Thursday, February 7, 2013

Considering Balance

Found myself in a very, very rare situation yesterday afternoon, I was at a domestic wine trade event…and one I even uttered the words, “I would kinda dig going to that” about.

When our newest hire Laurie mentioned she had double bookings for trade events, and she told me just hours after I got word from our owner that I should guide and help steer our new domestic buyer, I felt the pang of maybe but it wasn’t until she told me that one of the events was In Pursuit of Balance that I was pretty damn quick to offer to join her, you know, if she thought it would help. Truth is I did actually want to help her, not only is she a wonderfully sweet and eager woman, she hasn’t been thumped into submission by big egos and the “Look how deep my cellar is” set. She approaches wine much in the same way the rest of us do at The Wine Country, tasting, figuring out who would love it and putting that wine in their hands. Not, “How many wines can I taste in one afternoon?” or “I met Such-n-such winemaker that used to be at Blah-blah but has partnered up with Whatshisface and started a winery called Whogivesacrap”. Excited to learn as she goes and even more excited to share with our customers so I couldn’t be happier to give her a hand. 

I first heard of In Pursuit of Balance last year when our then domestic buyer Bennett flew up to San Francisco to attend the event and came back positively effusive about the wines he tasted there and how much I would have loved them. When I heard the names of the wineries that were featured and later, tasted some of the wines Bennett brought in because of that one event, well it remained on my radar enough to toss out my willingness to forget how much I loathe those big trade events and have Laurie sign us both up. Ended up being one of those, “Suck it up for the sake of clarity and education” kind of deals for the most part. Don’t get me wrong, there were some wicked cool Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, (that’s right, Pinot and Chard not some obscure or little known varieties) there to be tasted, some of which left me damn-near aflutter, I fucking groaned a couple times people, but I found much of the same self-congratulatory, name tag sniffin’, bloated egos at this “offbeat” event as I do so many of the others. Lots younger, lots more hair goo but just as annoying but…balanced I guess. 

A couple years after I started blogging I started to become more curious about the wines that the people I adored and read talked about. I actually wanted to be more balanced with regard to the wines from right here in my very own state, wines that had eluded me for years and were honestly the reason I thought I’d never get into wine. I knew those smart people couldn’t be all wrong and I was sure there had to be some wines grown here would in fact speak to my kind of palate. I ached to taste them, know them and turn on the customers in our shop with a like palate to mine on to them. Now this was no easy feat, sure Charlie Olken, Ron Washam and John Kelly were amazingly helpful in talking about the wines here, Ron and John even sending me some from time to time and Charlie trusted me enough to allow me to sit on one of his tasting panels when they were tasting California Chardonnay. Those guys were easy, it was my own reps and even some of our customers that ended up being kind of annoying about the whole thing with comments like, “Oh look who is coming down of the French wine pedestal” or “Wow, you are going to sully your fancy French palate with our lowly California wines?” absolutely annoying and, I think more telling of their attitudes than mine. Just made what seemed like a good idea, a pursuit I was interested in, for the sake of being a better retailer, a hassle and frankly and unwelcoming community. Dude, not so cool. Thankfully I’m ornery to hold my own, snap back my retorts and keep pushing along tasting wines to further assist my customers. 

So I walk into this event yesterday, kind of excited to see which wines were there touting balance and taste for myself to see if I agreed and what do I walk into, freaking snobbery and ‘There to be seen” bullshit I hate about the other tasting events. Not by the winemakers, winery or sales reps but by the hipster, kiss my pin and smell my hair wax set. Fuck me. I try not to get too involved in the two sides crap, the new crowd and their love of Grenache Blanc and Ribolla Gialla and twitter inside over Poulsard, (which I happen to like as those aren’t new wines to me, Italy and France have had them around for a couple years now….) and the old guard of passionate wine lover that refuses to believe that anyone could like those wines over Chardonnay, Viognier or Zinfandel and think the natural wine movement is some kind of war against wine or whatever.

