Tags Posts tagged with "Sonoma Coast"

Sonoma Coast

6

IPOB Panel on Ripeness: Considering the question of ripeness

The admirable Jamie Goode flew in from Britain to moderate a panel at In Pursuit of Balance this year. In participating he was able too to select the panel topic. With his wealth of knowledge and experience in wine, bringing him to the event proved a smart addition. He selected the topic of Ripeness for discussion, and immediately broadened perspective on the issue. While conversations around ripeness levels in the U.S., and especially California wine, have tended to quickly steer into discussion of alcohol levels, Goode immediately placed the question of ripeness within a broader context.

In explaining what led him to select the subject, Goode said, “I think ripeness is one of the most important factors in terroir.” The insight behind this statement came in him discussing his views of terroir. “There is no single interpretation of terroir. We can have several different intelligent interpretations of a site. The question is if this [particular wine] is an intelligent interpretation of the site.” He then went on to compare the idea of interpreting terroir to a conductor directing an orchestra’s performance of a composition.

I appreciate the insight offered by Goode here as it brings the appropriate complexity to an idea — terroir, or site expression in wine — that is often treated overly simplistically. To belabor the point behind Goode’s comments, the composer has written a piece, but with the music merely noted on paper, the conductor must interpret the best presentation of those notations. There are multiple possible ways to make such an interpretation. It is impossible to decide which is the best interpretation without having first assumed a collection of values that allow one to judge the success or failure of the performance.

Similarly in wine, when discussing ripeness levels, there is a range of potential picking decisions that could be made that fall after overtly green fruit and before the onset of dehydration. How one determines the point of optimal ripeness depends on what kind of wine a person wants to enjoy, that is, what kind of wine they value.

In the ways we talk about wine, it can be easy to insert judgments of optimal ripeness as if it simply is true that a certain style of wine is the best style. Goode’s point that there are multiple intelligent interpretations gets at the point that such judgments are not simply true, they are a matter of preference. It’s a matter of what we want to drink, not of what it’s right to drink. Still, his point retains the importance of parameters as well. That is, the implication behind Goode’s statement that the question is whether this is an intelligent interpretation of site retains the important point that a winemaker can easily go too far and lose site expression in their wine as a result. Some wines just needs grapes, they don’t care for where those grapes came from.

To give example to how a wine can go to far, Goode discussed the role of alcohol in relation to esters. “Certain levels of alcohol masks the aromatic expression of the wine. Alcohol masks the esters.” He then went on to compare such a phenomenon to drinking whiskey. Some whiskey lovers add a bit of water first because doing so changes the alcohol proportions slightly, and in lowering the overall alcohol level the whiskey shows a different aromatic effect. He also explained that studies have been done changing the alcohol levels on the same wine. The study showed that at different alcohol levels the same wine showed distinctly different flavor and aroma.

Ultimately, he stated that wine experience depends upon a synergy of elements — mouthfeel, flavor, alcohol, acidity — and no one factor is adequate to summing up our expectations with wine. In looking at ripeness, Goode selected a kind of galvanizing rod for other aspects to discuss in wine.

The Wines and Winemakers for Discussion

Tyler

Justin Willett of Tyler Winery presented two 2011 Pinot Noirs from Santa Barbara County with the goal of showcasing the distinctness between two appellations of the region, as well as to show what a cool vintage in California looks like. Both sites offered older vines from own rooted plantings.

His Sanford & Benedict Pinot, planted in 1971, offered the intense juiciness and core of strength signature of the Sta Rita Hills with light fruit spice and pepper integrated through raspberry bramble and fruit. The Bien Nacido Pinot, planted in 1973, showed restraint with still ample juiciness compared to the Sta Rita Hills, giving the focus on fruit known to the Santa Maria Valley. The wine offered raspberry and strawberry with hints of rhubarb and integrated fruit spice.

In discussing how he makes his picking decision, Willett explained that he is definitely looking at the juice, rather than just raw fruit. As he points out, in Santa Barbara County the focus is more often on letting the acidity soften, as it is naturally so high through that area, rather than looking more singularly at sugar levels.

Calera

Josh Jensen of Calera in Mt Harlan brought two 2013 barrel samples from the same vineyard picked at different times, as well as his intensely vibrant Versace jeans. (His pants were the ripest wine of the tasting.) As he explained, he likes to dip his toe in at harvest and pick some fruit earlier than he expects to pick in general just to see how its developed. With this in mind, he offered a barrel selection from his 2013 first pick, clarifying that he felt it showed flavors from jumping the gun too early.

