Quest: Pinot Meunier

April 22, 2012

La Rochelle has released two vintages of Pinot Meunier from the Four Sisters Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast appellation, and each has been very well received. In 2011 a communication gap, the size of the Grand Canyon, prevented us from getting fruit from this site…both in 2011 and forever after.

We have been searching for a site since then and may have found one in Saralee’s Vineyard in the Russian River Valley.

Pinot Meunier is a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir, named for the fine white hairs that look like flour growing on the underside of the vine’s leaf (Meunier means Miller in French). The wine is Pinot Noir’s rustic country cousin…Mary Ann to Pinot Noir’s Ginger. It is overladen with wonderful plummy fruit, great aromatics, and is a wonderful accompaniment to all kinds of food.

There were just over 300 tons of Meunier produced in California in 2011…the vast majority used for Sparkling wine. Meunier is one of the classic Champagne varieties. That leaves a very small number of tons that are used to make red, still wine from. Hence the difficulty in finding available fruit.

Saralee’s Vineyard is a gorgeous site right on River Road in the heart of the Russian River Valley appellation. In fact, if you look at a map of the appellation, it is nearly dead center. The 260-acre vineyard was planted in 1989 to over 60 different varieties. Now, the count is down to 17 different grapes, Pinot Meunier comprising just over 3 acres.

There a number of issues to overcome, but our love for the grape is intense so we will keep working on it. Hopefully in the next 18 months we will be talking about how well the wine from the site is coming along.

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The Grand Cru Collection

April 22, 2012

Based upon historical geography alone, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the perfect partners. They’ve occupied the same general stretch of land in the northern part of France for centuries. For decades in California, it was Cabernet that most wineries offered as the counterweight to Chardonnay, and here, those two grapes will grow together suitably.

I would argue – though – that it is in the really cool climates (Regions I and II) that Chardonnay is elevated from a drinkable (often sweet, nearly ubiquitous) white wine to an ethereal, transparent, magical vehicle of acid and electricity. If those adjectives don’t sound appetizing, you’ve been drinking the wrong Chardonnay.

The 2010 vintage saw La Rochelle contracting for fruit from three of the most highly regarded Chardonnay vineyards in California: Rosella’s Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands; Ferrington Vineyard in Anderson Valley and Dutton-Morelli Lane Vineyard in Green Valley of Russian River Valley. And one Pinot Noir from a (the?) world-class site in the Carneos appellation: Donum Estate vineyard.  Our intent, with the “Grand Cru Collection” is to make small lots of significantly great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from significantly great sites farmed by significantly great farmers.

Late Afternoon in Rosella's Vineyard - 2011

Like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay comes in many clonal forms. As with Pinot too, it is the there there that should reveal the truth of the wine. Providing, of course, a winemaker confident enough in his own ability (in this case, to know when NOT to do too much), the whereness  of a great grape like Chardonnay will provide much of the winemaking guidance.

Above all, a wine should be balanced. There should be a sense of momentum through the mouth too. Balance is about fruit and acid and wood and tannin working in harmony (not necessarily of equal measure) to create a sense of beauty and inevitability. While balance might be understood as the Apollonian father, Momentum is about Dionysus; it is what puts the sex in sex-appeal

We know that wine is a living thing. What should be explicit in this, but is often unacknowledged, is that living = energy = purpose. If only in the microcosm of one’s mouth, there should be an energy inherent in the wine (its Momentum) and a purposefulness as it moves from lip to gullet (its Balance). The best of wines tell a complete story. But they are not easy stories. They sometimes take a lifetime of re-telling before the point is finally won and the magic revealed.

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Over the last half-dozen years, Rosella’s Vineyard has become one of the indisputable stars of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. Located approximately midway in the appellation, this vineyard is planted to a variety of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones. Owned and farmed by Gary Franscioni, Rosella’s provides fruit for some of the best producers of these burgundian varieties. We bought a couple of tons in 2010 of  the Dijon 76 clone for this Grand Cru Collection Chardonnay.

