Saturday, March 9, 2019

Relishing Something Wild at WOPN

One of the great joys of returning year after year to an event like World of Pinot Noir is you get to reunite with old friends. Sometimes that's a winemaker you only see annually for ten minutes at a tasting in a big Bacara ballroom (hi, Anthony Beckman from Balletto--the wines are still rocking!). Sometimes that means one vineyard served several excellent ways.

Hi, Radian.

Sure, it's hard enough to decide whether you prefer pinots from Santa Maria Valley or Sta. Rita Hills, and it might depend on how your mood or the moon waxes or wanes that day. But it's pretty hard to argue the most singular, spectacular pinot noir coming out of the Sta. Rita Hills of late will have grapes from Radian.

We're lucky that while Stan Kroenke, sad Rams owner, owns the deed--which means the man most in charge of the grapes is winemaker Matt Dees (for The Hilt)--he still knows enough to sell some of the fine fruit to people who will do it more than honorably, winemakers like Bryan Babcock, Ken Brown, Aaron Walker of Pali.

And then there were some Radians to taste at WOPN, too. As is true with his house style, James Sparks of Liquid Farm makes a Radian that's lithe and ethereal--wine happily haunted by its own ghost. Of course, coming from Radian you can't escape the earthiness, an almost muskiness. All that diatomaceous earth--crazy good drainage that makes roots say, "Hey, where did that water go?" yet also, well I'm going to say it again--ghosts. It's fossilized algae, after all. You know, like "Soylent Green is other diatoms!"

So sure, you get the usual Sta. Rita Hills fruit, cherry moving to cranberry to raspberry, but you get it after a good fight on land just-not-quite too close to the Pacific. Lots of intensity, few grapes, better wine. Like the one from Montemar, a garagiste so small their website is just a Facebook page, that only delivers magnificent fruit (they work with Bentrock, too, the partner-vineyard to Radian, but also much more straightforward--in topography if nothing else). A bit bigger and fuller than the Liquid Farm, if you want that (it's hard not too).

And then there's the Radian from Dragonette. Damn. It's a glass of wine that you drink wine for, hoping and not quite finding enough. Brandon Sparks-Gillis poured me my sample, watched my face go stupid with happiness after my taste, and simply said, "It's a magical place." Trying to figure out a way to describe it I've landed on this--it's the girl in Richard Thompson's exquisite "Beeswing," the one with animal in her eyes, the one for which the song's narrator sings, "If I could just taste/All of her wildness now/If I could hold her in my arms today/Then I wouldn't want her any other way."

But let's not get caught up in that feminine/masculine wine reduction, for while Radian is a pretty wine, it's pretty like James Dean. So let's consider the wine also biker outlaw James in Richard Thompson's even more famous "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." A bit dangerous, and therefore glamorous, because, c'mon, we all love the bad boy, the femme fatale. And just as Thompson can finger-pick so much all at once, this wine's got notes up its grapey sleeve for days.

Importantly, these are both songs that tell stories, and someone needs to write the ballad of Radian. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Peay's Pretty Much Perfection

I'm far from the first to praise Peay Vineyards--they were named the San Francisco Chronicle Winery of the Year in 2009, for example--but drinking through their wines at this year's World of Pinot Noir certainly made the case that they're making some of the most remarkable pinot in California right now. Of course most of that comes from their site. Here's how Failla puts it (and they are one of the few wineries that still have the privilege to buy Peay fruit, so that says something, too): "Nestled on top of a foggy ridge line amid the ever-winding roads near Annapolis, Peay's vineyard fits the definition of 'extreme farming.' A marginal site at best, the vineyard's sandstone soils contribute to naturally low fertility and the potential for grapes of truly superior expression." (And as a side note, Failla, you were missed at WOPN.)

