Tag Archives: California

On a Mission

Picture postcard stuff, this: it is a gloriously sunny northern California day, and we are sitting on the veranda of a century-old Hacienda, looking out over the very first parcel of land to produce wine in California, and admiring a Hollywood-type vista of vines and palm trees – and a restored turkey warehouse.

Hard to beat, this wine tasting lark. Heaven on earth. A rose Pinot Noir 2021 is reasonably deep in colour, and has a rich and expressive nose. Others describe it as guava and lime, but I get shedloads of raspberries. It has more body than most roses and has a beautiful firm textured mouthfeel.

But first, some history: in 1858, Emil Dresel, a German son of a wine producer in Weisenheim, emigrated to California in search of his fortune. On 12th March 1849 he purchased 400 acres of land two miles east of Sonoma Square, the spot where, just 10 years before, the Bear Flag Revolt had established California as a state in the American Union.

Emil planted cuttings of Riesling and Sylvaner, brought from his homeland, and possibly the first of those varieties imported to the United States. Emil and his brother Julius went on to become wine industry leaders, fervent Abolitionists, gamblers, land stewards – and intermittent outlaws.

Fast forward to 2007, when fourth-generation California farmers and brothers Andrew and Adam Mariani (of Croatian descent) took over the property, and christened it Scribe. Both had an interest in wine, having spent post-college stints at vineyards in Europe and South Africa. The property was a mess; a dilapidated turkey farm which had served as a brothel and a speakeasy! Over time, the brothers restored its soil, and in the process even unearthed a handful of treasures from its past—Prohibition-era glass and other old china, antique work stools and even opium vials.

“We planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. We also retained a tiny amount of the Sylvaner  – the only two hectares in the whole of the US – and a precious two acres of Mission,” says Adam.

Adam and Andrew sit before us, a sea of denim and a shared enthusiasm for sustainable winemaking that borders on the evangelical. Impossible to dislike these guys.

As we speak, Matt Ahern, the personable head honcho of the Scribe sales team, pours us the 2021 Rose Pet Nat. This is unusual in that it is a Pet Nat that actually tastes nice! It has a gorgeous nose of pink grapefruit and elderflower and – oddly – nettles. Huge mouthfeel, lots of body and – clean! Very moreish. Expect the Unexpected.

Next up, served with a smorgasbord of hors d’oeuvres, is a 2020 estate Chardonnay, harvested from a vineyard on the slope of Arrowhead Mountain in the southern Mayacamas, which has a steely, Chablis-like feel to it. Adam explains that the weight on the palate comes not from wood but from the intensity of fruit. Again, it has lovely texture.

But there is more to this place than wine. You feel as though you could kick off your boots, put your feet up and stay a long long time. Somewhere I read that Scribe is all about appealing to young, social wine lovers who feel that in a digital world, real luxury is good farming, good food and drink, and good people. The only bit I don’t qualify for is “young.”

Andrew explains that they farm as sustainably as possible, but are “pulling away from “Natural”,” feeling it too restraining. “We don’t call this wine “Orange” he says, as we taste a 2021 Chardonnay. “We call it “Skin Contact”.” It is beautifully aromatic, crunchy fruit and bags of salinity. “We look for nuance,” he says.

An estate 2020 Pinot Noir (about to be replaced by the 2021) has lovely soft red fruit, and then gamey nuances, and on the palate has that ravishing acidity that is the hallmark of good Pinot. Extremely soft tannins.

The wines are great, but we are desperate to taste the fabled Mission (Chile’s Pais, of course.) And, boy, it doesn’t disappoint. The nose is of bark and red clay, and on the palate is lovely soft raspberry jam fruit and those strawberry toffees you used to eat as a kid. Adam describes it as being somewhere between a Pinot and a Syrah. One of the highlights of the entire trip.

We finish with a Cabernet Sauvignon, which I hadn’t realised they made. “We’ve always had a foot in the Napa,” says Adam. They make two, from Atlas Peak East and Atlas Peak West; this is the east version. It is so ripe and juice that Steve describes it as “Bordeaux, but with nicer tannins and without the brett.”

