Wednesday, March 11, 2020

WOPN 20 a la King

There's just so much to take in over two days of Grand Tastings (and one 20th anniversary soiree dinner) at World of Pinot Noir that it suddenly hit me--there's no better way to respond than with a notes column like those wonders Larry King used to do for USA Today, delicious fervid fever dreams of name dropping, non sequiturs, anomalies, anachronisms, and the occasional rightness of a stopped clock. That sounds like right up my tin pan alley (see, I already did one!). So I figured I might want to try to channel the master of the hit and ellipsis run.

Not every second day of an event begins with a guy in line proudly complaining he's got pinot thumb and pinot finger; listen Bud, just don't have them pour on your hand...No one understands value anymore--what is up with people bidding more on a silent auction item than its worth?...Have you drunk too much or just enough when someone says "angular fruit" and you say yes? (thanks FEL)...Why do winemakers say, "We make a ____ we want to drink?"...I wrote a sentence I want an ellipsis after...Is Jenny Williamson Dore one of the nicest people in the business? Even I'd be less a curmudgeon if I poured the delicious Foxen line--their 2015 La Encantada is the pinot smell of the Sta. Rita Hills...Missing old friends like Balletto, Longoria, Dolin, Failla...Happy to catch up with old friend Matt Dees at The Hilt table...Too easy to get to; guess hipsters only know him from Jonata...

His photo (not the one of him above, obviously) of a Mickey Rooney-sized cluster of pinot from Radian in his palm got us reminiscing about Andre the Giant...That Radian, by the way, a five course meal in a 750 ml bottle all by itself...Had a lovely catch-up with Greg Brewer about a fancy dinner none of you got to attend while I sipped one of the last four bottles of 2006 Brewer-Clifton Cargassachi Vineyard he had stashed--it aged better than Angie Dickinson...Struck me funny the Domaine Chanson guy says "They require age, a lot of age," when France is the country that inspired the film Gigi--rrr, that Leslie Caron...Speaking of French, definitely knew what they meant when pouring the Liquid Farm 2017 Radian Vineyard and said, "That's the coup de grace right there."...If you're like me you might think pennyroyal is a Bond girl, but it's actually related to mint and if you grow your grapes near it, yep, minty...thanks for that hot tip, Anderson Valley's Goldeneye...The Peake Ranch rascals snuck in their 2017 Bellis Noir, no doubt not a shout out to the Mekons Rico Bell/Eric Bellis but a pleaser of a syrah/grenache blend...Are the Mekons the least likely band you expected to see in a wine story?...Bitter? Accurate? Both? (Walter Winchell could do it.) The pourer at Louis Latour asserted, "The New World is, 'I'm going to give you everything right now.'"...Maybe not any air travel from Uncle Sam for a month...People line up for Kosta Browne pinot like they were getting the latest LP from the Chairman of the Board for free with it, but for my ducats I'd down their 2015 "One Sixteen" chardonnay instead...Man does not live by red alone (sorry Bernie, Uncle Joe's got you)...Ever since that UTI it's been Ocean Spray in the morning for this scribe, but in the evening, I'd sure go for a 2014 Sea Smoke Sea Spray...I still don't get why the French "own" Champagne--have they tasted tasted this stuff?...With this COVID-19, it might be an era for as little skin contact as possible, so the Maggy Hawk 2018 Edmeades white pinot noir might be a hit! very fresh...Remember to hang with friends for soirees--so hard to meet people when a roving sax man plays over the DJs deep tracks...Why can paella never have both the mussels and the clams done equally well?...One is always a bit over done, like a Larry King parody turning into an Andy Rooney riff...Ice, ice, baby...

Monday, March 9, 2020

The 2020 World of Pinot Noir in Two Tastes

Pardon my shorthand, but isn't that partially what you want from writers, for us to sift through everything and then say, "This is what you want?" Oh, yeah, you've got Netflix algorithms and Yelp for that now.

(George goes and cries for awhile.)

I'm back! And am going to write this anyway for the 11 of you who care (figure 11 makes me shy one disciple, and then no one has to cosplay as Judas--win win!). So the media room at World of Pinot Noir this year (March 5-7) is one of the reasons you want to be media--a room with three of its walls lined with open bottles of pinot for you to taste with no one to tell you nothing, so it's very tabula rasa. Also, consider it a room for spitting in private, which in our COVID-19 world is not merely good manners. Even before I got to hit the floor at Friday's Grand Tasting, I tasted a few delectables, all just so I could do my proper reporting for you, my dear (eleven) readers.

