Syrah In My Pinot

The recent brouhaha over at Palate Press starting with an offhand Twitter comment by wine blogger Remy Charest and ending (maybe) with an article by winemaker Adam Lee of Siduri called up the frequent under-the-breath reference insinuating many California Pinot Noirs are so big due a dollop of syrah. It’s rather a silly idea if you think about it. Why? It’s already there, no not the syrah, but the syrah character. No additions are necessary.

All of this just shows the misconceptions of both writers and winemakers. Writers think California Pinot is so big because they put syrah in it while winemakers think they need to put syrah in their pinot to make it big enough to make the writers happy. The wonders the 100 point scale has brought us.

Just because you are the first does not mean that you’re the one and only. Burgundy is not the only correct example of pinot noir in the world. It is only one expression of that variety. It’s always interesting to me that the most ardent defenders of terroir are the ones most loudly damning the robust character of California Pinot Noir. Perhaps they should consider that powerful character is the terroir of pinot noir in California. There is a difference in claiming that a wine does not have terroir and not liking the style of a terroir. Successful California Pinot does not and should not taste exactly like Burgundy. That is only one standard and only one of the many expressions of pinot. California Pinot Noir is supposed to taste like California Pinot Noir.

In his excellent article, Syrah in My Pinot? A Winemaker Responds, Adam Siduri makes many good points, but one stands out. It all his years of winemaking he has never known any serious pinot noir producer to add syrah to their wine unless they openly admit it on their label or sales materials. I’ll add my own thirty years of experience to that and I too have never known any winemaker aspiring to make great pinot noir that added syrah to their blend without being upfront about it. The example of Castle Rock adding syrah to their pinot is simply a producer making a better wine. At that price point you can’t make a decent pinot noir without some help. If you insist on buying pinot noir under $15 your palate should be grateful they blended a bit of syrah in. The strange thing about consumers is that if they just bought a $15 syrah they’d get a great wine at a bargain price instead of insisting on pinot noir that needs to be “corrected” to make it pleasurable to drink. Excellent pinot noir is not for bargain hunters.

This does not mean that pinot noir cannot be manipulated out of showing its terroir as it so often is in California and, for that matter, throughout the world. Just because the natural character of California Pinot Noir is substantial does not mean that all extremes are acceptable. The essential character of pinot noir is its transparency, that unique ability to show the personality of the vineyard where it was grown. This transparency can show itself in wines of many different weights and concentrations. This is clearly seen within Burgundy itself.  Vineyard and winery manipulations that obliterate that transparency eliminate the reason to grow and make pinot noir in the first place. If you want to make massive, powerful wines there are a lot better varieties to work with.

The only reason to blend syrah with pinot noir is that you actually wanted to make a syrah to begin with. If you’re a winemaker and want to blend syrah with your pinot you’ve chosen to make the wrong variety. If you’re a wine writer and you want your pinot noir to taste like syrah you’re drinking the wrong variety.

Square pegs in round holes don’t work any better than they used to.

Tosca, Ithzak and The Adams Family

They were uplifting. They challenged me and inspired me, each in their own way. A diverse range of musical performances I saw over the last two weeks made me think. Can you give a higher compliment to art? I don’t think anything engages every sense that makes us the complex beings we are more than music. 

This artistic immersion began at the top with a performance of Tosca at the incomparable Met in New York, followed by a Nathan Lane romp through The Adams Family on Broadway and  completed by the inspired clarity of Itzhak Perlman in recital in San Francisco. As with most things that inspire me these performances made me think about wine.

Tosca gives you restrained, confident power and emotion. The slightly naughty vaudeville of The Adams Family is all fun and escape. The delicacy and transparency of the Perlman piano and violin duets challenges you to focus on pure art stripped to the bone. These experiences were enjoyable each in their own way and each has their own purpose. It would be pointless to compare them, but that’s exactly what is done with wine. The exactitude of the 100 point scale only denies the beauty of each vinous performance. 

It was easy for me to see the wines I love in these three performances: Tosca would be something like Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with its restrained yet powerful and balanced concentration; The Adams Family would be my daily pleasures Côtes du Rhône Villages and Beaujolais Villages from someone like Kermit Lynch; the delicate transparency (terroir) of the Perlman recital is Burgundy and Barolo/Barbaresco - right now I have Marcarini Barolo La Serra in mind. What is important about all of these wines is not how they rank against each other, but how they fit the moment, the meal and that they make you think. Think about the flavors, aromas and life. They are about pleasure, both mental and physical. Academic ranking makes them all sterile and lifeless.

I would no more think of ranking Tosca against The Adams Family than I would scoring La Tache against a Beaujolais Villages. Each has its place and time. It is simply boring and boorish to compare and contrast such wines. They are to be enjoyed in their moment and in their proper moment each is a 100 point wine. 

There is no more important word in wine than transparency, the ability to see through each aspect of its character and personality. Opulence and power are wine’s pop music - Lady Gaga vs. Puccini. While Lady Gaga may win the popularity contest it does not make her great art. Religion too easily achieved is not very spiritual. 

“Sometimes you just have to let art flow over you.”


$25, That’s right only $25 for a beautiful pinot noir. Nothing yet exists in new world pinot noir like the 2007 Côte de Nuits-Villages from Domaine Gachot-Monot. Pure and electric this is a wine that lifts both your intellect and the meal. Certainly this would be $50 if it where from Oregon or California. We have a lot to learn and need to be a little more humble as winemakers here on the west coast. What struck me was the almost compelling urge I had to have a third glass.

It’s a bit depressing to me that I’ve not figured out to make a wine like this in America yet, but I refuse to quit trying. In the meantime, drink this beauty over the next three to four years.