The first sample, picked at 22.9 brix, had a nice acid to tannin balance and lots of length showing through flavors of strawberry and crushed green strawberry and strawberry leaf. The overt green notes Jensen felt showcased the idea of picking too early, though he also pointed out that in time such flavors do actually fade (though he implied this would happen over decades).

The second sample, picked at 24.2 brix, gave a strawberry perfume with herbal, red currant touches through the palate. When asked which the attendees preferred, the room overwhelmingly voted in favor of the second, with people also commenting the second wine seemed more complete.

In discussing his views on alcohol and age-ability in wine, Jensen emphasized that the question is still a work in progress. His belief is that higher alcohol levels likely do inhibit age-ability in wine. In considering how he determines picking times he admits they do look at the numbers but the decision is largely based in the flavors of the fruit.

LaRue

Katy Wilson of La Rue brought two different vintages of Pinot from the Rice-Spivak Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast in order to showcase vintage contrast, with the 2010 being a markedly cold year for the region, and 2012 comparatively more normal.

The 2012 Pinot offered peach perfume, with a raspberry-peach and peach skin palate moved through with red cherry and strawberry accents. There was a pleasant acid-tannin balance, and nice length. The 2010 carried a more red-pink focus with strawberry-cherry floral nose followed by a strawberry-cherry mouth with kirsch accents and a touch more pepper. The 2010 offered a stronger core of tension, a ton of juiciness and length.

In explaining her picking decisions, Wilson explained she is not picking based on ripeness and numbers as much as considering each vineyard in relation to the particular vintage and location. She states that she’s turned out to make different decisions each year but one that responds to the fruit showing in that year. For Wilson, the flavor development of the fruit turns out to be an important guide. She says she is looking to pick somewhere between strawberry and cherry in the flavor development of the grapes, but then she jokes that the most important part is getting on your grower’s picking calendar.

Copain

Wells Guthrie of Copain Wines offered two differing vintages of Pinot from the Kiser en Bas Vineyard in Anderson Valley. The 2010 gave raspberry and evergreen aromatics leading into a perfumed palate with dark edges and light fruit aspects of cherry and raspberry. Though none of the wines on the panel were overtly fruity, the Copain wines proved the most enigmatic of the selections also giving a bit more tannin, while still in good balance to acidity, than the other wines.

The 2007 Pinot showed a light cigarbox and cedar aromatic followed by good tension with dark edges and rubbed raspberry oil leaf with strawberry and raspberry backnotes on the palate moved through a long juicy finish.

Guthrie explained that when picking he likes to think of the grapes as fruit you’d be happy to eat. If you’re trying to pick too early you don’t want to eat the fruit — it’s too pert and firm — but at the moment of ripeness the grapes become something you want to bring home and eat. Past that point and the fruit has become shrunken.

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To watch the full discussion: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/44749809

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Thank you to Jamie Goode, Jordan Mackay, Josh Jensen, Wells Guthrie, Katy Wilson, and Justin Willett.

Thank you to Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

 

8

Tasting and Talking with Jasmine Hirsch

Looking North from the West Ridge of Hirsch Vineyards

looking North from the top of Block10A, Western Ridge, Hirsch Vineyards

We’re sitting at the top of a steep hill looking North. It’s taken me a little over two hours to drive to the site from my daughter’s school though both reside in Sonoma County. The roads to Hirsch Vineyards lift and fall over the mountain range along Sonoma’s Coast. There is no shorter route to build.

Jasmine Hirsch has driven me down the length of what they call the Western Ridge, then hiked me to the crest of a spine that divides Blocks 10A and 10B to show me exactly where the Hirsch Vineyards Chardonnay is grown. After tasting, I sit down to take a photograph. She sits down too and we begin a conversation about balance.

Along with her friend, and well-known sommelier, Rajat Parr, Hirsch began in 2011 what became an annual event celebrating the idea of balance in wine — In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB). In its first year they simply wanted to host a tasting celebrating Pinot they both enjoyed from California. The idea was to bring together what otherwise proves ephemeral — wines that express terroir — as a way to expand a conversation. — what is it about these wines? what are they trying to do with Pinot Noir? The ephemeral is why I’ve met with Hirsch, to see if I can understand her.

Mt Eden Pinot in the Maritime section of Hirsch VIneyards

looking thru 1980s-planted Mt Eden Pinot to the Ocean, Hirsch Vineyard

In its first year, IPOB was treated simply. Hirsch and Parr brainstormed the wine brands together on the back of a napkin then gathered them for a casual event at RN74 in San Francisco. The timing proved fruitful, as below the surface interest in the wine community had already been burbling around questions of ripeness, style, and balance in wine. IPOB 2011, then, became a kind of lightning rod for focusing a conversation that had been wanting to start.