I look out at the scene again. Everything seems so understated, so stylish – even the labels. And it would be easy for Andrew and Adam to look just a little self-assured. But in actual fact they are as courteous and humble a twosome as you could ever wish to meet. Matt is made of the same ilk.

And the hacienda does feel like a home. It was redesigned by artisan friends. Extended members of the family work here in what has been described as a perfectly-curated family business; Kelly Mariani, a veteran of Chez Panisse, looks after the kitchen; there are cushions and soft furnishings everywhere and it wouldn’t surprise you to see Joni Mitchell and James Taylor sitting cross-legged and strumming their guitars  – feather canyons everywhere – (which is appropriate because Andrew’s wife is the singer-songwriter Lia Ices); they have a writers’ residency (one of whom was essayist Sloane Crossly); and you expect at any moment they will all hunker down in front of some burning logs with a wood-fired pizza and the music clunked high.

Stylish wines. Stylish place. Stylish people.

A Sense of Place

Sometimes wine has the capacity to delight. Sometimes it has the capacity to surprise.

And sometimes it has the capacity to amaze.

We’re at the Senses Wines vineyard in Sonoma County with owner Christopher Lloyd Strieter. We are surrounded by a Gods-Own country of redwood trees, organically grown vegetables and artisanal breads. But I don’t really register any of that. All I am thinking is: How can something be this good? How can they have come so far so quickly?

The story of “they” is brief. Senses Wines was founded in 2011 by three childhood friends from Occidental: Christopher Lloyd Strieter, Max Thieriot, and Myles Lawrence-Briggs. All were just 22 years old. All either had family ties with the wine industry or at least some related work experience. (Christopher, for instance, had majored in Finance, Economics and Physics, before slogging away in inventory at VinFillment warehouse and working with Williams Selyem and Jess Jackson of Jackson Family Wines.)

Now here’s the first BIG FACT. They had one major advantage: Max’s family had planted and owned a stunning vineyard – the BA Thieriot vineyard, five miles from the Pacific Ocean, and next to the town of Bodega of Hitchcock’s The Birds fame – which at that time sold grapes, but not wine. “Wouldn’t it be cool to turn those grapes into wine, we thought,” says Christopher.

Here comes the second BIG FACT. The three decided not to seek investors, but to pool all of their limited savings into the scheme. To this day they have no investors (and no safety net.) They made 112 cases in 2011 and reinvested everything over the years. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We just concentrated on paying the bills.”

Third BIG FACT coming up: Max Thieriot became a well-known actor, starring in Bates Motel and SEAL Team. So they are guaranteed publicity.

As well as the BA Thieriot vineyard, they began to source Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit from high quality vines throughout the Sonoma Coast and Russian River areas. Quality was always the key. Now they deal with about twelve different vineyards.

But a turning point came with the fourth BIG FACT: ace winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown approached them to make their wines. “He offered to make wine for us if we sold him some of our premium fruit for his other wines.” Brown was once named ‘winemaker of the year’ by Food & Wine Magazine, and has received perfect scores from The Wine Advocate and many others.

Fifth BIG FACT: they decided to sell their wines directly rather than through wholesalers or Cellar Door (they don’t have a cellar door.) “We sell primarily through the mailing list to thousands of people within the U.S.” Today, their business is booming, while the waiting list for their vintages grows.

Senses Wines (on the label the second letter ‘e’ has been substituted with the number ‘3’ representing the three founders and the three wine senses of sight, scent and sip) first became a boutique, and then a cult.

All of this is interesting, of course, but what turns interesting into fascinating is to learn of it while tasting the wines. Because they taste extraordinary.

 Christopher pours a 2020 Russian River Chardonnay. I immediately think: Puligny-Montrachet. It’s a lovely floating-on-air wine, a hint of ice cream sundae with a smidgeon of lime. Firm acidity. Brilliant lightness of touch.

A 2020 Charles Heitz Chardonnay is pure Burgundian, with a honeysuckle and cream nose, balanced by perfect acidity.