Not surprisingly, imported by Kermit Lynch.

Cheating On Your Wife

bigamy-wineI had lied to my wife. Every guy in the room had. This was not the kind of thing you could safely share with a spouse. We gathered in the room with an exaggerated good-old-boy bachelor party kind of conviviality. The level of anticipation was high, perhaps too high. It was still afternoon and it felt a bit strange to be doing this in the light of day.

Everyone finally arrived and one-by-one we passed our wad of cash to the host with a sense of excitement and a tinge of guilt for the pleasures to come. After all, wasn't this money supposed to be going into the college fund or buying that new dresser? This was more money than I could easily afford on my rookie reporter's salary at the newspaper and I could only hope my wife would never find out. Our host took the cash and disappeared into another room.  A second later, radiating sensuality, they swept into the room and were even more beautiful than we had hoped for in our dreams the night before. There were eight of them, one more exotic than the next. Each was wrapped in a skin tight sheath of aluminum foil just begging to be torn off and marked with a letter so each of us could choose their favorite. An electric energy coursed through me as I unpacked the toys I had brought for the festivities: eight glasses and a notebook. Once again I thought of my wife and how ticked off she we going to be if she found out I had spent our hard earned money on, of all things, wine.

This group of liars was cheating on their wives with our mistress - wine. She was stealing our money and time with our spouses, but we could not resist her charms. We had long passed the flirting stage and this was to be our most amorous liaison yet as we were going to taste Grand Cru Burgundy. None of us had ever spent that much money on wine before. We were at the stage where we had learned more about wine from books than with our tongues and were easily influenced by reputation and label. More than once I had convinced myself to like a wine because someone famous said I should. With this innocence and ignorance we began tasting the eight bottles of Burgundy that our host had tightly wrapped in gleaming aluminum foil as we were doing a “blind” tasting. However, this was not really “blind” as we knew that each wine was an expensive and famous Burgundy. We were prepared to be seduced. Each of the tasters had eight glasses and the table was a crowed forest of stemware. After each of the wines had been poured silence settled on the once boisterous group. Each of us focused our entire concentration each wine as we sipped, swirled, spat and furiously took notes. For the next hour the only sound was the occasional moan or sigh when our mistress hit just the right spot.

I can still remember some of my notes now, which went something like this:

A. Light color, weedy earthy aromas...

B. Light color, earthy, dried leather and cheese...

C. Light color, vegital, smoked bacon. plastic...

So it went for the next hour. When everyone finished it was time to compare notes and come up with a group rationalization for why these wines were not the other-worldly experience we had anticipated. They were strange and not very satisfying. We soon came to the conclusion that problem could not be these famous wines, but that it must be us. Our palates were not well honed enough to understand the complexities of these great and famous wines. Those odd aromas and flavors must be that magical ingredient terroir that the French use to describe the unique personalities of each vineyard that make each single-vineyard wine distinct. Those leather, cheese and bacon smells had to be terroir. Now it was our duty to keep learning and tasting until we could come to understand and appreciate them.

As I look back on this event over thirty years ago, I have learned to understand and appreciate the true glories of Burgundy, none of which could be described as weedy, cheesy or sweaty. I have also learned that those wines that made me feel inadequate in that tasting three decades ago would have better been poured down the drain. Those wines were faulted - full of brett and VA. We were just too young and too intimated by the names and prices of those wines to know the difference. Fortunately I soon learned the difference between terroir and wine faults. Wine faults are a major concern of mine as time and time again I run into wines that are loaded with faults that go undetected in many large tastings. All to often I lift a glass to my nose from an almost empty bottle to find it severely faulted with TCA (corkiness), brett or a range of other faults. At the recent Wine Bloggers Conference there was a lot of debate about ethics, but none about knowledge and tasting technique. If wine bloggers want to be taken seriously, it's far more important that they can spot brett and other faults than if they take samples from producers for free or not.

These memories were jogged by a bottle of 2004 Thomas Dundee Hills Pinot Noir that I pulled from my cellar to share with my good friend, winemaker Donald Patz. Always looking to bring something that he probably hasn't tasted (no easy task) I grabbed a bottle of this hard to get Oregon cult wine. Upon pulling the cork we were treated to a perfect example of brett. Needless to say, it was a great disappointment and we left the bottle, still mostly full, on the table when we left the restaurant. Thirty years ago we may have forced ourselves to accept such wines, but today there are no excuses. Winemakers have the finest laboratories available to them and far more knowledge than the winemakers of the past. Brett needs to be recognized and recognized for what it is - a fault that obliterates varietal character and terroir - which are the two most important things for me in a wine.

Not long after that tasting of three decades ago I entered the wine business. We were importing the Italian wines of Neil Empson and doing tasting event after tasting event. Neil and I would open hundreds of bottles over several days. Every time Neil found a corky bottle, which was often in those days, he'd shove the wine and the cork under my nose. Soon I got it and ever since have been hyper-aware of that musty TCA smell. We should all do what Neil did and every time we find a faulted bottle we need to shove it under someone’s nose. While winemakers have no business making faulted wines, we (especially wine writers) have no business missing those faults.

Stellar Cellars


I was a guest, which is by far the best way to attend tastings like this, although as this was a dinner, it might be better to call it a drinking. Be assured I didn’t spit once. It never crossed my mind. One thing drinking old wines confirms is they don’t make’em like they used to. For better or worse, they’re different – more delicate and less alcoholic. It was a great evening with outstanding food, wine and company. What else is great wine for? Many thanks to Dr. Mike Dragutsky for inviting me to join in. Below are the wines with some short comments.

