Archive for April, 2010

(Photo: Holmes & Watson: The Case of the Case of Missing Pinot)

In a high school made of wine, Cabernet and Chardonnay are the jocks and cheerleaders; big, robust and popular. Merlot makes up the rest of the student body; unremarkable, generally helpless and inoffensive. And then there’s Pinot.

Pinot Noir is the emo kids and theatre geeks. Pinot is arty and fickle, thin-skinned and therefore prone to complain about any little thing. It rarely does what it’s told. And it delivers even less often than that. But when it does…

Oh man.

Think back to high school. That cheerleader, that jock, today they’ve muscled their way into a death in middle management or are waddling around a brood of unexceptional offspring. But I guarantee you, if you look up the weirdest people you went to school with, a disproportionate amount of those freaks and risk-takers are well-adjusted and content.

More important: one or two of them are doing something amazing.

In Sonoma it was cold and overcast; the perfect weather for a Pinot grape or emo kid.

Karmyn, Andy and I were grabbing a nosh from her car in the parking lot at Merry Edwards. We were a little confused from the cold treatment we’d just received in the tasting room, so I made some off-color sexist remark that Andy immediately ratified and Karmyn quickly condemned. Our final feeling on the matter was: Phooey, who needs them? We’ll take our money and palates somewhere that appreciates us. (Editor’s note: since then I’ve dined and purchased at least two bottles of M.E. Pinot. What can I say—I guess I like a mean woman.)

That led us to nearby Lynmar and their tres-cool, ultra modern tasting room.

(Photo: At midnight during a full moon this turns into the fireplace from “Beetlejuice.”)

Inside, it’s high ceilings and light wood; windows overlook vineyards in almost every direction. It’s a phenomenal place to enjoy a glass of wine, and maybe a little introspection.

(Photo: The Author at rest. Be careful not to disturb him; a novel could spring forth at any moment!)

We told the gent pouring for us we had a date to keep and he was careful to keep us on track. Andy book-ended our day with reservations at wineries; we started our day at Siduri, and we were going to end it at Littorai.
You may not have heard of Littorai. I think that’s how they like it; they don’t really sell their stuff through wine stores and restaurants often have to get in line to put them on their wine lists. Why? Because winemaker Ted Lemon is known as one of the most brilliant Pinot-geniuses in Sonoma, if not California.

(Photo: The fencepost is like that because I got excited being around all those grapes.)

Andy told me that a visit to Littorai is so sought after, they use a dummy address to keep all the normal, everyday non-Elites away. Now that’s pretension I can relate to!

In all seriousness, the trip to Littorai did take us off the beaten path; while wineries in Sonoma aren’t as tightly packed as, say, the wine trail in Napa, we not only had to take a road that looked strictly residential, we had to enter a super-secret password to open the gate.

That let us onto a mile or so of road that, what with all the mud, ruts and speed bumps, kept us at just under a crawl.

(Photo: Christopher Lloyd lives here. No, not really.)

Littorai boasts being 95% organic and biodynamic, which gave me some cause for concern. I’d tasted a fair amount of organic/biodynamic and found it—like most of the rest of the hippy nation—well, hippy-ish. Think about any food product claiming itself “All Natural” or “Green” or “Eco-Friendly,” and you know its sole concern is protecting Mother Earth and doesn’t bother with trifles like flavor or quality. And good for them and Mother Earth. But, well, bad for me.

(Photo: At Littorai, skinny dipping in the biodynamic rain collection pool is STRONGLY discouraged.)

So you can imagine I was more than a little worried when our very friendly tour guide began talking to us about how Lemon designed the vineyard to use and reuse as much of the existing resources as possible; rainwater is collected and used to water vines, wild herbs are picked and brewed into teas that feed the grapes, and anything that doesn’t go into the bottle gets composted to fertilize later plantings.

I like my wine knowledge on the simple side.

(Photo: Grapes go in, wine comes out.)

After checking out the fields, we were led to where the grapes are initially processed and barreled. It was here that things began to make sense to me; opening a bottle at home, you rarely consider all the effort going into that bottle of wine. You believe in some vague way that men in rolled cuffs are somewhere sunny, stomping barefoot in a giant wooden vat, that the product you’re about the enjoy must be married to the earth, and is therefore pure and natural and delicious by the nature of its being “wine.” But the sad fact today is that this fantasy has become so far removed from the reality of modern, mass-produced wine, most companies rely on that thin veil of illusion to sell their product, and not the quality of what’s inside. Consider that the next time you spend six bucks on a bottle: you’re not tasting wine; you’re tasting the idea of wine. This is wine whose quality on its own is so poor they’ve had to find inexpensive tricks to give impressions they believe people will find favorable. Americans like sweet stuff; so maybe they’ll add copious amounts of sugar. People often also like a lot of oak; well the companies can’t afford to barrel it but they can soak wood chips in it.

There’s a reason expensive wine is expensive, and you can generally reduce it to this: they didn’t take short cuts.

Here it is another way: there’s a killer burger at an eatery in New York that costs $175. McDonald’s has one for $0.99. You could probably tell the difference between the two and yet they’re both called burgers. How is that fair?

OK lecture over. I’m tired of bitching. I began to see Ted Lemon doesn’t take shortcuts with his wine. He also feels a responsibility for the land he grows his grapes on, so much so that he uses local hay to insulate his buildings, instead of that artificial cotton candy stuff.

(Photo: The first pigs’ house was made of straw…)

At this point I was prepared to pull a knife to get a taste. I think our tour guide saw the desperation burning in my eyes and so opened a few bottles.

(Photo: Barrel storage at Littorai. Below, a map of Delicious Town.)

Andy and I almost emptied our wallets when it came time to buy. But the glass doesn’t lie; it was worth it.

We made such good time that we had enough time to squeeze in one more place before closing time. Instead of making a well-though-out decision, we just decided to go to the first place we stumbled on.

(Photo: Yes, we really are this awesome.)

You can guess how that turned out.

After a day of enjoying subtlety and nuance, we landed at Dutton Estates, and everything they poured into our glass tasted like a cartoon: over the top, loud and sweet. I knew we were in trouble right away, but my man Andy, he’s a personable fellow, he loves to strike up a conversation, even if the young lady doing the pouring is less than, say, attractive.

“What are your impressions of this, Chris?” he asked, in front of the girl. I know he was hoping I’d tear it down in front of her, berate her for its imbalance and lack of structure, accuse her of lacing it with Kool-Aid and cough syrup. Andy’s a sadist; nothing makes him happier than watching young women cry.

I played it safe; I pretended I didn’t hear the question.

(Photo: Hmmm…suddenly the inside of my empty glass is VERY interesting to me. I’m sorry did you ask something?)

In any case, Andy’s charm got our tasting fees waived, which I consider tantamount to a free punch in the stomach. Needless to say we didn’t make a purchase at our last stop.

Oh well. There can’t be any winners without at least a few losers.

(Photo: The Author Never Rests; pen in hand, even while wine tasting.)