Monday, March 4, 2024

California Crows a Cru

Look out Chambertin, Corton, Échezeaux, Montrachet, and Romanée-Conti, for Sanford & Benedict, Bien Nacido, Pisoni, Gap's Crown, and Savoy are coming for you. That was the mild boast in Friday morning's World of Pinot Noir seminar "The New 'Grand Cru' of California," even if chipper moderator David Glancy admitted right off, "There's no such thing, we're making it up." That didn't stop Glancy, however, from saying, as the fun and fact filled two hours came to a conclusion, "If there can be thirty-three Grand Cru in Burgundy, which is much smaller, why not two hundred Grand Cru along the much larger California coast?" Certainly the evidence in the 10 glasses the audience got to taste would suggest he could be right.

Obviously anyone attending an event like WOPN in a place like the coast-hugging splendor of the Bacara might be a tad prejudicial about the value of California grape juice. (Writer meekly raises his hand.) But the very nature of even suggesting a Grand Cru designation means you'll encounter a veritable greatest hits--this session wasn't as much about surprise as affirmation. (The market also implies worthiness--almost all the wines retail for a hefty $90.) The ten wines/sites were split evenly mid-state:

Central Coast
Sanford 2019 Block 6, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
Bien Nacido 2021 Estate, Santa Maria Valley
Talley 2021 Rosemary's Vineyard, Arroyo Grande Valley
Pisoni 2021 Pisoni Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands
Mount Eden 2019 Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains 

North Coast
Hyde 2019 Estate, Carneros, Napa
Three Sticks 2021 Gap's Crown, Sonoma Coast
Merry Edwards 2021 Meredith Estate Vineyard, Russian River Valley
Red Car 2021 Estate, Fort Ross-Seaview
Walt 2017 Savoy Vineyard, Anderson Valley

This write-up would be nearly as long as the seminar itself if I took you through the tasting and comments about each of the wines, which feature a talented and well-spoken panel of winemakers, GMs, and farm managers. But here are some the highlights:

*Yep, whenever anyone talks about why Santa Barbara County is a great place for grapes, the free space on the SB Bingo Card has to be "transverse mountain range." Not only did Laura Hughes from Sanford mention it right off, Anthony Avila from Bien Nacido also refered to this key topography. And then other locations tried to explain that, while they lacked the atypical east-west ranges that allow for cooling ocean air to help lengthen SB grape hang times, they had something else that was analogous: Santa Lucia Hills has a north-south wind route off Monterey Bay, according to Mark Pisoni; Ryan Prichard of Three Sticks noted Gap's Crown had the Petaluma Gap working as "Sonoma County's air conditioner."

*As with the French Grand Cru, almost of all the suggested California Grand Cru sites sell grapes to various winemakers, so it's fascinating to see how prized grapes can have different expressions through different techniques. Alison Frichtl of Walt Wines was perhaps luckiest of all--while for the panel she discussed Anderson Valley's Savoy Vineyard, she also has the opportunity to work with fruit from several of the other sites, too, including Gap's Crown and the Sta. Rita Hills. (Note: It's good to have a billionaire couple own your wine company.)

*Wine folks love to talk dirty. By that I mean soil is super important to them, which is no surprise. Terroir might refer to all the environmental factors one grows grapes in, but the root of the French word refers to lands. Pinot Noir evidently likes less hospitable dirt, and the new word of the day for me was chert, an oxidized silica that you can torture vines in, just enough, in the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. 

*If vineyards aren't organic already, everyone seems to be headed that way. Win, planet Earth!

*Disasters are the mother of invention. (Therefore Frank Zappa = Disaster) Sonoma's devastating fires of 2020 led to many wineries dumping their smoke-infused grapes. At Merry Edwards winemaker Heidi von der Meyden opted to pick early instead, a full 2 Brix lower than she usually would at the Meredith Estate Vineyard. Turned out it was a beautiful wine. So that's when she picks that vineyard ever since.

* Whether we care to bandy about the term Grand Cru or not, Pinot is here to stay. In 1960, California had 531 acres of the grape. In 2022, that number was over 47,000 acres. 

*You can have pretty much any background to end up sitting on a panel at WOPN as a vinous expert. Some folks got into the business the old fashioned way--family. (Thanks, dad!) Some entered through the world of hospitality, getting the bug while serving and drinking wine. Some were scientists wanting to do something non-theoretical. Often travel was involved. Sure, many of them wound up at Cal Poly or UC Davis to study wine, but a degree wasn't a be all, end all.

*The range of deliciousness is great for Grand Cru Pinot. Sometimes there's more saline, sometimes more earth. Sometimes more cranberry, sometimes sarsaparilla. Sometimes a nervous energy, sometimes a plush elegance. Sometimes a hint of mint, sometimes a pop of black pepper. 

All of the time, though, these California Pinots delighted. So call them whatever you want, just be sure to have me over if you pop any of their corks.

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