Nearly 240 miles north of the Santa Lucia Highlands is the town of Boonville in the Anderson Valley appellation. There on the east side of the main road through this stretch of Mendocino County is the Ferrington Vineyard. Planted to several clones of Chardonnay, including the Robert Young clone (the fruit we took in 2010) this south-facing vineyard has provided grapes for some of the great marks in California wine.

Creating the western-most angle of our Grand Cru Collection triangle is the Dutton-Morelli Lane Vineyard where we harvest the Hyde Selection of Chardonnay. Located in the Green Valley of Russian River Valley, Morelli Lane in home to both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And as often happens when a vineyard owner is in love with a particular variety even though it wouldn’t seem suited to the area, old vine Zinfandel. Managed by the renowned Russian River Valley growers, the Dutton family, this vineyard was planted in 1995 (they reinvigorated the 1.5 Zinfandel block that was originally planted in 1935).

The Donum Estate Vineyard was once part of the iconic Buena Vista vineyard planting in the southern-most part of Sonoma County: the Los Carneros appellation. Anne Moller-Racke, the President and Vineyard Manager of the eponymous brand has been growing Pinot Noir for nearly than 30 years. Her team is dedicated to growing world-class fruit, and her invitation to source fruit from her site (we are the only other winery to have this honor) was an affirmation of all the work we have put into making great wines from this fickle grape. Since our first vintage in 2009, we have been getting fruit that comes from a mix of burgundian clones that is called the Donum Selection. This wine has a richness and elegance and depth that elevate it above an already stellar lineup of Pinot Noirs that Tom Stutz has shepherded to magnificence. There is a transcendence to this wine’s seriousness…to its self-possession and layers of flavor. This is a wine that will take years to tell its story…but I am sure the story will be filled with swordplay and love; dragons and timeless devotion.

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With these wines, as with all of our Grand Cru Collection offerings, Tom Stutz has marshaled experience and fruit sources and vision  to create wines of balance and momentum and magic. Made in extremely small volumes, the Grand Cru Collection continues La Rochelle’s growth toward iconic status. As with all of our wines, the Grand Cru Collection wines are after greatness.

Under the heading of “there is no wrong answer,” I realized – while writing notes on about 25 different Cabernet barrels the other day – that I am an emotional taster…or at least an emotional tasting note writer.

Larded among descriptions of tannin and mid-palate structure, fruit intensity and aromatic purity were a ton of words and phrases that related to the quality of those experiences…”gorgeous,” “great,” “meaningful,” and how  those organoleptic-specific sensations made me feel. I may have even cried once or twice..(just kidding!?).

I’m just curious. When you are tasting for the purpose of evaluation, do you cry or not?

Lineage and Faulkner

April 14, 2012

I just finished re-reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and was struck again by the beauty of the language, the uncanniness of characters and the fluidity and the multi-directionality of Time’s arrow.

And we’d sit in the dry leaves that whispered a little with the slow respiration of our waiting and with the slow breathing of the earth and the windless October, the rank smell of the lantern fouling the brittle air, listening to the dogs and to the echo of Louis’ voice dying away. He never raised it, yet on a still night we have heard it from our front porch. When he called the dogs in he sounded just like the horn he carried slung on his shoulder and never used, but clearer, mellower, as though his voice were a part of darkness and silence, coiling out of it, coiling into it again. 

Steven at Faulkner's Rowan Oak residence

That is beautiful stuff…

Deeply woven into the gorgeous prose of this book is the one central leitmotiv: dissolution. Whether it is under the weight of history, prosaic greed, a longing for a chivalric code  that doesn’t exist anymore, all of the major characters (except, notably, one) are borne off on the tides of time into nothingness.

