Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Serendipity: The delicious congruence of two books

When you’re a book lover, and most especially a history buff, it’s always a delight when you find a well-written book on defining historical periods.  But when you find two such books at the same time, with each standing alone yet reinforcing and echoing each other’s different theses, it’s a feast of plenty for the mind.

One of my favorite writers on the topic of antiquity transitioning to modernism and how our global society formed itself is Tom Holland.  He is erudite, deeply and broadly immersed in the rigors of archaeology and history, and is a downright brilliant writer, bringing his subjects alive and painting vivid word portraits on every page. 

His book was “In The Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.” And full disclosure, the original release was subtitled “The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire.” I snapped it up immediately, and looked forward to spending lots of quality time with it. (Here’s a link to the WSJ review.)

Meanwhile, the library coughed up a provocative e-book from noted journalist and writer Robert D. Kaplan on a subject near and dear, the study of how geography influences and even directs human societies, “The Revenge of Geography: What The Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts And The Battle Against Fate”  (I should note that two core classes at university that massively affected me, and still to this day do so, were Geology and what was called “Human Geography”, which was precisely the study of human societal development through the impact of geography.) And here is a link to the New York Times review by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a wicked sharp writer on her own merit.

So here I had the most excellent Holland book with a fascinating theme as well as the Kaplan book, with an equally fascinating theme---and was able to read them jointly.

Holland’s thesis was the transition from antiquity to the development of ‘modern society’. He maintained that the one major thrust of society during a pivotal moment was the development of monotheism, when the dominant state religions shifted from rampant polytheism (the worship of an abundance of gods in relative tolerance, or at least the lack of singular domination) as opposed to the rise of the “one god”, the jealous god, the intolerant god.  And of course he concentrated on the tension of the Judaeo-Christian Roman/Byzantine Empire, the Zoroastrian Sassanid/Persian Empire, and the injection of the rise of Islam into the mix, expanding and influencing world social development at a crucial moment.

Kaplan’s book was intent on reviving the importance of the study of ‘human geography’, or how human society can be influenced, shaped or directed by geography---again, a subject I have always been fascinated with but which has fallen into obscurity by the rise of “global society” being able to overcome geographical barriers, deciding that “geography doesn’t matter.”

Kaplan ranges widely, and well, through history, applying his ideas and showing how they have affected countries and regions and the entirety of human society in ways large and small.  Each chapter is an illumination. He relates many of the same historical episodes as Holland (although much more than Holland as he ranges over eras more widely while Holland stays focused on one particular transitional period. But each book certainly reinforces and echoes the other.

After reading both books, traversing from one to the other, I kept noticing that on the cover of Kaplan’s book a blurb from Malise Ruthven, The New York Review of Books, included descriptive praise that could just as comfortably be applied to Mr. Holland’s opus (Sorry; couldn’t resist.):  “…displays a formidable grasp of contemporary world politics and serves as a powerful reminder that it has been the planet’s geophysical configurations, as much as the flow of competing religions and ideologies, that have shaped human conflicts, past and present.”  Well said, Ms. Ruthven; that’s as good, and considerably less wordy, encomium to either and both books as can be.

As an example of Kaplan’s thesis, he relates the ‘geographical imperative” forced on Germany (meta-Germany, let’s say) by being sandwiched between the West and the East, with the wide open plains of access from either direction threatening. (As a personal aside, while a teenager I lived in Germany where the entire might of Europe and the U.S. militaries sat waiting for the inevitable Soviet invasion through the Fulda Gap---because geography dictated that path.)

Kaplan entertains the all-too-valid concept of “continental-bound” societies against “maritime-commercial” societies, and the peculiar necessities of each. Thus, in a geographical sense, a country or people act a certain way because of their geographical situation.

Holland echoes the geographical concerns and influences as well, but his interest is much more aligned here to the influence of monotheism and how it impacts cultural, political and violent struggle among societies.  

Although Zoroastrian monotheology has faded from our consciousness, as has much of the Sassanid/Persian/Parthian Empire that so strongly contested the Byzantine Empire, it was one of the forces that drove much of the western world into the form it has today. As the Byzantine Empire “won” the centuries-long conflict against the Sassanids, only to have their celebrations cut brutally short by the eruption of Arabic Islam out of the barren stretches of Saudi Arabia (So tellingly echoed by author Frank Herbert in “Dune”.) within less than a decade.

