Monday, March 28, 2011

Don't Let It Go To Your Head

In 2000 I was invited to a program called Oregon Pinot Camp. The experience changed my perception of Pinot Noir forever. After spending four days in Willamette Valley attending seminars, conducting barrel tastings and visiting with winemakers, my love affair with Pinot Noir was ignited. From there, my palate expanded to Burgundies and a slippery slope of deliciousness spiraled out of control. Then “Sideways” happened. The Pinot Noir market grew faster than a dot-com in ’98. Most domestic Pinot Noir producers couldn’t keep up with demand so their wines were cut with Syrah, Grenache and just about anything else producers and brand makers could get their hands on. If your bottle was labeled “Pinot Noir”, was under $20, and tasted even the slightest bit like Pinot (or big opulent Syrah) you had a chance at making a fortune. I stopped drinking most domestic Pinot, finding it fake and manufactured. The love affair was over.  

On Wednesday, March 23rd, I lunched at the The Boat House in Westport, CT with a group of local wine geeks. Truth be told, the talent level at this table of eight was staggering. We were eager to taste the 2009 lineup of wines from Arterberry Maresh, including two Chardonnays that have never before been released outside of Oregon. After the first course and tasting the Arterberry Maresh “Dundee Hills” Chardonnay and the Arterberry Maresh “Maresh Vineyard” Chardonnay, a lively discussion ensued as to whether these were the best Chardonnays produced in the United States. The table came to an agreement that while there might be a few Chardonnays (and I stress “a few”) from California that can top these wines, there is no one in Oregon making better Chardonnay.

Then came the Pinot Noirs, which were even better. Winemaker Jim Maresh produced three Pinot Noirs from the 2009 harvest: Dundee Hills, Juliard Vineyard and Maresh Vineyard. All the wines were produced using estate grown fruit, most of which was planted in the ‘70s. Oregon Pinot Noir fanatics recognize David Lett as the pioneer of the Oregon wine industry, planting the first vineyards in 1965. Jim Maresh’s grandfather planted the 5th vineyard in 1970 on a 45 acre plot that would come to be recognized as one of the “choice” spots in Oregon’s most famous AVA, the Red Hills of Dundee. Until the 2005 vintage, all of the fruit grown by the Maresh family was sold to various top Oregon winemakers. But after apprenticeships with Penner Ash, Cameron and St. Innocent, Jim realized the potential his family vineyards held and began producing wine under the Arterberry Maresh label. The inaugural 2005 vintage won instant praise from wine critics and geeks alike. That success continued with the 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages. I finally got my crack at the wines last year with the ’08 Pinot Noirs.

Jim’s restraint in winemaking is, perhaps, as valuable as the land he pulls his grapes from.  Giving a young winemaker gorgeous fruit from incredibly small plots in Oregon is like throwing the keys to a ‘61 Ferrari 250 GT California to an 18 year old. The potential for disaster is enormous. “Watch me drive this thing like no one before”. But Jim produces wine like Phil Hill drove, with precision and skill and always crediting the machine (fruit in this case). Young winemakers often fall into the trap of making “statement” wines. Jim’s wines are just the opposite. They are not flashy. They are not pretentious. They are true expressions of the site from which they were farmed and are incredibly sensual. None of the wines are fined or filtered and they spend 14 months in barrel. Most of the barrels are twice filled.  This “hands off” approach has produced wines of superior purity and cleanliness while allowing the wines to be packed with flavor and texture. After tasting through the entire lineup, one thing was clear: the wines from Arterberry Maresh are the best wines being produced in Oregon, period. Just in case I’m not making myself clear:

The Arterberry Maresh wines are the best wines being produced in Oregon.

So my love affair with domestic Pinot Noirs has been rekindled. At least the spark is back. But I won’t profess my undying love for domestic Pinot Noir until I stop seeing these mass marketed, formula wines that captured the palates of the American consumer faster than Kool-Aid. Pinot Noir, at least to the purist, is about grace, elegance and expression of land on which it was farmed. Jim Maresh, the 27 year old phenom winemaker for Arterberry Maresh, has brought a purist approach to Oregon wines. Let’s just hope his head doesn’t get bigger than his vineyards. Otherwise, that ’61 Ferrari 250 GT California will get kicked off its jack and head through a glass wall into the woods below.

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