July 12, 2005

Tasting More New Releases from Oregon

Another tasting at Liner and Elsen, the best wine shop in Portland hands down. Four local producers with the winemakers pouring the wines, no charge. Oregon still has something other wine areas don’t, intimacy. The wines today were mixed, only one really nice white but some delicious, if flashy, pinot noir. But talking with the winemakers, one thing is clear – these wines are made with heart and passion.

Thibaud Mandet from Willakenzie first poured the 2004 Pinot Blanc, a lean, lemony smelling wine but a weird possibly lactic flavor. The 2004 Pinot Gris was better, but still showed little dimension amid the typical alcoholic heat of the grape. The 2002 Pinot Noir Pierre Léon smelled like French oak barrels and tasted a little too much like them too. The 2002 Pinot Noir Aliette was less smoky with black cherry flavors and caramelly oak sweetness. The 2002 Pinot Noir Emery is the biggest aromatically, with a silky texture and a long toasty finish that pleases. Mandet described the vineyard differences for each wine, with the Emery being a blend of barrels. I like these wines despite their style, they don’t necessarily suggest aging well but who knows?

Mark Vlossak was pouring from St. Innocent, talking passionately about the nuance in his wines. The 2003 Pinot Gris Shea Vineyard showed some barrel notes with a yeasty almost beery flavor, very strange to this taster. The 2003 Chardonnay Anden Vineyard showed too much French oak on the nose, though Vlossak suggested a connection to Chassagne Montrachet. There was some mint on the nose, I thought. Overall it seemed a bit raw, but perhaps worthy of aging. The 2003 Pinot Noir Temperance Hill smelled pretty with black cherry flavors and wood spice mixed in, simple but tasty. Vlossak suggested barbecue, which sounded very good to me. And the 2003 Pinot Noir Shea Vineyard, this was damn good Shea, which usually gives overly soft, flaccid wines. This smelled broadly but with nice floral elements, and tasted similar with a firm but gentle texture and good length. This is nice Oregon Pinot Noir.

Jay Somers from J. Christopher poured the 2004 Chardonnay "Cuvée Lunatique" that is labeled "no oak/no malo." It was a pretty, clean wine with fat, clean apple chardonnay flavors, perfectly fine but just that. The 2004 Sauvignon Blanc Croft Vineyard was another story, captivating with a lively grassy melony sauvignon aroma and a clean, crisp flavor and lime finish. Terrifically tangy wine. The 2003 Pinot Noir Charlie’s Vineyard smells simple with black cherry notes but tastes nice with big but winey flavors and a nicely chalky texture of young wine. The 2003 Rosso Applegate Valley is a mutt and tastes sweetly fruity in a happy way, but is ultimately tiring to drink.

Finally, the winemaker at Brooks, whose name I forget and who has taken over for the late Jimi Brooks. The 2004 Riesling was nondescript, somewhat neutral wine with little riesling character. The 2003 Pinot Noir Janus was translucent in color but showed lots of barrel in the aroma and flavor, lots of caramelly notes. The 2003 Pinot Noir Rastaban is a hyper barrel selection, afreak show sort of wine, but it’s really interesting for the style. Big wild berry aroma, impressive stuff with large scaled flavors, chalky and gentle tannins but some alcohol on the palate. Not an elegant wine for sure, but delicious. Of course I missed the final wine, the NV Riesling Late Harvest Tethys, but I heard it was sweet and petroly, which sounded nice.

July 08, 2005

Review: A Very Good Year by Mike Weiss

I just finished reading the recently released book A Very Good Year by Mike Weiss, the story of one vintage of Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc from its origins in the vineyard through the winery and into the marketplace. Fume Blanc of course being a marketing term typically used in California for oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc.

Weiss is a fine writer who, despite being an admitted wine neophyte, captures pretty accurately the trials and tribulations of modern wine production in California. Yet the book is puzzling more for its inspiration than its delivery. The story of Ferrari-Carano is hardly inspiring. Rather, it’s essentially the story of a con, where the producer goes to great lengths to create the illusion of hand crafted, limited production wine produced in an setting of old world grace when the truth is anything but.

Wealthy from the “gaming” industry, Don and Rhonda Carano brought their vision of El Dorado from Reno, NV, to Sonoma County, CA, in the 1980s. The quickly established a reputation for noteworthy white wines, particularly Fumé Blanc that has since become ubiquitous in fancy restaurants the world over. Years have passed and now there’s a Villa designed by Rhonda for quasi-high class hospitality. But there’s conflict underneath the easy appearance of wine country living.

Weiss admirably tells this story through the people of Ferrari-Carano. We meet the vineyard manager and his crew of Mexican laborers who travel north each year from their homes in Mexico. We meet the winery staff, led by an exacting if slightly paranoid head winemaker. And we meet some of the operations staff, and of course the owners, Don and Rhonda. But even with some unexpected drama during the year, not much really happens and this reader at least is left wondering – why a book about Ferrari-Carano at all?

Maybe if the Caranos truly focused on quality instead of telling a fake “story” that leaves out the mechanical harvesters, manipulative winemaking practices, and year over year mediocrity, or should I say consistency, they’d have more to be proud of and less seemingly to hide. I’d start by cropping less than 7 to 8 tons of grapes per vineyard acre. It’s no wonder they fret endlessly about quality and end up canceling their plans for a “Reserve” Fumé Blanc when most of their production is, in one former winemaking assistant’s word, crap.

I commend Weiss for writing neither a puff piece for the wine industry or some two-bit hachet job. He clearly wants to expose the reality underneath the romantic façade of wine production, and he succeeds. But why not tell the story of a bottle of handcrafted wine through a more honest vehicle? Or tell the story of the wine business through a more compelling example? Ferrari-Carano is neither, instead it’s just another wine you can find more and more at discounters that the industry uses to make average wine go away.

I won’t spoil the story (too much) except to ask, where did the title come from? It wasn’t a very good year at all, and despite being a perfectly decent summer read for the average bear, this isn’t a very good book. But strangely enough, if you want to read it for free and don’t have a blog to which publishers now apparently send review copies, check out http://www.sfgate.com/columns/grape/archive/ for the original San Francisco Chronicle 39-part series titled “Grape: The Making of California’s Wine” that was repackaged into this handsome Gotham Books edition.