Two of those wines you see photo-ed above; for some reason the Goldeneye is a bit blurry hours before I was. It's easy to at least flirt with the notion that all California pinot gets samey, but these bottles say, "Disabuse yourself of such a notion."

The Rusack, did you look closely, is their wine from Catalina Island. They get to do that, as the Wrigley family owns both the winery and the island. (Go back and read that sentence one more time, have your giggle at the wonders of money, and move on.) Rumor has it that even at a MSRP of $72 they don't come close to making what it costs to produce the wine, simply thanks to shipping costs. Not surprisingly, all that marine influence means a very cool climate pinot, and this is almost shockingly light in the glass, as if a fledgling artist hadn't quite figured out how to get the red she had hoped to infuse into her stained glass. But that more transparent hue fits how much this pinot offers floral versus fruit--think rose and a touch of lavender, and then sandalwood, tea, wild cherry. A gorgeous, unique pour.

The Goldeneye, at first one might assume, would be more similar than different. Hailing from a vineyard in Anderson Valley, it comes from close to the Mendocino coast, and obviously much further north than Catalina or any other CA wine growing region (please tell me there's not a pinot from Lake County). And a very typical Anderson Valley pinot is usually delightfully cherry, but one a bit restrained.

Then there's this 2016 Gowan Creek from Goldeneye that screams cherry--you could almost imagine The Runaways singing an ode to it. Forget seductive, it's a flat out, lingerie-wearing seducer. And sure enough, all of that is the winemaking. Goldeneye, owned by Duckhorn, lays on the wood for this bottle--16 months in barrel, 100% French oak, 60% new. All that wood makes it brawny indeed (yet still somehow in balance, a testament to good fruit and acidity). It MSRP's at $86, so perhaps barrels cost more than shipping?

Both of these are pinots, so, what are you in the mood for this evening? There's a pinot for you if you just taste hard enough.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Wonderful World of Clos Pepe

Let's face it, not every winery's proprietor has been the US Ambassador to Austria. But if you took part in one of the World of Pinot Noir's kick off events for its 2020 fete, you would have had the chance to hear and meet Kathryn Walt Hall, who is the head of WALT Wines. The event, which is a mouthful (in both title and what you got if you had attended): "WALT Wines Presents Mile Marker 60: Clos Pepe Estate Vineyard Experience."

WALT took on a 15 year lease with Clos Pepe in 2015, committing to one of the more beloved properties in the Sta. Rita Hills. For instance, just its pond is this photogenic:

After a walk through the vineyard, just at the nascence of bud break (here's hoping all the rain forecast for the rest of March doesn't bring too much cold weather too), we settled in for a vertical tasting of this site with 30 acres of vines, almost all pinot noir (a darn good thing for a WOPN event). Think mostly Pommard clones as the base of most of the wines, with some 667, 777, and 115 for those more floral lifting notes, too.

The panel for the tasting featured Hall herself, WALT winemaker Megan Gunderson, Adam Lee from Siduri, who had made wines from the site for decades (and is a witty chatter, so who doesn't want him on their panel?), and Stephen Pepe himself. I won't bore with you all the details, not that the details are boring, but they go down a lot better if you're drinking the wines as you hear them. Suffice to say, Lee pointed out that with the slopes of the site and the ways some spots get more of the famed transverse valley winds from the Pacific a mere nine miles west, he didn't realize the diversity of the property at first in such a small area. He added, "And diversity means complexity--it's truly truly remarkable."

The lineup of wines proved him correct, even if the surprisingly warm early spring day and its sun perhaps warmed our samples a bit beyond the best pinot tasting temperature. The vertical included a block 6 barrel sample from 2019, so far from a finished wine, if certainly robust, and fermented in concrete!--sub-theme for the day, pinot-exploration! And then took us to the 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017, the current on-the-market vintage. No 2015, as that was a big frost year. The older wines were aging well, showing off the acidity typical of the region that keeps them lean mean red berry machines. The newer wines are that and even more FRUIT; as my Indy colleague in his Wine Enthusiast hat Matt Kettmann put it about the 2017, which he gave 94 points, "Powerful aromas of black cherry, tobacco, clove, chocolate and oak are heavy but pleasing on this bold style of pinot noir. The lush, delicious and potent palate delivers more of the same, with black-cherry and tobacco flavors sprinkled with crushed nutmeg and vanilla."