Controversy also began almost immediately. At RN74, Parr had instituted a policy of pouring no Chardonnay or Pinot Noir above 14% alcohol. He wanted to show a lighter approach to the fruit. Though alcohol was never an overt concern in IPOB, Parr’s restaurant policy became associated with the event. Many still assume it to be the point of the tasting.

To address some of the concern, Hirsch and Parr formalized their selection process. They created a five person tasting panel of people from differing parts of the industry — a winemaker, a distributor, a sommelier, a wine writer — that together taste and blind select the wines. The pair also removed themselves from the final vote. Hirsch puts together the blind tasting from wineries that have submitted themselves for possible inclusion. Parr tastes with the panel. But the panel determines which wines will be poured at the event. Once chosen, a brand has two years as part of IPOB before it must then be blind selected again.

Tasting About Balance

 

Tasting Hirsch Vineyards wine

tasting Hirsch Vineyards wine in the middle of Hirsch Vineyard

In preparing to meet with Hirsch I go back over the list of wineries included in this year’s IPOB. What strikes me first is that a number of brands have received high regard from Robert Parker as well — Caldera, Hanzell, Varner, to name a few.

Parker is commonly spoken of as the champion of alcohol-driven over-ripe wines. As mentioned, one of the criticisms of IPOB has been that by “balance” they actually mean “low alcohol,” with the idea that surely the two are not so easily interchangeable. For both Parker and IPOB’s selection committee to hold the same wines in high regard, then, would appear a sort of contradiction.

The wines in the IPOB list also seem to show a diversity of styles — some are known for stem-inclusion in Pinot, while others always de-stem; several pursue only cool climate vineyard sites, while others are known from warmer regions; oak use across the list varies.

I ask Hirsch to address the question about balance and alcohol. She responds, “to reduce the conversation about balance to alcohol is incorrect. It’s just one element.” She continues, “balance seems more about intention than about style. You can have wine with a sense of place that can age really well and have alcohol at 14.5%.”

Pushing her further, she admits that people in the wine industry use alcohol as a sort of proxy for ripeness. What is going on in the grape is far more complicated — acids to tannin to physiological ripeness to alcohol balance varies by vintage — but short of tasting we sometimes guess our way into a wine through numbers.

Asking about the IPOB committee’s selection process I discover there are no formalized guidelines. Instead, Parr and Hirsch chose people whose palate they trust to recognize quality, filter flaws, and taste beyond a narrow sense of personal preference. The committee then votes on wines to be included. Hirsch admits though too that often through blind taste the committee simply recognizes a “yes.” There are moments wines just speak the ephemeral.

Jasmine Hirsch

Jasmine Hirsch in Hirsch Vineyards (I love this photo)

We move to a table near the start of the Western Ridge to taste through Hirsch Pinot Noirs. It’s a chance to push Jasmine on what it is she wants from wine, while also investigating her views on farming. She was raised, after all, on a vineyard.

Her family’s site grows primarily Pinot Noir, with just small sections, like the one we visited, of Chardonnay. We focus our conversation, then, around Pinot. Hirsch points out a simple but important point — how expensive and difficult it is to grow Pinot Noir.

Such challenge puts fine focus, Hirsch believes, on thinking about one’s intentions with wine. Hirsch is interested in asking, to put it simply, what is your goal in making wine? In working with her family’s company, her own answer to that question rests in the uniqueness of her family’s place. In the end, she agrees with a view held even by the monks of Burgundy — perhaps more than any other grape, Pinot Noir can express terroir.

I ask her, then, to describe Hirsch Vineyards. “There are so many important factors that establish the specifics of a place, elevation and proximity to ocean, for example. Here, the San Andreas fault makes a lot of soil variation and different aspects, sections of vineyard a little more or a little less sheltered.” She pauses for a moment, then continues.

“Winemakers are like translators of terroir,” she tells me. “They’re there having a conversation with the vineyard.” The relationship between farmer and winemaker proves essential too to the process. Hirsch has noticed that as the wines of Hirsch Vineyards have become more transparent, more purely expressive with less extraction or oak, her father’s farming has also improved. She explains, “in tasting the wine, he can taste what he could do differently in the vineyard.”

We return to the idea of finding “the yes” in a glass of wine. Hirsch describes for me an experience of the ephemeral. There are times, she tells me, when drinking a wine captures your full engagement — you can’t quite say what it is. “I have this sense that if I could just have one more sip, I could figure this out, but of course you won’t figure it out. It’s the ineffable.” I’m nodding as she speaks, and my mouth is watering. I can’t help but imagine such wine. “That is for me what great Pinot Noir is about. The mystery.”