Holland notes the unavoidable similarity between the Byzantine-Sassanid-Islamic cauldron and the various and sundry conflicts that have succeeded it, most notably for us because of proximity in time and space, the West versus the USSR, Germany versus both Europe and Russia the various manifestations of the Islamic/Ottoman state versus the Judaeo-Christian state, and many, many others, humans being as cantankerous, combustible, and ideology-driven as they are.

Either book is pure joy to read. The writing in each is magnificent; the erudition on display is delightful and commanding.  Read them together and it becomes a reinforced delight for history buffs and those who continue to attempt to understand both human nature and the world.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

What To Drink on St. Patrick's Day?

Because I am of Irish heritage (and proud of it, as the descendant of some king or the other should be); because I pontificate freely and often on spirits of every type; and because I drink a lot (as befits a descendant of Hibernian horse thieves and Fenian scalawags); because of all these things, people constantly ask at this time of year: what should I drink for St. Paddy’s Day?

Folks, it’s not that hard.

A proper Black & Tan (
Your options are pretty clear: Guinness, Harp and Irish Whiskey.

If you want to be efficient, combine all three into a Black& Tan with an Irish Whiskey back.  And please remember: Patience! Go slowly and carefully layer the ingrdients, for that is the crucial touch.

While it can get different than that, it doesn’t get any better than that, and if you’re highly proficient, you can nurse that threesome all night long for maximum pleasure and minimum discomfort the next day, because it’s not necessary, as some people think, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by turning green the following day.

Alright then; there’s the established baseline.  Should you wish to build on that and explore the grand new expansion of Irish Whiskey brands, there are certainly many options available.

Here are a few:

--If you’re looking for the finest expression of Irish whiskey extant, invest in a bottle of Midleton Very Rare. If you have already had it, you know how good it is; if you haven’t, you need to experience it.  Failing the Midleton, there’s the absolute pleasure of Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey (now available in the U.S., huzzah, huzzah) and the older and more complex Redbreast Single Pot Still 12 Year Old.

--A new favorite from the revival of an old tradition is Teeling Irish Whiskey. The Teeling family was considered the best of the many Dublin distillers from days of your, said days disappearing with the diminution of distillers (from over 200 to a mere four at its lowest point). Now the latest scions of the Teeling family are resurrecting the whiskey and the distillation thereof. Their first release under the “Small Batch” program was the Teeling Irish Whiskey Rum Cask Finished, and it was an immediate success, rich and rounded and lavish on the tongue, fine aged Irish whiskey mellowed with the influence of fine aged rum.  Since that release, they have also come out with two more, the Teeling Small Batch Single Grain and the Teeling Small Batch Single Malt, both as remarkable as the first.

--Proving that old dogs can learn new tricks, Jameson Irish Whiskey has come out with a special release of “Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition,” a clever combination of two of the ingredients in the holy triumvirate cited earlier this article. It is Jameson Irish Whiskey finished in a used Guinness Stout barrel.  Hmmmm, you say.  Yes it works, and it works quite well, with the lilting citrus tingle of the whiskey aided and abetted by the dark, chocolatey base notes of the stout…you know, the old Reese’s peanut butter and chocolate ménage à deux redux.

Further than that we need not go and I will not go. If you feel the need to put green food coloring in any of your preferred alcoholic beverages, more pity you.  For all his drinking and carousing in fine Irish style, Borstal Boy Brendan Behan never once disgraced himself by sinking into such a depraved practice, and neither will I. Leave the green dye for yer Easter Eggs, boyo; and leave the serious drinking for the grownups.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Discover Portuguese Wine: Assobio, Quinta dos Murças, Douro, 2013

This one has it all.

Low price? Check. Attractive style? Check.  Immediate drinkability? Check. Vibrant flavors? Check.

Herdade do Esporão of Portugal is located in the Alentejo but also has estate vineyards in the Douro, home of Port. From the choicest part of the Quinta dos Murças estate, the sun-drenched and windy heights called the Assobio, they harvest the traditional grape varieties of Port---but make a delicious, zesty, spicy dry red wine with tart currant, blueberry and cherry flavors mingled together: Quinta dos Murças “Assobio”, 2013.

