Month: June 2019
Yes a bit of a parody of Charles Dickens tale of Two Cities” (London and France) written in 1859. To recap his opening paragraph: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only”.
However this time it is not about war and politics as Dickens’ was referring to, but it is about the same grape from two different areas, France and California. What is Pinot Blanc? Why haven’t I heard about this grape? What is it like? Where is it grown? These questions will be addressed in this story.
So what is Pinot Blanc? The history of this grape is a bit tangled with mystery and misunderstanding. This white wine grape is essentially a mutation but sharing mostly the same DNA with Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Pinot Blanc has a wide ranging descriptors: high in acidity, low in acidity, mix of fresh fruits, aromas (apple, citrus), pear, a little buttery, a bit creamy, hint of spiciness, dry, floral characteristics, honey, sweet, possessing stone fruit aromas, heavier minerality, cabbage odor, etc.
Alsace fronts the Rhine River in eastern France, and borders the countries of Germany and Switzerland (Map from Ontheworldmap.com)
Where is it grown? The main areas for this variety are Alsace (northeast France), the Alto Adige region in Italy and neighboring areas of Alsace in Germany & Austria. Pinot Blanc is also taking a hold in Canada’s Okanagan Valley as one of their signature wines. Others areas include Hungary, Croatia, Spain, Washington and Oregon. In France it is permissible to blend this varietal with other grapes in some quantities.
What other names does it go by? Warning: the list is a minefield for possible mispronunciations: Austria (Weissburgunder or Klevner), Hungary (Feher Burgundi); Spain & Italy (Pinot bianco), Czech Republic (Rulandske Bile), Slovakia (Rulandske Biele, and Croatia (Pinot bijeli or Burgundac bijeli). More recently it is starting to be develop in Uruguay and Argentina. In the Champagne region, Pinot Blanc is often called Blanc vrai. In the United States, besides Pinot Blanc, it is often referred to as a white ABC (anything but Chardonnay) or a step-child to Chardonnay. The truth of this varietal is very different!
I was made aware of Pinot Blanc from a recent video cast (Winephabet Street) and found a very limited number of commercial California Pinot Blancs. I was intrigued by this obscure wine due to unfamiliarity and sought out to taste it. No easy task. The number of acres planted of Pinot Blanc are a bit of a mystery, but estimated around 300 to 400 acres statewide. Upon tasting various ones, I was more than impressed with the aromas, flavors, textures and tastes of this varietal. What stood out was this wine was significantly different from France to California. Admittedly, I have not tasted this varietal in all the previous countries mentioned earlier. In France Pinot Blanc can actually add Auxerrois (from the town in Chablis region) but still labeled as Pinot Blanc. Auxerrois often has a “green vegetable quality” to it. When I first tasted it, I was so “un-impressed” by the taste. Turns out it often has a cabbage tinge. What are the differences between California and French Pinot Blanc? Apart from “terroir”, as mentioned the French often blend in Auxerrois and it has a distinct “green vegetable” on the palate. When I had a Sonoma Valley, Pinot Blanc I was taken back with a soft “cotton candy sweetness” verses “cabbage” on the palate and finish. And thus the impetus for this article!
In all, four California Pinot Blancs were tasted. Each having different coloring, aromas and flavor profiles. The first one tasted, 2014 Valley of the Moon, 100% Pinot Blanc from Sonoma, had a light golden color and medium viscosity on the eye. Aromas and tastes were complex with a sweetness of honeysuckle and green apples contrasting with a soft sweet vegetable characteristic of uncooked snow peas and a hint of citrus. A great summer patio wine!
Today, Valley of the Moon offers their 2016 of Pinot Blanc and Viognier. This bright wine produced in stainless steel tanks, allowed the fresh fruit and aromas of the grape to express the fullness of Pinot Blanc. Combined with the tropical fruits of Viognier, what came across immediately was fruit with tropical aromas. Their winemakers’ notes talk about “Aromas of orange blossom and honeysuckle, with just a hint of spicy fresh ginger. Juicy white peach and nectarine fill the mouth and reveal hidden ripe pineapple and guava”. This is one wine that should be considered for your enjoyment. This wine received a Double Gold Medal Award at the Sonoma Harvest Fair.
