"No I couldn't tell you!"

Saturday, 5/13, 2006. 9:00 AM “Here There and Everywhere”
It felt early, as if God was not yet awake. As if roosters had not yet crowed. But perhaps that feeling was attributable to the many hangovers in evidence as we stood in line with other faithful attendees at the start of day #2 of the 2006 Hospice du Rhône (this year’s tagline "So many Rhônes, so little time!"

The faithful had gathered to collect wisdom pearls from three well-renowned women winemakers – Christine Vernay, Françoise Peschon, and Vanessa Wong. And we had gathered to taste their wines. For the devoted, 9:00am is a good time to start tasting. Of course, one spits when tasting at such an hour!

Christine Vernay, Dom. Georges Vernay
Cvernay72 The morning began with Christine Vernay, daughter of Georges Vernay (history credits Georges with single-handedly reviving Viognier and the Condrieu region in the 1950’s after decades of decline). Christing never anticipated running the winery, which she assumed would go to her bothers.  But they took up other vocations, and Christine hs ably taken the reins.

Translating through her husband Paul, she presented her 2004 Viognier and a Syrah, the former being most notable. I was surprised to learn that even 25% of her “Condrieu Chaillées de l’Enfer” was aged in new oak, as it was so subtly integrated into this elegant wine that she must surely be using premium barrels made from well-aged oak – the effect was beautiful integration in this young wine, not the vanilla/coconut/tropical fruit notes that result from more rustic barrels.  This was an absolutely lovely wine.

Françoise Peschon, Araujo Estate
Françoise has been with Araujo for years, and knows their history with the Syrah grape. The wine she poured for our 550 attendees constituted a significant percentage of Aroujo’s small Syrah production (just 250 cases in 2002 ). Equally memorable was the interesting terroir it expressed. Which requires me to take you on a quick detour about the vineyard.

The 120 year-old Eisele (ICE-lee) Vineyard, best known for its Cabernet, is at the core of Araujo Estate. The vineyard, which was replanted in 1990, was taken organic in 1997 and biodynamic in 2000. On it one finds the Araujo Estate, a small chateau-style winery built to showcase the wine that could be produced from the Eisele vineyard, which rode to fame on a horse called Cabernet.  Eisele Cabernet has been used in the award-winning wines of Ridge, Phelps, and the old Conn Creek, to name but a few.

But the owners maintain a small portion of the vineyard dedicated to Syrah. Though unlikely to be lucrative at such small volumes, I love the fact that they continue to produce this wine simply because they believe its unique expression of Syrah must be preserved.  Blended with a small amount of Viognier, this wine offers elegance and complexity that is worth seeking – I only wish there were some available to offer you in the Rhône section of our own online store. Despite the early morning hour, our assembled throng of devotees knew we’d tasted our second exceptional wine of the morning. But we were not yet done…

Vanessa Wong, Peay Vineyards
Peay_vineyard_1 Peay Vineyards is on the northern reaches of the Sonoma Coast, on land that just a few short years ago, was thought to be incapable of supporting vines. It is clearly a cool climate, and in some years the Peay’s are indeed challenged to get their fruit fully ripe.

But these difficult conditions also rewards the persistent (and the stubborn) with great fruit – in fact, Peay Vineyard was named one of the ten best vineyards by Food & Wine Magazine in December of last year. The cool climate allows them to leave the fruit hanging on the vines quite late into the season, developing the popular fruit complexity without lowering the acid and raising the sugars that occurs in warm-climate vineyards.

But coming third in the order, after two old-world producers, what was most striking about Vanessa’s presentation was the contrast in perspective – old world vs. new world, winemaking as art vs. winemaking as science. Vanessa is clearly comfortable in the world of modern agriculture, and all the technology it requires. Which brings me to a description of the next session, and the inspiration for the title of today’s posting…

Saturday, 5/13, 2006. 10:30A.M. “The Trio Infernal”
I’ve concluded that America reached its dominant global position based on certain cultural traits that have served us well.  But if one is exposed to those with different cultural perspectives, and if one is paying attention, it’s as if one is looking into a mirror that offers a very different reflection. As happened at this session, for example, when one of the European winemakers seemed offended by a rather simple question from the audience.

