Thursday, March 9, 2023

World of Pinot Noir 2023: Old Friends

Excessive and obsessive at once, World of Pinot Noir features over 175 wineries all focused (in theory, as there is always a stray chardonnay or pet nat or cab franc under some kind winemaker's table) on one stinking grape. Sure, pinot noir goes by other names, and let's not even get into clonal variations, of which there are over 40, many of which pourers will proudly enumerate for you as they splash your glass. But, c'mon, it's much ado about one varietal. I know more than one winemaker who shakes their heads sadly about the event, even if they make a pinot themselves.

So why does this annual spectacular, for many years running (when Covid allows) held at the ocean-side wonder that is the Bacara, continually enchant? Sure, it's true of other varietals, but pinot comes in many styles, seductive, elegant, brooding, so it's a wine for your many moods. Pinot is finicky and hard-to-grow, and we all love our problem children. Pinot is one of the most versatile food wines, profligate in its qualities that lead to perfect parings (salmon? Santa Maria tri-tip? sure!). Pinot is perfume, pinot is place. 

WOPN underlines all of that, especially in the Friday and Saturday Grand Tastings. This year, instead of emphasizing terroir by grouping wineries by region, each day was an alphabetical zag and zig of tables. Where you wind up, no one knows, as going in you realize you can't drink it all. So you visit familiar folks, especially when winemakers themselves are pouring. And you visit wineries you never heard of as it's good to expand your vinous horizons. And sometimes you just go to way more Oregon wineries than usual, as your +1 for the day has a daughter in college there. Reasons don't always rhyme.

With all that out of the way, let's get tasting. Last year I hit on the division of Old Friends/New Finds as an organization principle and I liked it so much, it's back this year. Consider it a tradition. I mean, it that's better than the weird post when I did parody of a Larry King column, no?

Speaking of king Larrys, of course I visited tercero's table to see where Larry Schaffer's pinot project was at two years in. Schaffer never lets his winemaking muse get bored--he's got 34 different wines for sale on his website right now, from Clairette Blanche to a carbonic Mourvèdre--and the new 2021 Pinot goes into bottle this week, so we were getting a barrel tasting. He insisted it was "just an inkling of what it was going to be," but a fine inkling it was, all fruit from Kessler-Haak. He only makes fascinating wine, and this Sta. Rita Hills gem is rich and promising.

Rich and delivering was the word across the board with tiny Montemar's production. This one-time garagiste operation currently produces upwards of 1,200 cases a year, still relatively small potatoes, but they get grapes from some of Santa Barbara's best sites. Take their standout 2016 Barrel Select--note they let wines sit a bit--made from 50% Radian and 50% Bentrock grapes. Such wildness and power from the far western end of SRH.

Another bottle singing at its slightly-aged peak was Seagrape's 2015 Mermaid's Pearl. It's no surprise Karen Steinwachs makes terrific wine, but this barrel select, made only in the years she thinks the vintage is worthy of the project, had a perfume and a depth they could lead one to drown. Oh, yeah, mermaid!

Age might be one of the keys when it comes to old friends, after all, as was very clear with the 3L format 2013 Pisoni Paul Lato was pouring at his table. Lato loves going big and old at WOPN, and it's a clever way to show off the structure of his wines. Refined but still with plenty of zingy black cherry fruit, this pinot offers a complexity, minerality, and floral lift that is lovely. 

I was going to try to leave out too much bragging about the glories of the media room, where about 100+ wines await journalistic contemplation, but did have to mention the Fiddlehead 2011 Fiddelstix in magnum that waited for us there. Press isn't really worthy of such goodness, the age giving the wine more earthiness and a soupçon of mushroom. Time is very good to some of us, as long as some of us are wine.

As classic pinot old-timers go, it's hard to beat Willams Selyem, and I've been a proud and glad member of their mailing list since the 1990s at this point. (I am old, too, you see.) They were pouring two of their still young but far from shy 2021s--their Russian River Valley blend from 10 vineyards and their Westside Neighbors. The first offered brightness, freshness, and some whole cluster punch, singing a song from basso to tenor. The Westside Neighbors got by on its aromatics, a big bunch of blueberry, and a stony long finish. Sometimes the classics are hard to deny.

Not that you shouldn't mess around with things, as Aaron Walker can attest to at Pali. Over Pali's brands they now make 50 different wines, and one that stood out was the 2021 Wild Series Sta. Rita Hills Pinot. Created primarily for restaurant lists and wine shops, the Wild Series wines (there's a Chardonnay, an orange and a rosé) are meant to move thanks to their pricing and accessibility and natural fermentation, neutral oak, hands-off approach. Turns out if you start with great grapes, everything will be fine.

And to segue towards the New Finds post, it seems fitting to stop at the Bonaccorsi table. Wine, of course, is memory, and in many ways each sip is its own elegy--singing its last praises as you down it. The tragic loss of Mike Bonaccorsi in 2004 could have been the end of the winery too, but first his wife Jenne Lee did more than carry on, and now Mike's brothers Rich and Joe are in charge. So when you're told the 2019 Fiddlestix is Joe's first wine "tip to tail," you know it's a moment of continuation, transition, and most importantly, beauty. To quote Jeb Dunnuck: "Smells and tastes complex, every sniff and sip revealing something else: intense raspberry, white pepper, watermelon, green tea, red licorice, kumquat, button mushrooms. An almost ethereal weight in the mouth; very lively and bright and beautifully textured, with a hard candy essence to some of the fruit, and a saline minerality toward the firm, tight finish."

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