Meditations on a California Wine


I spent this afternoon drinking wine in Sonoma.

Really, any day that involves a statement like this can only be regarded as a Good one, a Day Worth Having.   This one was no different.  It involved a Deluxe Winery Tour, a picnic lunch with artichoke pesto panini, and a salad of heirloom tomatoes and little balls of mozarella.  And a couple quarts of Gatorade, because Sonoma is having a big heat wave.  It was a solid 95 degrees with bright blue cloudless skies.  The natives are saying “yes, that’s all very well and fine, but we’d like our fog and damp chill back, now, thank you very much.”  I wasn’t minding the heat, since it’s a Dry Heat, unlike the ghastly sauna we’ve been having back in New England, which is regrettably on the receiving end of a jet stream pumping the climate of the Gulf Coast directly up the east coast.  If I wanted to summer in Houston, I’d still be living there, thank you very much. It makes a world of difference when the shade is cooler than the blazing sun.  It’s not, if it’s humid enough.  And it has been.  Anyway, this was a rather more bearable 95 degrees than the 95 degrees I’m used to from recent memory.   That said, I wouldn’t at all mind if it was a good 10 or 15 degrees cooler.  I’d prefer it if the chocolate didn’t actively melt in my purse when I walk from the car into a building.

The chocolate belongs to Roy.  The wine tasting guru poured up a short taste of port and suggested filtering it through a piece of dark chocolate.  The experience led Roy to feel that he had died and gone to heaven, and we wound up with the chocolate, if not the port.  Our inn supplies port. This, clearly, is one of the delicious benefits of recreating in Wine Country: one never has to look very far for a glass of wine, and it’s usually a good, interesting wine, and also typically not something to be found in the local packy back in New England.  New England has wineries of its own.  This is a different kind of interesting.

The wineries we were at today use a biodynamic approach. Learning about this was absolutely fascinating. Water conservation is the least of it. They sow cover crops in between the vines over the winter partly to protect the terracing from late winter floods, but mostly so they can turn the flock of sheep loose in there and have them 1) fertilize all the terraces by crapping on them, and 2) make baby sheep, who have sharp hooves and like to run around, which pokes holes in the dirt and churns the fertilizer in AND aerates the soil simultaneously. Then they’ve got nesting boxes for various birds of prey to eat the gophers and moles and stuff like that. And they have a small wetland that they use for 1) filtering the greywater coming off the hills and used in operations and 2) providing an attractive nuisance for the obnoxious bugs, which has the added advantage of concentrating them in a fairly small area of the vineyard where 3) the carnivorous insects that are also attracted by the wetland can eat them, as can the bats and the other birds that they encourage to nest in the vineyard. They even have fruit trees here and there that are intended to provide a steady stream of rotting fruit to ensure that the aforementioned carnivorous insects stick around. Lots of stuff like this.  I love this kind of comprehensive, 360-degree thinking.  I wish there was more of that in the Business World. We’d all be the better off for it.

As a not-totally-collateral benefit, I’ll say this winery has the only decent pinot noir I’ve ever had out of California. Until now, I’ve been VERY STRONGLY of the opinion that the ONLY winemakers in the US who Truly Understand the pinot noir grape are all in Oregon. The winery employee leading the tour actually agreed with me on this, and said that the California winemakers had really had to back the hell off of what they thought they knew and listen to the winemakers from Oregon before a decent pinot could be produced. A good pinot noir is earthy, leathery, and (to my personal preference) downright skunky in aroma, and delicate – if you can use this term in the same sentence with the word “skunky”.  If you know Oregon pinot noirs, this will all make sense.  If you don’t know Oregon pinot noirs, you should.

Your typical Californial pinot noir, historically at least, is instead a hard, sharp, big, crystalline kind of thing that seems like it wants to be a cabernet.  On the topic of cabernets, I will grant the California winemakers and absolute stochastic dominance over the rest of the continent, and possibly, over the rest of the world.  If I want a cab, I head for California without thinking.  But to try to make a pinot into a cab is, put simply, a tragedy in progress.  Or, possibly, it’s a disgrace.  Or an event of extraordinary sadness.  Yiddish, of course, has exactly the term:  it’s a shande.  Pronounced “SHAN-duh” – just so you know how to say it next time you realized you need this word.  And there will be a “next time”.