Assobio is marvelously easy to drink, entirely satisfying, and easy on the budget. It’s rare to find wine of this quality at this low a price: I suspect the good folks at Esporão are using this bottling to entice more people into drinking still red Douro wine. The suggested price in the U.S. is $13, but it’s not that difficult to find it as low as $10---and that, fellow wine drinkers, is one of the best bargains you’re going to find these days.

Quinta dos Murças 

This “Port without sugar” is inky-dark and loaded with flavors, high on acid and low on tannins, berry-fresh, chewy and exuberantly food friendly. You can unleash it on anything from a smoked chicken salad all the way to barbequed ribs dripping with sticky sauce…or burgers, or pizza, or lasagna.  The Assobio will happily handle it all.


A well-structured blend of 40% Tinta Roriz (also known as Tempranillo), 40% Touriga Franca, and 20% Touriga Nacional (again, all three are grape varieties commonly used in Port), it is somewhat reminiscent of a light and lively Bordeaux rouge blend with a floral and fruitspice edge. 

There’s a little violet flower flirting in the aroma, some plump blueberry, and a streak of juicy tart black cherry blasting through it all.  Although fruity, it’s not jammy, but rather tart and clean, and it avoids the oak-soup effect by maturing only 30% of the wine in 2nd year French and American oak barrels, the remainder in stainless steel. (And oh how lovely it is to taste a red wine where oak is used as an enhancement rather than a vanilla milkshake!)

High tech grape processing.

Assobio 2013 is a profound bargain offering a satisfying taste experience. One word of caution: when you find it, buy at least two bottles so you can avoid going back right away for more. You’d be wise to make it a full case.

If you’d like other opinions on Assobio, you can try the reliable Reverse Wine Snob, Mary Ewing Mulligan at WineReviewOnline, or some blogger I don’t know but sounds sincere, Dezol Quillon.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Discover Portuguese Wine: the exceptional QPR of Alandra

To boldly go, or safely stay?

Wine drinkers, as well as wine producers, are caught in the constant conundrum of balancing the excitement of discovery with the comfort of familiarity.

U.S. drinkers are perhaps even more challenged because of their fixation on grape varieties rather than blends. They like the comfort of identifying a wine by familiar varietal designation---Chardonnay, or Cabernet Sauvignon, or Merlot--- and then shy away at strange and exotic names of grapes they’ve never had or heard of.

So at your next gathering, what's your choice going to be?
This?: “Don't you have any Chardonnay?  It’s a known quantity, ya know?”

This?: “Alandra Branco? From Portugal? What is it? Oh, a white blend…so, what’s in it? Antao Vaz? Perrum? And Arinto?  Uh. I’ve never heard of those before. Have no idea what this would taste like. I’m not feeling adventurous tonight. Do you have any Chardonnay? If it’s not too much trouble.”

Or this?:  "Alandra, eh? From Portugal? Great wine country. Mostly blends, I understand. Sure, I'll try some. Beats the heck out of another ordinary glass of ho-hum Chardonnay.  It will be an adventure!"
While cozy comfort and familiarity are always welcome, there are times when trying something new can excite some tired taste buds and, not coincidentally, save a few bucks at the same time.

Portugal, with its ancient and incredible diversity---no other region has as many grape varieties extant, many of them unknown or unheralded outside of ampelographic journals---can supply taste experiences at impressively low prices.

With Alandra we have the “entry level” wine from a highly-respected and productive winery, Herdade do Esporão from Alentejo in Portugal, available either in the more traditional bottle with a vintage date, or now in a 3-liter bag-in-box for even greater economy. Both the white and red are blends of obscure (to us) Portuguese grape varieties blended for straightforward fruit with a European touch of solid earthiness underneath.

Alandra by Herdade do Esporão 

Alandra Branco (white) is a light, bright, citrusy fresh white, created from a blend of Antao Vaz, Perrum, and Arinto grapes. So you don’t know the grapes? Get over it: the locals have been drinking the wine from these varieties for hundreds of years.  It’s table wine, made for everyday drinking at ridiculously affordable prices. Try $7 for a bottle and around $20 for a 3-liter bag-in-a-box.

