Friday, July 5, 2013

All Pinot, All The Time: Pinot Days SF

What better way to start a lovely summer morning?

Last Sunday I attended my first large wine tasting event: Pinot Days SF at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. It was the 9th annual festival focusing on California houses producing wines from this finicky, thin-skinned grape. Thanks to Curt Polikoff, certified sommelier and all-around wine expert at Artisan Wine Depot, I was able to score early entrance with a sit-down tasting before the general public was allowed entry. Much appreciated, Curt!

Thanks to a heat wave in the Bay Area, even this waterfront location in San Francisco was sunny and pleasant. (Some of you no doubt know that, as Mark Twain said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.”) At 10:45am I enjoyed a sit-down tasting, hearing 6 winemakers introduce their houses, philosophies, and trying two flights of three wines each. 

For the first flight I listened dutifully and took notes, not tasting until the 3 winemakers had presented. Then I panicked, because we were then summarily instructed to dump or go bottoms-up for to make way for the pouring of the second flight! Needless to say, I smelled, tasted, and spat in quick succession (while scribbling furiously). 

An hour later, I headed straight to the back of the festival pavilion, starting with the end of the alphabet. There was no way I could visit all 150-odd exhibitors, so my strategy was to focus on those I’d heard of but whose wines I’d never tried, then to try the wineries in the booth next door to each. This made for a good mix of “heard of” and “hitherto unknown to Susan” wineries visited! 

What I enjoyed most was the opportunity to talk directly with the winemakers and owners (sometimes the same person). The other was the focus was on small grower-producers, although there were many producers without estates (meaning they have no vineyards of their own; they source grapes from various vineyards in California). 

After an hour of roaming, I ran into friend and sommelier Steven Washuta and the inimitable Greg Wayne, both outstanding folks at the wonderful new wine bar ENO SF in Union Square, San Francisco. I’d met Steven when he was keeping the bar chic at Savvy Cellar

Not only have I learned a great deal from Steven - he shares his impressive knowledge without any pretension - it suffices to say that he writes the most tongue-in-cheek, informative, and thoroughly entertaining prose I’ve ever read in the wine industry. It borders at times on insouciance, but he tells it like it is. Take, for example: “... Tastes like the color purple.” Amen. 

With Steven (R) and Greg (L) on the festival floor - note the red cups for spitting!

Wineries Visited
  • Siduri Wines - I tasted four wines from the 2011 harvest, mostly light and fruity with a pleasantly smooth finish. They were simple, easy to drink wines except the last one, Clos Pepe Single Vineyard from the Santa Rita Hills; I believe this one will actually open up given a few years. It was tight, cagey, and sharp, with much green fruit and tart apricot.
  • Schug Winery - The 2009 Carneros Heritage Reserve was my favorite in the lineup: It had that elusive, albeit faint, minerality from the start; it was round, generous, and smooth. I found it more complex than the others. Aged 16 months, 23% new oak. The 2010 Carneros Estate was fruitier on the nose but had a very fine finish - sharp but with finessed tannins, easy to drink. 
  • VML Wine - I remembered why I bought the 2011 Floodgate (Russian River Valley) as a gift for a friend this past January. It’s a light Pinot for me, but it is a wonderful balance of fragrance and finesse with an unmistakable but graceful metallic backbone. Like a dancer’s spine, strong and gracefully curved.
  • WALT Wines - Blue Jay is a blend of grapes from three Anderson Valley vineyards, so they decided on an unrelated bird theme for the name. I tasted a couple of wines, but I confess I don’t remember much about them! Strawberry is all I’ve got, really. 
  • Kanzler Vineyards - It’s a family affair - husband, wife, and son Alex, who is also the assistant winemaker at VML (how do you think I discovered Kanzler?). I preferred the 2010 Sonoma Coast (a little too much strawberry jam for me, but there was enough acidity and peppery tannins on the finish for balance) to the 2011 Sonoma Coast (a lighter, easy to drink wine with a sweet, strawberry finish but good structure). 
  • Kendrick Vineyards - This was the booth next to Kanzler - way too much fruit for me in the 2010; 2009 was much more restrained and moody, which I preferred. Vineyards: Northern Marin, near the Sonoma border. 
  • JCB - “by Jean-Charles Boisset” - the man behind the wine - was plastered across all marketing collateral. This was definitely a flashier production, and everything proclaimed in a pointedly raised voice (because such polite company would never scream): “In case you didn’t notice, we are French! From Burgundy!” 
    • The chic, gold on black branding was stunning; everything looked like it was designed to market a luxury perfume. In fact, each wine’s name was a number, printed just like Chanel No. 5. 
Why No. 3? They claim that 1 + 1 =  3.
I give them points for creativity (or wishful thinking).
    • I tasted No. 3, a very unusual blend of 60% grapes from Russian River Valley in California and 40% grapes from Cote de Nuits in Burgundy, France. When Steven quipped, “I’ve never heard of that before …” I surmised this was an unusual combination. 
    • No. 3 struck me as more marketing hype for “Old World meets New World” but it was one of the more complex wines I tasted at the event. Like many California Pinots, it was already very drinkable at a young age. But for $123 a bottle? I don’t know! 
  • Z’IVO - This was of the few Oregonian wineries at the event! Z’IVO was the opposite of JCB: dirt-beneath-the-fingernails personality. 
    • Both Willamette Valley wines I tried (2007 and 2009 vintages) smelled like dark mushrooms bathed in soft contact lens saline solution. Salty mushrooms in mossy forest floor. Very different from the California Pinots, for certain. 
    • The wines didn’t taste like forest floor or moss, though; 2009 was savory with massively mouth-drying tannins. 2007 was salty with (thank god) more supple tannins. I don’t remember much beyond that! 
  • La FenĂȘtre - A small boutique grower-producer with several single vineyard wines in Santa Maria, this winery offered some interesting flavors. (Ironically, Pinot Days marked the first time I’d heard “single vineyard” as a term; I’d learned the French term monocru first, in the Champagne region in France.)
    • My notes for 2010 Le Bon Climat Single Vineyard read, “Nose: Barnyard; Palate: Salty, musky, a little bit of Pommard?” Indeed, it was pretty heavy and spicy, reminiscent of the wines of Pommard in Burgundy, but the wine possessed nothing near the power characteristic of Pommard. Not that it’s supposed to be, of course! Having been to Burgundy recently, I just couldn’t help the comparison. 
    • 2010 Presqu’ile Single Vineyard smelled like brined asparagus; tasted like cranberries and a bit of black pepper.  
    • My scribblings for 2010 Bien Nacido Single Vineyard bore the cryptic note “Metal Jams” - looking back, it took me a second to remember that this wine smelled overwhelmingly of sweet, sticky strawberry jam, with metallic flavors on the edges. But somehow at the time, this brought to mind the Adult Swim Metallica cartoon “Metalocalypse."In the end, the wine was too unbalanced for me. A great deal of metal and rust overwhelmed my palate on the finish, resulting in fatigue not unlike hearing too many high-pitched screams of “Dethklock! Dethclock! Dethclock!” by head-banging heavy metal musicians. 