The one fascinating wild card was the first public tasting of Adam Lee's new project with Chateauneuf-du-Pape star Philippe Cambie, a 2019 Beau Marchais pinot from, of course, Clos Pepe Vineyard. Since it was Cambie's first pinot, he had no sense of the "right" way to do things and the wine, at least so far (it just went into barrel in November), seems to be a powerhouse. While, as I said earlier, the region's wines tend to age well thanks to their acidity, this pinot actually has tannins that should hold it up. But we are talking pinot that was on its skins for a long 48 days. Fascinating.

Then there was a feast grilled up by Frank Ostini and the Hitching Post II gang, and what could be wrong with that, especially with lots of the 2017 WALT to drink with it? Tri-tip over red oak with salsa and beans. And lots of other yummy things. We were very lucky. There was even a mini-concert by Anderson Daniels to end the event, a performer who channels Tennessee even if he's from Minnesota. Accents, sometimes they're hard to figure. Hard to deny a song called "Warm Up with a Cold One" at a drinking event, though.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Rockin' WOPN Eve

Somehow this is my 32nd blog post about the annual spectacular the World of Pinot Noir, which kicks off its 20th anniversary edition tomorrow with a few special events, one of which I'll be writing about tomorrow night after I attend it (think barbecue and pinot and the SYV). Recently I talked to one winemaker who in one way reasonably pooh-poohed the whole shebang, at least the Grand Tastings, by saying, "Everybody makes good wine now. It all tastes more the same than it doesn't."

"OK, the error bars aren't wide," I said. And later I realized I sohuld have said, "Wait, not OK! Goddam, the error bars aren't wide!" That is, we live in a golden age of deliciousness, so let's lap it up while we can (or until the Coronavirus wipes out any and all events where more than five of us gather in wine's name).

So let's think about how to celebrate, and if anything deserves celebration it's pinot noir (well, there's one more reason). It's easy to focus just on Friday's and Saturday's Grand Tastings at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara, as they are billed quite appropriately--100 producers on Friday, 120 on Saturday, most with more than one wine, some with things not even pinot (roses! whites! hard cider!!). I've discussed in previous years the best ways to approach a room that might as well have signs warning "Beware! FOMO Ahead!" at all the entrances. Since you can't do it all, drink water, eat some of the food, chat with pourers--many of whom are the winemakers themselves--make a plan for how to get something coherent out of it (chose a region or style ["Do you have anything with stem-inclusion?"] or only drink one vintage). OR approach it in a magical way and let a dice throw or runes or the alphabet guide you.

My guess is any way will be an interesting informative way. Drink deep, enjoy, take some notes. If only to see later how your handwriting deteriorates during an afternoon of drinking.

But you could skip the Grand Tastings, even. (Horrors!) Instead only go to a seminar or two and sit down and learn something. Just on Friday you could attend "What's Altitude Got to Do with It?" or "Siduri: 25 Years of Cruising the Pacific Coastline." How does the elevation of a vineyard affect what winds up in the bottle? How much of Adam Lee's incredible knowledge garnered over decades of winemaking can he share in one sitting? You could learn these things. And some of that you'll do through your mouth as you will have a guided tasting. That's just two of Friday's events.

Or you could just eat and have some wine with that. Let's look at Saturday, this time (note, this is far from covering everything about to happen, as you don't have the time for that). One dinner celebrates Bollinger Champagne and Calvisius Caviar, so if you ever wondered what the whole bubbles and fancy fish eggs fuss was about, and have a spare $350 (that's part of the fuss, surely), this dinner is for you. Or you could attend the 20th Anniversary Soiree Dinner, that's described as "an evening of epicurean delights, wine and dancing as you mingle amongst the legends of Pinot Noir and meet the rising stars." Two words: paella station. And more wine than you can shake your empty mussel shells at. 

Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Night LA Invaded the Lark

I chose to start with the finish by posting that image up top, as what you see is as fine a gathering of culinary talent in one photo as you might ever be able to see. What's better, they teamed up to make the meal 30 or 40 of us had the intense pleasure to enjoy last evening for the Founders Circle Dinner (and assorted way-too-lucky media and sponsor hangers-on like me) for the upcoming Santa Barbara Culinary Experience, March 13-15. How fitting it happened on Leap Day, as it wasn't a celebration that could happen on any ordinary, repeatable calendar.

