12 No.2 - May
Part 2 of 2
Journal and tasting notes from visits to several California wineries and vineyards.
Thursday, May 20, 2004 - Edna Valley, Cambria, and Paso Robles
With a great trip through the Santa Rita Hills under our collective belts, it was time to move on to our final touring day before the HdR festivities. Many thanks to Bob Summers, who had volunteered to plan the day's itinerary and serve as tour guide for the dozen or so people scheduled for Thursday's activities, which included a lunch stop at Bassetti Vineyard where Bob had personally assembled a horizontal-vertical of Bassetti Vineyard Syrahs for us to try.
Up early the next day, we drove over to the Paso Robles Inn to pick up our carpool partners - Jonathan Lachs and Susan Marks of Cedarville Vineyard, for the day's outing. December's earthquake had caused an underground rupture in the local hot spring, right across the street in the City Hall parking lot. The gaping hole still hasn't been closed, so there was a nice twang of sulfur in the air as we headed south out of town.
We arrived about one hour later at the Alban facility in Edna Valley, for what should have been a 40-45 minute trip. (We'd been doing a lot of chatting, so despite the fact that (a) I already knew the way, and (b) Bob had equipped everyone with a packet of maps, points of interest, and specific directions, and (c) I had a GPS system in the car - we still managed to miss our exit, driving all the way down 101 to Arroyo Grande before heading inland. The passengers were happy though - afterall, it was a beautiful day. As it turned out, this wasn't to be our only departure from the "established route" during the day.)
We joined our group, including Peter Cargasacchi and Brian Loring - already tasting a Pinot Gris, made by assistant winemaker Andrew Adam for his own label. After tasting through Andrew's four wines, General Manager Paul Wilkins poured us the '01 Alban Roussanne, before leading us through several barrels of the '03s, and a couple of '02s.
Tasting at Alban is always a pleasure. But, considering the miniscule yields that led to very low production levels for both '02 (three-fifths ton/acre) and '03 (three-tenths ton/acre), we were fortunate to be tasting any wine at all. In fact, we were lucky Paul didn't ask us to bring the wine! Up and down the aisles we followed Paul, getting a thimble-full of this and 1/4-teaspoon of that (okay, it was more than that, but for drama's sake....). Another cool thing about tasting at Alban - well spitting at Alban, is there's none of that spitting in the drain thing. Nope. They have these rocks - maybe sandstone...maybe something they've dug up from Seymour's ...but anyway, they've placed a bunch of stones in half-barrels, and you just let it fly at the rocks. I recall seeing this barrel of rocks for the first time, and figured the spatter would splash back at me causing a major polkadot-effect. Nope. The rocks just say 'thanks' and lay there, soaking it up. Tough life, being a rock.
Finishing up the '03 barrels, Paul offered us a taste of the '02 Lorraine and '02 Seymour's - both due to be bottled in 2-3 months. Well, if we have to...okay, we'll give it a try. Hey, what about the '02 Pandora, one of us asked (probably me). Well sure, Paul said, as he went thieving from the appropriate barrels enough to make up a 2/3 Grenache, 1/3 Syrah blended sample in his plastic beaker. Hmm, I wondered what else we could have him to blend up for us. But, that would've been stalling for time and trying to lengthen things out - merely postponing the inevitable end to our visit.
Finally, when it looked like we had run out of things to taste, Paul suggested we try this one particular barrel. This was the '03 Bonaccorsi Syrah HdR auction lot that John Alban had finished up for the late Michael Bonaccorsi. This turned out to be a very fitting way to end our Alban visit - toasting Michael Bonaccorsi.
As we followed Paul back over to the sink to rinse our stemware, John Alban emerged from the back room. Everybody likes to see John, and he enjoys greeting all of his Rhone fans whenever he can. But, I hear that Pinot Noir producers get downright giddy and are especially interested in schmoozing with him - so much so...well... it's no wonder California Pinot seems so much like California Syrah (just kidding - this is a pot I love to stir).
We had a Noon rendezvous scheduled with Ellis Bassetti at Bassetti Vineyard, so we departed Edna Valley and headed for the coast. Driving through San Luis Obispo and over to the coast, we headed north up Hwy 1 toward Cambria. Turning east on Hwy 46, we drove up the Hwy just a mile or so and arrived at our Green Valley turnoff. From here, it was just a couple of miles back into the canyon to Ellis and Susan Bassetti's place.
Bob and I had first met Ellis Bassetti during last November's trip to Paso. We had a great time just checking out the vineyard and chatting with Ellis. In planning his itinerary for this trip, Bob approached Ellis about having a dozen wine folks descend upon him, and predictably, Ellis was more than happy to host our group. Bob had assembled a vertical of known Bassetti Vineyard Syrahs for us have along with some sandwiches of smoked duck breast with Tomme du Levezou Cheese on Olive Bread he was going to prepare, and everyone was looking forward to tasting the wines right in their "home" vineyard. And speaking of "home," this has been the Bassetti home for generations. In fact, Ellis grew up just down the road.