The Verdict
I found the California Pinots I tried to be generally very … strawberry. 

Sometimes the wines were on the weak side, and by this I mean that they tasted thin, a little watered down. They may be perfect for another palate, but for me these wines simply weren’t concentrated enough. I craved more body: I find I desire some voluptuousness in my reds, like a well-muscled yet lithe dancer with a strong, flexible spine. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a daintier, classical piece; other times I want edgy, muscular, contemporary ballet. (Those of you who know me understand that dance is part of my vocabulary.)

On the other end of spectrum, I was being clobbered over the head with wines featuring RIPE RED FRUIT! DID YOU GET THAT? <sip … spit> RED FRUIT! <dump rest of glass> Oy!

You get the idea. 

Dear California Pinot fans: Before you throw me into a stainless steel vat for maceration, I am not disparaging California Pinots! The concept of taste preference is very subjective, and I confess I don’t yet know enough about the terroir and vinification practices of California for Pinot Noir to be a good judge of relative quality. 

It’s important to distinguish between quality and personal taste. I believe both should be afforded equal status, but for different purposes. You have to be able to tell quality between related wines given certain parameters, but in the end, what’s the point in drinking what you don’t like?

For Me: Musky in California, Fine-Boned in Burgundy
I discovered that with the California Pinots I tried, I preferred what was described as the “musky, masculine” wines. But for red Burgundies, which are also made from Pinot Noir but in the soils and climates of the Burgundy region in France, I tend to be seduced by fine-boned wines with delicacy and finesse but which possess an unmistakable backbone. 

I must like the taste of vines struggling in lands with low water tables, roots thrusting deep into the clay and limestone to drink all the minerals and nutrients locked in the earth. Oh, the minerality! The terroir!

The big, “masculine” reds in Burgundy can sometimes be too much for me - truly full of black pepper, deep earth, and mouth-drying tannins. They can be amazingly fine wines, but their character is just not for me, at least for what I like right now. 

In contrast, their “masculine” counterparts in California offered - to the preference of this drinker - fruit as an undertone (as opposed to shiny overtones as they usually are) with ripples of leather, offering more complexity with a smooth or plush mouthfeel. And I do place a great deal of importance on the final sensation in the mouth, because hey, I want it to feel pleasant. 

With Schug winemaker Mike Cox 

An interesting cultural discovery was that it was considered gauche to spit directly into the plastic buckets available at every booth. In France, following the winemakers’ leads, I spit into buckets, between barrels into the gravel floor, anywhere, really. But here, I was expected to juggle a bright red, large plastic cup with my glass, notepad and pen. Not very convenient - I constantly feared I’d drop everything onto the person crowded next to me - but I certainly didn’t want to make others feel uncomfortable, so I gave in. 

In the end, I didn’t get close to tasting and talking to folks from even half the wineries at the event, but I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Quality over quantity was my goal, and I was more than satisfied. 

I was at first shocked, then admittedly thrilled, when I saw later that afternoon that my teeth were stained a lovely shade of purple. Pinot Purple.  

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