Peay is four miles off the Pacific near Sea Ranch, where writer Denis Johnson lived and died, which is sort of a weird hint at something fierce and moving in a location, if you ask me. The vineyard site is at some elevation but not too much, so they get ocean fog but it doesn't necessarily linger; their grapes certainly do, though, getting a crazy long growing season mostly because they have to.

It's also pretty clear that winemaker Vanessa Wong prefers nuance to force, and therefore as soon as you stick your nose into a glass with her wines you tend to think about flowers more than fruit. That's not to say the wines lack fruit in their juice, but they offer so much more that they entice you to swirl, sniff, and sip again. And again.

That's even true from one of the few wines Peay makes not from its own grapes, as they have access to the acclaimed Savoy site in Anderson Valley. WOPN offered a fascinating seminar on that vineyard, and amidst the fine wines we got to taste, Wong's stood out, as she talked about the wine from Savoy having a perfume more ethereal and elegant than many sites. Then again, teasing out all the extra notes wines too often steamroll over seems to be her skill.

Simply put, if you want to learn what cold climate pinot is all about, try some Peay. And their three estate blends all achieve different aims, too, so drink as much as you can--the Ama is perhaps the heartiest, while the Scallop Shelf (guess what's in the soil?) is about structure and restraint, and let's hope you know enough to know what precisely doled out satisfaction can be like. Then the Pomarium, planted aside an old apple orchard, even takes on that apple-y terroir some, with a dynamic tartness.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

WOPN Wine Winds Back Time

It's not every day I swirl and sniff a wine and almost cry. But it's not every day I get to taste a 1997 Foxen Julia's Vineyard, and suddenly get sensorily sucked back a couple of decades into my life when I was a much younger man just beginning to learn and love Santa Barbara wines. Julia's Vineyard was one of the first vineyard designates I can recall once I moved out to California in 1994 (beyond the venerable Bien Nacido, of course), and something about that lovely enveloping barbecue+spice+deep fruit nose erased years for me today at a Julia's Vineyard Seminar and Luncheon at the Wine Cask today as an estimable overture to World of Pinot Noir.

Of course it doesn't hurt to have Julia herself at the lunch tasting: The vineyard was planted in 1988 when she was 6 months old. (And yes, Katherine's Vineyard, famed for its chardonnay, is named after Julia's sister.) It's owned by Jackson Family Wines, the ninth-largest wine enterprise in the United States that owns 55 wineries globally (including Brewer-Clifton, Byron, Cambria, Nielson locally).

But despite all that BIG, they certainly care about small, and about relationships. For the event featured five wineries/winemakers who have been making beautiful juice from Julia's grapes for decades now: Cambria (as they get to play with the whole vineyard), plus Lumen/Lane Tanner, Byron, Hitching Post, and Foxen. MC master sommelier Michael Jordan (no relation to any other famous MJs) asserted that he not only "had a flag and a drum for the Santa Maria Valley," citing its 212 days of hang time for pinot grapes, more than anywhere in the world, but also, "if there was an American Grand Cru designation, Julia's would be it."

Surely there's nothing better than tasting through bottlings of this vineyard from 1996 to a 2018 Lumen barrel sample that Lane Tanner cleverly compared to tasting cookie dough, as we had to imagine what it would be like after it had time to "bake," so to speak. (It's going to be a scrumptious cookie.) As she said about Julia's in general, "There's always a smokiness...I always imagine that bar you go into late at night and there's a gorgeous woman at the end of the bar and you don't know if you should go there....."

Fanciful, sure, but it's a vineyard that leads to wine that leads to such heady thoughts, something to dream on. For as Jordan put it, "We like to over-complicate ans over-simplify at the same time, not just as sommeliers--it's the human condition." A wine as profound as one from Julia's let's you find a just right space, with flavors expansive yet precise, with structure exact and elastic.

