With just a few days until June, it's fair to say that this spring has been the coolest, strangest, wettest, weirdest start to a growing season in California since 1998 or perhaps 2000. Depends on who you're talking to.
We all know what happened in 1998. The ground in many winegrowing areas of the state stayed damp and wet until mid-June. The growing season got off to a slow, late start and many vineyards never caught up and struggled to fully ripen their grapes.
It's too early to make too much of the weather and predict
what kind of vintage 2010 will render. But wine minds—growers, winemakers,
vineyard managers, etc.—don't like what they see.
On Monday, I visited Outpost, a winery on Howell Mountain, east and above the Napa Valley floor. It is home to perhaps a dozen or more wine companies, including Schrader, Maybach and Outpost. A stiff, biting wind swept off the ridge, giving the air an Arctic chill. On Tuesday it rained.
What's more, it had actually snowed here a week or so earlier; no one who works here missed that.
I met with Thomas Brown, of Rivers Marie, who makes Schrader's Cabernets and Outpost's Zinfandels. We took a short drive from Outpost to Black Sears winery, where Brown cellars his wines. What made the tasting of Brown's wines special was Brown's discussion about the inherent stylistic disparities within his own label.
Wineries usually strive for a house style, that is, a theme that runs through all the wines. Sometimes it's power. Sometimes it's ripeness. Sometimes it's elegance. The point to a house style is that when consumers discover a wine company, they expect the wines to share a thread of continuity.
Not so with Rivers Marie. Brown's 2009 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs come in three different "sizes," which we sampled from barrel. The Summa is the lightest, on the tart, trim, herbal side of the spectrum, weighing in at 12.7 alcohol, extremely low by today's standards. The Silver Eagle Vineyard is fuller bodied, but still restrained, despite its 14 percent alcohol. The Occidental Ridge is the richest and darkest (13.5), and to my taste, the most complex and concentrated.
"They're all pretty cold sites," said Brown, "so your hand gets forced at some point. You have to decide to pick before it's too late." Both Occidental and Summa will be individual bottlings. He's not sure whether Silver Eagle will be a stand-alone, or go to a Sonoma Coast appellation blend.
"I could force a riper style," Brown said of the Summa Pinot, "but it would become a candied mess." It's lighter color and body is likely clone related.
"There are folks who love our Pinots," Brown said, "but with our Cabs they expect more old school, and there's a bit of a disconnect. But we don't do that on purpose. It's more site-driven."
Some think Summa, with its orange and red fruits, is "thin and insipid," Brown said. "On the coast (where Summa is located) you can hang [the grapes] out until the cows come home and you're still in that orange and red fruit spectrum."
The Rivers Marie 2009 Napa Valley Cabernets are more in step with Brown's other Napa reds. We tasted two. The Roberto Corona Vineyard, above Harlan in Oakville, offered a rich, minty currant flavor, which is common in many Oakville reds. It is beautifully balanced and likely a single-vineyard wine. Next came Panek, a vineyard near Vineyard 29 in St. Helena; it offered a broader display of flavors built around chocolate and dark berries.
When you taste across the varietals you can see the stylistic differences, which Brown attributes to site.
Brad Paulsen — Saratoga, CA — May 26, 2010 11:41pm ET
David A Zajac — Akron, OH — May 27, 2010 10:15am ET
Aaron Meeker — Kansas City, KS — May 27, 2010 6:53pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — May 27, 2010 7:11pm ET
Michael Eacrett — Los Altos, CA — May 28, 2010 4:37pm ET
Paul Hughes — Carlbad, California — December 12, 2010 11:23am ET
Maryann Worobiec — Napa, CA — December 13, 2010 1:57pm ET
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