But Christopher is keen to state “We shouldn’t ape Burgundy. We are Occidental, Sonoma County, West Sonoma Coast. We don’t want opulent and rich. We want elegance”

A 2020 UV El Diablo Chardonnay has more body to it, a whisper of toast, more creaminess, more Meursault-like (I merrily ignore Christopher’s non-Burgundian plea.)

Finally, their estate 2020 BA Thieriot Chardonnay: I only rarely get to taste Le Montrachet, but I can’t help being reminded of it. A staggering combination of pure fruit and perfect acidity.

As we taste, and then walk the vineyards (with Christopher pointing out where he used to play as a kid) I still can’t get my head round it. “How come you’ve become so successful so quickly?”

He laughs. “We are meticulous about everything and we do it all in-house. I’m the spreadsheet guy and the lucky one to host events around the world. I do the numbers and we keep things very tight. Max does all things branding and gets us air time. Myles is in the vineyard, and helps with production and events.”

Yes, they have had a couple of advantages, but Christopher is keen to stress a couple of things: “We didn’t have any pre-conceived ideas, no history baggage. And we did work hard with our winery friends and always made sure we kept on friendly terms.”

But these wines are so good, and I still don’t get it. But there is one other thing at the back of my mind. Christopher had also told us that they have 50,000 followers on social media. It was always going to be that way, of course, for three young educated hipsters. But not many others wineries have that clout. I was reminded of the success that Barack Obama had had when first running for president with a new form of politicking via social media. A new way. But the point is that no matter how savvy your marketing and selling skills are, the wines have got to match up.

And if the Chardonnays are good, the Pinot Noirs are mind-blowing.

A 2019 Terra de Promissio Pinot Noir has sturdy young fruit, raspberries and rose petal, such lightness of touch!

A 2019 MCM88 Pinot Noir is sturdier and creamier with a lovely plummy finish. This wine hails from the vineyard formerly known as Keefer Ranch, top-of-class Russian River Valley fruit and terroir.

Finally, from their other estate, the 2019 Day One Pinot Noir has beautiful texture and mouth feel. Lovely dark velvety chocolate fruit, tannins firm and sweet. Supreme balance.

So: we end the tasting with me stunned. We stand on the veranda of the small house in the middle of the winery and gaze out over a beautiful landscape. “We’re farmers first and winemakers second,” says Christopher.

What a place in which to farm. What wines! And I still can’t work out how they’ve done it.

Zero Manipulation

So, we drive away from the Hollywood of Napa, via a homely breakfast of eggs over easy at Calistoga’s famous Café Sarafornia, heading to the more rugged Dry Creek area in the northern part of Sonoma County. Serious Zinfandel country.

If edgy Sonoma is Neil Young to Napa’s The Eagles, then Fred Peterson is your archetypal good ‘ole country boy who really couldn’t give a damn. Built like a brick outhouse, profuse and cussed, he looks like he has never seen a tie in his entire life. Curmudgeonly doesn’t even come close.

At 72, Fred now limits himself to mainly viticultural duties, including that of “main grape sampler,” having handed over winemaking to his son Jamie 15 or so years ago.

We are in their homely winery on Dry Creek Road. But Fred is quick to point out: “At my age, if I’m in the winery for more than 12 hours, I become a danger to myself and others.”

You can’t help but grin as you listen to him volunteering his views on the world, all delivered in a booming baritone. Marketing-speak this ain’t. And you think to yourself: it would be easy to underestimate him. But then you remember: this is the guy who was once vineyard manager at Monte Bello and Lytton Springs, of Paul Draper and Ridge fame, and you think: he must bring that expertise into his own wines, surely.

And you’d be right:

The Old School Zin 2017 – very competitively priced – has a beautiful redcurrant nose, a hint of salami, great mouthfeel and a long lingering red fruit finish.

Whereas the Bernier Vineyard Zin 2016 has touches of mint and cigar and is a more mature and bigger wine. Complex and reflective.