Alandra Tinto (red) is just as much a hot deal. Also a blend of obscure-outside-of-the-Iberian-Peninsula grapes---Moreto, Castelao, and Trincadeiro, if you must know--- it is light-bodied but tasty with mingled berries and just a whisper of licorice-spice Again, available in 750ml bottle and 3-Liter bag-in-box,

Now, you may have had some unfortunate expenses with the bag-in-a-box concept---and, yes, quite a few of them are disgusting swill. But don’t blame the concept for what bottom-feeding producers decide to sell you. Not all bag-in-box are mediocre to awful. Some of them are quite good. For convenient, nicely priced, and above all tasty red or white wine, it’s hard to imagine a better wine, freshly tapped, than the Portuguese Alandra.

And if you’re still feeling adventurous with bag-in-box, you might consider some other delights, such as Alain Jaume & Fils Grand VeneurCotes du Rhone Reserve, the stalwart La Vielle Ferme Vin Rouge (you know, the wine that most French drink; also known as vin maison, house wine), and the engaging and strawberry-ish delicious Viña Borgia Grenache (or as the Spanish call it, Garnacha) from Campo do Borgia.

For an impressive listing and review of 75 box wines (It’s definitely a thing.) click over to Reverse Wine Snob for enlightening reading. Take a pen and piece of paper for notes; you’ll need them.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Discover Portuguese wines: Herdade do Esporão, Reserva Red, DO Alentejo, 2012

Let’s have a quick word quiz!  Alentejo? Trincadeiro? Aragonez?  Alicante Bouschet? (That one sounds familiar, right?; but you may not quite be able to place it.)  Okay then, how about Cabernet Sauvignon? Aha, you know that one. But what of the others?

If you know quite a bit more about grape varieties than the average wine drinker, or if you happen to know language groups fairly well, you might have figured out the words were Portuguese. And they all relate to Portuguese wine.  If you’re not drinking Portuguese wine, you should be.

Alentejo is a DO…Designated Origen…where a great deal of delicious wine is produced. Not as well-known as the Douro, from whence Port comes, but just as important to millions of wine drinkers. Alentejo produces white, rosé and red wines in prodigious proportions. Yet until fairly recently the table wines of Portugal, vastly popular in Europe and South America, were little known in the U.S. market outside of selected east coast enclaves.

In this day and age of escalating prices on favorite wines and the consequent search for discovery of less expensive but still tasty vinos for regular consumption, Portugal is becoming more important and more visible to American wine drinkers.  It’s a shame it didn’t happen sooner.

To discover how good, and how marvelous a QPR (Quality Price Ration) Portuguese wines can represent, you need go no further than the ancient firm of Herdade do Esporão.

The ancient Tower of  Esporão (1267) with a gnarled
olive tree (their other agricultural product).
Located approximately 170 miles southeast of Lisbon, the ancient estate of Herdade do Esporão dates back to 1267, shortly after the Reconquista was completed. The vineyards and winery are considerably more recent, dating back to 1985, when vineyards and olive groves were interspersed as the basic agricultural crops.

Portugal has more indigenous vines scattered in greater profusion than any other wine country, including Italy and Spain. At Herdade do Esporão they are careful in preserving this patchwork of varieties. There are 197 grape varieties grown on the estate, and 37 constitute the major character of the wines! And keep in mind that many, if not most, exist only in Portugal; this amazing collage of varieties provides unique flavor combinations for the estate wines.

Herdade do Esporão, DOC Alentejo Reserva Red, 2012, is an excellent start for discovering the delightful nature of Portuguese wine.  It is a blend of Aragonez (40%), Alicante Bouschet (30%), Trincadeiro (20%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (10%). Each variety is fermented separately in stainless steel tanks. As a Reserva, the finished wine is matured in a combination of 70% American oak and  30% French oak for a minimum of 12 months, then held for 8 months in bottle for further integration prior to release.

The 2012 Reserva is a cornucopia of fresh, lively berry fruits comingled with dried herbs, spice, and sweet vanilla oak. It is a rich rounded mouthful of exuberance, with plenty of vibrant acids holding it together in careful restraint, along with some moderately scratchy tannins for contrast and longevity. Finishing up with the spicy/herbal, generous, but not overdone ripeness, and enhanced rather than drenched in oak, this is an impressive and immensely satisfying red table wine suited to a wide range of  dishes.

