Musings on Pinot

There is something immediate and eye-opening about the direct experience of travel to a far-away country. The hospitality industry as a whole caters to tourists yearning for the experience of a people and a place, yet, mostly offers up a simulacrum of the real thing. This is even more true with the vast majority of wine tourism. Can you really be a fly on the wall at the cultural and artisanal moment of creation? Can you take a peek behind the curtain to see how the daily life of farming grapes ends up in the bottle of wine you love at home? Maybe, in some special instances, if the winery is small, the people who you meet are the actual “doers,” and you are offered an intimate visit. In our industry, though, the best way to gain that all meaningful insight is to actually join the doers: To sign up to work harvest. Not much of a vacation, eh?

A pleasant discovery for Vanessa and me was the access and openness that Burgundian winemakers allowed us when we came by to meet them in the offseason. This was unexpected as Burgundy is a wine region known for its impenetrability due to the great demand for their hospitality and the scant amount of their wines. On his last visit Andy tasted at one winery from a producer’s barrel (singular!) of Clos de la Roche. He watched him top up the single barrel with a $120 bottle of last year’s vintage. I’m not really sure why we were given such amiable access but I think it probably was Vanessa’s fluency in French and that we asked geeky grapegrowing and winemaking technical questions. As I’ve said in the past I’m a reluctant traveler, because I’m tied to the land, yes, but also because authenticity is so hard to come by. Burgundy has in the past allowed us a glimpse of the authentic experience and, in doing so, refueled our passion for making Pinot noir.

I just came across the statistic that Pinot is the seventh-most planted variety by acreage on the planet, which is actually an enormous move up in the rankings. When I was growing up in Ohio, Burgundy was the only region where you could experience Pinot noir. I’m sure you’ve heard Burgundy is a temperamental child; coming at perfection mostly from the side of being too angular and/or too lean due to the weather being too wet and the season too short. The savvy buyer had to really know his vintages and be willing to reward the vintners when the weather cooperated. As a result, Burgundy was too likely to turn out to be an expensive disappointment. We grew up in a house with Bordeaux wines on the table with dinner. I seem to remember Chateau Graville Lacoste Graves, Chateau Lascombes Margaux. Also making a frequent appearance was a vino di tavola Rosso di Montalcino “just over the line from ­Brunello di Montalcino.” But, no Pinot noir. I imagine Dad had never tasted the magic that Miles of Sideways discovered.

“Miles: I don’t know. It’s a hard grape to grow. As you know, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention and in fact can only grow in specific little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it really, can tap into Pinot’s most fragile, delicate qualities. Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.”

He is on to something. I can relate to the haunting, brilliant, subtle flavors that speak of a place; those little tucked-away corners that have a taste each to their own. This is perhaps most transparent with Pinot noir over all other varieties and even more so when the goal of the vigneron is to capture and share that place with his consumer. We have found our little corner to be richly rewarding in the departments of haunting, brilliant and subtle. It has been said “our wines speak with a Burgundian accent, but they are not Burgundy.” Precisely. Our Pinots do not taste like Burgundy nor will they ever.  They are of this place, this intersection of wind from the Pacific, coastally intense rain (but not in the summer!), sometimes foggy mornings and cool afternoons, a day-length waxing and waning particular to our exact latitude, and the soil, our particular brand of uplifted ocean floor named the Ohlson formation dating from the Pliocene epoch. And then, of course, there is the human hand, ours! It plays a key role in our terroir as we determine how to farm, when to pick, and how to make the wine, all based on our cultural backgrounds and direct experiences.

When did Pinot noir work its way into my consciousness such that it became my overriding all around obsession, with Burgundy as my lodestar? I remember a Zachy’s mixed case of 1990 vintage premier and grand cru Burgundy, most drunk young, infanticide. The year was 1994. There was definitely a Groffier Les Amoureuses, a Grivot Vougeot. These wines I often shared with my brother, Andy, who was living in Berkeley at the time, having a bit of a cooking renaissance, dipping into tomes our mother had given us like Marion Morash’s cookbooks. He’d cook, I’d bring wine. Was there Pinot exposure for me before that? When I was studying enology at U.C. Davis, Ken Burnap came and spoke to our class. He poured mid-eighties Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard pinot. It was a low-yield, dry-farmed site and the wine was really tannic. David Lett spoke, and poured his silky Eyrie Pinots. This would have occurred between 1990 and 1993. DEVO, the department social organization, organized tastings of all kinds of wine, including benchmarks like good vintage Burgundy. I remember a tasting of 1985 vintage vs. 1986 vintage Echezaux and I think it was DRC at that tasting that really opened my eyes to Pinot.

And then there was Bill’s fascination with Pinot noir. My first wine biz boss and mentor Bill Smith had wondrous, volcanic-soiled mountain cabernet to play with, yet he yearned for the perfect pinot source to provide the ethereal, perfumed magic that he ultimately learned could be grown out here in the coastal mountains. Over the years he shared with me the progress of his pinot source hunt, from Oregon to Quail Hill in the Russian River Valley to Gard Hellenthal’s vineyard located next to David Hirsch in the Fort Ross region of the Sonoma Coast. I was exposed to a range of Pinot noir and to that fire-y passion that it created in Bill.

That first crush job at La Jota in 1988 certainly inspired me to want to grow and make my own wine, and over time I learned that I, too, wanted to find that perfect coastal hilltop vineyard site for Pinot noir. And there’s nothing like drinking a tall draft of inspiration by traveling to Burgundy, the land where my dreams, if not my vines, are sown. If I could just get all these loose ends tied down – the netting pulled up on the coloring Pinot, the bottling at the end of the month, finishing this newsletter article – then I could find the time to make progress on my trip to Burgundy a reality.

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