Celebrating Passion-filled Wines

Roberto Viernes
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Wednesday - March 21, 2007
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I’ve just returned from a weeklong tour of vineyards and wineries in California - wow! I mean all over California: Mendocino, Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Paso Robles, Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. I had such an awesome time and met some of the best winemakers and vineyard growers in the business. But the one thing that truly separates the great ones from the good ones is really the level of passion.

Everyone I met understands that wine is a result of thousands of steps from the ground where they decide to plant the vines to the type of vines, rootstock, clones to the oak, the temperature of fermentation ... and the list goes on. They also understand that in order to make truly great wines, you have to have great fruit.

Take for example Rich Savoy of the Savoy Vineyard in Mendocino. This “retired” gentleman farmer doesn’t make a drop of his own wine, but sells his fruit to a short list of “who’s who” in the wine world. He is fanatical about quality fruit. How fanatical, you ask? Well, I don’t know of too many farmers who, after planting an entire vineyard, pulled it all up and replanted it after one year just to change the spacing between the vines from six feet to four feet. Ask any vine grower how expensive and time-consuming it is to replant an acre of vines, and they will probably just shake their head and say you’re crazy for doing it. But Rich did. That’s why anyone who makes Pinot Noir or Chardonnay in California would love to stand in line just for a chance to get a ton of fruit from the Savoy vineyard.

Ron Denner of Denner Vineyard is another man with passion for wine. He could have planted vineyards anywhere he wanted. He decided on planting in one of the up-and-coming but almost unknown areas of Paso Robles, the Templeton Gap. Here, with the proximity to the Pacific Ocean, it benefits from the prevailing winds that sweep through the gap. He planted on rocky, calcareous soils that force the vines to work harder for nutrients and produce better grapes. On top of that, he plans the vineyard to be completely organically farmed by 2006. He also spared no expense when building the winery. With complete gravity flow and only the best technology that money can buy, he wants nothing to hinder the winemaker from making great wines from fruit to facilities. And the results show in the wines.

Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton have already been lauded by many as the most talented duo of winemakers in the Santa Rita Hills. You can feel the passion from Steve as he describes each of the vineyards in detail. One that struck me the most was the Mt. Carmel vineyard at one of the highest elevations in the Hills - it is terribly windswept and almost inaccessible. The day I was there we could not even drive all the way up to it because of recent rains. It was also an eerie sight to see the abandoned Carmelite Abbey that stands watch below the vineyard, wondering if it will ever be revived. The yield from this vineyard is so low that it is practically a losing proposition to farm. Yet Greg and Steve have formed their own vineyard management group to do just that, all in the name of quality and passion.

In the end, the passion should show in the wine. The wines have to be great, otherwise all the passion in the world does no good. Thankfully more often than not, the wine reflects just how much passion one puts into it.

Passion-filled wines: 2005 Drew Family Vineyards “Fog Eater” Pinot Noir ($35) this is really sexy Pinot Noir, great intensity of red and black fruits with an added dimension of complexity. 2005 Villa Creek Garnacha, Paso Robles ($35) this is fun and wild. This explosively generous wine is thick, rich and just plain enjoyable with every gulp!

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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