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TN: A Geyserville vertical with Paul Draper

[map]Paul Draper and winemaker Eric Baugher were in town for the Boston Wine Expo, and delivered a pair of seminars. The first – an overview of Ridge’s products – wasn’t that interesting to me, but the second – a mini-vertical of their most famous wine in honor of its 40th anniversary – was.

Draper was in loquacious form, and remarkably vital for – it’s almost incomprehensible to write – a man just a few weeks shy of 71. Baugher barely spoke, except at Draper’s urging, and did so in a quiet, understated fashion. Draper appears to have deep respect for Baugher; the converse comes across as something a little closer to worship, yet it’s clear that they have a fine working relationship. Baugher has brought something new to the Ridge program: an enthusiasm for co-fermentation (a major change at a winery where many of the “zinfandels” are actually field blends), which Draper seems to fully endorse as another quality-enhancing step.

As befits a man of his experience and status, Draper has strong opinions on winemaking and the commercial world that wine inhabits. I could go on for many paragraphs on the Ridge/Geyserville/Draper philosophy and methodology as explained by the winemaking duo, but honestly that ground is so well-worn that it seems almost pointless. Instead, I’ll present a brief overview of some of Draper’s more interesting pronouncements.

Geyserville is, according to Draper, “the most elegant of our zinfandels” (an opinion supported by every tasting I’ve ever done; I sometimes prefer the more forceful Lytton, but think that Geyserville is a more complete, sophisticated wine), and while Baugher feels that one can identify Geyserville by its “minty, eucalyptus” character, Draper relies on its unique structure. While I don’t share their deep and broad experience, I can’t endorse either statement (certainly mint and eucalyptus are not Geyserville signatures for me), but I can suggest that while I can usually identify the Ridge aromatic signature (largely, but not exclusively, their barrels) I find a certain textural gentility that can set Geyserville apart from any other wine in its idiom. Draper does not himself endorse the popular notion that Geyserville becomes indistinguishable from old cabernet with age; he thinks that this is merely the normal asymptotic nature of old red wines, and that Geyserville is simply yet another member of the ageable red wine crowd.

As for the ageability of zin and zin-based blends, Draper tells an amusing Parker-related anecdote (slightly paraphrased herein, for clarity): “One year, Robert Parker quoted a young Baltimore writer, who said that ‘zinfandel doesn’t age.’ Parker merely added ‘I agree.’ So a while later, he asked if he could take me to dinner, and I suggested – of course, he doesn’t ever listen to you…he doesn’t want to hear anybody – that I bring the wine, to which he agreed.” A lunch with some legendary ‘73s from Ridge followed. Unprompted, Parker announced “well, I guess there are some exceptions,” though Draper had never mentioned the original opinion. Nonetheless, Draper doesn’t diverge all that much from Parker on this point, claiming that “he’s right in general” (and on this point, I fully agree; the majority of zins are more appealing in their fruity youth than they are in their desiccating maturity. Only the best terroirs and winemakers (and, sometimes, those who wisely utilize supporting grapes) can produce ageable zins that deliver true tertiary complexity.

Draper consistently misuses the word “varietal.” Given the quality of the wines he shepherds, I think we can forgive him.

The interaction of wine and food engenders strong opinions from Draper, who insists “wine –zinfandel or cabernet – has to complement food, not dominate it.” He attributes the dominating qualities of many California wines to wood, alcohol and ripeness, and bemoans their effects on any potential for terroir (“two things will destroy site character: over-oaking, and over-ripening”), while insisting that zinfandel is probably the best indicator of terroir in California (partially due to the ubiquity of plantings, and also partially due to its generally advanced vine age, for which the early Italian immigrants must be praised). Baugher says that years like 1999, 2003 and 2005 – cooler years with longer growing seasons – produce the finest Geyservilles.

As for the inevitable discussion about alcohol in zinfandel, Draper’s opinions have firmed in recent years. “Cabernet, which must be planted in a cooler region than is necessary for zinfandel, is ideal at 13% alcohol, perhaps occasionally 14%. Zinfandel must be in the 14-14.9% range. Anytime you see 12 or 13%, the wine has been dealcoholized.”

“Or really old vines,” adds Baugher.

This leads Draper into another mini-lecture on alcohol, and ripeness in general. “Very, very occasionally there’s an excuse for ultra-ripe cabernet with high alcohol, like in Australia, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Anytime you go over [14%], you’ve made a conscious choice to please Bob Parker or Jim Laube.” As for the frequently-heard opinion that California must make high-alcohol wines to achieve phenolic ripeness: “maybe one year in four or five does [the lag between the two] actually happen.” In other words, it’s an excuse for a stylistic choice.

