Reconsidering California's Familiar Classics
If you spend enough time with wine-lovers, you know that there are certain phrases that get repeated time and time again.
“That’s good juice!”
“Man, that wine’s got a long life ahead.”
“Personally, I prefer the nuance of Old World reds and the power of New World ones.”
There’s nothing wrong with these phrases or the sentiments they convey: They are merely commonly expressed opinions that reflect personal perceptions or preferences regarding the wine under discussion.
But there’s another phrase you’ll hear fairly often that, unfortunately, is a bit more detrimental to the overall richness and variety of one’s wine life:
“I used to drink their wine, but I’ve moved on.”
Ah, yes: The allure of the new. It’s one of the most common and widely accepted manifestations of wine snobbery, and contributes significantly to a less interesting, more hemmed-in drinking experience.
Of course, this phenomenon doesn’t really apply to the most legendary names in the wine world: Precious few people would ever dare state publicly that they’d grown tired of, say, Chateau Latour or Domaine de la Romanee-Conti or Screaming Eagle. These are, after all, the metrics against which other wines produced from the same grape varieties or in the same regions are measured.
But when it comes to a more approachable tier of wines, a different phenomenon occurs: The morphing of familiarity into disdain, or, at the very least, into complacency.
Don’t get me wrong: This is a two-way street, and, often, a wine’s success leads to a calcification of its style, which is typically the beginning of its long slide down the path to mediocrity. Other times, it’s a consumers’ issue, and the desire to drink The Next Big Thing necessarily means that old favorites get left behind.
I point this out because I have recently found myself re-introduced to three California producers that I hadn’t really paid much attention to for several years. And, as you might have guessed already, I was impressed with what I tasted.
Blackstone was perhaps the biggest surprise. After all, its reputation among the so-called wine cognoscenti is for mass-produced, fairly straightforward Merlot. What most people don’t realize is that the new winemaker, Gary Sitton, is working tirelessly to change the perception of Blackstone: From his relationships with growers to the fruit itself to the way he is allowing terroir to shine through, Sitton is one of the rising stars in the California wine world.
Which brings me to the Blackstone Limited Release Merlot Sonoma Valley 2007, a wine that, though it’s only available online through Blackstone or at the winery itself, is a fabulous demonstration of the potential--and achievement--of this producer that more than deserves the traction it’s finally receiving among serious wine people.
The color is likely the first thing you’ll notice: It’s not an opaque, inky black but, rather, something more translucent, more delicate, more red than expected. The nose is beautifully layered with both darker aromas of plums and mushrooms and lighter ones that are reminiscent of ripe strawberries, currants, pomegranate, and red cherries. There are also hints of cinnamon, cocoa, and gently charred oak hovering around in there, adding a whiff of the exotic without crossing the line into the overly oaky. The palate is far more high-toned than the nose lets on, with singing flavors of tart cherries, slightly perfume-y brown spices, sage, and a texture that’s more silk than velvet in its elegance and litheness.
Then there’s SIMI, one of those producers that’s been making good wine for so long that too many people--I'm talking about myself here--began overlooking it on wine store shelves. This is, unfortunately, one of the downsides of familiarity, and even I have to admit that, though I grew up in a house where SIMI was uncorked as often as anything else, I hadn’t tasted it in several years.
But the 2006 Sonoma County Zinfandel very quickly brought me back into the SIMI fold: It reminded me of exactly what it is about California Zinfandel that I love so much, and about this producer that always won me over all those years ago.
It started off with a nose of wonderfully ripe wild strawberries and other summertime berries, bright cherries, a touch of sage, and the slightest hint--barely there but perceptible nonetheless--of violets. The sweetness of all that ripe berry and plum fruit dominated on the palate, but the fact that it was carried on such a lithe, silky frame rendered it amazingly fresh and bright. Those minor notes of cherry from the nose came to the fore on the mid-palate, and were backed by tannins that lent an appealing structure to the wine. It all finished with black pepper and a return to those sweet ripe strawberries: A wine brought full circle, bright and fruit-driven but not overblown, luscious yet structured, and gulpably delicious.
St. Francis also impressed me with its 2006 Claret, a carefully crafted homage to Bordeaux with a nose of violets, lavender, cigar tobacco, humidor, minerals, sweet dark cherry, plum, and a hit of alcohol-borne licorice providing a treble note, and its flavors of cedar, more dark cherries, brambly fruit and hints of grilled sage and pencil lead, all carried on a texture beautifully close to velvet.
There have been others, too: SIMI’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Landslide Vineyard, Robert Mondavi’s 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville bottling, and more. These may form a significant part of California’s old guard, but they are more than worthy of renewed attention. For whether they’re taking serious steps to improve their quality, or never really lost it in the first place but suffered instead because they’d grown so familiar, now is the time to reconsider looking backward at the wines we used to drink but no longer do quite as frequently: They’re often more than worthy of our consideration. They are, in many cases, re-earning our respect.
Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer, educator, and consultant. He is Director of Education at The Wine School of Philadelphia (www.vinology.com), blogger for www.UncorkLife.com by WineChateau.com, contributing editor at Philadelphia Style Magazine, and contributing writer for John Mariani's Virtual Gourmet. You can reach him online at www.BrianFreedmanPhiladelphia.com.