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In Pursuit of Balance 2014 will travel for the first second time to NYC on February 4. Tickets are still available. For more information: http://inpursuitofbalance.com/#/events/new-york-2014/

IPOB 2014 will occur in San Francisco on March 10. The San Francisco event will also include two discussion panels: on vine age, and defining ripeness in Pinot Noir. Tickets are still available.  For more information: http://inpursuitofbalance.com/#/events/san-francisco-2014/

All IPOB wineries will pour at both events.

Post edit: My mistake: IPOB 2012 occurred in NYC. It alternates years between NYC and LA but occurs every year in SF. Cheers!

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Thank you to Jasmine Hirsch for hosting me.

More on Hirsch Vineyards Wines in a future post.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Tasting Cowan Cellars

Over lunch a couple weeks ago I was able to taste through the current portfolio of Cowan Cellars’ wines with Jim Cowan, and his wife Diane Arthur. The couple spend harvest and Fall in Sonoma, then travel East in winter to be closer to family.

Jim Cowan’s route to winemaking began circuitously via online friendships with wine lovers. Then in 2006, in the midst of a visit in Sonoma, Cowan discovered Steve Edmunds needed help making wine at Edmunds St John winery and found himself working the cellar alongside an icon of California wine. The experience helped Cowan realize he could begin making his own wine. With surprise connections to vineyards and fruit along the way, and help from friends in finding harvest housing, Jim and Diane credit synchronicity and their friendships for finding their way into wine.

Following are notes via drawing and text on the current portfolio.

Cowan Cellars 2013 Portfolioclick on illustration to enlarge

Cowan Cellars portfolio of wines carries crisp, clean fruit with floral under currents expressed in taut structural focus. Where the saigneé of Pinot Noir softens the mouth feel, it focuses the fresh herbal lift, and keeps the juicy length. It’s a crisp, fun, tasty focus for rosé. As the Sauvignon Blanc dances in layers of tropical forest, white grapefruit with citrus blossom, and faint back hints of crisp quince without sweetness, it spins up the juicy tension, giving a clean, lean focus white.

The two skin contact wines — a Ribolla Gialla from Russian River Valley’s Tanya Vineyard, and a Sauvignon Blanc named Isa, heralding from Lake County fruit — are both beautifully balanced giving the textural interest and lengthening sapidity that can come with macerated ferments, while lightening the touch enough to make the style approachable and pleasing. The flavors and aromatics in both lend themselves to savory Fall foods, and invite Thanksgiving considerations (especially on the Isa).

Turning to the reds, the Pinot Noir takes a red currant herbal element alongside notes of feral forest floor and hints of bay leaf to give a clean wine with nice tension. The two Syrah vintages we tasted generate the most excitement in me. I’m a sucker for a good Syrah, and these give genuine vintage contrast not only arising from age differences that show in young Syrah. The 2010 is nicely open and ready to drink now with blue violet notes throughout, a pleasing spritz of feral musk, and the deepening aspects of cooler Syrah tension — tobacco, touches of tar, and a chocolate finish. The 2011 comes in tighter right now, opening with air in the glass to dark fruit way in the finish after more lifted aspects of tobacco flower, jalapeno spice hints, cocoa powder and red dust accents. I’m digging the length.

Each of these wines were tasted alongside food progressing through stages of a meal. These wines were a pleasure to enjoy with food.

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Thank you to Jim and Diane.

Cowan Cellars wines are available here: http://cowancellars.com/wines/

To read more on Jim Cowan’s own account of how Cowan Cellars got started: http://blogs.gangofpour.com/cowan-cellars-beginnings

More on Jim and Diane in a future post.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Thank you to Eric Asimov for recommending this post in The New York Time’s Diner’s Journal “What We’re Reading,” February 15, 2013.

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Focus on the California Coast

Pax Mahle working on a Syrah blend

When I arrive at Wind Gap Winery, Pax Mahle is working on blending components for his Sonoma Coast Syrah. When he’s finished a stage of his work, we begin barrel tasting various small lot experiments that characterize the depth behind Wind Gap Wines. While maintaining focus on his label’s overall quality and central expression, from the beginning Mahle has nurtured his wine through side projects with experimental techniques. The Sonoma Coast Syrah, and its component parts

Wind Gap began with a central goal of expressing California Syrah unique to a particular site–the Western rim of the Sonoma Coast. The definitive wine for the label, then, is the Sonoma Coast Syrah, made with a blend of wines from three different vineyard sites within a few miles of the ocean. Though Mahle explains he is invested in an appellation focus, he knows people enjoy vineyard specific bottlings as well. As a result, Wind Gap also offers component bottlings from the Sonoma Coast blend.