And the Bradford Mountain Zin 2016 is a bigger beast altogether, dark and deep, more black fruit than red, with a beautiful soft and supple mouthfeel.

Fred has an old world winemaking philosophy and a Zero Manipulation approach, meaning that he uses the most gentle, traditional low-tech/high touch winemaking practices to maximise the vintage and the vineyard. The result: No Soulless Wines. Tellingly, he tells us that in the domestic market, his wines fare better with distributors who sell more European-style wines.

He drives us up to Bradford Mountain, where he settled in 1983, building his home and planting vineyards, before founding Peterson Wines in 1987. The views from here towards Mount Saint Helena, are spectacular. But there is also lots of evidence of the terrible damage caused by forest fires.

“The advantages we have here are: first, the poor soils mean we don’t have to worry about excessive yields; second, these vineyards are so high you don’t have to worry about pests.”

He points to the vineyard on which he planted Vermentino, Verdelho and Vernaccia, resulting in the 3V White blend, whose 2019 vintage has a lovely soft melon nose and really good acidity. “We pride ourselves in the natural acidity in our wines,” explains Fred.

Two other wines which caught my attention:

The Zero Manipulation Carignan Grenache blend (2017) has amazing blackcurrant bubblegum and sherbet fruit, very well balanced and very very moreish.

Meanwhile, the 2017 Mendo Blendo (Petite Sirah and Syrah) has a lovely open nose of mint chocolate and a touch of anise. Good acidity, great mouthfeel. Great name!

Even after 45 years in the winemaking game, Fred is still searching, and has just returned from a four-week trip to Alsace, the Loire, Corbières and the Rhone to “re-charge the old batteries.”

Which is exactly what you feel after you’ve spend some time with Fred. Your battery has have been definitely recharged.

Going back to the middle.

“I am lucky in that I don’t have to make a house style. I am free to tell the story of the year.”

Most winemakers have an affinity with their vineyards. Most will extol their virtues, pay homage to them. And others go a little further. But Elizabeth Vianna is in love with her vineyards.

She stands before the Ganymede vineyard right outside the winery at Chimney Rock and describes Ganymede and its neighbours including Tomahawk, Clone 4 and the fantastically named Cardiac Hill, in a reverence which borders on poetry.

And the story of Ganymede is an interesting one on that it has a planting regime that I’ve not come across before. Initiated by Elizabeth’s predecessor, Doug Fletcher, Ganymede is planted on an asymmetrical trellising system, named the Fletcher Lyre, in which one side of the trellis is planted a few inches higher than the other side, which ensures fruit from both sides of the vine ripen at the same pace.

Situated on the famed Silverado Trail in Napa Valley’s renowned Stags Leap District, Chimney Rock was established in 1984 with the goal of creating wines that would compete against the best Bordeaux. All the vineyards in the 131-acre site are all within a quarter mile of each other, but each has its own unique terroir which has led to the creation of 28 distinct vineyard blocks on the property.

“So if you look at Tomahawk and Alpine, they are 100 yards from each other but they are chalk and cheese. Yin and Yang, if you may.”

Elizabeth became head winemaker at Chimney Rock in 2005. She has also served as President of the Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association. Sell effacing, yet obviously a star, she startles us when telling us that her husband was born in Burnley.

“Burnley in England?”

“Yes.”

Which you don’t expect when you are discussing wine on the Silverado Trail. Not only that, but her husband’s father was Frank “Tiger” Hill, who played professional for Arsenal and Scotland. He apparently got his nickname from the way he tackled.

All of which provides a humorous distraction when you are swirling a beautiful Elevage Blanc 2020 round the glass. The wine – 78% Sauvignon Gris, 22% Sauvignon Blanc – has stylish fruit, a touch of spice and cardamom, and beautiful texture in the mouth.

As you might expect, Elizabeth is keen to promote the idea of sustainability. “We do not use technology to bypass Mother Nature.” She is aiming for a net irrigation deficit in the vineyards; the winery is Green Certified by the California Land Stewardship Institute; they are100% solar powered; they have an Integrated pest management; they use cover crops planted between vineyard rows to help improve soil health; they foster predatory bird inhabitants to help with rodent control. (It often amuses me to learn how much of a nuisance in these parts are gophers – friendly looking mole-like chappies.)

