A recent trip out west was brief but just what the doctor ordered, my first real vacation since life happened at the speed of light beginning last year. Because this was the first time traveling with an 8-month old, this won't be a 'Sideways' adventure, but I did manage to slip in a few wine moments and this will be about those. Thanks to all those who helped with suggestions beforehand!
First Stop: BAY AREA
Countless immigrants began their American odyssey at the shores of the Golden Gate, likewise myself. No wineries visited here, but did stop by the Noe Valley (SF) Plumpjack store, where Drew Spaulding as manager has assembled an interesting and wide-ranging collection of wines in the small space of this neighborhood store. If shops like this were in my neighborhood I wouldn't need mail order. Across the Bay, I amde my first visit to Kermit Lynch in Berkeley. Only the wines he imports are there, of course, so selection is limited, but what a catalogue! You never realize what an importer imports until they stand before you. I was a little disappointed that no discounts are offered there and that the wines sell for the same prices you'd find in Topeka, if you could find them in Topeka.
Next: DOWN THE COAST
Stopping at Half Moon Bay for dinner, I shouldn't have been surprised that the town has it's very own winery and was being offered as the wine-by-the-glass option. La Nebbia Syrah 2003 was typically Californian: big, fruit forward, low in acid and very smooth. Not sure if the grapes come from the area or more inland because I never saw a bottle. By the glass, not a bad option but probably wouldn't buy a bottle for dinner.
Many of you have heard of Chalone Vineyards, but may not know that it is located just a road down from a beautiful piece of chapparal country that is the Pinnacles National Monument. Since I was going to the park anyways, why not stop by? I didn't know that the company is now owned by Dieago. I have always admired Chalone for planting things in such an isolated place like an obsessed madman seeking his idea of perfection. Luckilly, they are planting some warm weather varieties like Grenache and Syrah that I think are more promising than the standbys of Pinot Noir and their flagship Chardonnay (which is quite good) to which they focused on previously. They also poured the Pinot Gris which I found a little flat and unfocused and the Chenin Blanc from their old vineyard. This vineyard will probably be ripped out in the near future, as yeilds are becoming ridiculous (I think 1/4-ton per acre was mentioned).
At big Sur, Nepenthe was pouring Lucia Vineyards, Gary's Vineyard Pinot Noir 2003 by the glass for $14. This is the Pisoni operation in the Santa Lucia mountains. While good pinot noir in the modern style, I felt it could have been a generic red and didn't think it worth the tariff. The food, however, was excellent, as the setting.
Finally: PASO ROBLES
My first time in this area, and I was impressed by the bucolic nature and small winding roads undulating underneath live oak trees. A contrast to the more famous Valleys up north. Linne Calodo was the first place. This place makes BIG wines, but they are done well. Rather expensively priced ($36 and up) for wines that are somewhat simple, I nonetheless purchased two bottles of Rising Tides, a blend of syrah-grenache-and mourvedre. Though the Mourvedre component makes up only 20% of the blend, it feels dominant and think it needs a year or two to integrate. the white Contrarian (roussanne-viognier) was sold out, the Nemesis (80%syrah, 15% mourvedre, 5% grenache) tasted more like a high powered syrah, but for $60??? The Sweet Leona, a dessert zinfandel, reminded me of the old Ridge essences. They also have a zinfandel-syrah-mourvedre blens called Outsider, which tastes like a very good zinfandel. All reds tasted from the 2004 vintage.
At Pipestone, a small family run winery that grows Rhone varieties, Jeff Pipes poured me their viognier, a grenache red & rose, a Rhone-styled red blend, a mourvedre, syrah, and a zinfandel that is made from purchased grapes. I thought the best of the lot were the grenache rose, the syrah, and the zinfandel, which showed more restraint and mineral tones than what many in the marketplace offer these days. A beautiful location and a down to earth guy.
Tablas Creek changes what they taste depending on the day of week. When I was there they had the Cotes de Tablas Blanc 2005, Roussanne 03, Rose 05, Syrah 03, Mourvedre 04, and the Esprit de Beaucastel 03. As befitting a California winery of French parentage, the wines are to a fault all made well and I would happily drink these anytime. However, nothing stood out to make me take notice as something fantastically exciting either. I think I would give the edge here to the whites if I had to flip a coin. They all had a characteristic freshness & liveliness that can be lacking in California whites and may even have some limtied aging potential. Reds were well made, but I felt they were being 'safe' with them, instead of nurturing their wild sides. Here, they also had two dessert wines, a Vin de Paille white (roussanne-grenache blanc-viognier-marsanne) which I would have bought were it not $65 for a half bottle and a red made from 100% mourvedre that reminded me of a reciotto from Italy for $45.
One comment about 'ripeness': throughout Paso, grapes were still on the vines awaiting harvesting. Obviously this is a warm-hot viticultural area. The grapes appeared shriveled the first week of November and I can't believe they wait so long to pick these for table wines. Surely these are 'physiologically ripe', no? I can't see what is gained from picking so late except for extra sugar. Then I immediately remembered all these internet discussions regarding California and the ripe-high alcohol style syndrome many exhibit. A footnote and an area for exploration.