1990 Cristal Brut, Magnum – A reminder of how great Cristal used to be. Toasty, creamy, long and very complex. Cristal today is a mere shadow of this wine.

1985 Kistler Chardonnay, Carneros – Rich and powerful, but a bit passed its prime.

1995 Puligny Montrachet, Enseigners, Verget, Magnum – Unfortunately showing quite a bit of oxidation already, but still quite exciting with a firm mineral backbone and great length. Drink up soon.

2005 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir, Ten, Santa Rita Hills – A powerhouse pinot with a lot of new oak.

1988 Bonnes Mares, Comte de Vogue – Not showing well at first, this bottle ended up by my place so I got to go back to it several times. By the end of the evening it opened into a graceful beauty with layers and layers of length and personality.

1997 Chateau Pichon Lalande, Pauillac, Magnum and 1997 Chateau Lynch Bages, Pauillac – I’ll comment on these two lovely, elegant and totally mature wines together as they dramatically illustrated how much better wines age in magnum. The Pichon Lalande was much fresher with brighter fruit and depth. These wines show how pretty wines can be from lighter years.

1989 Chateau Pichon Baron, Pauillac – Still velvety and rich with an expansive bouquet and a long seductive finish. Twenty years old is a great place for classic Bordeaux from excellent vintages.

1988 Chatau Guraud Larose, St. Julien – Silky, delicate and perfumed. Really lovely with an almost caressing texture. Drink up now while it’s so pretty.

1961 Chateau Bouscaut, Graves (Pessac-Leognan now) – Just a beautiful old wine that is still showing a touch of fruit freshness amid all the coffee, porcini and spice. With that nice touch of that earthy minerality that defines Graves. Long and graceful.

1988 Petrus, Pomerol – Wine of the night. An elegant, graceful wonder. Svelte and incredibly long and complex. A wonderful wine.

1979 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac – The definition of elegance. A perfectly proportioned wine. Subtly complex and endlessly interesting. As usual, a perfect Bordeaux.

1977 Taylor, Oporto – Will this wine ever mature? Still young, fruity, dark, sweet and powerful. Just plain great Port that will age forever.

1982 Château Cheval Blanc

Chevalblanc That's not good enough for you? How about Trotanoy 1970, Haut Brion 1982 or Lafite: 1970, 1976, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003. These are just a few of the wines being offered in an upcoming auction by Hart, Davis and Hart in Chicago. Literally thousands of bottles are being sold and the list, offered in a hard cover book exceeding one hundred pages, offers the very best of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, Italy and California. Owner John Hart, who I have known for almost thirty years, is one of the top rare and fine wine professionals in the country and his firm was selected to offer for auction The Fox Cellar, which includes the wines above and seemingly countless others. They will be offered for auction over two days, September 19th and 20th. Included in the event is a sumptuous lunch at Chicago's famous Tru Restaurant, where the auction is held.

President Paul Hart recounts in the auction book his first visit to the cellar as they prepared for the auction. There he saw more than 1,000 bottles of Domaine de la Romanee Conti, 65 cases of Petrus, 95 cases of Château Marqaux, 150 cases of Mouton, 90 cases of Haut-Brion, 120 cases of Latour, 45 cases of Cheval Blanc and 130 cases of Lafite. What most of us can never comprehend is all of this wine is owned by a person. One guy bought all of this and more than we can imagine and built a place to keep it. Even with the thousands of bottles that Hart, Davis and Hart are offering in this auction only a portion of the Fox Cellar is being offered. He is keeping more than he can ever drink and still offering up over one hundred pages of the world's most famous wines for sale.

If you've ever wondered why these wines sell for such stratospheric prices, this cellar is a prime example. All around the planet obsessed collectors amass cellars with far more wine in them than not only they, but their heirs can drink before their bottles turn into a pale reflection of the glorious nectars they once contained. Wines like these are no longer wines, but things to be possessed as a symbol of success and power. That's why they cost what they  do. There is something about the acquisition of 1,440 bottles of Latour or 1,560 bottles of Lafite by an individual that is offensive. Like great art hidden from the public in private collections instead of being shared with all as part of our human patrimony, some things are just too important to all of us too be hoarded away by Scrooge.

Fortunately these gems are being liberated before they fade into feeble old age. I cannot overstate how exceptional many of these wines are and experiencing them at this state of maturity is like seeing the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper for the first time. They are not beverages, but art. Like great art, these bottles are not cheap and the risk in purchasing them is not insignificant. Bottles of 1982 Cheval Blanc can be corked too. In such a situation you need someone to guide you and I can think of no better guide than John Hart and his compatriots at Hart, Davis and Hart. Over the decades, John has devoted himself with passion and rigid ethical standards to bringing wines to his customers in pristine condition. If you're going to spend this kind of money, John is someone to depend on.

Most of us will rarely or ever buy, much less drink such wines, but this is the world that Lafite and Latour live in and why they cost what they do. Even if you're not buying, taking a look at this web site for this auction as it's a real peep show for wine voyeurs. I guess great wine is like pornography, you know it when you see it: and this is it.

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The Three Faces of Pinot Noir

3facesofeve Poor pinot noir. As the variety most transparent to terroir and the hand of the winemaker it has become a schizophrenic variety producing a full rainbow of styles from all corners of the planet. The staggering range of wines produced makes it impossible and pointless to define which personality is the best expression of the variety.  As usual, lovers of any particular style are absolutely convinced of the superiority of their preferred style.