You can’t help but chuckle when you listen to Elizabeth describing her babies. The youngest wines are aged in the Nursery barrel room, before being moved to the Teenager barrel room. Wines from the Alpine vineyard are unruly students running off in all directions, whereas Ganymedes are quieter, more reflective students.

We taste the Elevage Rouge 2020: dark, dense, broody kind of fruit. I sense a lot of rhubarb-type Cabernet Franc, but am surprised to learn it contains only 3% (as against of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot and 18% Petite Verdot.

As we move on, Elizabeth explains that she uses only free-run juice in the Chimney Rock-labelled estate wines.

The Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 has supple, inviting fruit on the nose. Masses of currants, red and black. Lovely integration of soft oak tannin. Beautifully balanced.

The Alpine 2016 has an epic nose, dark chocolate, black plums, tobacco. Sensuous, silky. Touch of anise on the palate. Delicious.

The Ganymede 2016 is softer, more delicate than the Alpine. Red fruits, lovely balance on the palate, lovely soft aftertaste.

“I’m not a fan of high alcohol wines,” says Elizabeth. “When I started, everyone wanted high alcohol, power, dark inky wines, and ripeness. But how much ripeness do you need? We lost freshness in favour of power. So we’ve been going back to the middle for a long time now.”

I love that expression: going back to the middle.

The Ganymede 2018 is pure Bordeaux, silky smooth tannins, cigar box and blackcurrants. Soft tannins.

The Clone 4 2018 is more extreme, dark heady black fruit, tannins very firm. “Small berries,” explains Elizabeth.

The Estate 2018 is serious fruit, pure black fruit, tobacco and cedar, ripe tannins and very soft.

As we conclude a superlative tasting, we all agree that the wines have supreme balance, a lovely combination of freshness added to the unmistakeable structure of Napa fruit.

What would Frank “Tiger” Hill make of all of this?

Now, here’s a thought, gentlemen…

The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA appellation is a mighty area around half an hour south of Monterey which makes some of California’s best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

We’re here to meet with Tony Franscioni, a fourth generation farmer whose family owns large plantings in the Gabilan Mountains in the eastern part of the Salinas Valley, and who is responsible for the Old Stage brand. The property is right across the valley from the Talbott vineyards and just below Chalone.

After Tony shows us around his estate – during which we shelter from the strong cooling breeze (it’s not called a cool-climate area for nothing!) – we get down to taste the wines with veteran winemaker consultant Dan Karlsen.

Dan tells us that the Franscioni vineyards have the right components to produce great wine. The Chardonnay vineyard is planted on deep sandy soils exposed to the full brunt of the Salinas valley winds, perfect for Chardonnay, preserving fruit character and acidity The Old Stage 2019 has really good no-nonsense fruit, touches of stone fruit, cream and a hint of vanilla. It has excellent balance, the acidity adding a lovely refreshing note.

The Pinot Noir comes from vineyards further up Chualar Canyon, more protected from the wind. Wind toughens up the skins, which is good for Chardonnay and bad for Pinot Noir. The 2019 vintage is a textbook example of the grape; strawberry and raspberry fruit balanced out by that uplifting acidity. Very more-ish.

As we taste, Dan – a hardwired gnarled 41-harvest veteran of Norwegian stock, takes us through his potted history. He has worked as a winemaker at Chalone, Estancia, Domaine Carneros, Talbott and Taittinger among others, retiring once before he got bored. Now he is a consultant, meaning no employees or HR stuff, just winemaking. The fun stuff. As our conversation rambles, a mixture of business and simply chewing the cud, he gives us his views on a wide range of topics and provides us with some fabulous one-lines, which I jot down in between laughing.

On how to be a winemaker: “Grow a good grape. Then don’t screw it up. Simple.”

