Saturday, February 4, 2012

Can West Coast Wines Be Saved?

The title is slightly sensationalist, agreed. Destiny will someday move me west to become part of the wine scene 2,980 miles from where I grew up. Right now my heart (palate) rejects the idea. Lack of west coast representation on my shelves is not an accident. I find the majority of what I taste simplistic. There is no degree of difficulty analyzing over-extracted, highly concentrated wines made to slap your palate with happy fruit and leave it wanting. But the times they are a-changing and hope may be restored. Perhaps I might be able to chase that destiny after all.
 “New World wines push you prone onto a chair and give you a lap dance, no touching” – Terry Theise
Yes, I’m reading Terry Theise’s “Reading Between the Vines” again. And yes, he’s got me all fired up again. His statement is a rather profound and engaging depiction of the current state of west coast wines. Not too long ago, west coast cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay actually exhibited grace and elegance. Estates such as Chateau Montelena, Heitz Cellars, Signorello Vineyards, Van Duzer, Sokol Blosser and Rex Hill produced stylistic wines that rivaled many of the great wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy that were produced at the time. Shoot, the wines were less expensive than Bordeaux and Burgundy AND you were buying American! Somewhere along the line it all went horribly wrong. While I won’t point my finger in any one direction, I think many of us know who’s to blame. My thirst for Oregon pinot noir is all but quenched. The excitement for Napa Valley cabernet has strayed. Sonoma chardonnay – what’s the big deal? Adding fuel to my frustration, west coast producers were handed a golden opportunity to win the hearts of every American consumer - and they blew it, almost every single one of them. More on that later, but here’s a two word clue – imported inflation.

From my chair, the market for west coast wines can simply be divided into two categories:  “homogenized top scoring” wines aimed at pleasing the palates of certain groups and “think tank marketing solution” wines aimed at flooding the market with mediocre products to elevate the prestige of the top scoring wines. The purpose of the former is to line the pockets of certain media groups so as to render glowing reviews. Once those reviews are in, the large discount stores purchase as much as their budgets will allow and sell the wines for pennies on the dollar. They do this in hopes of attracting new customers whom they can, in turn, sell the mediocre wines to for margins that might rival the textile industry.

Not all is lost. Here are four producers that are producing wines of exceptional character and grace. Their wines are restoring my faith in the west coast producers and maybe, just maybe, rekindled a flame that used to burn deep in the palate of my soul. Each wine begged to be savored with each sip. Each asked to be studied. Each danced with me, not for me (borrowed from Thiese). So I set out to learn a little bit more about each winemaker. Below is some brief information. These talented people are setting what should be the new direction in west coast wine production. Now if we can just get some brave souls to apprentice under them. The even better news is that production is small enough were they really don’t need the media to sell their wines. They just need passionate merchants and passionate consumers. Good thing they are in the right place.

Anthony Filiberti 
Anthony is the current winemaker at Anthill Farms Winery and Knez Winery in California. He has also worked for Lynne Penner Ash and Josh Bergstrom in Oregon followed by a stint at William – Sylem. Anthony’s focus on clean, correct wines that show the true expression of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is unmatched in California. He is working his tail off to produce wines with a “hands on” approach in the vineyard and a “hands off” approach in the barrel room. The wines are still a little high in alcohol but Anthony creates just the right balance of fruit to mask the alcohol without adding unnecessary weight and volume. You should be watching his career closely.


Jim Maresh 
Jim is the young phenom winemaker at Arterberry Maresh that is taking domestic pinot noir by storm. It really shouldn’t be all that surprising. The guy literally grew up around Pinot Noir. His late father, Fred Arterberry Jr., was a Pinot pioneer in the 1980's. Jim's wine operation is currently a one man band supported by family. His grandfather helps him farm the land, his mom helps with the accounting, and his legions of winemaking friends help him with production. Jim has apprenticed with a veritable who’s who of Oregon winemaking and honestly, I think he is now on that list. If you love Oregon Pinot Noir and you don’t know who this guy is, you’re not trying very hard. At just 28 years old he has racked up award after award for his wines and they are clearly building a cult following. Jim is producing what I believe to be the best domestic chardonnay available. His pinot noirs are down right cerebral. There’s a rumor the guy speaks eight languages. I mean come on! Now that’s just piling it on.

Eric Demuth and Peter Kemos 
“Two guys, one truck, one forklift, 800 square feet of winery space.” That’s it. It’s about as small production as it gets. The winery began in 2004 when longtime friends Eric and Peter vinified their first vintage. Eric’s roots in the industry date back to 1982 when he helped plant his family’s former estate vineyard in the Anderson Valley. He remained actively involved at Demuth Vineyard through the construction of the winery, and finally the production of their first estate wines some 20 years later. It was the frequent visits as a guest and seasonal helper to this vineyard dating back to the early 90’s that sparked Peter’s interest and passion for wine, and ultimately led to this collaboration. Their approach is similar to Anthony Filiberti’s, hands on in the vineyard, hands off in the winery. Most impressive is the 22 – 24 month oak aging, a process that allows their current release cabernets to be softer and more approachable upon release. It’s a very favorable condition for the consumer, though I’m sure the banks hate it.

Pam Walden 
Ms. Walden is the owner of Daedalus Cellars in Willamette Valley Oregon. There are some changes being made at Daedalus. In fact, 2010 will be the last vintage. The wines were made by Aron Hess and Pam Walden but the project is being halted. Instead, Pam will be producing wines solely from her own vineyard holdings. The first vintage will be 2011 and feature just one Pinot Noir with the possibility of a reserve bottling. Pam is a bit “obsessive” about her vineyard management and winemaking. The wines she produced with Aron under the Daedalus Cellars label were beautifully crafted wines floral in tone with a striking balance of fruit and weight. Though I’ll be sad to not see the Daedalus wines on my shelf after the 2010 vintage, I look forward to Pam’s newest project and am excited to hear they will be produced with nothing but estate grown fruit!

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