very nice wine, especially with lighter fare.

Baron Balch'e
Vinedos Don Juan
Vinas Pijoan
Santo Tomas

Caves & Dales

Ever wonder where something, perhaps a place or a thing, got its name? That is what crossed my mind the first time I received directions to Mountain Terraces Vineyard in Sonoma County. It is on Cavedale Road. Okay, I know what caves are, as well I know what a dale is. Well, it is one thing to know the definition of a word and quite another to experience the inspiration behind it being used to describe something. Alas, driving up Cavedale Road, on the flanks of Mt. Veeder, is simply the prelude to what awaits you upon arriving at this remarkable spot of land that is planted with over 80 acres of 9 different varietals of wine grapes. Along the twists and turns of this road you may spy a number of caves, perhaps they were used to hide illicit wine and booze during the Prohibition era, maybe their use can be traced even further back. Then there are the dales, revealing themselves in glimpses. But it is not until reaching the end of a private road which juts out from Cavedale and launches itself over the edge of the valley do you, at once, grasp the true inspiration of this place. The wine, while not subordinate, may just be secondary in this setting. And that is not dismissive at all as the nectar produced from the fruit of these vines is indeed exceptional.

A lot has been said and written on the topic of terroir, or sense of place, when it comes to wine. And while I'm not by any means an expert, there seems to be ample evidence, not to mention simple logic, that soil, drainage and exposure to sun, wind, rain and the like all influence the crop and by extension the product of that crop. In this place I get a sense to two types of 'terroir', the kind just previously mentioned as well as a kind influence on the way the tastes to me based on an association with such a remarkable place in this world. There are simply places and things that connect with the soul and here, near the top of Cavedale Road, gazing out over Sonoma Valley and beyond, sipping wine made from grapes of the vines that sprout from the rocky, violent soil that clings to the hillsides...everything just seems to 'come together'.

Ah, the wines, yes eventually there is wine poured. Audelssa is the name of the estate winery, and some of the fruit also finds a way into other wineries hands typically blended into magnificent proprietary blends of Bordeaux- and Rhone-style wines. But if the star of this show is the vineyard then the stellar cast is composed of a number of different bottlings of Cabernet Sauvingnon, Syrah and various blends. With relatively few cases produced, particularly of the 'Reserve' editions, you do feel as though you've found something truly remarkable. And if this place touches your soul, or whatever equivalent term you feel, then in fact you have.

Recent Wines
2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ~ excellent fruit, balance and acidity; above average and a good value

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve ~ exceptional, particularly if you enjoy a rich, lush hedonistic wine

2007 Summit, Bordeaux-style blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec & Petit Verdot ~ fruit-forward yet in a somewhat restrained way; good balance and complexity with a super long finish

2007 Summit Reserve ~ a Right Bank inspired blend of Merlot and Cab Sauv; dense, chewy, smooth and very satisfying

2006 Zephyr, Southern Rhone/CDP-style blend ~ classic blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre; medium weight, bursting with bright red fruit and garden herbs; perhaps my favorite

2006 Tempest, Northern Rhone/Cote-Rotie style Syrah ~ lovely perfumed nose from the little bit of whole cluster Viognier that is used; nice fruit, cedar and smoke balance out an exquisite bottle of wine

2006 Maelstrom, 100% Syrah ~ big fruit and bold flavor with the earthiness and smoke that is typically sought out in Syrah

Mountain Terraces Vineyard
Audelssa Estate Winery