Majik Vineyard carries a wild, heady top note that surprises me right out of the glass with its aromatic intensity. Nellessen Vineyard gives everything I love about Syrah–cool, lean, focused fruit, all backbone. “It gives the freshness and attitude of the blend,” Mahle explains. Finally, the Armagh brings the meat. “Armagh is the guts, the bacon, the bones.”

I nod in agreement and comment how much I love Syrah.

Mahle responds, “What I love about these wines is it would be very hard to confuse any of them for anything other than Syrah.”

Each of the four wines come in around 12% alcohol. “Yes, it is low alcohol,” Mahle tells me. “But that is not the point. The site gives that result. These wines could not be more representative of this part of California.” Nellessen Vineyard, as an example, Mahle explains is picked at the very end of the season, the grapes not ripe enough to harvest until November.

Most of the current portfolio

In 2000, Mahle and his wife began the label Pax Wine Cellars, along with an investor, with the intention of focusing on site specific Syrah from various parts of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. The methods used on each bottling were the same–whole cluster, foot tred, with similar duration of elevage. In keeping the techniques basically identical for each site, the wines expressed gave a view of the uniqueness offered from various parts of this portion of the California coast. Some of the wines came in regularly light bodied and around 12%, while other sites easily ground out 15% alcohol. The model made sense to Mahle who saw it as analogous to enjoying Northern Rhone from Hermitage, versus Cornas, for example. If one wine had higher alcohol, and another lower, it was because that was what the site naturally generated.

The wines that gained press attention for Pax Wine Cellars turned out to be the big hoofed work horse wines with higher intensity and higher alcohol. The range of offerings, however, generated some confusion among consumers that would come in expecting each of the wines to offer similar expression–those from the rim of the coast were sometimes taken by the bigger bodied wine lovers to be green. So, to offer greater brand clarity, Mahle started Wind Gap with the intention of carrying those leaner bottlings from the edge of the coast under the new label. Soon after initiating the beginnings of Wind Gap, changes occurred in the original winery partnership at Pax Wine Cellars, leading to Mahle’s attention diving full-time into his newer label, and its expansion beyond Syrah.

Old vine bottlings--Grenache and Mourvedre

Wind Gap Wines arise from a focus on site expression, and the commitment to letting more delicate techniques provide a view into this portion of California. In thinking about the idea of California wine, and the oft referenced perception of more fruit focused, large bodied wines, Mahle turns again to France as a counter-example. “No one would say Languedoc wines should taste like Rhone or Bordeaux. California is much larger, a very big place [larger than those regions in France],” Mahle remarks, “so why can’t we have wines as varied?”

Two old vine bottlings showcase well-established plantings found in Sonoma County. The old vine Mourvedre draws fruit from vines planted in the 1880s at the Bedrock Vineyard of Sonoma Valley. The wine is impressively expressive while light in presentation. It’s a good, enjoyable wine. “The Mourvedre is fun to drink. I like to have fun.” Mahle remarks.

The old vine Grenache celebrates bunches grown in Alexander Valley in a vineyard entirely dry farmed in sand (an impressive feat). The vines are 70-80 years old. The wine is made partially carbonic with two different picking selections at two different levels of ripeness–the combination offering greater dimensionality to the final wine. It’s style echoes that of the Mourvedre while carrying the zest and red fruit zing of Grenache.

Chardonnays, including an old vine bottling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir

Two Chardonnays show other aspects of the history of California wine. The Brousseau Vineyard in Chalone grows 38 year old vines in granite and limestone offering incredibly small berries, impressive concentration and that limestone-zing finish. The Yuen blend brings the Brousseau fruit in concert with 50 year old vines from James Berry vineyard in Paso Robles, only 10 miles from the coast. The combination lifts the intensity and seriousness of the Brousseau, into a balance of juicy citrus and blossom vibrancy with an under current of nuttiness and bread crust.

The Pinot Noir surprises me. (I hadn’t realized they were making one, to be honest.) It’s an intriguing and inviting wine, with a belly of dark fruit carried on a savory expression. It’s light with still great presence.

He realizes I'm taking his picture

What is common through the Wind Gap label is clean wines with strong lines. The structure is impressive throughout, the fruit allowed to speak for itself. These wines do not insist upon themselves, or demand you to listen. Instead, they compel your interest, leaving you happy to give it. There is great complexity here, and confidence. Wind Gap Wines carry intelligence dancing through a core of joy.

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Thank you to Pax Mahle for taking time with me.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.