(The panel, from l-r: Michael Jordan, Lane Tanner, Will Henry, Jonathan Nagy, Frank Ostini, Bill Wathen, Dick Dore, Gray Hartley, Julia Jackson, Jill Russell.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Wild Wide World of WOPN

It's that most wonderful time of year, when the World of Pinot Noir, happily shortened to WOPN (it's fun to say--do it aloud!), sets up in Santa Barbara at the Bacara this Friday and Saturday, March 1 and 2. Here's how they sell themselves: "The annual World of Pinot Noir event gathers the planet’s foremost Pinot Noir wineries and winemakers, renowned chefs, sommeliers and leading wine scholars in a weekend-long seaside celebration of this delicious and storied wine."

I was really hoping someone might pour some pinot from Jupiter this year, but in the meantime, the numerous Earth-made wines available at Friday's and Saturday's Grand Tastings will have to do, I guess. It's 100 producers Friday, 120 Saturday, almost all with multiple wines, sometimes even some not pinot-centric ("What is lurking under your table, dear pourer?" you may learn to ask). It's easy to end up feeling you pinot no more than you did when you started if you don't pace yourself. (And hydrate. And eat the food--there's always food. And bid on silent auction, or at least roam the tables. Or go out and stare at the Pacific and think, "What a lucky f---er I am to be here." The wine will be there when you get back.)

How do you have a good time there? Well, pretty much any way you'd like (but don't be a table hog). Having a plan doesn't hurt. It could be as simple as: only go to the table where no drinker is standing. You still won't go wrong. Or you could consider the two questions I suggested a few years back: 1) wide or deep? 2) what you know or what you don't know?

But there are all kinds of ways to dice up a pinot pie. Only try older vintages, for instance, as so many of the winemakers kindly like to share them, mostly as it shows they really know what they are doing (locally, Rick Longoria loves to please this way, for instance). Of course, if you don't taste the most recent vintage side-by-side, you're missing the chance to learn about wine aging and the differences in vintages, but there's only so much learning anyone can retain in an hours long tasting.

Only drink wines from places that begin with a C. Sure, this is totally random, but here's the list (note, some are Friday or Saturday only): Calera, Cambria, Cattleya, Center of Effort, Chalk Hill, Chalone, Chamisal, Chanin, Chanson, Chateau St. Jean, Chenoweth, Cherry Pie, Chicken Dance, CIRQ, Claiborne & Churchill, Clouds Rest, cnagy, Cobb, Colene Clemens, Copain, Cordant, Cristom, Croix, Crossbarn, Cuvaison. And I only made one of those up.

And keep looking to this blog for more about what's happening--I will have reports on the tastings, on the Savoy Vineyard/Anderson Valley seminar and the rosé by the sea lunch, too.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Dinner Comes to Renaud’s (Well, Briefly It Did)

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Just days after this article published, Renaud’s stopped serving dinner at the Montecito location, choosing to focus on breakfast and lunch.]

If you think of the Coast Village Plaza complex as a sort of mall, it now features two anchor tenants, with Khao Kheng (somehow even better than sister restaurant Empty Bowl) on the west end and Renaud’s on the east. That’s especially true since the latter began serving dinner right before the New Year. “Guests have been asking me for dinner service for a really, really long time,” says founder Renaud Gonthier. “And I wanted to give it a shot.”

Want to read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Mushroom Festival Takes Over Los Alamos

Years before Los Alamos became the apple of every gastronome’s gut, Stephan Bedford celebrated all things mycological with an annual Mushroom Festival at his eponymous winery on Bell Street. Now, for its 13th year, the Mushroom Festival has thrown many spores, you might say, and will take over Los Alamos for the January 25-27 weekend.

Want to read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Sip This: Carr 2016 Sangiovese Santa Ynez Valley

Carr 2016 Sangiovese Santa Ynez Valley: It’s easy to think that not enough Santa Barbara wineries make Italian varietals when you enjoy this Carr sangio. Or, perhaps just enough make them, as sangiovese makes up less than one percent of all red-wine grapes grown in California. You’re not going to find many straw-covered bottles of chianti here.

Want to read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.