Most pinot noir aficionados are drawn to the variety because of its capability to produce the most terroir-driven of wines. Vineyards mere meters apart produce astoundingly different wines. Strangely enough, this same love of the wonderful diversity and endless fascination with the nuances of terroir seems to put blinders on many tasters. Instead of being willing to experience the myriad of styles offered by the terroir-sity (take that Colbert), that is the hallmark of this variety, they become stuck in a narrow range of styles with a disdain bordering on the violent for wines produced in other styles, or perhaps more accurately, other terroirs. It seems to be quickly forgotten that the very reason we love pinot noir means by definition that the wines will be, and should be, very different when grown in different places.

It's important to taste wines for what they are, not what we wish they were.  You cannot will a Sonoma Coast pinot noir to taste like Pommard 1er Cru because not only shouldn't it taste like a Pommard, but why would you want it to? The interesting part of pinot noir, and, for that matter all varieties, are these very differences. Of course everyone will have their own personal preferences, but personal preference in taste is not the same as superiority.

Having recently immersed myself (almost literally) in pinot noir for three days during the International Pinot Noir Celebration I could not help but be struck by the wonderful diversity and the exceptionally high level of winemaking that exists in the world of pinot noir these days. Four wines highlighted the range of this golden age of pinot we're living in: the brooding, powerful Littorai Wines, Mays Canyon Vineyard, 2006 from California; the firm, spicy Sokol Blosser Winery, Dundee Hills Estate Cuvée, 2005 from Oregon; the explosively fruity, black current flavors of the Felton Road 2007 from New Zealand; and the closed, biting youth of the Volnay, Vendanges Sélectionnées, Domaine Michel Lafarge, 2005 from Burgundy. These four wines could not be more different or more delicious in their own right. It is their very differences that make them so exciting and make them, well, so pinot noir.

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Wine Notes: IPNC 2008

Tasting all the wines at IPNC is probably impossible and, as at all large events, a challenge. I did my best concentrate and taste as many wines as possible, but I'm sure I missed a few gems. Tasting Burgundy amid the many New World wines was certainly difficult. The tight, young French wines could be easily overlooked among all the lush, forward New World wines. Oregon was particularly lucky as most were showing the fruit-forward, easy to like 2006 vintage wines, which showed very well in such conditions. Below are some of my favorite wines from my tasting notes. Wines from the seminars are listed in separate posts.

Recommended wines from the 2008 International Pinot Noir Celebration:


  • Bindi, Block 5, 2006 - Brilliant, fresh and loaded with up-front fruit.
  • Frogmore Creek, 2006 - Leaner and more compact than expected, nice balance with a long elegant finish.

  • Wiengut Fred Loimer, Dechant, 2006 - Delicate, floral and impeccably balanced. Refined pure pinot noir.

  • Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru, Domaine d'Ardhuy, 2006 - Lush, exotically spiced, but still tight with a firm structure that needs time to resolve.
  • Marsannay, Les Faviéres, Domaine Charles Audoin, 2005 - Lovely spicy lively minerality with zesty sweet tart cherry fruit, needs just a year or two more. Charming and delicious.
  • Beaune 1er Cru, Champs Pimont, Maison Champy, 2005 - Great style and richness, but closed tight as a drum. Very good potential.
  • Beaune 1er Cru, Teurons, Domaine du Chateau de Chorey, 2005 - I have always loved wines from this estate for their refined purity. They consistently make wonderful pinots and this does not disappoint. A classic, refined Chateau de Chorey. Lovely now, but wait a bit please.
  • Ladoix 1er Cru, les Corvées, Domaine Chevalier Pere et Fils, 2005 - These lesser known appellations in Burgundy have become a treasure trove. Perfectly balanced with a firm backbone that needs a few more years to show its best.
  • Bonnes Mares Grand Cru, Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair, 2006 - A contender for wine of the event, but it's a bit expensive for that. A gorgeous pinot noir in a class by itself. Great finesse in a luscious, velvety package. Not nearly ready to drink, wait ten years please.
  • Volnay Robardelle, Domaine Huber-Verdereau, 2006 - Tight, tight, tight. It's so hard to show very young Burgundy, but I think this will be a very good wine in four or five years.
  • Volnay, Vendanges Sélectionnées, Domaine Michel Lafarge, 2005 - A coiled spring of a pinot noir waiting to explode. When the acids and tannins come into harmony what a wonderful wine this will be.
  • Beaune 1er Cru, Bressandes, Domaine Albert Morot, 2006 - A silky pinot noir with great style and length. The tannins are still a bit too hard, but soon this will be a charmer. Very lively.
  • Aloxe Corton, Clos de la Boulotte, Monopole, Domaine Nudant, 2006 - So tight it's not funny. Somewhere under all that structure is a good wine biding its time.
  • Pommard 1er Cru, Philippe Pacalet, 2006 - A stunningly elegant pinot noir with firm tannins that close down the finish. This will be excellent in a few more years.
  • Gevrey Chambertin, Vielles Vignes, Domaine Marc Roy, 2006 - Very tight now, but what promise! One of those wines that is so complex and complete in all its aspects that you know greatness awaits. There's real potential for this to become an outstanding wine.
  • Gevrey Chambertin, Domaine Trapet, 2005 - Very fine, long and complex. Alas this is another wine that was very closed. However, I believe it will age into a beauty.

New Zealand
  • Felton Road 2007 - An explosion of concentrated red fruit essence. The intensity of the fruit almost puckers your mouth with its bittersweet punch. Hard not to like.
  • Pegasus Bay 2006 - Very tight with a mineral and red fruit focus. Excellent length and balance. Very stylish and elegant.  A year or so more will bring out more complexity.

