Whitehall Lane 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) — Falling apart. I don’t necessarily mean that it’s over the hill, just that the seams and edges are torn and battered, and the center’s not strong enough to hold. Tired dark berries under well-trodden shoe leather. (11/16)
Hirsch 2010 Pinot Noir “San Andreas Fault” (Sonoma Coast) — Just enough nervous energy to battle back a dense, earthen minerality. Otherwise, this feels like some sort of savory beet slurry in the hands of a creative chef; surprisingly heavy without being concentrated, tannin and acid simultaneous apparent and unintegrated. A second bottle introduces pine resin and green grass to the finish. Many of these signs point to an awkward stage rather than some fundamental flaw, but I also worry this wine will forever be accompanied by its struggle to regain coherence. I like everything here, yet this ends up being my least favorite wine of the tasting, because my affection for the materials isn’t retained by the finished product. (12/16)
Hirsch 2011 Pinot Noir “San Andreas Fault” (Sonoma Coast) — Much nervier than the 2010, its upfront floral notes slashed by a brittle, acid-forward structure. Black trumpet mushrooms are the baritone counterpoint. Poised, elegant, and balanced, with a long finish. (12/16)
Hirsch 2012 Pinot Noir “San Andreas Fault” (Sonoma Coast) — Dense layers of tannin, dark fruit with a hint of black pepper, and a slight astringency. Very, very long. The more air it gets, the more it closes in on itself. One fellow taster remarks that he’d like to drink this now; I can’t think of anything I’d rather drink less from this lineup right now. After a decade or more, though? Count me in. This is in desperate need of time. (12/16)
(Hirsch amusingly characterized the reaction of customers, when faced with the burly 2012 after the slender 2011, as, “what the fuck did you guys do?”)
Hirsch 2013 Pinot Noir “San Andreas Fault” (Sonoma Coast) — Dust and sweet black ink, dark cherries steeping on their skins and seeds, walnut. Juicy, but overwhelmed (in a delicious way) by its fine particulate dustiness. (12/16)
Hirsch 2014 Pinot Noir “San Andreas Fault” (Sonoma Coast) — Plums, berries, green olive…and yes, that’s surprising in a pinot noir. Supple and round, but with prominent acidity and a very slight astringency. Both eventually integrate with air. Balanced and confident. (12/16)
Jasmine Hirsch is, these days, probably better known as the co-provocateur (provocateuse?) behind In Pursuit of Balance, but with that flashy (if sometimes haphazardly defined) project shuttered, she’s free to return to her other full-time job as the face and voice of her family’s eponymous Sonoma winery.
The cringe-inducing whining about IPoB was often as overblown as the wines against which it sought contrast (and even “against” is more antagonistic than the reality), but Hirsch’s basic message hasn’t changed at all: ripeness can obscure difference, intervention can obscure difference, even intent can obscure difference. Obviously her argument is more nuanced than that, but the core of the philosophy is to make wines of response or revelation rather than wines of intention…which is why there was always a certain irony surrounding the word “pursuit” in IPoB’s name.
By “intent” I mean something other than the basic desire to turn grapes into salable wine. Not even the most hardcore naturalistas operate from a position of utter indifference to material or process. Hirsch has selected its preferred grapes, its preferred clonal material, the sites on which its vines grow. It most certainly practices viticulture of intent, and harvest dates aren’t selected at random. A sufficiently problematic fermentation would likely be dealt with, one way or another. But on a continuum from industrial to natural, wines of intent invite — in fact, demand — a lot more meddling than is evident here.
“Revelation” is an equally tricky word, in that it usually bears a promissory burden. That’s not how I’m using it here. I mean only that a wine of revelation is one that differs from vintage to vintage in response to its natural inputs — weather, mostly, but also less welcome participants like pests and diseases — and the oenological decisions such inputs encourage. Big house non-vintage Champagne is the ultimate wine of intent, requiring dramatic interventions all through the process, up to and including blending to achieve the house style. Wines of revelation aren’t the total antithesis of such machinations, but they’re a lot closer to the other end of the spectrum.
That said, it’s impossible to entirely disentangle intent from the drinkable results; Hirsch probably couldn’t make the style they obviously prefer were their vineyards in Paso Robles. Also, the notes below are for blended wines, not terroir wines (except in a general regional or communal sense). Still, the wines themselves can’t help but reveal the truth or lie in the claimed philosophy; if they hold fast to an identity, year after year, they’re wines of intent. If they waver in response to season and the resulting variabilities in vine/grape chemistry, they’re wines of revelation.
Dashe 2012 Zinfandel Todd Brothers Ranch “Old Vines” (Alexander Valley) — Everything flawlessly in place, just awaiting age. As always, there’s a tightly coiled structure beneath slightly less generous fruit than Dashe’s other zins. Meant for the cellar. (11/16)
Ahlgren 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Bates’ Ranch (Santa Cruz Mountains) — For the first twelve hours, this is soupy and off-putting. Left open (but not decanted) at room temperature, I take a little sip the next morning (pre-coffee) and it’s extraordinarily good. Big, yes, and there’s a looming scowl of booze that’s barely restrained by the softened fruit, but everything else is showy and delicious. Raisins, plums, slightly overripe berries, fully resolved structure. Explosive. And since the side-by-side was intriguing: right now, this is a better wine than the Thunder Mountain from the same vintage and site. I don’t think either is going to improve, but neither is in danger of cliff-diving either. (9/17)
Thunder Mountain 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Bates Ranch (Santa Cruz Mountains) — 14.5%. This wine was too big for me back in the day, and in some ways it still is, but when I recall the arguments I sometimes had with the winemaker, it turns out we were both right: it did age nicely, and it’s out of balance. The booziness is even more apparent now that everything else has receded, and there’s a vinyl character to the tannin/fruit interchange, but the leafy complexity and texture one expects from properly aged cabernet sauvignon are also here, albeit buttressed by a fair dollop of dark jam. For my tastes, I wouldn’t hold it any longer, for I don’t think those structural imbalances are going to improve while pursuing greater delicacy. (8/16)
Dashe 2013 Zinfandel Florence (Dry Creek Valley) — Corked. (9/16)