Note: The winery has a longstanding tradition of recognizing fine art and features a different major artist's work on each vintage release---so the label will look different each year.

The QPR Factor? Also impressive, with reporting it as low as $16 a bottle, and with an average U.S. price of $23 a bottle. For this quality, and with such impressive style, that’s a great QPR!

If you haven’t already, it’s time to discover Portuguese table wines. The Herdade do Esparão would be an excellent place to begin that journey.

Monday, February 15, 2016

My Dinner with Scalia

Justice Scalia,  @CC Google
I have had the pleasure of meeting, drinking and dining with many interesting people during my wine and spirits career. From princes to politicians, titans of business to generals of armies, somehow the magic of fermentation and distillation has managed to connect us. None of these was stranger than the time I had dinner with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Some years ago the folks at the Old Ebbitt Grill,Washington, D.C.’s oldest saloon, frequented by many Presidents from the nearby White House, invited me to participate in their annual competition for the Best Wine with Oysters. I was quite honored, for not only was this a highly-regarded competition focused on food and wine pairings, it also had a high caliber of judges---and what could be of higher caliber than a Supreme Court Justice?

Although Scalia was not in the trade, he was and always had been an avid wine consumer. His Italian family inculcated the tradition of wine at meals early on, and he eventually became quite the connoisseur of fine cuisine and equally fine wine---although, as was his wont, he had very decided ideas about what was what, no surprise there.

The final competition was simple, as these things go: we assembled in a downstairs private room and sequential flights of wines were served to us. First, we evaluated each wine, then proceeded to taste the wine with kumamoto oysters from a plate heaped high with the succulent little oysters, fresh shucked and sitting on mounds of salt.  The kumamotos were chosen because they were small but still tasty with the sweet/salt brininess of their ilk; although small, they provided a chewy texture that enhanced the taste.

The competitive wines, pre-selected for their supposed affinity with oysters, were put to the most severe of tests in this final showdown. There were a few Champagnes and sparkling wines in the lineup, along with a small selection of chardonnays and Rieslings, but the great majority were sauvignon blancs, ranging from the audacious green and savagely herbal New Zealand to the soft and luscious American west coast style (predominantly California and Washington state) to the rich, full-bodied Loire Valley and Bordeaux sauvignons, with the occasional Austrian enamel-removers and the austere Alpine evocations from the Trentino-Alto Adige.

The wines were superb, and more so with the kumamotos. The winnowing out and narrowing down was not difficult and the process was quite pleasant. 

It was a delight to observe the style of Scalia. Before the judging began he was urbane, pleasant, relaxed and convivial, quite open and candid, with the easy ability to converse intelligently on any subject---although both he and we were careful to not engage in confrontational political issues. Scalia reminisced with obvious fondness for the Italian family gatherings of his youth, mostly centered on various feasts and reverently recollected wines he had enjoyed.

Once the judging began, however, Scalia immediately became serious, tightly focused, and precise to the point of abruptness in evaluating the wine and oyster pairings. He wasted little time, making decisions instantly and seldom back-tracking to check his decisions. Invariably first in finishing a flight of wines, he remained quiet and composed until everyone else had finished, and had little to say between flights. 

Scalia seemed, in all his mannerisms and actions, and considering the few comments he made, to have a firm grasp of what he liked and what he disliked, and it seemed clear that with the kumamotos his preference leaned toward the crisp, acidic, and tightly structured but more generous sauvignon blancs. As I recall, the northern Italian and Austrian wines were very much to his liking; the then audaciously extravagant New Zealand “green” style not so much. He had what is commonly called a “European palate.”

Wine, for Scalia, was not a matter of collecting and preserving, but of pure essential enjoyment in the moment. He seemed as capable of relishing a simple unheralded red with no pedigree as championing a rare and precious bottle of great provenance---but the key, the simple and rather straightforward judgement of Scalia was in his insistence that whatever wine was opened it should be considered a companion to the food on the table.  Not an opponent; not a competitor; a companion.  That, for him, was the worth of a wine.

After the competition was concluded, most of the judges dispersed, but a few stalwarts remained to partake of the dinner offered by the Grill.  Although we had just completed serious serial munching on kumamotos, we began our repast with, yes, more oysters, and Scalia leaned in immediately, with gusto.

