over a barrel

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

There is no doubt that I have developed a Northwest palate over the years. But I also make it a point to taste wines from as many other regions as possible, and to note and to appreciate what distinguishes each of them. For the past couple of days I’ve been visiting Sonoma and Napa wineries, including some very fine, small, family-owned producers – Rocca, Pfendler, Ridgeway, Wind Gap – and one that’s a bit larger – Frank Family.

Overall the quality of these wines is extremely good. No hackers or slackers in this crowd. I especially enjoyed Rocca’s Bad Boy Red ($32), all estate-grown, supple and flavorful, with plenty of cocoa/mocha barrel flavors.

Pfendler, Ridgeway and Wind Gap grow fruit in the Sonoma Coast AVA, but at the southern end, near the city of Petaluma. A Petaluma Gap AVA is in the discussion phase, though no borders have been set, and that is often a stumbling block. Many of these wineries focus on making chardonnay and pinot noir – the chardonnays big and toasty, but supported with more natural acidity than those from farther inland. Sonoma Coast pinot noir needs no introduction – it vies for the best in the state.

Over lunch at Petaluma’s Cucina Paradiso (a little slice of Italy offering escape from the dreadful weather), we tasted the first vintage from Pfendler – a 2007 – and the about to be released 2008 ($45). We moved on to the 2006 and 2007 pinots from Ridgeway, a biodynamic grower in southwest Petaluma. All these wines were fruity and supple, and though one winemaker confided he felt that his 2007 showed too much “earthy, forest floor character” I did not. Having just arrived from Oregon, I was struck by how soft and fruity these pinots were. There was no shortage of new oak influence either.

Wind Gap showed a rare syrah ($48), which was to me more in keeping with syrah from cooler sites in Washington. Dark and smoky, with a citrus overtone, it was brimming with sweet blueberry flavors. These wines are being made by Pax Mahle (formerly of Pax Wine Cellars).

The winemaking at all these tiny start-ups is first-rate. The owners focus on growing grapes and hire pros to do the winemaking. At Frank Family, located in Calistoga, the full-time winemaker is Todd Graff. The winery is owned by retired Disney mogul Rich Frank (which inevitably led to the question, does Rich Frank know Frank Rich?). Rich, his son Paul and Todd hosted a most enjoyable tasting of their extensive lineup. At the tasting room they offer four or five sparkling wines, made on-site and sold only there, as a tribute to the winery’s previous owner, Hans Kornell. The nationally distributed wines include a chardonnay ($32), pinot noir ($35), zinfandel ($37) and cabernet sauvignon ($45).

All of these Frank Family wines are forward, round, supremely approachable. The chardonnay is as toasty and buttery as only Napa chards can be. The reds are also soft, fruity, and showing plenty of barrel flavor. Over a superb dinner at the restaurant at Meadowood, the Franks rolled out their reserves, very limited wines sold mostly to mailing list customers. I have to say that the consistency of this group was impressive. Reserve versions of the four standard wines are made, along with a sangiovese and an uber-reserve Winston Hill Red from Rich Frank’s personal estate.

It’s clear that all of these producers fervently believe that the best way to showcase their fruit is by keeping it in a lot of expensive new French oak. More than one winemaker insisted that to do less would be a disservice to the wines.

Here’s where my Northwest palate reared up and bit me. My own impression is different. Many if not most of these wines, in my opinion, would have been just fine with less new oak. Not that it isn’t delicious – it definitely is. But the trend I see elsewhere is away from 70 or 80 or 100 percent new oak programs, to 50 percent or less – in the case of syrah, much much less.

As vineyards mature and the fruit they grow offers nuances and complexity that young vines cannot, it seems as though it might be worth a try to back off on the barrels. I know that if it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it, and that is a rational course of action. These wines are certainly not “broke.” But isn’t winemaking about experimentation? Don’t vineyards – where everyone agrees wines are actually made – grow fruit, not wood? Doesn’t new oak cover up (to some degree) the forest floor (etc.) nuances of that fruit? I’m just sayin’…


terroirist said...

Indeed. More new oak = less terroir. If you have good terroir, why hide it?

Sean P. Sullivan said...

Paul, I agree on the oak issue. I see oak as having a role enhancing fruit and potentially filling in some missing pieces. I have had a number of unoaked wines where I thought that they should have used some and a greater number of oaked wines when I wish they used less. All things in moderation. Winemakers shouldn't be afraid to try backing off on the new oak.

Anonymous said...

Paul - overly oaked wines certainly hide the flaws. Doesn't sound like the case here, but maybe just a habit they have.

On another note. THANKS so much for the Spokesman Review piece on Spokane wineries. We really appreciate the attention on the East side of the state.


Jared said...

I drank a 2004 Barons V Cab last night and it was so laden with new oak that if served blind, I wouldn't have been able to decipher the varietal. The fruit was certainly hidden amongst the vanilla and toast. Dial back the new oak regimen and we'll really see what kind of winemaker you are!!

Dennis Schaefer said...

I think oak is a style consideration and that it helps to know what the grape grower and winemaker's intentions are. I have talked and tasted with Todd Graff and Rich Frank and, yes, there is a lot of oak there, but I think their wines really soak it up. Make no mistake, these are BIG wines but I find a certain balance to them compared to many other Napa high end producers. And you gotta luv the prices for their entry level wines, given the appellation.

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