The lone exception is Dilsey. The true matriarch of the family, and the witness to the generations of madness that culminate over the roughly twenty years chronicled in the novel in Quentin’s suicide, Caddy’s promiscuity, Benjy’s institutionalization, and Jason’s financial ruin. It is Dilsey we see caring for the “idiot” Benjy (most memorably in the church sermon scene toward the end of the book); making sure that Caddy’s illegitimate daughter, Quentin, is not harmed by Jason, and taking over the role of “mother” for the white and black families described in the book.

In an appendix that Faulkner wrote 16 years after the original publication of the novel, he explains what

Faulkner Statue - Oxford, MS

happened to the major characters, a sort of Where Are They Now reckoning. The explications are of varying lengths, pages for the Compson children, paragraphs for Dilsey’s kin. For Dilsey herself, there is only her name followed by a period then a new paragraph consisting of They endured. 

There are many readers who believe that They endured is Dilsey’s epitaph, that this denotation describes her adamantine nature; that she is, indeed, a force of nature. I think the reality is different. I think that her epitaph is the period itself. For the Compson family and this bit of Mississippi history, Dilsey is not only adamantine, but also inevitable. She is a part of the Compson experience, the family history. But there is also the sense that she transcends the purely personal evocation to become a symbol of the steadfastness that outlasts the emotionality of the family  saga, the region’s history, and the region itself . Only she, among the time-lost, lost-to-time Compsons rises above the temporal; she is a fixed pin in the flow of time; a maternal symbol, Mother Earth herself. Dilsey is ineluctably connected to her place and time. Her presence is so necessary that the place and time would cease to exist without her.

Faulkner - a fan of Burgundy

Because I have the blessing and curse to reduce practically every encounter to how it informs my chosen passion, it in the character of Dilsey that I see Lineage, my flagship blend. The great brands…the Bordeaux First Growths, Grange from Australia, Harlan Estate and Ridge Montebello from California have achieved – through their longevity and quality – a certain inevitability that transcends individual vintages, maybe even transcends “wine” itself. They belong to the great flow of Time now. This is my goal for Lineage…that it both overcomes and belittles my desires for it…that it becomes meaning itself.

Terroir as Excuse

April 5, 2012

There are special wine places. These sites are situated more favorably to wind and sun, the dirt is better, the variety is perfect, the winemaker has a vision that is in accord with the natural conditions.  This combination of place, dirt, wind, sun, winemaker is the terroir of the site, the whyness of place.

There’s been a lot of chatter on the web recently about natural winemaking.  There is no real definition of what is  “natural” about those wines or the process, nor what makes some winemaking unnatural. Because of a lack of specificity there is every chance that the term will soon devolve into a meaningless marketing slogan, saying nothing in its commodiousness.

There is generally one aspect about which most producers agree and that is the desire to let the terroir of the vineyard show through the wine as purely as possible by manipulating the wine as little as possible. For these producers, purity of wine – underscoring of terroir – comes about by strictly minimizing the use of additives of any kind – including sulfur – throughout the production process. Sulfites occur naturally during fermentation, but they are not present generally in high enough concentration to protect a wine from spoilage yeasts or the ravages of time over the long term.

And while I can understand the holistic desire to let Nature takes its course, to reduce the human footprint, in other words; I can’t understand the idea that one would allow a potentially flawed product to be sold when the means for producing a sound one have been proven and are easily reproducible. These kind of wines are worse than the clotheslessness of the Emperor…in the latter case, the dude was just naked, in the former the choice to leave the wines open to all manner of microbial spunk is being dressed up as some kind of virtue.

Ironically, the net effect of runaway Brett contamination and other microbiologic challenges, so easily eliminated with the judicious use of natural additives, is the obviation of the supposed rationale for making these kinds of wines in the first place. For what shows through in the end – in fact overwhelms all that is pure and of the place – is that flaw.

Terroir is about balance as much as it is about anything else. When dogma gets in the way of pragmatism and results in unbalanced, de-terroired wines, it is the consumer that ends up paying for the mistake.