Saturday, May 31, 2008

Asmodeus in the Valleys

SOME OF YOU have probably noticed that, though it's summer and prime wine drinking time, I haven't been reviewing so many bottles. Unlike my hiatus in March, I haven't been abstaining. I've been drinking tiny amounts of an enormous number of wines.

For the past few years I've been spending a few days of May in Napa and Sonoma. There's a conference I go to out there, and I'm allergic to my home state in May. But also, there are some good wines in Napa and Sonoma. Before three years ago, the only winery I'd been to was in Spain, and that is an experience I will never remember--after all, I was about 17 when it happened. Here is a picture of someone who looks much like me, emerging from a vat during that trip, tasting cup in hand.
Asmodeus visita a la bodega, circa 1987.
(Now that I look at this photo, in the wake of many years, I see from the couple in the background that I was perhaps less inebriated by comparison than I thought.)

The famousness of Napa and Sonoma means that there are hundreds of wineries and thousands of tourists all the time. Most of them are not wine experts, so the experience of tasting in the valleys is a strange one for someone who really likes wine and has tasted a lot of it. There's good advice out there on the web for how to make the most of trips to wineries, so I won't repeat it except to say drink lots of water and don't plan to visit too many places in one day. The people who make and serve the wine are the most excellent (see, I've been in California, where they say things like that) thing about any wine country, so come ready to confess your shortcomings, tell your best wine stories, and listen to theirs.

Last year I went to Napa right after being caught in the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles. The whole neighborhood I was in was evacuated to a high school that was directly in the path of the smoke from the fire; I had a horrific allergic reaction that made it impossible for me to taste anything for a week afterwards. So all I got out of Napa and Sonoma last year was experiments in "mouthfeel."

Well, that's not all. Wine country in California (whether north of San Francisco or the Central Coast or wherever) is stunningly beautiful. No pictures capture it; it is temperature, aromas (eucalyptus and fertilizer, or fermenting berries, or wood-fires and pine), the texture of vineyards, wind, redwoods, switchback roads, potholes on highway 29--all of this. It's easier to see these things clearly if you go in April or May, and go during the week rather than a weekend.

This year was a little odd, too, because Robert Mondavi passed away while I was there. Everywhere I went I heard stories about him, so I felt more embedded in the "deep time" (and also the tight economic weave) of Napa than usual. But rather than just go to the boutique places that I'm really excited about now (Elizabeth Spencer) or the places I've always loved (V. Sattui) I tried to expand my vistas this time.

It's impossible to schematize the wineries in Napa and Sonoma, but I think it might be useful to take a stab at it, since most wine drinkers never get a chance, or more than one chance, to go there. So let me make an important distinction, stereotype a little bit, and then tell a couple of stories.

First, there's a distinction between the experience of a winery's tasting room and its marketplace profile. That is, there are massive winemakers (Gallo; Mondavi), medium winemakers (St. Francis; Sonoma Cutrer); small wineries (Larkmead; Conn Valley); boutique or winery-only-distributed joints (Crane Brothers; V. Sattui); and makers so small that, while having cult followings, it's hard for non-oenophiles even to find out about them (like Terry Hoage in Paso Robles, about whom more later). The whole industry is like a high school from a John Hughes movie: everybody knows everybody and everything is changing all the time--alliances, partnerships, apprenticeships, and so forth--creating a frothy experimental environment founded on some of the best grapes in the world. Listen to the conversation at the table next to you at Artisan or Matthew's in Paso Robles; it's bound to be educational. You'll hear guys who run picking crews who were hired because they speak the obscure Mixtec dialect that the latest round of field workers speak and who have their own vineyards on the side or who work for distributors; you'll hear the latest gossip about new hires or small winemakers furtively whispering to each other about how awesome the Charbono grape is; and much more.

But boutique wineries can have Disney-esque tasting rooms. Established makers like B.V. and St. Supery can have laid-back, but seriously educational ones. Some places, like Freemark Abbey, will do comparative tastings of old wines with recent vintages of the same label; others will only give you the latest stuff released.

To stereotype a little, I found there to be three sorts of tasting room experiences worth differentiating (though the hospitality design folks will doubtless insist that there are twice as many at least): The appointment-only, down-home experience; the friendly, open, tourist-sensitive but oenophile-adaptable experience; and the mostly for-show experience, which includes both Disneyfied tasting rooms and unbelievably pretentious wineries. Before describing some of these in Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles, let me disclaim that, while for me, wines from the Disneyfied tasting rooms tended not to be as good, there's no correlation extrapolable from this, both because wine is a matter of personal taste and because even at the newest, most pretentious winery in Rutherford, the Cabernet is unlikely to suck.

Sonoma: I love everywhere in Sonoma. It's beautiful, less trampled than Napa, and less subject to palate-deadening from repeated Cabernet bastings. Gloria Ferrer doesn't do tastings, but a glass of their sophisticated sparkling offerings and some of their free almonds taken out on a veranda overlooking a hillside of chardonnay vines is unforgettable. Things are more goofy at Cline, but they make a couple of the best wines in America. It's less regal at Grundlach-Bundschu, but the wines are even better. At St. Francis, try the Cabernet Franc to see one of the secrets of the widespread success of these wines. To see some of the local politics, take one of the ill-maintained mountain roads over to Napa and read the signs, the messages painted on the road, and the election banners in various front yards.