The third tasted was a 2017 Saddleback Pinot Blanc from Napa. On the eye it was medium-heavy viscosity with a bright pale golden hue for color. On the nose & taste, earthiness, intense floral aromas, with a slightly tart finish of key lime pie and a sweet honeydew melon. The finish was full and multi-layered presence in the mouth especially going from chilled to warming up but always round and smooth. Truly a wonderful tasting experience.
The fourth California Pinot Blanc tasted was from Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards just outside St. Helena. This wine from the renowned Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc winery with extremely high ratings (97+), was their first attempt at Pinot Blanc. The grapes came from Yount Mill Vineyard in Yountville. Originally slated for a fortified wine experiment (something similar to Pineau des Charentes, a regional French aperitif) that will take 5 ½ years in the barrel, they had enough to produce 24 cases of unfiltered Pinot Blanc. This unfiltered wine possessed some distinguished characteristics as they stated, being on the “…rich, flavorful side”.
What foods pair well with California Pinot Blanc? Almost anything with subtle flavoring, so soft cheese (goat or sheep), salads with cheese dressings, or mild fish to taste this “more delicate varietal”. Conversely, if you want to highlight the meal and want a complimentary wine, you can serve California Pinot Blanc’s with Salmon, shrimp, scallops, far eastern chicken dishes, pizza, sushi & sashimi and even cured Italian prosciutto.
Generally speaking while having similar production characteristics as Chardonnay (oak barrel aging, stainless-steel aging), it is a wine generally not to be aged, but consumed early. The French can legally add the Auxerrois varietal which I believe distorts the pure Pinot Blanc experience. The quintessential take away is that California Pinot Blanc (be it stand alone or with Viognier) possess wide ranging characteristics and flavors. It is much more than your “ABC” wine and will provide you a new adventure and a great addition to your everyday whites.
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Yes, I understand this is not the way to start off an article, as you normally have to engage with a snappy title of an article. So let me explain, that with Lavender Ridge Vineyard there were simply too many titles one could use to “catch your interest and attention”. So I will be using “possible titles” and you, the readers, get to call out your favorite title for this article!
Possible Title #1 – The Winemaker & Owners
Here we have Rich and Siri Gilpin who started the business in 2000, planted a vineyard in 2003 and started selling wine on Main Street in Murphys in 2005. The first years, when there was only 3 wineries on Main Street as opposed to twenty-five or so today, so they were one of the first. Rich grew up on the San Francisco peninsula and Siri in Winnetka, Illinois. Rich study enology and viticulture at UC Davis and was fortunate enough to also work in “an experimental field” passing his classrooms knowledge thru his toiling hands in the field to making wine. The best of both a priori knowledge and a posteriori knowledge – theory and practical experience. One of his first jobs finishing at UC Davis was in Sonoma. Siri, after leaving Winnetka, Illinois, attended and graduated UC Santa Barbara with a BA in Sociology. She then pursued doctorate studies in Marriage and Family Counseling at Sonoma State University. It was there where she met Rich, who got the job working as an Assistant Winemaker in 1993. Later, they spent 10 years in El Dorado County at Wind Walker but always wanted to move to Calaveras County where Rich had spent some time at a family property. In 2000 they purchased the property and within three years had it planted with vines. Those vines provided their first estate release in 2006. The tasting room on Main Street opened in 2005 with wines from grapes gathering from various vineyards. Today they get 70% of the fruit from Calaveras County and the remainder mostly from the Sierra Foothills. The name Lavender Ridge, came from some health challenges of their children and the positive effect that Lavender (and other herbs) played in strengthening their immune systems, ultimately helping them get well.
