Friday, March 4, 2011

A French Wine Lovers Rediscovery (From the March The Wine Country Newsletter)

“Well? What do you think?” winery owner Doug Nalle asking this French wine lover what I thought of his 2009 Pinot Noir. Standing there, my glass now empty, my mouth vibrating I said, "It's a everything I had hoped it would be"

As much as I abhor shunning any one wine or wine growing region I’ve been somewhat secretly doing just that for, oh I don’t know….the last ten years and the wines that I have been not only not drinking but avoiding all together, those from my very own state, the wines of California. This is not some snobby thing, matter of fact it’s not something I’m very proud of. Oh sure I used to stomp around and make grand statements, point a finger and growl about the shift in California wine production, the gloppy Zinfandels and flabby Chardonnays, I did…and no matter how much I ranted people lined up to buy those wines. At some point you have to just surrender and assume that California had stopped caring about palates like mine, so in turn, I stopped caring about the wines of California. I wasn’t peeved, okay I was at first but after a bit I just found solace and pleasures abound for my wine drinking from France and at times Italy. It wasn’t an ugly breakup but a breakup it was. I went from the occasional scrunched and disappointed face while tasting California wines to simply not tasting them at all.

By some strange twist of fate I was befriended by 30 year veteran wine writer and publisher of Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wines Charles Olken. We had an instant affection for one another and a complete lack of understanding when it came to each other’s palates. This of course led to many a head cracking conversation; arguments over balance or lack thereof and much like I threw in the towel on California wines years ago….well I snatched that sucker up off the floor in the interest of informed arguing. I couldn’t very well intellectually argue against wines that I had been so far removed from for so long now could I? I mean I surely wouldn’t give much weight to anyone that thought they knew French wines after not really tasting them in ten years, lots has changed in France; cleaner winemaking, younger generation taking over estates with a fresh eye and one less focused on the American wine press…so I had to believe that there was stuff happening in California and it was high time that got up to speed.

This was not always easy, being that I’m an “all in” kind of person I wasn’t going to just taste the wines that I thought might be less crushing to my palate, I tasted them all. Anything we had open from California was in a glass and I had my nose and palate in it. Zinfandel, Merlot, Chardonnay, Rhone Blends, all of it and well, well I still don’t get Zinfandel but I think it’s less of a glopular stylistic thing than it’s just not a variety I like kind of deal. This immersion has been going on for about a year now and the more I tasted from California the more involved Bennett got in trying to help me find things that suited my palate. He would call me over during his appointments and point things out that he thought I should take home for dinner, things that would please this Old World palate and open my eyes to the wines from California that were not loaded with sweet fruit, bitter oak and rocket fuel like alcohol levels….the kind of wines I wasn’t sure still existed.

I noticed a change in my verbiage first, that slightly cocked head and inquisitive look when someone would admonish California wines, the way I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “All of them?” before leading them to a wine I had recently tried, a wine with brilliant balance and beautiful structure….from California, the way I would light up when they came back for more. It wasn’t the being right part that got me all jazzed, it was the opening of a mind that like mine had been shut off to a whole region, the excitement of a shared discovery and endless possibilities and pleasure that comes from having a new world to explore.

I’ve always sold California wines to those that came in looking for them, it’s not those people that I am using my much coveted newsletter space to reach. It’s the people like myself that crave higher acidity, vibrant fruit and less oak but thought you had to drink from the Old World to get it. We were wrong, very wrong and the worst part….we’ve been missing out on some truly astounding wines. It’s time to take another look folks, amazing what you miss when you have your eyes closed or slap a stylistic label on a region too large and varied to deserve it. I’m using this space, the one I’m given to promote my own department to implore you, maybe inspire you to take another look. I’ve nothing to gain here, in fact I risk losing sales in my French department but I think this important enough to take that risk. Our goal at The Wine Country has always been to put wines in your hand that will thrill you, pair with your meals and maybe along the way share our discoveries with anyone willing to listen and aching to learn. Well I’ve learned in the last year that by turning my back on California I’ve been missing out on a bunch of truly remarkable wines, wines that bend my mind, make my toes curl and deliver to my palate an identity beyond my somewhat simplistic idea of “California” I’m changing my mind, expanding my world of wine drinking and I sincerely hope, for your own pleasure and discovery that you might be willing to do so too.

