January 13, 2013

Sea level, with California wine

A big sky at sea level
I was lucky enough to grow up by the sea in Los Angeles and spend much of my adolescence, in the water. At sea level.

It was only years later after I'd moved away that I realized what sea level really means to me. I was sitting on the shore of an island in the Puget Sound, surprised I could see the whole of Mt. Rainier, all the way to its peak nearly three miles in the sky. You don't get to see the whole of a mountain very often.

But here I was at sea level, and the thought struck me that there  isn't really another place where I can see things, even the largest things, with such clarity. And I thought of growing up, being in the sea, floating on the water on a surfboard, waiting, which surfing is so much about. It gives you time to think, time to try to see things more clearly.

In the end, the thought wasn't so literal. I live in Portland, essentially at sea level, but that's not what this is about. These days, I can find myself at sea level in many places - the vineyard and winery among them. Maybe it's with a person. But there's no place for me like the ocean where I grew up.

On a recent visit to LA I took my usual trips down to the water, into the water, where everything slows down for me. Complicated things, surprises, make more sense here. I always want to stay longer than I can and I promise myself I'll return sooner than I might. It had been a year and a half since the last visit, too long.

Maybe it was the influence of all that, but I did manage some new clarity on the wine front this past visit. My wine loving friend of the Valentini Trebbiano and Chave Hermitage Blanc gifted me a pair of California bottles he said I had to try, wines that don't taste like so much of what's made California's reputation in recent years.

I'd heard a lot about both producers, Anthill Farms and Arnot-Roberts, but hadn't had the chance to try either. Wow, sometimes things really do live up to the hype.

First, the 2010 Anthill Farms Pinot Noir Campbell Ranch Sonoma Coast. This is Pinot noir more in common with Oregon than most of what I know of California.

The wine was medium ruby in color with an expressive aroma of cranberry, raspberry, light toast, old wood, all pleasantly herbal and very Pinot. The flavors followed, with piquant cranberry and raspberry notes, green peppercorn, earthy and savory with a worsted tannin texture and bright acidity, quite good if needing time to become more complex. The wine did seem a touch fizzy but showed no real unclean flavors, definitely a little sauvage tasting though. California Pinot really worth paying attention to. I'm the last to find out, but still, it's clear to me now.

A few nights later we opened the 2011 Arnot-Roberts Syrah North Coast, listed at 12.9% alcohol by volume. What a beautiful crimson color with an incredible perfume of peppery green olive, raspberry and rose aromas, very complete and expressive. More of that nice worsted tannin texture, quite a bit of tannin but not too much, with lots of whole cluster herbal character, raspberry, mineral, old wood, lovely texture but needing time to resolve. This was delicious California Syrah, impressive without trying to be, if that makes sense. Again, wine that's transparent, that brings clarity. This is what California can really be about.

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