On the difficulties of winemaking: “Vineyards are like a bell-shaped curve. You get under-ripe grapes, ripe grapes, and over-ripe grapes. And the main problem you have is: homogeneity. How do you ensure that every grape is at the same ripeness? How do you get that in a large vineyard? What I used to try to do to achieve consistency was to pick from the centre of the rows and leave both ends until the end.”

On the influence of oak: “There’s no such thing as an over-oaked wine. There are only under-wined wines.”

On malolactic fermentation: “I only do a partial malolactic fermentation. Malo steals the life-force from the wine.”

But he reserves his strongest views on cork: “Cork is good for Birkenstocks and dartboards. And that’s it.”

He tells us what he used to say to customers who bought wine from him. “I will guarantee that wine in screwcap for 30 years. I will guarantee that wine in cork for 30 feet.”

He finishes by telling us of a great story from a few years back. A bevvy of executives flew over from Portugal to take him to task for not using their cork closures. They gave him all of the statistics, how they had improved the quality of the cork, how things were much better, and he should really try them again. “Then I said to them? “When are you flying back home?” They told me: “Oh, tomorrow evening.” “Well here’s a thought, gentlemen. Would you get on an aircraft if it only had a 5% failure rate?”

Priceless!

The Language of Yes

We’re zipping up 101 to San Luis Obispo’s Edna Valley Winery to taste the fruits of a very unusual relationship. Iconoclast extraordinaire Randall Grahm, whom you would think revels in chaos, has joined forces with E&J Gallo, a company for whom efficiency is written into its corporate DNA.

The odd couple.

From Cigars (Flying) to the Rhône Ranger, Grahm has a long history of reimagining the traditions of France in a distinctly personal way. And this is his latest gig. The collaboration has resulted in a range called The Language of Yes. Bear with me; it takes some explaining.

According to Grahm, “The Language of Yes” or La Langue d’Oc, is the term that the medieval people of southern France used to describe who they were by how they spoke. The Language of Yes,” a precursor of modern Provençal, is a window to a particular sensibility – the language of the love poetry of the troubadours. “Great wine can only come from vignerons who love their land deeply, and whose love poetry is the vinous expression of their passion.”

On the collaboration with Gallo, Grahm states: “I am particularly interested in vine and grape research, and Gallo’s research capability is unrivalled. Yes, I know, it’s a bit of a Bambi meets Godzilla scenario, but so far, so good, and there are some really astonishing wines arising therefrom and it has been a great experience.”

Doesn’t even begin to explain what we are about to taste.

We meet with the affable Matt Steel, who bears the title Gallo Director of Wine, Central Coast, but who in real life is a down-to-earth no-shit Aussie. He will take us through three wines.

“Working with Randall is such a privilege and a great challenge. He will come up with something we’ve never heard of and say: “This is what we’re going to do.” And we’d laugh and say: “What?” And he’d reply: “No, really, this is what we’re going to do.””

Matt puts the three wines in front of us.

And I taste one of the most remarkable wines I’ve ever come across – made from a grape I’ve never even heard of.

2020 Pink, “Le Cerisier”

Tibouren is an obscure southern French varietal, found sparsely in Provence, but also showing up in Liguria, where it is called Rossese, producing haunting, lighter-bodied reds reminiscent of Burgundy transposed to a slightly rustic octave. Tibouren, of which there is only one hectare in the whole of the United States,  is a grape perfectly suited to pink wine; fruity and juicy but also expressive of a slightly herbal note, sometimes evoking the garrigue or underbrush of the limestone soils of southern France.

This wine is a blend of 65% Tibouren and 35% Cinsault (which Grahm describes as a “tragically misunderstood variety, which might be the Rodney Dangerfield of grape varieties.”)

Raised on its lees for more than nine months, the wine underwent complete malolactic fermentation and was bottled without filtration.

The colour is very odd. It’s definitely not pink. It might just get under the radar as a rose, but you have to look mighty hard. To all intents it looks like a white wine. On the nose the first impressions are of style and restraint, with a hint of rose petal and then a feral perfume. The fragrance is drawing you in. It’s seductive. On the palate it appears first to have an evocative elegance, but as you hold it in the mouth a certain texture announces itself. What on earth is going on here? It seems almost like a contradiction. But what a contradiction!