 I don’t get involved for a couple of reasons and the two biggest are, I don’t care to argue about things like natural wine because as of now, it’s undefinable; therefore there can’t be much of an argument. I think both sides of the fence take broad strokes with their verbiage and that part gets to me…but for the most part I just let it be. I’ve had wines made with little intervention that thrilled me, Clos Rougeard and Francois Chidiane come to mind but I’ve also had ones that smell, literally, like animal feces, dirty wet wood and taste oddly fizzy in the mouth. The good and the way not good so I simply can’t take a stand in the one is better than the other arena. The other reason I sort of stay out of it is because I think both sides have their posturing asswads and if yesterday was any indicator, the tight, rolled up at the bottom pants and torn up loafer set and their ironically disheveled style but equally pompous and more concerned with who is seeing and being impressed by them, well they are growing…..hooray. Hate that this business I adore has so much of this crap, too much snoot and I know more than you bullshit on both sides and I just feel for the poor consumer that is trying to wedge themselves in. Go to tastings people, only way you are going to find out what moves you!! There. Sheesh, that feels better. 

So there were some wines that did in fact thrill me yesterday. Wines that were full of glorious and curvy California fruit but had lots of snappy freshness and tasting some of those, along with seeing some old friends and chatting with a few of the very laid back winemakers, well that made it all worth it and will keep my pushing along in my own pursuit of balance, no matter which side is yammering at me.

The Wines That I Loved: Please keep in mind many of these wines were brand spanking new to me and the pamphlet had no pricing so I was/am flying blind here on most of these but will look up costs when I have a minute to spare. Might be interesting to see as one of my gripes with California can be pricing….

Anthill Farms- These wines were tasted toward the end of the event so there is always a chance my palate was suffering fatigue but here I found tons of sumptuous and curvy fruit, quite mouth filling actually but with an equal amount of powerful acidity to keep me from feeling the wines were anywhere near out of balance.

Arnot-Roberts- Been a fan of this winery for a couple years now and they do fall into that dorky side of my palate with some odd (for here) varieties but it was their Chardonnay that first knocked me on my ass a couple years back, did it again yesterday…both the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Watson Ranch from Napa. These wines might be too high in acidity for some of my customers but for me that zip along the sides of my tongue and make my mouth tingle, something I ache for, so I love them and will recommend them to anyone that loves Chablis or more restrained wines.

Copain Wines- Another winery I’ve been loyally following for years and while I found the wines a little big for my personal taste a couple vintages ago the 2010s were singing to me yesterday. Not shy, not by any means but great fruit and grip and wines that I can comfortably recommend without hesitation, to people with new world and old world palates. 

Knez Winery- Might have been some of my favorite wines yesterday. The Chardonnay while tasty was a little rich for me but the Pinots were so goddamn pretty. Pulsing with a delicate cherry note and this alluring rose petal thing that drove me nutty. Didn’t even care if I drank the wines, could have smelled them all day.

Lioco- Yet another long running wine at The Wine Country and it is precisely because we’ve always found the wines to be brimming with life and full of expression. I’m digging the new directions of the wines I tasted yesterday, wines that now see a little bit of neutral oak and I think they are the better for it. Just a touch fuller, rounder and softer in the mouth and I feel it showcases the pretty fruit here beautifully.

Littorai- I wasn’t nutty for all the wines, they were sexy and pretty enough mind you but this was one of the wineries that I had inkling about pricing on so they were maybe judged a touch harder. That being said I thought  the Haven Vineyard Pinot Noir was a masterfully made wine that did all I want California to do, show off its fruit and do so with grace and refinement. Gorgeous wine.

Tyler- Big fan of these wines as well as the second label from Justin Willett, the Lieu Dit wines from Santa Ynez. Brilliant and very forward wines but with tremendous texture and layering. My two favorites of the day were the two “little wines” the Santa Barbara County Chardonnay Pinot Noir. Just juicy, vibrant, full of flashy but crunchy fruit. Love them.

Varner- Top Chardonnays of the day for me. Wow. Here I found exceptional length, sensual texture and mouthfeel, nice use of oak for seasoning and weight and a deft hand able to keep all this lusciousness in check. I was quite floored by the wines and had the added benefit of having a nice conversation with one of the owners about the use of the term Burgundian or comparing these wines to those from Burgundy. Told him I loathe the idea and think California, and especially Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley should be thumping their chest with pride considering the wines, the very balanced wines, many are making in those areas. Think he was kind of grateful to hear it and mentioned he thought there might have been too much comparison in some discussions he had. Kinda cool cat and on top of that, making some kick ass California Chardonnay.  


Thomas said...

Yeah, yeah, but what we want to know is did you find your balance?

I lost my balance a long time ago.

Samantha Dugan said...