What We've Been Missing

2009 Big Vine Napa Valley Chardonnay $13.99
“This is a Chablisienne style Chardonnay” had to cringe when the guy pouring the wine for me said that. Not it’s not, nor should it want to be. This wine is however amazingly pure and fresh, just loaded with apple and citrus and delightful mouth tingling acidity. No oak at all this is a wine all about delicious fruit and would be a perfect partner for anything from eggy cheesy dishes to roasted or grilled chicken.

2009 Conspire Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc $25.99
The second I tasted this wine I knew we had to have it at The Wine Country, once hearing how limited it is I feel lucky that we grabbed it when we did! Beautiful, almost round fruit in the mouth, a silky mouth feel and a finish that is long with tangerine and guava. A serious Sauvignon Blanc indeed but with a certain grace unlike many I have tasted out of Napa Valley.

2005 Meander Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon $59.99
Take one great winemaker--Amy Aiken, with experience at Joseph Phelps, Oakville Ranch, and Viader. Give her the best fruit from two great vineyards--Morisoli Vineyard in Rutherford and Lewelling Vineyards in St. Helena. What you get is a profound Cabernet that combines tremendous power and depth with complexity and richness. Those were Bennett’s notes and I would like to add that if Cabernet tasted like this more often I could become addicted. Deep black fruit, creamy in the mouth with a coco like richness that splashes upon the palate but doesn’t coat it completely. So vibrant and sexy it needs nothing to make it sing. Brilliant wine.

2009 Conspire Russian River Pinot Noir $39.99
Medium weight, brimming with red cherries and dried herbs this is the kind of Pinot Noir that fills the wants of both Old and New World wine drinkers. Plenty of up front fruit but without any hint of sweetness, more earthy and tart with that little lift of wild herbs on the finish. Bring on the grilled lamb or pork and enjoy.

2007 Matthew Taylor Michaud Vineyard Monterey Country Pinot Noir $27.99
We were tasted on three vintages of this delicious Pinot Noir, all lovely but it was this 2007 that stopped me dead in my tracks. I was literally in mid sentence and my words hung frozen in the air while this wine stole my heart. Graceful layering of dark creamy fruit, silky integrated tannin and acid with a lightness in texture that took my breath away. Stunning bottle of Pinot Noir that you owe it to yourself to try.

2009 Nalle Russian River Valley Pinot Noir $32.99
As a lover of Burgundy I can honestly say that tasted blind I might mistake this for something from the Cote de Nuits. I’m not going to say it’s Burgundian, (mostly because I loathe comparisons like that) but it has that deep red fruit, that baked clay and faint mushroom thing that I tend to find in village level wines from Nuits. One of the last wines we tasted after a very long afternoon of tasting and it just leapt from the glass with all its pure fruit and sexy spicing. One of the most delightfully balanced Pinot Noirs I have had the pleasure to taste in a long time.


Benito said...

As everyone knows, my ideal wine cellar looks kind of like the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars. The weirder the better. That being said, I do enjoy the odd little California gem that is very Old World in execution.

For example, Stagecoach Vineyard sources grapes for two Marsannes that are practically identical. One is bottled by Olson Ogden, one by Maisonry, but they were two of my favorites last year. Not a grape that most people are going to recognize, and made in a traditional Rhone style, but it's one of those that I would love to serve to French fans who are skeptical of California.

Nancy Deprez said...

Great post, Sam! It is wonderful to discover or rediscover a wine region. Cool on these wine recs. I do also recall liking the Meander Cabernet Sauvignon very much way back when Tim opened a bottle and I tasted it. I never bought any because of the price tag, but maybe now I should...... it was really good then and I'm sure really good now.