  • Cobb Family Wines, Coastlands Vineyard, 2006 - A very impressive wine. Great complexity and a refined, yet rich character. A very graceful pinot that glides across the palate. An excellent effort.
  • Hirsch Winery, Hirsch Vineyards, 2006 - Wonderful structure and texture with elegant flavors highlighted with just a bit of that funk that works so well in some pinots. I'd love to put some of this away for a few years.
  • Littorai Wines, Mays Canyon Vineyard, 2006 - Here's a pinot that's unabashedly from California and I like that about it. Rich, smoky, oaky and dense, but it all comes together in an hedonistic package that is irresistible. Still closed and unresolved I really suggest at least two or three more years of aging.

  • Adelsheim Vineyard, Elizabeth's Reserve, 2006 - This wine is so balanced, elegant and refined that you may want to drink it now, but wait a few years and you'll be rewarded. I wish more Oregon producers would respect elegance and complexity as represented by this lovely pinot.
  • Belle Vallee, Grand Cuvée, 2006 - Rich and fruit-forward, but with plenty of complexity. Belle Vallee continues to offer some of the best values in Oregon pinot noir.
  • Broadley Vineyards, Marcile Lorraine Vineyard, 2006 - This was my wine of the event. An almost perfect pinot noir that combines elegance and power in the way only pinot can. Outstanding complexity and length. A stunning wine that absolutely grabbed my attention amid all these great wines.
  • Coelho Winery, Paciência, 2005 - The best pinot I have tasted to date from this winery and they seem to be headed in the right direction. The firm structure suggests a few more years in the bottle before enjoying.
  • Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Willamette Valley, 2006 - Style, style and more style. An Audrey Hepburn of a wine that is certainly the most elegant Oregon pinot I have tasted from the fruit-forward 2006 vintage.
  • Panther Creek Cellars, Freedom Hill, 2006 - A solid step forward for Panther Creek and the nicest pinot I've tasted from them lately. A bit on the oaky side, but a lot of people like that. Rich, smooth and forward enough for drinking now, but it will be a lot better next year.
  • Raptor Ridge, Raptor Ridge Estate, Aldalfo's Block, 2006 - A rich, big pinot with more than enough backbone to carry its weight. Expansive and dramatic, but nowhere near ready to drink. Probably not a long-term ager, but please wait a year or two as a lot is going on in this wine that needs to evolve to show its best.
  • Scott Paul Wines, La Paulée, 2006 - With a tip of the hat to Burgundian structure, the fruit-forward character of the 06 Oregon vintage soon shows itself. A lovely wine of beautiful red fruits with just a touch of chocolate and black truffles. Delicious.
  • Sokol Blosser Winery, Dundee Hills Estate Cuvée, 2005 - Like the Adelsheim and Drouhin, this is a beautiful, elegant wine. Certainly delicate by today's pinot standards, but here is a wine that embodies the refinement and delicacy that makes pinot noir unique. A really pretty pinot noir.
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IPNC: Day 1 Morning Seminar

Sustainability without sacrifice was the title of this International Pinot Noir Celebration seminar. A title that is perhaps a bit off the mark as New Zealand winemaker Nigel Greening noted that the real sacrifice is not farming sustainably, which is something we all will end up paying the price for in the end.

Fight one was led by Burgundy winemaking superstar Dominique Lafon and Master of Wine Jasper Morris, while flight two featured winemakers  Frédéric Lafarge (Domaine Michel Lafarge), Ted Lemon (Littorai), Nigel Greening (Felton Road), Ted Casteel (Bethel Heights) and Michael Dhillon (Bindi).

While a good tasting and seminar it ended up being more focused on biodynamics than a general look at the various sustainable models. Lafon made one comment I think all winemakers should keep in mind, “My wine should not be to show off my skills as a winemaker or the skills of my cooper, but to show the character of my appellation.”

Flight #1 - Domaine Comtes de Lafon

  • Meursault, Desirèe, 2000 - Expansive aromas and flavors with an underlying tightness. Crème brûlée with a citrus punch. Great firm, mineral textures. Still very young.
  • Volnay Santenot du Mileu
    • 2004 - Very bright fresh and lively. Touches of fresh porcini peek out from under the ripe red fruit flavors. Needs a few more years to limber up. Outstanding quality.
    • 2003 - Big and rich as you would expect from this super-hot vintage, but well made. Under the lush, velvety ripe black fruit favors is a firm enough backbone to hold it all together. Needs more time to resolve everything, but not more than a few years.
    • 2000 - It takes a few years in the bottle for Burgundy to really become Burgundy and this wine has arrived. Touches of black truffles, roasting pork and new leather are layered with the zesty orange spiced red fruit, which all lead to a great finish. A very nice wine from a difficult year.
    • 1997 - Another hot year and the ripe characteristics show in the touch of prune layered in along with the wild mushroom and lush dark fruit flavors. I think it’s best to drink this wine up.

Flight #2

  • Volnay, 1er Cru, Les Mitans, Domaine Michel Lafarge, 2005 - Absolutely pure pinot noir essence. Tight, fresh, alive and electric. Way to young to be drinking now. A very fine wine.
  • Sonoma Coast, Haven Vineyard, Littorai, 2006 - This wine was difficult at first, but after an hour in the glass opened into a very interesting wine. Quite oaky with the resulting smoky, toasty flavors and aromas. With air the wine broadens adding a meaty, savory touch to the deep, rich black fruit character. Needs 3 or 4 years to better integrate everything that’s going on.
  • Central Otago, Block 3, Felton Road, 2006 - Pure dark fruit essence. This wine is intensely fruity with an almost pungent explosive bittersweet cassis fruit. Very distinctive and interesting.
  • Eola Hills, Flat Block Reserve, Bethel Heights, 2006 - Lightly oaked, very perfumed with orange zest, violets and wild black cherry characteristics. Great balance and very long in the finish. Rich without being overdone.
  • Victoria, Original Vineyard, Bindi Wines, 2006 - Bright and fresh with a distinct cherry Kool-Aid powder smell. Smooth and velvety. Becomes more appealing with air.