When the judging was completed, Scalia reverted instantly to his formerly affable self. He was a careful listener, paying attention to both the mannerisms and the comments of whomever was speaking. He could be a charming man, especially when reminiscing about his family in his youth; yet he was also at times abrupt and rather quick to dismiss and counter views with which he disagreed, although never insulting in the process, simply confident and assured and almost matter-of-fact. 

Contrary to his public persona and some of his published statements, there seemed to be no rancor in his nature that evening, and he was quite genial. He also had that impressive ability, sometimes taught but almost always intuitive, of making each person seem important and recognized.

It is refreshing (and somewhat reassuring) to hear of the fondness and friendship between Justice Ginsburg and Scalia, two titans of the bench who adamantly opposed each other on almost every issue, but thought so much of each other, these ‘best buddies’, off the bench.

I went into the evening somewhat hesitant, for there was no one I knew who was more opposed to Scalia’s views on almost everything, and who abhorred his influence on the court, than I. Yet he was a wonderful dinner companion, with lightning quick wit and a profound enjoyment of food, good wine, and wide-ranging conversation. Confident to the point of arrogance, yes.  Certain sure of his opinions and decisions, most assuredly.  But on that evening and in that company, he was the urbane and easy-going dinner companion, with a smile that went all the way up to his eyes.

I remained (and still remain) as adamant as ever in opposition to his views from the bench. And while I do not celebrate his passing, neither do I particularly mourn it, for I think it signals a change in the direction and composition of the court that is long overdue. But I remember as well the better nature of the man---not the Supreme Court Justice, but the man---and think often of how little we actually know of those all-too-human people who sit in great positions of power.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Re-discovering North Coast Pinot Noir with MacPhail Family Wines

The serendipity of a visit to the California North Coast Wine Country triggered another ‘journey of re-discovery’, this time with the phenomenon of Pinot Noir. Having lived there for fifteen wonderful years, I had seen the rise of Sonoma and Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and the establishment of a new darling grape in a new and promising region. Now, with time and distance intervening to create an objectivity I had not had before, I went back to re-assess, re-evaluate, re-discover what North Coast Pinot Noir had become.

With the amazing ability to stand in one place and assess virtually the entire catalog of North Coast Pinot Noir terroir, from Carneros on San Pablo Bay, through Sonoma Valley and the Mayacamas, the expanse of the cool Sonoma Coast, Sebastopol, Green Valley, Russian River Valley, and arching up through the cool, moist, mountain-rimmed Anderson Valley of Mendocino, there could not be a better place to begin my journey than the MacPhail Family Winery Tasting Lounge @ The Barlow.

(The MacPhail Tasting Lounge @ The Barlow is relatively new. The Barlow is a cleverly conceived large mixed-use quasi-industrial park-cum-tourist-magnet on Highway 12 as you enter Sebastopol from the east. It is a place where you can taste, sample the delights of Sonoma and the North Coast, and visit the producers of wine, cider and spirits. There are also specialty food purveyors, coffeshops, cafes, the newest location of the famous Zazu Kitchen and Farm Restaurant, and touristy-specialty shops galore.)

The MacPhail Tasting Lounge
@ The Barlow
In addition I had the lagniappe of tasting with Big Jim Caudill, one of the most respected veterans of the California wine scene, honored both for his encyclopedic knowledge and his finely honed palate. Fine wines, comfortable surroundings, and the guidance of a veteran judge and connoisseur aided and abetted by Gail, the vivacious and savvy Wine Educator in residence (and make sure you try her home-made jams and preserves when you’re there) all watched over by the avuncular Jim Morris, General Manager, provided the best possible one-stop-shopping for my journey.

Few people have been so meticulous and selective as James MacPhail when it comes to sourcing the many different terroirs of Pinot Noir in Sonoma and the Anderson Valley (yes, Mendocino, but many consider it an angular extension of upper Sonoma when it comes to Pinot).

The array of vineyard releases is staggering, and with MacPhail Family Winery at the helm of the winemaking process and James' clear, abiding philosophy of allowing the grapes to speak for themselves, it was an ideal situation for discovery: one winemaker, one variety, one vision, with that vision applied to many different specific examples of terroir!