Now we come to the two reds – and this is where it gets tricky. According to Grahm: “The effort is to eschew the intrusive effects of gaudy vinous maquillage, and instead use more gentle techniques to coax out complexity. One such technique is the practice of passerillage, or post-harvest drying of the grapes before crushing; we do this by placing the grapes on paper raisin trees in the shade of the vine itself. This practice allows for a slight dehydration and concentration of the grapes and as significantly, a maturation of the stems. When the stems are more or less lignified, they are an excellent source of tannin, supporting the overall structure of a wine; the inclusion of the whole clusters allows for a slow release of grape sugar into the fermenting must, which improves the kinetics of the fermentation, thus creating a much slower and controlled process, less stressful for the yeast and winemaker. “Clean” (non-stressed) fermentations are a particularly helpful complement to the process that we term “reductive élevage,” central to the style of the Language of Yes.

“This reductive élevage protects the “fruit” and freshness of a wine as it ages, as well as allows for the formation of earthy complexing notes. Minimization of oxygen ingress is generally accomplished through substantial lees retention (they’re oxygen scavengers), infrequent (or no) racking, more frequent barrel topping and the utilization of larger and less porous storage vessels.”

Those paragraphs were taken from Grahm’s written thoughts, which Matt now tries to interpret in layman’s terms as we taste.

2020 Grenache, “En Passerillage”

Here we have touches of bramble, but it’s a very subtle nose. Like a great poem or novel, it requires a bit of work. You need to search before it all makes sense. Peach and blueberries. A hint of cream teas. Then: spice, cloves perhaps. Superlative balance, supple tannins.

According to Grahm, “Grenache is said by some to resemble Pinot Noir, in so far as its need for gentle extraction and susceptibility to oxidation; the variety does not have the “density” of more structured varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, thus any edges or flaws (such as astringency or bitterness) tend to stand out in greater relief.”

No way can you put this down and leave it; you need to keep going back to it.

2020 Syrah, “En Passerillage”

A blend of 87% Syrah and 13% Viognier, this has lovely purple colour, black fruits to the Grenache’s red fruits. Balsamic vinegar. Liquorice and flowers, resembling, though not slavishly, the Rhone. Beautiful weight in the mouth. Again, it is so subtle it washes over you like a soft turquoise-coloured wave on a Caribbean beach. Soft and sensuous. And yet there is the power of the thoroughbred there, too.

By the end of just three wines, I am reeling. I can only hope we can secure some of this stock. When I was lucky enough to import Jean-Francois Coche-Dury’s Burgundies into the UK, I always used to get a sense of his wines being elevated or lifted. Like angels sitting on clouds and gazing serenely down at the mortals. I get this impression again. But – and here’s the thing – these wines are so sublime that they are beyond my words. Some wines are great. Some wines are outstanding. Some winds are beyond my comprehension.

What I do know is this: from this day onwards I will be counting down the days until I can taste these masterpieces again

Like something out of Dr. No

Balance is sometimes defined as a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportion. In art, “balance refers to the use of artistic elements such as line, texture, colour, and form in a way that renders visual stability” (Eli Anapur). In motor racing the balance of the car is measured to the milligram. Listen to Hamilton: “Something is wrong. The balance doesn’t feel right.”

I am musing on this as I sip another perfectly balanced Sanford Pinot Noir. A wine is said to have good balance when all the different components – alcohol, acidity, tannin, sweetness – are working in harmony. For me, if a wine tastes beautiful but I cannot really single out any particular element which makes it so, then I will write “perfectly balanced” in my tasting notes. And if I’m feeling a bit artsy then “equilibrium” will also appear.

But to get back to the gig – and those Sanford Pinots. Yup, in terms of wine, we are visiting Californian royalty. Before we reach the winery I ask Steve to pull over so I can photograph the sign: “Sanford & Benedict Vineyard.” I stand and stare for a moment. This very spot is where the now world-famous Santa Rita Hills area was “invented” in 1971.