Chairman of the Santa Barbara-based Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts Eric Spivey made clear how much this was an evening of thanks, especially to the eight families who attended and the eight who could not who were founding supporters of the event as it kicks off its first year. "Our north star has been to shine a light on culinary Santa Barbara," he made clear, "and to create fun education events that Julia herself would have wanted to attend." Ultimately his goal is, "We want people to have FOMO that they weren't here with us if they don't attend this year."

The FOMO will be strong if the SBCE weekend can even be a soupçon as wonderful as the dinner hosted at The Lark. It kicked off with passed apps, you know, simple things like a Santa Barbara uni tartelette with steamed egg and wasabi or an absinthe cured hamachi atop an everything lavash cracker along with kumquat confit, black sesame mascarpone and bronze fennel. But all that was truly a warm up, and I don't necessarily want to list every last element of the dinner, let alone all the wines as I just don't want to be that cruel to those of you who couldn't go (including my wife--sorry, honey!).

That said, this morning I spent some time in my Suzanne Goin cookbooks to find what she did to the Santa Barbara Pistachio Company nuts in her citrus salad. I'd never heard of an aillade before, and while it's more traditionally a garlic-walnut sauce, Goin makes hers lighter with pistachios and brighter with some citrus zest and juice, and then the nuts are extra flavorful while giving of themselves 110%, as it were.

All of that bounty except for the stracciatella (burrata's creamy heart ripped from its flesh for your delight)--hails from Peter Schaner's farm in north San Diego County--Goin called him her favorite farmer. And I assume you all know Goin, the chef at Lucques and AOC and Tavern, and whose Sunday Suppers at Lucques cookbook is one of our favorites when we want to impress.

The chefs were all asked to relate a Julia Child tale, and Goin's was charming. Her mom, she said, came from a overcook the pot roast family while her dad's had more refined tastes. For one of their early dates her mom made her dad a Spam loaf. "On the next date, my dad gave my mom a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking," she said. "She cooked out of it for my whole childhood, so in some ways I was raised by Julia."

Michael Cimarusti, the mind behind LA's Providence and Connie and Ted's, recalled having the opportunity as a very young chef to cook a special full foie gras presentation for Child at Le Cirque in New York City. A similar full bore without going over the top method made his dish of Santa Barbara black cod insanely flavorful--20% of the sauce was black truffle. That musky earthiness did wonders with the salt of the fish, and the dish had a kick of spring green from its peas, and then just enough texture and hint of acid from some radishes, too. A simply brilliant if far from simple plate.

Executive chef at The Lark Jason Paluska made it very clear he belonged with the illustrious chefs from the south with eight hour smoked wagyu beef ribs with Texas BBQ gastrique--I have to assume there's some coffee in there, the flavor was so dark and deep. Add to that spring garlic cornbread and sweet and spicy pickles to zippily cleanse your palate for the next rich bite. It was a cunning dish.

Paluska called it a little taste of Houston, Texas, and complimented Acme Hospitality Managing Partner Sherry Villanueva for all her support, claiming, "I didn't know I was a Texan cooking in California until I met her." All of us rib enjoyers say thanks, Sherry!

You know it's an epic night when the dessert course is made by Nancy Silverton, who won the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef Award in 2014. Any foodie worth his salts (you have to have at least 7 salts in your pantry to be a true foodie, so this isn't just a figure of speech) knows Silverton from her Netflix Chef's Table, or from founding LaBrea Breads, or from Mozzaplex.

There she is with event MC Billy Harris, telling her story, serving Julia Child a variation of the brioche tart we were all about to eat at a 1997 taping of Child's television show Baking with Julia. Child insisted on the cooking and filming being done in real-time as much as possible, so when Silverton composed the dessert hot from the oven with gooey, off-the-stove stone fruit atop, she worried she had burned poor Child's mouth, especially when she began to tear up. Instead Child said, "That's a dessert to cry over."

To be honest, it didn't make me cry, well, not until it was all gone and I had no more. Subbing for the stone fruit thanks to seasonality we got caramel prunes (even more classically French, when you think about it), with zabaglione and spiced nuts that have ruined me for anything even mildly brittle-esque ever again. The dessert could sing, and it wasn't not too overly sweet a tune, either. What a capper.

And I didn't even mention the 11 wines that were poured. This Santa Barbara Culinary Experience thing is going to rock.