I remember watching “Sideways” – the movie with Sandra Oh and Paul Giamatti – and thinking that Giamatti’s character was perhaps one of the greatest tragic complete losers I’d ever witnessed anywhere.  And that impression was only strengthened by the discovery that he was hot on the trail of the California pinot noir.  “California pinot noir?!?!?” I said.  Cabernet, that I can understand.  Chardonnay, even, although this was still in the tag-end of the era of the Super Oaks.  Even merlot, although if I wanted a superb version of that I’d head for Washington State or France.  But pinot?  It just reinforced was a loser he was.  In my eyes.  For most of the last twenty years, ever since I found out about the Oregon pinots – especially the ones from the Wilammette Valley – someone offers me a California pinot, I say “Thanks, no thanks, how about a cab.”

So today, when we were confronted with a pouring of pinot from this Sonoma winery, my first response was “oh, dear.”

But then, as part of the Wine Tasting Ritual, we aerated the wine and took a good sniff.  Imagine my surprise when instead of the aggressive tannins and acids I’ve grown used to from a California pinot I was instead graced with a nuanced earthiness…I dare say…with overtones of Skunk.  “Hey, what?” I said.  I could hardly wait to taste it, and was thrilled to be greeted with a proper pinot flavor, not the cutting glassy edge of the old-school California version of the same.  Now, it wasn’t as good as the Willamette Valley pinots.  Not by a long shot.  But it was identifiably a member of that variety.

I spoke of this to the guy leading the tasting, and told him that I’d basically been Bracing Myself over the pinot, because I’m very finicky about pinots, and regard Oregon wines as being the only pinots worth drinking.  That would include French pinot noirs too, by the way.  And how I felt that the California ones were either like razor blades, too sharp and metallic, or like wannabe cabernets, not worth the name.  I’m afraid it was one step above the “I’m not an expert but I know what I like” conversation.  I’m not an expert on wine.  My sense of smell has taken a heavy beating from allergies over the last forty-odd years, and isn’t worth much as a result.  That messes with my sense of taste, too.  I can walk through a spruce forest after a rain with the warm sun blazing down on it, and every hundred feet or so I might – if I’m very lucky – get the tiniest whiff of the aromatic paradise I’m moving through.  Roy, on the other hand, has the olfactory sense of a dog.  Maybe not a bloodhound, but they’re mightily acute.  I don’t know how he keeps from passing out over the sheer joy of it all sometimes.  Anyway, given that my sense of smell is, at best, impaired, and my sense of taste cannot be regarded as particularly acute, there is no way on earth that I could ever develop anything like an Expertise in wine.  At best, I have an Interest.  And, as we can see here, an opinion.

So I’m rolling this out, all with the knowledge that I’m probably speaking Blackest Heresy, criticizing California pinot noirs in California.  When, to my surprise, the tasting guide says “Oh, yes.”  And comments on that earthiness, and agrees about the skunkiness, AND that the California pinot has been abused.   And observes that the primary reason, in his opinion, that the pinot I’ve just tasted is worth a first, second, and third look, involves this biodynamic viticulture.  “It’s the earth” he says.  “That, and winemakers accepting the grape for its strengths, instead of attempting to make it into something it’s not.”

Hallelujah.  This is great news, because in the years since I have discovered the Oregon pinot, loads of other people have too, and now they are extremely difficult to obtain.  I remember a time when I’d have my choice, in any random wine cellar, of six or seven profoundly excellent Oregon pinots, and at reasonable price points too.  Now?  If you can find them, they’re priced into the stratosphere.  They’ve been Discovered.  I harbor the bitter suspicion that the New York Times has something to do with this.  I can’t prove it, but I’m sure it’s there.  In any event, now that some California winemakers are working with the strengths of this grape instead of continually playing to its weaknesses, I entertain the hope that I will once again be able to lay my hands – consistently – on a good domestic pinot noir.  At least, now I know where I can mail-order one from.



About Lori Holder-Webb

I'm a Southern Woman by birth and a Texan Woman by upbringing...and yet I find myself living in New England and married to a New York City boy. Up here we use the same currency as we do at home, and I don't need to travel with a passport, but the commonalities pretty much end there. The language is different, the jokes are different, the people are different, and the weather and terrain sure are different too. I moved away from Texas in 2002, and ever since then, I've been the stranger in the strange land... I've had some questions about the name of the blog - if you were not alive, or living abroad or under a rock, or in grad school during the late 1980s, Oldsmobile attempted to shuck its stodgy image with a series of commercials intended to bring brand appeal to the younger generation: this car, they said, is not your father's Oldsmobile. If you have a morbid curiosity, hit YouTube for William Shatner will take you right there.

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