Just because you shared your potatoes with me doesn't mean you can ask me questions about my ph! Oh wait, what were you talking about?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
I attended the SF version of this, which, trust me, was way worse when it comes to posers and fruitcakes. And those were the people I liked.

I've been eager to hear your impressions, Love, because you have a palate that I deeply respect. It seems you and I agree on almost everything you said here--no wonder I respect your palate!

The Varner Chardonnays are simply brilliant, and they're all right at $44--though I believe they're sold out. Really, truly, seductive and wondrous wine. I love Santa Cruz Mountain Chardonnay, and Varner was a perfect example of why.

And Knez stood out for me too. As did Arnot Roberts (I liked both Chardonnays, but preferred the one from, where else, the SC Mountains).

You're a much bigger Lioco fan than me, but, palate fatigue or not, you're right about Anthill--very powerful wines (the winemaker at Knez is also one of the partners at Anthill).

Sure would have been nice to have been at the tasting with you. Dream come true. I love you!

Rogue Wino said...

I signed up for the SF PofB but didn't go. They decided to hold it this year in a shit ass neighborhood that is hipster trendy, with no parking garages. I wanted to taste the chards but I always feel whites are overshadowed by reds at tastings. And while I actually do enjoy cali pinot from time to time, I'm not sure I could do a room full of it. (BTW the littorai wines never stand out in tastings, but they pop with a meal! They aren't cheap though)
I'm crying a little bit about missing tre bicchieri tonight, cause I have to work. It's the only tasting I like going to :(

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
You have no idea how much I would have loved having you by my side at that event. Both to bounce ideas and flavors off of, get your impressions and to snicker with me at the dude in the skin tight white suit, with the pants about 5 inches too short, lots of hair gunk and hipster must haves, a mustache, thick rimmed glasses and a skinny tie. Fuck, I think maybe it was better that we weren't together.

I ran out of time to finish talking about the wines this morning but I was trying ti get some shit up....after rereading this, shit it is! Ugh.

I like Lioco just fine, wouldn't say I am crazy about them though. I also loved the Neely Pinots, some of the Mount Eden stuff but I will say they were showing a little awkward yesterday which is not at all surprising because as you know, those wines need time. I could smell and taste what was going on, just needs to settle into themselves.

I hit up Failla as well and is there anyone more charming then Ehern?! He is always so welcoming and I liked the Sonoma Coast Chard and Pinot he was pouring.

I know you were wondering how I felt or what I thought about the Sandhi wines and while I didn't find anything to hate like you did, I didn't find anything to even really take notes on either. Just okay...
I love you too!

Rogue Wino,
Oh I've had the Littorai wines before both on their own and with food, matter of fact my beloved HoseMaster and I devoured a bottle of one of their higher end Pinots over lunch my first afternoon in Sonoma when I went up to visit the whole gang up there...very special place in my heart that place and those wines. I just have to keep both hats on and while I don't like to compare I have to think when tasting them, (for me mind you) "For this $75 is there something else I would rather drink?" and at those prices the answer for this old world wine lover is yes, Burgundy. Just how it goes. I'm sorry you are missing your tasting today! There are about two that would break my heart to miss so I feels yea girlie. Hopefully someone you trust took fantastic notes.

Rogue Wino said...

Now I'm curious to know which Littorai you had with lunch! My favorite is Pivot, the most dark and tobacco-y of the lot. I completely agree that the price tag is stupid, and feel like this about many California wines. I'll go 30 dollar aglianico all. day. long. over expensive California pinot.
I'm sure alot of the stuff at tre bicch will be the same as last year. I keep telling myself that anyways

webb said...

Sam, you've just got to take a week and come to Virginia and let me drag you around to see how "our" wines stack up. Don't know if we have any events that are aimed at professional buyers. The festivals are pretty awful with all the drunk 20-year olds, so i would not want to subject you to that, but would love to get you tothis coast some time.

Winey The Elder said...

I hate mass tastings. I've never been to a trade tasting, obviously. The small cramped events at local wine shops are more than I can take. Don't have the eye, palate or temperament for these things. Sort of remind me of being at a burlesque show: all the swirling and posing,flashing costumes and cleavage coming at you nonstop. It's hard for me to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of the performers. Don't get me wrong: I'm a big fan of the boob, natural or otherwise, but when they are thrust at you, around you, over you in nonstop regalia, it overwhelms the senses. Hard to properly appreciate the "sumptuous and curvy fruit" and no chance to fully imagine how they might "zip along the sides of my tongue and make my mouth tingle" or be "fuller, rounder and softer in the mouth".