Wanna see the vineyards, Ellis asked. Sure do, most of us said. It was Fall, the last time I was here, so I was interested in at least seeing some greenery, if not fruit. So, as several of us got back into the cars for a quick tour around the Bassetti Vineyard, Bob and a few others prepared food and set out the stemware. (Actually, what Bob had wasn't really "stemware." He had been able to borrow Mat Garretson's Riedel "O" tasting room glasses - sort of bowls without stems. This gave everyone nine glasses - and the lack of a stem probably reduced our chances of breakage. Of course, the glasses did have to be home by curfew.
This is a unique site. The cool-climate Syrah grown here produces very small berries, and isn't always successful in fully ripening. But, what is produced here is quite special. The soil is fascinating, with big wide cracks running all over the place. As part of an old seabed, there is a combination of clay, loam, and rocks, just the right stuff for Syrah to 'be all it can be' - ironically, because Ellis originally wanted to plant his favorite grape, Cabernet Sauvignon. But, through some lucky intervention by John Alban, Ellis was persuaded to plant Syrah - about 13 acres of it by 2000.
Ellis and Augie led the way around the perimeter, and we piled out of the cars at each of three different blocks to get the low down - this is Augie's...this is Mat's...this is Steve's.., about 4-5 acres each. Here's where our little vineyard tour became really interesting. Having growers and producers like Peter, Jonathan and Susan, Augie, and Brian among us to ask all the right questions, the rest of us simply had to listen.
returned from our vineyard visit, the sandwiches were made, the wines
were poured and everything was ready to go. We sipped through three wines
from 2000, four from 2001, and two from 2002. All were delicious. Meanwhile,
the clock was ticking. Here was a case where having an established itinerary
quickly become our taskmaster. Needing to leave for that "next stop"
means having to say goodbye to friends, not to mention having to put the
glass down. On the other hand, when you're part of a moveable feast, you
can look forward to the whatever's around the corner, because you're moving
right along with the feast. From here, Augie headed back into Paso, and
the rest of us took off for Tablas Creek.
I've been coming to Tablas Creek during HdR week for the last few years now. Unfortunately, I appear to have developed a pattern of arriving late for visits, and this visit seemed to continue my streak (see sidebar). Not to make excuses, but often this is a result of too many stops, not enough time, or someone wants to have you try just one more barrel. But, never has it been due to "taking a short cut." I started to think up excuses I could use for bungling the arrival time on an easy trip from Cambria to Paso.
Maybe we can sneak in and no one will notice, I thought aloud. Hey, maybe the rest of them aren't even here yet, I added. Naw, I'm sure we're late. We pulled into the parking lot, amid several recognizable cars. As we approached the front door I saw Bernie Roth's wife, Sammie sitting outside. Hi, they're waiting for you inside, she said. Hi Sammie; yep, we're a little late. You see, there was this huge nest of rattlesnakes....
We wandered in past the tasting bar where Bernie and Howard Sherry were finishing up, and they joined us as we headed back into the winery to join the rest of the group. We're a little late...sorry, I said, apologizing to Ryan Hebert from Tablas Creek. I tried to explain... we decided to try a short cut, and turned onto Santa Rosa Creek Road. Oh, you came over the mountain, he said in an admiring tone. He continued: It's not the shortest route, but I often do that myself - just for the great view. Well, what do you know - we're not foolishly late, we're just fashionably late.
Winemaker and Vineyard Manager Neil Collins popped in and out, while Ryan Hebert (the assistant winemaker and assistant vineyard manager) led us through our tasting. Many of us have taken the vineyard/nursery tour here, so Bob had asked if we could focus on some interesting varietals and just chat. Ryan was certainly up for that, starting us off with a Vermintino and working toward a Picpou Blanc. Besides, Tablas has apparently ceased its nursery operations, having now partnered with NovaVine of Sonoma to produce the Tablas Clone grafted vines. This made me all the more glad to have toured the nursery while it was here (link to '02 visit).
The Tablas Creek wines are getting better with each vintage. And, there are some different things going on in the winery now. In addition to vinifying some unusual varieties, an interesting trial is the Glenrose experiment: Tablas clone fruit grown in another Paso vineyard, then vinified at Tablas Creek using the same techniques as with their own fruit. Purpose: to see the effects of grower methods and terroir compared to Estate-grown fruit. Maybe there's been a change of focus or approach, or maybe eliminating the nursery allowed them to concentrate more on the wine - either way, it's exciting, and this was a very worthwhile visit.
From here, we headed back into Paso to drop off our passengers, then over to check in with Augie at the Garretson facility. Augie was pouring his Chardonnay, Pinot and Syrah, and Shawn Mitchell was pouring his Palm Cellars Zinfandel. Spitting class was over - it was time to re-lax. We also had a glimpse of Augie's new facility, still under construction right next door.
Our winery visits finished for the day, we headed back into Paso to get ready for dinner at Alloro. This was going to be a bittersweet moment. Our dinner at Alloro was sort of a "Last Supper" with owner Fabrizio Ianucci, as the restaurant was closing its doors after this weekend. (Actually, I'd heard that Fabrizio had intended to close nearly a month earlier, but upon hearing that the new owners wouldn't be set up in time for Hospice du Rhone, Fab decided to stay open longer to accomodate the crowds during HdR. Very classy. Both Fabrizio and his Alloro restaurant will be sorely missed.)