V. Sattui in Napa is a carnival, but you can't trust anything I say about it, because, for entirely selfish reasons, I don't want you to go there and it's already too popular. Serious: Ehlers, a non-profit winery and ecologically awesome, with a great Cabernet Franc; Larkmead, appointment-only; Elizabeth Spencer. Pretentious beyond imagination: Opus One; Darioush; Peju.

Peju is new and spectacularly self-conscious. They're open until 6 p.m., and I visited them immediately after going to one of the most established wineries in the valley, B.V., and drinking several of their reserve wines. There was a gleaming, white Ferrari parked in the circle in front of the winery when I got there, and one incredibly swanked-out Asian woman taking a picture of another incredibly swanked-out Asian girl (her daughter, as it turned out), so that, together with the fountains and ridiculously expensive building materials, set the tone. Then there was a wait to taste: a sign saying, wait here for the next tasting, while twenty feet away you could see fourteen people tasting and having a big ol' time with the pourer. When you finally were admitted to the tasting area, it turned out to be not the usual shoot-the-shit session with a pourer as in most places in Napa (my favorite was with Amy at Conn Creek), but instead a one-man show with bottles. It was so put-on that I thought at one point the pourer would start juggling .750s of Pinot Noir. The wine was not that great.

Darioush has a second label called CARAVAN that's worth the money. The Persian-palace architecture, million-dollar furnishings, multiple video screens, and roped-off areas with signs telling you redundantly that you can't go there are designed for something, to produce some reaction in tasters that I do not understand. But most importantly, while their Cabernet is good, it's no better than CARAVAN, is much more expensive, and lacks wisdom from Rumi (or anyone else) on the back label.

I went to Paso Robles because I think some of the best wine in the world is starting to come out of there. Apart from falling into a sulphur spring and having to buy new shoes as a result, I had a fantastic time. The business is booming there--on the drive down, on 101, you'll pass through thousands and thousands of acres of vines, disturbing in their magnitude for anyone who's been to France or Spain: the Central Coast mother lode. But it's not as toney as Napa or Sonoma, and most of the wineries are still boutique, often with tastings by appointment only. Everyone is friendly, so pick up the phone and make a date.

This doesn't mean that there aren't Disneyfied experiences. Tobin James is one of the most important makers in the area, and the tasting room is a spectacle of crypto-Wild West kitsch. They make you taste about a dozen wines, too, so it's hard to remember what happened there. This much I remember: the Sangiovese was fantastic, and those words don't come out of my face often. This is a key to what's happening in Paso Robles; varietals like Sangiovese, Grenache, and Mourvedre thrive there.

A sticky swine at Eberle.
For a slightly less cowboyish, but equally old-school-Paso Robles experience, I went to Eberle. Eberle, according to the German oenos I went on the cave tour with, means "small male wild boar" in German. Thus, henceforth we will call this the "Eberle Swinery."* They have super-cool caves in which, for a modest fee, you can get married and/or drunk, and more importantly, they have an extraordinary wine I didn't know they made: Côtes-du-Rôbles. (A side note; the wineries on the East side of Paso seem to be into putting embroidered stickers on you; see illustration.)

From the swinery I went to an even more serious winery, Tablas Creek. It's way up in the hills, and more than worth the drive. Their Esprit de Beaucastel and Côtes de Tablas are fantastic wines; they were tasting the Mourvedre (an important ingredient in both of these French-style blends) while I was there and it was a revelation.

Back in town, I ate dinner at two excellent places, Villa Creek (a restaurant and a winery; Robert Parker loves Villa Creek wines more than I do, but their GSM is pretty damn fine) and Artisan.

I wish I'd had a chance to set up a tasting at Terry Hoage Vineyards, because both at Villa Creek and at Artisan all the talk was about him and his stellar wines (he also sells grapes to other boutique winemakers). Like many Paso wineries, Hoage makes Rhone blends. The wine brokers sitting next to me were talking about Hoage when he walked into the restaurant, with three guests and two already-open bottles of wine. The feeling in the room was exactly like the one that happens in Nashville when John Rich walks into a venue. Hoage appears much more calm and self-possessed than Mr. Rich, but he is bigger than life--remembers everyone's names, gives credit all around the room, and moves with a quiet confidence that makes Peju look like a cheap online advertisement for low mortgage rates. And I haven't even tried one of his wines yet.

It is an amazing time for winemaking in this country, and particularly on the West Coast. But if you are lucky enough to visit a winery, be sure to notice the show, and the people behind it, as much as the wine. There's a special kind of eclecticism, or perhaps insanity, involved in any craft, I suppose, but this one has some unusually bodacious side effects.

*This joke shamelessly extrapolated from a slip of the tongue by one of my generous hosts later that week in Los Angeles.