Friday, March 18, 2022

WOPN 2022: New Finds

Based on my two WOPN posts (so far, one still to come?), you must think all I do while there is get snapped in usies, but I wanted to start both posts with the only two of those social media friendly gang shots I was in all weekend in order to: 1) get some people in these blog posts (not only did I fail to take pictures of people, I had to grab most of the bottle photos from the net for this post--bad blogger!); 2) a big part of WOPN is the sudden moment a table becomes a party--who knew drinking in public led to talking to strangers?; 3) I wanted to point out there were lots of Pinot lovers crammed into the Bacara ballroom, and so I guess we all figure we're done with COVID (let's hope it's done with us).

So the angle for this post is new finds, and the funnest new find of the weekend was definitely Bee Hunter (see photo above). I'm historically a big fan of Anderson Valley wines, the gorgeous cherry of them, the hint of redwoods, plus the location itself is a beauteous land that seems to have banned all chain companies. Forget Starbucks and Mickey D's, even the gas station and supermarket go by people's names, not corporations'. So it's not surprising that's where the very personable Bee Hunter comes from, and the dynamo Ali from the Valley behind the table made sure everyone was tasting, getting info, having fun. She and her husband Andy DuVigneaud make a host of wines, from orange to after dinner, and then a fantastic phalanx of Pinot, including a luscious 2018 Anderson Valley that the Wine Enthusiast gave 96 points to, which suggests not all ratings are ridiculous. The charm and warmth of this winemaking couple shines through in every bottle.

Staying in Mendo County, I also really relished the 2020 Maggy Hawk White Pinot Noir. You heard that right--they get the juice off the skins fast enough it stays light, but light isn't the world for the flavor or texture. Especially after all the traditional Pinots, this wine, with its elegant peach and exotic fruit notes is a palate re-awakener. (And here I should admit that I might have written about this wine after a previous WOPN for a different vintage, but it seemed like a new find again, so I'm sticking with that.)

Then there are the places who find their great grapes from a wide range of places, which gets us to Auteur. While based in Sonoma, winemaker Kenneth Juhasz and his COO wife Laura Juhasz cherry pick from the best fruit they can find, and the best they were pouring at WOPN came from Manchester Ridge in Anderson Valley. Two thousand foot elevation, coastal, super stressed small cluster fruit and one big, big wine laced with saline from the ocean influence. Yum.

Sticking in Sonoma I heartily enjoyed the "sister" projects Works & Days (I mean, who doesn't love a Hesiod reference? or, if you'd prefer, a Prufrock reference to the ancient Greek?) and Coursey Graves (note the names rhyme--how to win over a wine-loving poet). Cabell Coursey was a delight to talk with, as he described his winemaking--for one thing, they age in terracota amphora and only use natural yeast. So you really taste the wonder that is their vineyards, and while I quite liked Works & Days 2018 Spring Hill Vineyard Pinot--everything you want a Sonoma PN to be, fresh and full, deep and racy--what truly blew me away was the ringer under the table, the 2015 Coursey Graves Syrah. Their website aptly describes it this way: "This wine blends American bold richness with a European elegance and style. Explosive aromatics of violets and blueberry, and focused flavor of blackberry, licorice, and pepper, this wine will age for a decade or more." Somehow they resisted using any exclamation points; I scribbled a rarely-used 5 stars in my notebook.

One of the keys to navigating so much wine in one room is listening to friendly recs. That's how I ended up at the Cobb Wines table, after bumping into the always-good-to-see Matt Mauldin (who works for the Miller Family Wine Co.), thanks to his advice. Think cool climate Sonoma coastal vineyards, and then some special magic for the 2016 Diane Cobb Coastlands Vineyard Pinot. The Diane Cobb block is the heart of their family estate, and winemaker Ross couldn't mess up if he's going to name a wine after his mother, could he? Given he's worked at the likes of Willams Selyem and Flowers before starting his winery with his family, no. Wine & Spirits named it the year's best pinot, and they might be right.
One of the great fun parts of WOPN is discovering a wine regional's or sub-region you didn't know about, and that's the case with Eden Rift, tucked in the Cienega Valley AVA right up upon the San Andreas Faultline. It's got a more famous neighbor in Calera but it's making great wine on its own, which might not be a surprise given Eden Rift is the oldest continually producing vineyard in California, planted in 1849. Throughout their tasting line-up they offered racy, grippy wines with good minerality. I particularly liked the 2019 Estate Pinot Noir (you can't even buy on their website yet), coming from what they hailed as their favorite recent vintage.

Note one running theme of this post: most of the new finds are going to be out of Santa Barbara as I'm a bit more attuned to what's happening here, but not always. Hence, Piazza Family Wines. (I will not make Mets or Belle & Sebastian jokes. I will not make Mets or Belle & Sebastian jokes. I will not like you if you say the Mets are a joke.) Ron & Nancy Piazza planted the famed Mt. Carmel Vineyard that long sold fruit to stars like Greg Brewer and Rick Longoria, and then became co-partners in Mail Road (see the old friends post), but wanted even more of a presence in the winemaking community. So they bought what was the Harrison-Clarke Vineyard in Ballard Canyon, renamed it Bella Vista, and most importantly, hired Gretchen Volcker as their winemaker (she also makes her own wines as Luna Hart). While the Ballard Canyon property lets them make some Rhone varietals, at WOPN it was the Mt. Carmel Pinot that starred, especially the so good if still so young (so how great will it get?) 2020 Mt. Carmel PN, ridiculously concentrated yet lithe, and with that windswept wild quality the hilltop site lends to wines. All in a 12.9% package, too.

To end on a bit of a palate cleanser, thanks to its bubbles, let's consider the easy to glug Neighborhood, 2020 Sparkling Pinot Noir 'Pet Moon Red' from Pali. Now, chatting with the ever affable Aaron Walker helps make any wine go down, but this pet nat--and I know, I know, it's a favorite for trendies who don't know what's good, only what's hip (and what the heck do I know, I just used the word hip)--this one is actually good, bringing the fresh and delight with plenty of berry and potpourri power. And if you can't enjoy something a bit unusual, and a bit less fussy, why would you care about WOPN finds, anyway?

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