The star of out of the dozen or so pinots poured at sumptuous lunch following the seminar was the South Block Reserve, Bethel Heights 1999. This is a wine at its absolute peak with great complexity, rich wild red fruit and those wonderful earthy characteristics that  pinot develops with age.

A Deepening Hatred

corks There are certain wines you just treasure. You go to your cellar to get the bottle with a sense of pleasure and anticipation. Often these bottles are rare. You have just a few bottles, or, even more exciting, it's your last bottle.

Most wines that give me such feelings are red, but in this case it was a bottle of white wine. I was only able to get a few bottles of the current releases from Domaine Alice & Olivier De Moor's wonderful domaine in Chablis. The star of the group was the 2005 Chablis Bel Air et Clardy, of which I got only two bottles in my allocation from Chambers St Wine Merchants. The first was exceptional. Tight and firm with a delicious minerality and never-ending finish, it was everything you could hope for in a chardonnay.

Now I know I should have waited. I should have let it age a few more years, but the crab legs were just too perfect and too fresh and I could not resist. Off I went to get the bottle with the excitement I mentioned above. I pulled the cork, poured the wine and raised the glass to my nose. It was so corked I almost gagged. No little corkiness here, but a glass full of smelly, offensive junk.

I am developing a deepening hatred of corks. Enough is enough.

Burgundy: Scott Paul Selections New Releases

scottwrightFamily2005 Those of you that read my post last last March know that I am a fan of Scott Wright's (pictured left with his wife Martha and daughter Pirrie) wines. He makes wines under the Scott Paul label in Oregon's Willamette Valley and selects and imports some very fine Burgundy as Scott Paul Selections. What I love about the wines that Scott both makes and imports is their purity. They are wines made with a delicate hand that respects the vineyards from which they come. Balance, grace and refinement are the best descriptors of his wines. The easiest place to obtain these wines is probably directly from Scott Paul, which you can contact by email or by phone at 503-852-7305. If you're lucky enough to stop by their tasting room in Carlton, you'll find some of his French selections available on the tasting bar right next to his own wines from Oregon.

  • Crémant de Bourgogne, Domaine Huber-Vedereau - 100% pinot noir and you can taste it. At $22 this is an amazing value, unfortunately only 100 cases were produced so grab a case while you can. The flavors and aromas are more fruit driven than yeasty lees driven, but there's more than enough toasty character to keep it interesting. Very long and bright with a creamy texture. Lovely bubbly.

  • Champagne Brut Réserve, Domaine Marc Chauvet - Here' a Champagne very high on the "wow" meter. Grower Champagnes like this are so much better than the big commercial brands that it's embarrassing. This is a wonderful wine with a lifting brightness powered by bubbles and brilliant citrus flavors laced over a complex base of fruit and toasty lees. A finish designed to exercise your saliva glands. 65% pinot noir, 35% chardonnay 100% delicious ($45)

  • St. Veran, Champ Rond, Domaine Thibert Père & Fils, 2006 - Firm, crisp and mineraly with a bright green apple and honeysuckle fruitiness, this charming chardonnay is a great bargain at $24 as it clearly displays some of the best characteristics of the more expensive Burgundian chardonnays to the north. Match with some fresh dungeness crab and you will find inner peace.

  • Gevrey Chambertin, Clos Prieur, Domane René Leclerc, 2006 - There is a wonderful grace and purity in this very fine pinot. Starting shyly at first, as befits its youth, the flavors grow and expand until you are totally seduced. The refinement in each aspect of this wine is very impressive with silky, but firm tannins tying everything together in a perfect package. It needs three or four more years to really open. For a Burgundy under $50 there is a lot going on in this wine. ($44)

  • Pommard 1er Cru, Clos de Derriére St. Jean, Domaine Violot Guillemard. 2006 - The expected tannic punch never arrives in this surprisingly silky, velvety young Pommard, which is an AOC that usually packs structure to spare. However, this wine is still very closed and demands aging so it is not a wine to buy for dinner this weekend. I believe this will age into an outstanding wine.  As it comes from Burgundy's smallest Premier Cru vineyard at a ¼ acre and produced only 23 cases, I think it's worthy or getting the aging it deserves. As you are unlikely to find this in a floor stacking at SafeWay, I suggest you contact Scott Paul ASAP. ($75)

  • Echezeaux, Domaine Jean-Marc-Millot, 2006 - Here's pinot in all its glory. Richly textured, velvety, silky and endlessly aromatic with flavors that never seem to end and this wine is just getting started. Perfect color, beautiful fruit and richly complex tannins show everything that makes pinot great. (Price: if you have to ask...)

  • Romanée St. Vivant, Grand Cru, J.J. Confuron, 2004 - I tasted this wine last March, and it's just as beautiful and just as nowhere ready to drink as it was then. Given five or so years, this will be an outstanding wine. ($225)

  • Pinot Noir, La Paulèe, Willamette Valley, Scott Paul Wines, 2006 - Not every American winemaker would like to show his pinot after such a line-up, but Scott Wright obviously knows his own wine. While he is not trying to make Burgundy in Oregon, you can tell what his palate has been honed on. While more fruit-forward and flowery than the preceding Burgundy selections this very fine pinot noir displays the balance and grace that brought winemakers from California to Oregon in the first place. While certainly drinkable now, I would wait a few years, which will bring out even greater complexity.

