Looking for Pinot, Finding Counoise

Let me get this out of the way at the very beginning—I was not the guy to send to the Rhone Rangers Los Angeles tasting on August 8. I have written about my skepticism regarding the quality and style of these almost exclusively Central Coast wines, and how my palate leans towards wines that are delicate, nuanced, more “feminine”. No jammy blockbusters here! [ed. Dotoré graciously agreed to report on the LA Rhone Rangers Wine Event so tBoW might lounge elsewhere guilt free.]

I approached my assignment with trepidation, sitting in for tBoW who was on hiatus near an alpine lake. Sounds better to me than drinking Central Coast Wines, but what’s a guy to do in LA on a late summer Saturday in Santa Monica?

The tasting was held in a studio in Bergamot Station, which hosts a gaggle of first-rate, cutting-edge art galleries. Thirty seven wineries were represented, mostly from the Paso Robles area, and all of the wines poured were Rhone varietals—Grenache, Viognier, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Carignan. There was also one table each for “designer” water, cracker and cheeses, and toffees. The toffees were the best. I left hungry.

On a side note, let me point out tBoW was invited as a wine blogger which it turns out is pretty far down the wine trade ladder; just below the person who fetches lattes for the distributors. And that’s the good response. With a few other pourers I felt like Cult of Kali would have been a better received calling card. Makes sense I suppose. After all, what does a blogger add to the vintner’s bottom line? All we do is write about whether we liked the wine or not and why. To accept the value of a blogger the vintner would also have to buy the argument consumers need more than a splashy label and a 90+ rating to purchase.

I went directly to Jason Haas of Tablas Creek, one of the standout wineries in the Central Coast, much appreciated for making wines that are thoughtful and balanced expressions of their grapes (see previous posts). When I asked him for clues how to find wines that are not “killer”, he suggested I seek out wineries that also make Pinot Noir, like Curits, Tercero, and Qupe. Made sense to me. He also expressed his belief there would be a lot of vintage variation in the current marketplace, as ’07 was a drought year and the wines will be more extracted, as opposed to the ‘08’s which come from a cooler, wetter vintage and will produce more elegant wines. I tasted his ‘08 Cotes de Tablas Blanc, their white blend, and the ’08 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, both delicious. My preference would be the blend, as it is more accessible and food friendly, and, frankly, the $40 tab for the Beaucastel is a bit much for my budget.

Taking his suggestion, I moved on (directly adjacent) to speak with Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines. Larry, a very likeable and patient guy, and his wife, are former Santa Monica mountain-bikers, who are also putting out some nice efforts for being so new to the game. I found their ’09 Grenache Blanc a bit lemony, but well-priced at $20. I liked even more their Gewurtz, definitely an aberration at this event. Delicate, spicy, and coming in at 12%, it didn’t aspire to taste German, but embraced its “California-itness”. The reds were all good, with the Syrah, sourced from the ubiquitous Larner vineyard and held for 2 years in new oak, being my favorite. I also appreciated the fact that ALL of his reds, single-vineyard or blends, were priced at $28. Very reasonable and sensible for someone trying to edge into the market.

ready to pour her Counoise

Curtis Winery, represented by Chuck Carlson and Derby Vineyards, represented by Katie Kanphantha, are producing wines that I found well-made and interesting, with special attention warranted to Derby’s ’07 Counoise, a funky, fruity black-fruit bomb that is rarely produced as a single-grape wine. The Curtis and Derby wines range in price from $18-26, and are worth looking for.

The other standout winery for me was Anglim Winery. I’ve tasted their wines at the winery and always found them to be well-suited to my palate. Like Tablas Creek, they bring a thoughtfulness to their winemaking that I find distinctive. I particularly enjoyed Anglim’s ’06 “Cerise” Red Blend, very Pinot-like in weight, fruity and reminiscent of a Southern French village wine, and a reasonable $24.

In addition to the notable wines mentioned above, I tasted wines from Caliza, Epiphany, Ecluse and Terry Hoage. Rather than address specific wines, which frankly tended to blend in after a while, I think a few generalizations are in order:

If you’re looking for wines with less than 14.5% alcohol, you’re in the wrong place.

While exceptions could be found (Calcareous, L’Aventure, Milan, Hoage, Treana, Zaca Mesa most prominent), the majority of the wines were in the $22-30 range, which may reflect a re-assessment by the winemakers of their place in the pecking order. Long ovedue!

After tasting a couple dozen wines Counoise tends to be the punchline for jokes that belong in a Judd Apitow movie.

Bottom line: If you like bigger, higher-alcohol, richly-extracted wines made from Rhone Varietals, these are for you. As the representative from Caliza Vinyards said, “Look, this is Paso fruit…you do with it what you can.” Exactly.

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