For me, wine, and boobs for that matter, is/are better appreciated in a more contemplative setting, far away from the madding crowd. I'm glad that you can handle it - albeit reluctantly - so that I can learn of wines that I would not otherwise be inclined to try. Thanks for taking one for the team, in your pursuit of balance.


Samantha Dugan said...

Rogue Wino,
Oh I have no idea which Pinot it was, I was just so damn foolishly excited to be there that I bought us the bottle to share. Was delicious with the steak sandwich I had though. My biggest gripe about most California wine is the price. Whenever we do one of our tastings of $20 and Under wines there are so few California wines in the lineup that it sort of bothers me. How can these other wines from all over the world, have importer and often distributor hands in the money pile and still they offer greater QPR?! Drives me nutty, and as a retailer it my job to give the consumer the best wine for whichever price point and sadly, they are often from outside California.

You know, that is one of the things I've failed on while traveling around the US, I should be tasting wines from the states I visit, even if it's just for fun. I was just in Texas and have heard things about the wines there, and I know they are clearly no match for what we have here in California, but I still should have tried to a least taste one. If I plan a trip your way I will totally hit you up and maybe you could take me to my soul mate's winery even...

Wow, never noticed how much my tasting notes sound like I could be talking about flesh...I think I like it! These events are a horrible place to really appreciate anything, I mean aside from what assholes many in our industry can be. Have to say this one was one of the worst as far as posers, hipsters and name tag sniffers....cheesed me off as if this post didn't make that clear. nice to hear from you!

Unknown said...

I had the Arnot Roberts last time I was in California, and I was amazed by how subtle it was. Most California Chardonnay with "buzz" usually feels overdone and clunky on my palate, but I thought the Arnot-Roberts was more of a whisper, and I was blown away by it. If that's the type of wine that the new generation of hipster winos is drinking, then I'll put up with their tight pants and terrible taste in music

Charlie Olken said...

Hi Sam--

Glad there was an LA version of this event. These wines are right up your alley, and while the proponents like to think that they are trendsetters, there have been wines of this ilk forever in CA.

You did not mention Donkey and Goat, but I think I have heard you comment that you have their wines in your shop. Jared Wright and I share this view that this is not new, but a distinct and continuing subset of the CA industry.

Wineries like Varner have been in business for a couple of decades as have Littorai and several others that you mentioned.

I was a bit surprised that you were underwhelmed by the Sandhi wines. I had just the opposite reaction, although it might have been last year's wine as I tasted them down Sta Barb way last June. Raj Parr gets both the credit and the blame for the excesses of the IPOB group, but I was blown away by the way in which his wines managed to combine acidity that I might normally find too high and fruit that, while not in the least "CA curvy", managed to bring the wines into balance for the most part.

I do agree that Varner is one of the wineries that manages to get the curvy part right while still maintaining great balance.

Wineries like HdV and Marimar have been doing the same thing for quite a while now, and David Ramey's wines, Greg Bjornstad's wines and Lee Hudson's own wines (altho riper than the IPOB model) are all curvy and bristling with lively acidity at the same time.

The "endorsed" style is a perfectly legitimate CA style--always has been. That these folks are trying to make it into some kind of latter day coming while patting themselves on the back is the part that I (and maybe Ron) find bothersome.

Still, I am glad you got to taste those wines. Maybe we can make you a "California snob" yet. :-}

Samantha Dugan said...

Arnot-Roberts (pronounced not Arno but Arnit by the way. "Arnit like darn it" we were told by Mr. Arnot himself)wines are totally thrilling and there are some serious "hipster" elements to what they're doing, I mean a Rose made of Touriga Nacional?! But I think their Chardonnays are some of the best, for my kind of palate, coming out of California. I'm with you, a little less hipster would be nice but I'll deal with them just fine so long as I can drink those wines!

Charlie My Dear,
There was definitely an aura of, "The new wave" at this event, and I thought of you right away when I sensed it. It wasn't from the winemakers, (well there were two of them that were smug as of them still got a nice write up here actually) but the young and super hip...and I agree, it's fucking annoying. I've always known there had to be domestic wines that would suit me, just wasn't willing to spend a bunch of money trying to find 'em. It was getting close to you and Ron that made me stretch my palate and seek them out, so thank for that sweet man!