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California Burgundy

heartyburgundy Here's a riddle for you: When can you make Echezeaux in California? The answer: You can't, you have to wait until California comes to Burgundy. That's exactly what happened in 2003. I was living in Italy that year, our house tucked into the foothills of the Alps, and we baked for months. The television was full of the horrible news from France as thousands died from the heat. Burgundy was not one of the fatalities of that hot summer, but the vines and the wines did suffer as they did throughout Europe.

My gracious host for dinner last Saturday, winemaker Tony Rynders, brought me back to that sultry summer when he pulled a bottle of 2003 Echezeaux Domaine Dujac (find online) from his cellar. I admit I can't help but be thrilled by the appearance of a Dujac at any time.

Let's make no mistake about it, this is a very fine pinot noir. However, there is little to remind you of Burgundy, much less Echezeaux in this wine. Perhaps I'm nitpicking, but at $200+ a bottle I think picking a few nits is allowed. This is big pinot in the California style and I don't mean that as a criticism of the California style, although I prefer it in my California wines and not my Burgundy wines. While touches of stemmy whole cluster fermentation lighten the wine in a blind tasting you'd be hard pressed to spot this as a Burgundy. This comparison is interesting because it does not so much put down the Echezeaux as remind you how good the best California pinot noir can be.

While the best vintages are always from warm years, which produce ripe grapes that become rich, complex wines, it is also true that more is not better especially when it comes to pinot noir. Extremes of all types overwhelm terroir, in this case erasing Echezeaux and replacing it with an excellent pinot noir of indeterminate origin. As I remember the brutal and deadly heat of that summer it is amazing that Dujac produced a wine as good as this very hearty Burgundy.

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Pair of Fives


    pair of fives Brilliance is a word that can mean many things: luminosity, intelligence, perfectly executed and, when it comes to flavor, lively and electric. All of those things come together in these two seductive, brilliant wines that are great values to boot coming in at under $25.

    • 2005 Clos de la Roilette, Fleurie, Imported by Louis/Dressner Every time I’ve served this wine each person at their first sip is taken back for a second as they ponder what has crossed their palate. Each knows that they have experienced something special. This is an extraordinary wine is that is is just so alive that it makes you take more pleasure in living. Concentrated elegance and finesse. (Buy online)

    • 2005 Bourgogne, Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Joseph Voillot. Imported by Vintage ‘59 Imports – Anybody who thinks there are no great values coming out of Burgundy be prepared to be proven wrong. This racy, bright pinot noir also comes packed with loads of flavor and complexity on its rather electric acid frame. Here’s a pinot that can both sing and dance. A short stint in your cellar of two or three years will give you quite a bottle of pinot. (Buy online)

    A pair of 5’s may seem a long shot to those that think a lot of chips are required to get great wine, but sometimes a pair is all you need. These days it’s hard to imagine such a winning hand at this price range from anywhere other than France.

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Wine Notes

Recent tastes I’ve enjoyed, all under $20 except for the Barolo, which is about $40:

  • Isola de Nuraghi IGT, Perdera Argiolas, 2004 - Produced 90% from the monica variety, this is a wonderful bargain in a wine that actually has a distinctive character. No great wine here mind you, but a very interesting drink.  With just enough earthiness to keep it interesting and enough bright fruit to make it charming. A nice wine with hearty home cooking.
  • Barolo, La Morra, Mauro Molino, 2003 - Modern Barolo that manages to still taste like nebbiolo. Not my favorite style, but still a well crafted wine. Like most modern Baroli, it is approachable now, but should evolve into a better wine with more age. What I like about this wine is that it is still clearly nebbiolo in character as they did not try to erase all the edges of the wine.
  • Barbera d’Alba, La Morra, Mauro Molino, 2005 - Big, juicy modern Barbera that puts a velvety coating on your tongue then slices it with a acid stiletto. I’ve never had a real problem with the modern style of Barbera as the natural brilliant acidity, bright fruit and low tannins of Barbera marry well with oak. Loads of charm here, although California palates may find the acidity shocking, but by Piemonte standards it’s tame. What’s important is there is a lot of pleasure right up front in the wine and there is more than enough acidity to be great with food.
  • Nebbiolo, Langhe, Castello di Verduno, 2006 - This wine is nothing short of an outstanding bargain that you should grab cases of as soon as you can. It is a pure, classic Piemontese nebbiolo with all the tar and roses you could want. Not at all ready to drink (although I can’t resist it) and those with enough patience will be rewarded with a lovely wine. No it is not Barolo, but it’s darn close and better than many more expensive wines that (mis)use the name Barolo. Nebbiolo aficionados will love the biting tannins and the unique angularity that is possessed by nebbiolo alone. With another 3 to 5 years this should be a beauty.
  • Nero d’Avola, Siciia IGT, Rossojbleo, Az. Agr, Gulfi, 2006 - Big, ripe and fruity. A great pizza and burger wine. This is the type of wine you want to have a case around of in the summer to serve with all those grilled meats. Lots of pleasure with no thinking required, Yummm…
  • Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Farnese, 2005 - A very nice everyday wine. Well balanced, lots of fruit with more than a passing hint of complexity. Nothing fancy, just good wine. An excellent party wine. Sausages anyone?
  • Côtes du Ventoux, La Vieille Ferme, 2006 - Is there a better wine value out there for your house wine? At $10 and under a bottle this is a winner that’s always easy to find. On top of that its got a screwcap so there are never corked bottles to pour down the drain. Best served lightly chilled in large gulps.
  • Bourgogne Rouge, Cuvée Sylvie, Domaine Sylvie Esmonin, Gevery Chambertin, 2005 - I’ve written about this wine often, but every time I open a bottle I want to write about it again. The only thing I can say is this wine is alive, which for me is the highest compliment you it give a wine. It is just so bright and lively it can’t help but seduce you.  A great pinot noir bargain.

