Sunday, July 13, 2008


To be fair and balanced, my California jaunt involved more than stepping on a landmine at The French Laundry. One, my sister got married and I inherited sole responsibility of keeping the family name alive. Two, I did a 36-hour tour of Napa and Sonoma where my cup ranneth over with all the juice I could gargle.

An early-morning drive to Calistoga--a pastoral oasis after the Hamptons-esque vibe of 29 as it cleaves Rutherford and St. Helena--ended at Chateau Montelena. As Odette Kahn's vengeful spirit hissed at us from the rafters, we tasted eight wines beginning with a crackling, powerful Potter Valley Riesling and ending with a 1989 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon that, blindfolded, I would have pegged as a high-end St. Julien. Roaming the grounds was therapeutic, notwithstanding a faceoff with a three-legged turtle (below).

We ditched the car in St. Helena and continued south on bicycles. I hate bicycles. My knees and neck were wretched after 800 meters. The pickup trucks screaming past inches from my left elbow got progressively older and rattlier as we approached the next merciful stop. At Hall, we sipped brooding, chocolaty cabs with a Frank Gehry skeleton looming in the background. I thought of the Atlantic Yards and reflexively spit on the ground.

On the road again, a familiar sign came into view beyond some protruding train tracks: Provenance, a new-ish Rutherford winery that I had encountered months ago at a tasting conducted by its winemaker Tom Rinaldi. This was not on the itinerary. I hollered at my friends, far ahead of me at this point, to please stop. The opposing wind slapped my voice back into my face as they pulled further away.

Now how's this for fate: Just past the far corner of the vineyard, the speed demon so indifferent to my floundering yelped and swerved off the road towards the tracks. The chain had detached from the gears of his bike. With an earnest effort to hide my schadenfreude, I pulled up next to him and gently suggested we walk back to Provenance to catch "our" breath.

Between nosings of a lush, unabashedly American Sauvignon Blanc, I identified myself to the pourer and asked if Tom was by any chance around. Affirmative. Tall, bearded, and emanating an intelligence as laid-back as vast, he is the quintessential California wine dude. I would have been stoked with a simple "nice to see you again", so when he blindsided us with a comprehensive tour of the fermenting, aging, and bottling facilities--holy shit! The thrill of staring into a huge box containing maybe 10,000 corks was eclipsed only by the Wonka-esque bottle assembly line full of sound (metal clanks, hydraulic whooshes) and fury (corks slammed into openings, labels smacked on faces). And, just to verify that he is in fact Batman, Tom fixed the crippled bike and sent us on our way.

To Quintessa. Even the eye candy on the Silverado Trail can't prepare you for how incredible this estate is. First off, 280 acres--this is COLOSSAL compared to neighboring wineries. The structure itself is a sprawling crescent embedded into an east-facing hillside. Guzzling my third complimentary split of Voss in the cathedral-like reception area, I was reminded of Cameron Frye's house: "It's very beautiful and very cold, and you're not allowed to touch anything". You can touch stuff at Quintessa, but it's the kind of place where a drop of water reverberates for ten seconds.

Underground, narrow candlelit corridors jutted spoke-like from a central fountain. Barrels everywhere. How nice to sniff the same wood (below) that may or may not have been selected by M. Michel Rolland (whom I consider a genius, more on that later). Our tasting was the 2005 Red alongside young, unblended lots of Cabernet Sauvignon. It was an instructive exercise in the craft of blending--tasting the pure cab made it possible to imagine exactly how the blend would taste without it. Ending with posh canapes prepared onsite, the Quintessa experience was an appropriately bling-bling farewell to Napa. I'm never getting on a bike again.

Eighteen hours later we were lost in Sebastopol, desperately searching for the Gravenstein Highway so as not to be any later than we already were to Dutton-Goldfield. Sonoma (below) has a very different vibe from Napa, with more clunky old farm equipment than BMW's in the scenery. There are even redwoods and a townie or two hundred. W instantly formulated plans to move there by 2012.

Dan Goldfield
, alongside whom I've had the privilege of pouring, is to me the potions master of the Russian River Valley. He keeps his non-Zin wines under 14.0%, achieving Burgundian finesse without sacrificing American muscle. His Rued Vineyard Chardonnay 2005 is the best American white I've ever had. The wizard was gone from his workshop that morning, but his colleagues treated us to A LOT of barrel samples, including embryonic single-vineyard wines that I'd never encountered on the east coast. Couldn't bear to spit.

Our last NoCal stop was Iron Horse. I'd always known it primarily as a bubble factory, and was caught off guard by an array of impressive dry red wines, particularly the T-Bar-T Bdx-3 2004. Robot name aside, it's a toothsome, dense Cab/Cab/Petit Verdot cuvee made from young vine Alexander Valley grapes. It has a refreshing old-world austerity and pulls off the cigar-box-full-of-fresh-mud Bordeaux thing with style. Of the sparklers, the pointy, complex Wedding Cuvee 2005 beats the creamy, opulent Russian Cuvee 2003 by a nose, and you can tell the poor pourers are so tired of having to repeat the Gorbachev anecdote to every visiting bumpkin.

That did it for "wine country", though I'll quickly mention a couple of fortuitous Cal-Ital discoveries during the long drive south: Witch Creek Winery's jammy, meaty Aglianico (Mexican-grown fruit!) was booming when the winemaker pulled a dram of the '07 from barrel, so I'm interested to see how a the '06 I bought will be after a year (or two, if I can bear the suspense). And I left a pit stop in Paso Robles with a bottle of Pianetta Sangiovese 2005. Kool-aid for grownups--that's the only way I can describe the intensity of the cherry flavors in the best treatment of this varietal I've ever tasted from outside The Boot.

I'm left with rumblings that I'd like to be a winemaker one day, though completing the prerequisites to apply to Davis would take at least two years. What's neat, however, is that with average price of Napa land hovering around a hundred grand per acre, California's status as the only US destination for an interesting winemaking career is going to be on the ropes by the time I'd theoretically be graduating from an academic program. I guess it is already, what with it raining great juice in Oregon, Washington, and New York every year. But they'll eventually be Napa-fied to some extent, and I'll optimistically posit that the next wave of scrappy winemakers will find a way to wrest magic from the terroir in Virginia, Texas, The Carolinas, Pennsylvania... Raise a Kluge to that happy thought.

P.S. In case you hadn't heard, California is ON FIRE. Here's what it looks like driving past Santa Barbara just before sunset.

The silver flecks are ash reflecting the camera flash. Guess what the "clouds" are. Ultra-premium Sonoma winery Hanzell had a near miss the day before we were in that area. How many vintages will pass before at least one major vineyard gets speed-raisinated by a roaring inferno? I'd wager you can count them on one peace sign.

Recent notables:
  • Nicolas Feuillate Palmes d'Or 1997 - I've never been a huge fan of the Feuillate style (see earlier post about the champagnes I dig), but this prestige cuvee carries itself with a voluptuous dignity. It's light, no doubt, but there's a creamy, bready intimation towards the back that keeps it level and swallowable. A long and satisfying finish elevates it to memorable.
  • Taittinger Prelude NV - Fine mousse. Lemony with considerably more body than the delicious Brut Francaise. Toasted nut notes and lots of flowers define the midpalate and finish. Accompanying berries and whipped cream, goddamn.
  • Conundrum 2006 - I guess I can't be surprised that this boastfully off-dry California heavy is a love-it-or-hate-it wine, but for my money there's nothing better with sharp cheeses. Five odd-couple white varietals play very nicely together in this bottle, generating tropical and floral flavors coated in oaky vanilla.

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