(One of their favorite paintings from France of lavender in back tasting room)
Possible Title #2 – The Tasting Room, More Than You Think
While not discussing this in detail during our interview, they run a rather unique tasting room. It is truly three businesses in one. First is obviously the rustic tasting room for walk in traffic. Here is where you can simply walk in and taste typically six of their current wine releases. In the back, is their Rhone Room where you can make reservations to small groups or several individuals up to 20 people. Here they are focused on presenting Rhone varietals. It is here where they have a Lavender boutique of various products. Their second tasting room Coppermine features Bordeaux varietals. (Click on https://californiawinesandwineries.com/2016/06/27/coppermine-winery/ ). The second thing you notice is the Artisan Cheese Market they display in the walk-in tasting room. They also have an entire wall decorated with items for sale. The third aspect of the business is their profound use of pairing their wines with artisan cheese. During the year they hold many events focused on the two. Topics of the ones coming include: Romance of France, Sheep Chevre, Best of Cheddars, etc. These are held via reservations and presented by Judy Creighton a certified cheese professional. Usually four wines and cheeses to compare and contrast. Personally, I have been buying from their specialized cheeses for two years but did not know they offered these classes/events. You will be seeing me signed up shortly as the cost is nominal.
Possible Title #3 – Wine Which Show Creativity and Pushing the Limits
So in discussing Rich’s winemaking capabilities, the first question was his style or what he is trying to provide via his wine making skills. His answer was simply perfect, he wants to show the expression of the varietals. He does not do blends or add 5% or 10% of this or that to present a preconceived notion of how a varietal should look like by “artificially adding a darker varietal”. Simple and truthful. To this end he uses only natural native yeasts so as not to upset the expression. To quote Rich this makes his wines “fruit forward and easy to drink”. He does work to balance acidity and tannins to make his wines rounder and fuller flavored. This results in his words, “rounder and fuller” wines. Having tasted two of his “prized wines”, his Grenache done in “concrete eggs” for minerality and keeping the lees naturally moving, and his Mourvèdre they were “light colored”. Having to dismiss my preconceived ideas of coloring, the floral aroma of both were “other worldly” wonderful. He mentioned some consumers come in and summarily dismiss his wines due to the “lighter coloring”. Just a thought that if they provided blacked out tasting glasses he would sell out in half the time! By the way, his wines generally sell out despite the “lighter coloring.
The wines are fabulous including his 2016 Lavender Ridge Roussanne, Double Gold Winner in Sierra Foothills Competition. This paired with pan seared scallops, with porcini mushroom risotto with sautéed spinach and lemon beurre blanc. An excellent pairing and a real treat!
One other wine enjoyed while talking with Rich and Siri, one was their newly released Grenache Rose. The boutique was heavenly, fresh with a unique shade of pink. A perfect warm weather, patio wine!
Possible Title #4 – Leading Technologist in Calaveras
Rich has constantly re-invested back into the winery with state of the art equipment. He was the first in the county to purchase and use a cross flow filter. A portion of business is also acting as a custom crush house for various wineries. Here I believe is a remarkable story. He, like so many winemakers in the state of California, have been fighting “smoke taint” for the last few years. He had received some grapes / juice that had a distinct smoke taint characteristic. Rather than jeopardize his reputation and quality, he simply poured his juice down the drain. At his “custom crush” operation, a winery came to him with similar smoke tainted grapes/juice. He asked and received the same advice from Rich to simple pour out the wine but with a caveat. Like any solid winemaker in the state of California with constant and inevitable forest fires, sadly smoke taint is a yearly occurrence. He offered to spend his time and money with this juice working on reverse osmosis and a newly discovered way of treating smoke taint with enzymes. This was to take away free and bonded particles out of the wine, especially from the sugar compound. This was provided the wine would not see any consumer, but be a noble wine experiment. It is underway and his results will know later this year.
Possible Title #5 – The Future of the Wine Industry
We spent some time talking about how to transition from Baby Boomers to Millennials/Gen-X/Gen-Y with the tasting room, varietals, etc. How tasting rooms have transitioned to “wine bars” instead of an opportunity to taste what the winemaker has produced by a varietal. This portion of the discussion was unfortunately cut short as we already spent over twice the allocated time. We will have an opportunity later to follow up and stay tuned for an upcoming article on the subject.
Conclusion: So I have only touched briefly on five far ranging subjects on Lavender Ridge Vineyard and their wines, products and overall business. Thus as I stated in the opening salvo, a title of this story was going to be too limiting and not show the vastness of their operation, offering and character. So you the reader can name the article, but at some point, to fully appreciate Lavender Ridge Vineyard, you will need to visit and taste some remarkable wines.
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