Looking for the best location to perfectly ripen grapes, botanist Michael Benedict, working with his friend Richard Sanford, toured the cool coastal regions of California, eventually deciding on a part of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County.  The first vines were planted in 1971, and soon the Pinot Noir from this remote vineyard created a buzz. Others soon followed, and the original Sanford & Benedict Vineyard formed the backbone of what is now the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. It has been named one of the five most important and iconic vineyards in California by Wine Enthusiast.

In 1997, La Rinconada Vineyard was planted next door. It was to this vineyard that the affable and gregarious Trey Fletcher, chief winemaker at Sanford, took us when we first arrived. Home to 20 vineyard blocks and 12 clones, La Rinconada is primarily Pinot Noir. Trey jumps out of the jeep and we bend down to look at the soil. The lower portion of La Rinconada is a sandy loam, which transitions to more clay loam mixed with diatomaceous earth and shale on the hills closer to Sanford & Benedict.

We climb towards that vineyard, climbing, climbing. Again, we jump out of the jeep. “Notice the difference,” says Trey. Here, there is more calcium rich clay soils with shale and chert- a result of the sloughing off of the top half of the mountain ten thousand years ago. “Also, look at the vines – they were planted on their own root stock. Phylloxera really has never been an issue here.”

Also in the jeep with us is Chuck Cramer, the guy who represents Sanford in the UK. Looking more and more like a character from an Elmore Leonard movie, Chuck is very Californian. Extremely so. Very much. Never stops. Chuck is such a common American name. Think: Chuck Berry, Chuck Norris, Chuck Connors. But as a northern England lad, Chuck for me will always mean Coronation Street. “Oh, ‘eck, Chuck…” (As a Shakespeare enthusiast I’ve never been able to get my head around Othello’s request to Desdemona: “Pray chuck, come hither.” Where did that come from?)

We climb to the top of the hill, to the original winery barn which looks drop dead gorgeous. It gives amazing views over both vineyards down towards the winery. And everywhere is the breeze. It is the east-west orientation of the Santa Ynez Valley which provides a pathway to the Pacific Ocean and its maritime cooling influence, allowing cool air to be drawn inland. Later we will see the fog which is common in these parts.

Back at the winery we are joined by associate winemaker Laura Roach. Here, Trey shows us something neither Steve nor I have seen in any other winery – a series of “elevators” containing four tanks which are installed on hydraulic lifts within the winery tower. Trey explains that this unique gravity flow system allows him to gently move the wine from tank to barrel or bottle without pumping and agitating the wine. We step into one of the tanks and the lift takes us up to the roof. It is like something out of Dr No.

Back down in the cellar, the tasting is a sublime experience. The 2020 Pinot – just about to land in our warehouse – is a beautiful expression of red and black cherries, so soft and supple.

The 2017 S&B Pinot is a step up in intensity, just a touch more body, just a touch more firmness, just a touch more tannin. But always just a touch.

A 2019 S&B Block 6 has a feel of strawberry liquorice about it, and ever such a hint of salt. Or am I imagining it?

A 2019 Dominio Del Falcon (what a name!) feels as though it has a touch more alcohol. But only a touch. Balanced by just a hint more acidity. It is in perfect balance. There’s that word again.

Pinot Noir is so damned difficult to get right. Over the years it has probably caused me more disappointment and frustration than any other grape. Sometimes it can be thin, but more often the major issue is that the wines can often appear over ripe, even gloopy. But here every one of them is textbook – beautiful examples of what that grape can achieve.

On to the Chardonnays. The 2018 has a lovely ice cream sundae feel to it, lovely balance of fruit and acidity.

A 2019 Long Rows Block Chardonnay has a Meursault-type character to it, a touch of creaminess.

A 2019 Founders Vines Chardonnay has “more satin and less merino wool,” according to Trey. Not gonna argue with that.

Note: “gonna” rather than “going to.” Rubs off on you, this place.