    Scott Paul Selections: Pure Pinot

    scott%20paul.jpgPeople tell me it’s too confusing to buy European wines because of the myriad of place names. No place is worse than Burgundy when it comes to putting forth a seemingly impenetrable wave of place names and producers. When I hear this complaint I always suggest that people pay attention to the back label instead of the front. On the back label is the name of the importer who selected and shipped the wine. The name of the importer is a sure-fire indicator of the quality of the wine in the bottle. There are many names that, when I see them on the label, inspire me to try the wine. People like Rebecca Wasserman, Robert Chadderdon, Kermit Lynch, Terry Theise, Rudy Wiest and Joe Dressner (Louis/Dressner) have guided me towards outstanding wines from all of Europe’s important regions for years.

    Now it appears there is another name to add to the list. Scott Paul Wright of Scott Paul Selections has been quietly assembling an outstanding portfolio of Burgundy estates that produce classic, purely styled pinot noir and chardonnay wines. A tasting of Wright’s selections will explain the concept of terroir to any doubter. Those familiar with Oregon wines will also recognize the Scott Paul name from his excellent winery based in Carlton Oregon where he strives to make elegant pinot noir inspired by his love of Burgundy. If you wonder why Scott didn’t call his winery Scott Wright instead of Scott Paul, you might remember there’s another outstanding winery and a winemaker named Ken in Carlton already using the Wright name.

    I have been tasting with pleasure his selections over the last two years and just attended a compelling tasting of some of his current releases.

    • Chablis Grande Vignes, Frédéric Gueguen, 2006 - Classic Chablis with a firm, tight minerality and a long, clean stony finish. While 06’s are considered more forward than normal for Chablis due to the warm vintage this wine will benefit from a few more years of bottle age. A real bargain. ($23)
    • Puligny Montrachet, Philippe Chavy, 2005 - Blended from four lieu dits vineyards of medium, but mature age. Thankfully the Domaine uses only 20 to 30% new oak so the complexity of the chardonnay grown in these fine vineyards can show through. Still lean and immature, this excellent Puligny displays all the best attributes of this commune. Clean, firm and mineral laden throughout, this will be an very good wine in about five years. ($48)
    • Meursault Charmes, 1er Cru, Hospices de Beaune, Cuvée Bahèzre de Lanlay,  2005 - Purchased at the Hospices de Beaune auction by Wright, this is a big, oaky (100% new) viscous chardonnay that will be well-liked by those more experienced with California Chardonnay rather than Burgundy. Despite all the oak, it is still a very good wine, but I don’t see it as something to cellar. ($55)
    • Chambolle Musigny, Les Sentiers, 1er Cru,  A. & H. Sigaut, 2005 - All the luxurious, delicious, supple pinot character that you expect from the Chambolle Musigny commune, which Wright unabashedly declares as his first love in Burgundy. The color is perfect pinot, rich and dark, but still completely translucent. The bouquet is perfumed and silky reaching your nose long before the glass is even close to it.  While ripe and substantial on the palate, it is still lively and zesty with a wonderful undercurrent of acidity elevating and enlivening the sweet fruit and textures. The finish is long and satisfyingly laced with smoothly textured tannins that promise many years of development. Certainly a wine that should be allowed to see at least its tenth birthday. An outstanding pinot noir. ($72)
    • Pommard, Réyane & Pascal Bouley, 2004 (tasted with dinner after the tasting and then with lunch the following day) Yet another 04 Burgundy requiring more time. At first a bit off from what I thought was a bit of reduction so I put the bottle away for the next day. At Easter lunch the following day the wine was lovely, but delicate. This, like most 04’s are Burgundy for Burgundy lovers. Those used to the more obvious charms of New World pinot will find them perhaps too delicate, but those seeking complexity instead of power will be pleased. Let another five years pass to give this wine a chance to open. If you are going to drink now an hour or two in a decanter will improve your experience. ($48)
    • Pommard, Platièries, Thierry Violot-Guillemard, 2005 - Perfectly lovely light ruby color that is quite translucent. Richly smoky with a dark, brooding black fruit character that is not prepared to show itself yet. Very structured and tannic at this point, as you would expect from a Pommard, this is a wine that not only requires, but demands significant aging to show its considerable potential. Somewhere around 2015 this should be an excellent wine. ($54)
    • Mazoyères Chambertin, Grand Cru, Taupenot-Merme, 2005 - As good as the other wines were, here you reach a new level. This is a wine that will show any Burgundy critic the error of their ways. Simply a stunning interplay of power and elegance, this is an extraordinary pinot noir. The complexity and terroir exhibited by this wine will keep New World pinot noir winemakers up at night wondering if they can ever achieve such wine. All baby fat and young tannin at this point, you can feel the rumbling greatness that will rise in this wine with time. The aromas and flavors are velvety and exotic with touches of smoky oak and bittersweet chocolate. This is another wine that should not be opened before 2015. ($110)
    • Romanée St. Vivant, Grand Cru, J.J. Confuron, 2004 - Following a flashy 05 Grand Cru is not an easy position for a 2004, even one as good as this wine. The 04’s seem closed and lean now as they have yet to awaken from the “dumb” stage all natural Burgundy passes through on its journey to maturity. This and the natural lean character of the 04 vintage make this a wine easy to underestimate and I think that would be a mistake. While lacking the power of the Mazoyères Chambertin I think it does not lack in complexity or character. Despite its tightness, the flowery fruit is spiced with a touch of bittersweet orange zest. This is another wine that demands rather than suggests aging. The price should be enough to get most consumers to treat it with such needed respect. This is not a wine for Burgundy novices, but experienced collectors will love it. ($225)