It happened like this. The session involved three well-established Rhône winemakers (Laurent Combier of Dom. Combier, J.B. Erin of Dom Jean-Michel Gerin, and Peter Fischer of Ch. Revelette). Several years ago they decided they’d reached their winemaking pinnacle in France, and formed “The Trio Infernal” to seek a new challenge – producing Rhône varietals in Spain’s up-and-coming Priorat region.

We first sampled their wines from France to establish a base flavor profile, then compared these to their wines from Spain. Of the three, Peter Fischer spoke the best English, and so took the lead at the microphone. Peter had discovered wine in his early adulthood while still living in Germany.  He left Europe to earn his enology degree at U.C. Davis, then took his degree and winemaking skills to France in the 80’s to produce wine and buy his own vineyard.

Peter was an outsider in the Rhône valley, both because he was German and because he ignored local wine-making tradition in favor of science.  He described his first two vintages as “technically perfect wines that were totally ordinary, great dissapointments.”  He had not gotten into the wine business in pursuit of “ Vin ordinaire”, and began investigating ways to craft more interesting, unique wines – like the intriguiing wines his neighbors produced, only uniquely his own.

Over the 20 years Peter experimented with various techniques, concluding that the old-world approach to organic and sustainable farming produces the best possible expression of terroir – a wine reflecting the unique flavor of its place of origin.

The presentations went on, we tasted some wine, yadda yadda.  And then it was time for questions from the attendees.  One noble soul asked “Could you tell me what your blend is?”

Now, this is a very typical question for American wine drinkers. Perhaps it is THE most typical question (since we’re used to seeing a varietal on our labels) but it is closely followed by such questions as ”what is the pH, teh date of harvest, the % alcohol, the time in barrel, the age of your vines, what % new wood?” ad nauseum.

But I rue the poor soul who sought this seemingly common bit of information, for the answer came quickly – “No, I couldn’t tell you!” invoking a trickle of nervous laughter. Then followed a philosophy expressed through an admonition for placing science above art. “Do you like the wine? Do you think it’s in balance? Would it go well with food?” he asked. “Then enjoy it, and forget about the details!”

He continued “A wine should express its place of origin and its varietal, and above all else, it should be unique. A unique expression is even more important than quality! Beyond simply following sound winemaking practices, the idea of “Quality” is transient, dictated by whimsical styles and trends. But a unique expression is always true to the grape, to the earth that produced it.”

Listening to this, I was reminded of a lesson I learned during a recent conversation with Gary Burk of Costa del Oro (read more here.) It is a lesson I seem destined to continue learning, over and over – pehaps it is my koan.  In synopsis, it is that winemaking is really about making the most enjoyable product possible, not getting all of the knobs on the "wine-o-meter" pointing to the proper reading, and doing so requires not just science, but soul.

It’s just that I could enjoy a wine without thinking about it when I was in my early 20’s.  And since then I’ve invested time and money learning how to deconstruct a wine and which of those components form the backbone of a wine I’ll enjoy. If it’s true that all one really needs to do is enjoy a wine and not analyze it, I’ve wasted an awful lot of time!  It’s like running in a circle, arriving again at the starting point, and realizing the entire journey was for naught. 

But sometimes it’s good to come full circle – the starting point looks vastly different after the knowledge gained along the way. I prefer to think of it as the wisdom of maturity rather than the perpetual-motion meaninglessness of “Waiting for Godot”.

Swclogogs3x3 Dave@SidewaysWineClub.com, who promises to spend two minutes simply enjoying wine for every minute he spends analyzing it.

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