The vast selection of wines, of Pinot Noir alone and excepting rosé and chardonnay, Oregon and Santa Rita Hills, is imposing. Ranging from 2011 to 2013 vintages, the offerings included

               Sundawg Ridge/Russian River Valley
               Gap’s Crown/Sonoma Coast
               “The Flyer”/Russian River Valley
               Pinot Noir/Sonoma Coast
               Anderson Creek/Anderson Valley
               Pratt/Sonoma Coast-Sebastopol
               Sangiacomo/Sonoma Coast
               Dutton Ranch/Russian River Valley
               Wildcat/Sonoma Coast
               Vine Hill/Russian River Valley
               Lakeview/Russian River Valley
               Toulouse/Anderson Valley
               Wightman House/Anderson Valley
               Vagon/Russian River Valley
               Mardikian/Sonoma Coast-Sebastopol

The two key questions of this re-discovery were 1) are there discernible variations among these different wines that make each distinct, and 2) are these definable primarily by source, or terroir?

The answer for both questions was a resounding yes. Each wine had its own distinct expression of Pinot Noir. With one grape and one winemaker with the overall vision of allowing the source to express itself with minimal intervention, the four single vineyard pinots tasted were a clear expression of the four locations. 

The vineyard-specific bottlings of MacPhail Family Winery.

Furthermore, it was abundantly clear that Carneros, Sonoma Coast, The Russian River Valley, and Anderson Valley had reached a maturity level that was impressive in such a relatively brief time: the five wines were unique but they showed an obvious family affinity,

MacPhail Pratt Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2012, was purely delicious, soft and supple, a bit on the light side, soft cherry fruit without great complexity but with just a whiff of alluring, playful spice.  This Sebastopol-area-edging-on-Green Valley wine was joyously fun to sip, and cradle in the hand, and sip again.

MacPhail Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2013, was initially as luscious as the Pratt, but the vineyard, located in the windy and cobblestoned soil of the famous Petaluma Gap as it leads into Carneros, adds a deeper, darker, almost broody and earthy character to the bright red fruit. There’s fat plum, and a sprinkling of black pepper, even a faint whiff of allspice to add dimension and depth and resonance.

MacPhail Wildcat Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2013, stepped up another level. This hilltop vineyard farmed by fellow grower/winemaker Steve MacRostie had the black cherry at core teased with bright strawberry, then kickrd in with added brambly blackberry and dark plum atop surprisingly dense, concentrated earthy foundations, rounded out deliciously with compelling heavy-steeped black tea. A challenging and deeply complex Pinot Noir.

MacPhail Toulouse Vineyard, Anderson Valley, Philo, Mendocino, 2013. Solid and sturdy, shy at first but then emerging with authority, showing dense, meaty black cherry and fresh-scuffed forest floor laced with contrasting tart pomegranate, this wild and slightly savage Pinot is superbly balanced and held in check with sweet oak spice, tender tannins and resolute acidity, It drinks well now but shows promise of rewarding cellar aging with ever-deepening rich flavors and silky smoothness.

MacPhail Vagon Rouge Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, 2013. Vagon Rouge is a blend of MacPhail’s favorite six barrels of the vintage, selected this vintage from Lakeview, Susanna’s and Mardikian Estate vineyards, all in the Russian River Valley AVA. Stemmed, cold-soaked, natural malolactic, 50% new French oak, lees-stirred for 3 months, bottled unfined and unfiltered, this is about as pure an expression you can get of the convergence of grape, place and process when it comes to Sonoma Pinot Noir. 

The source and the philosophy show through with startling clarity in this black-cherry and tart cranberry/pomegranate fruit-driven pinot lashed with uber-umami tones of fresh-turned earth, dirty mushrooms, peat moss. It is a savory wine in every direction yet somehow manages to show restraint through the balance of big fruit, big spice and big vanilla-oak spice meeting on even terms. The single-vineyard MacPhail pinots unfailingly exhibit unique evocations of a single source transparently displayed; the multi-sourced and carefully curated Vagon blend is more of a display of the MacPhail bold yet balanced style of winemaking.

While not complete, the great re-discovery of North Coast Pinot Noir was a beginning, courtesy of MacPhail’s impressive program of realizing, vineyard by vineyard, the differing evocation of that most tantalizing of all grapes through a trifocal lens of variety, terroir and winemaking philosophy.  It was also a superb afternoon of satisfying and well made wines.