Thomas said...

Your description of the Big Vine Chardonnay evokes Macon in me, not Chablis--tell the sales rep...

Samantha Dugan said...

Those might be tough for me as I am not really a fan of most Marsanne, even the French ones but should they be open I will surely give them a shot. Um and you know the name of the Cantina is Star Wars?! You amaze me...

It is that good. Kind of took my breath away...

It is by far closer to Macon than Chablis but I didn't say anything, just let my "Oh no you di-int" face let him know how I felt about the ridiculous comment.

webb said...

An unoaked chardonnay? Girl, you are singing my song. I'll see if I can find it on this coast. thanks!

Samantha Dugan said...

Delicious wine without a doubt. If you have no luck let me know...might be able to ship to you.

Charlie Olken said...


Welcome to my world. You are discovering something that has been lost in the debate over ripeness and alcohol levels.

California wine is not monolithic. It covers many bases and is made in both warm places and cold places.

Now that you have found the Nalle PN, see if you can get your hands on a bottle of Nalle Zin. It will show you none of the ripe, dried fruit character that inhabits so many Zins these days, including the ones that have fruit and acidity.

And Sam, if I had anything to do with your "rediscovery", I am honored. My guess is that it was inevitable. There have always been CA wines of the style that you like and you are leading the way in their rediscovery. Sooner or later, a whole generation will follow your lead.

You will be The Pied Piper of The Great Rediscovery.

Anonymous said...

I love the "re-opening" or the "re-awakening" to something thought written off or never fully noticed.

Its the sound of the ringing bells of the church down the street...

Marsanne Daddy said...


I just ran across my Conspire fact sheet and found that it is made by Meander, so you obviously like what they are doing. I think that's exciting because there are so many other discoveries out there.

Too bad about your allergy to Marsanne/Roussanne because there are a couple of other great ones out there from the Stagecoach Vineyard--one from Miner called La Diligence made in conjunction with Yves Cuilleron and one by the Krupp Brothers, who own Stagecoach, called Black Bart's Bride. These are deep, succulent wines and, they are not very Oldy Worldy to me, but they are delicious.

John M. Kelly said...

Hmmm... Noyes Tocai Friulano. Kopriva un-oaked Chardonnay. HdV "De La Guerra." And you know how I generally feel about California whites. Olivia Brion Pinot.

BTW - Mos Eisley was the name of the spaceport town on Tatooine. I'm not sure the cantina had a name.

Michael Hughes said...

Wow. You have this perfect ability to make me salivate & crave the wines you wax poetic about.

Samantha Dugan said...

It was both you and Ron that have opened me up...or made me curious about all that California has to offer and I am grateful to you both for that. Been lots of fun and has me thinking of ways to get up there to that wine country, both to taste more wine and to maybe see you two again. Oh and I tasted the Nalle Zin...still aint my thing love.

Another Day of Crazy,
Hey stranger, I miss you! It is very much like those church bells...

Marsanne Daddy,
Yeah I appear to be a fan of her style and I am in fact still dreaming about that Cabernet. Tasted the 2006 as well, wicked beautiful but the 2005, sublime. Never really been a fan of any Rhone whites, I dig the aromatics but they tend to be a little too intense for my palate. Not always but for the most part but I will be more than willing to give em' another shot.

Oh now you got my toes a curling, a domestic Friuliano?! Dude. I must find that. Okay you dudes and your Star Wars....sheesh.

Well darlin' that is quite the compliment! Thank you and you have got to try and find some of these Pinots, you would love them!

croosadabilia. said...

thank you... im taking notes on this post!

Samantha Dugan said...

Oh yeah, I'm sure you are. I stand behind what I say here though, there are far too many wines being dismissed by European wine lovers, being lumped in with wines that may not suit our palates and I think that's a shame.

Easy French said...

Very nice article on new French wine trends. Everything changes so fast.