Draper sees a dichotomy between what he calls “slow wine” and “fast wine” – a “need for really good wine at a reasonable price” served by industrial winemaking (though he decries the fact that many extremely expensive wines are made via industrial means) that are “put together, but not real,” and a parallel need for the sort of artisanal wine that defines greatness, which is what he hopes Ridge can accomplish. Meanwhile, he has damning words for reverse osmosis and spinning cone technology: “the terroir is gone…though I suppose some [critics] will give the result high marks.” He explains that they used it once, for an overripe and overly alcoholic York Creek, and “it unquestionably made the wine better,” but there was “no sense of ‘York Creek’ left in the wine.” He was bemused to see the negative reaction to the revelation of the technique on his label notes, because the techniques are so widely utilized in California…it’s just that almost everyone else is afraid to tell the truth. (He sent Parker both versions of the York Creek hoping for a response, but never received one.)

He thinks that, in general, winemaking in the U.S. used to be basically the same as in Europe, but that this is no longer true. However, he thinks Ridge makes wine “more like Bordeaux in the 19th century than Bordeaux today.” He also can’t understand people who use natural yeast, but then inoculate for their malo.

In the end, he remains passionate about what he calls a “miracle…that [grapes] turned into this” (indicating the wine in front of him) “and because of it, became sacred. It’s amazing to me, the transformation from simple fruit to something so remarkable.” And as for his role? “I consider myself a guide, not a creator…an éleveur, bringing up a child.”

Ridge 1992 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – A soft, fully mature Geyserville, showing milked coffee, spice, roasted/candied pecan, and crushed roses on the nose. The palate is no less mature, though it moves things in a slightly different direction: rich blackberry/chocolate jam, raw milk, black and red peppercorns, and a soft, powdery, graphite-textured tannin. This is a beautiful wine, completely ready to go, and shows all the best and most elegant qualities of well-aged Geyserville. (2/07)

Ridge 1993 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Aromatically insufficient (my neighbor wonders if it might not be corked, but there’s no indication if so, and a comparative glass from a different bottle smells the same), with canned blueberry and licorice liqueur. Some air helps, bringing forth some redolent dust. The palate feels, though does not (retronasally) smell musty and stale. Frankly, this is disappointing…and it’s strange, as Paul Draper is highly enthusiastic about the current performance of this wine. The second glass is a bit better, with supple, elegant, Crozes-Hermitage mimicry somewhat masking the essential Geyserville character. Again, it bears repeating: Draper and many others are very positive about this vintage. I’m agnostic at best, and greatly prefer the 1992. (2/07)

Ridge 1994 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Plum liqueur and mixed berries in a gorgeous, well-knit and fully complete package. The palate brings forth more mature, older fruit characteristics of baked berries and wheelbarrows full of rich organic earth, but there’s still plenty of fruit on display. A soft, wavy wine with yet more development in its future. (2/07)

Ridge 2002 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Blackberry, blueberry, black cherry and licorice-infused plum in a thick, edging-towards-syrupy (but redeemed by fine acidity) style. There’s also thick, Valrhona Guanaja and dry stones aplenty. There is a flaw – an alcoholic tingle that, for some palates, will be a deal-breaker – but it’s really not out of place in this wine, which shows loads of potential. If it can survive that heat, it’ll be majestic in a few decades. If not…well, it’ll be Geyserville-flavored Scotch. (2/07)

Ridge 2003 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Very aromatic, albeit full of primary American oak esters, blueberry, blackberry and boysenberry; a Big Fruit wine with papery tannin and a weirdly petulant disposition at the finish. I suspect this wine is struggling to close, and interested parties should probably let it do so. (2/07)

Ridge 2004 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Not yet released, and picked extremely early (mid-August, several weeks before the usual start date), before almost anyone else in the entire region. Very, very concentrated licorice/anise, blueberry and chocolate with an ultra-dense, peanut butter texture that darts in and out of the syrup category, plus some obvious alcohol. There are also crashing waves of vanilla-infused oak butter, which is to be expected in a young Geyserville these days. It’s way too young to judge in any sensible way, though my sense is that this will never be a “great” Geyserville, but merely a good one. (2/07)

TN: Haus und Familie (Lorraine, pt. 2)

[German wall art](The original version is here.)

26 March 2006 – Thionville, Illange & Uckange, France

Frédèrique & Jean-Marie Burger’s house – Lunch with the relatives. Always casual. Always fun. Today, it’s pot au feu, and we soon join the family in deciding that potatoes swimming in broth are the best part of the meal. Ah, the cuisine légère of Lorraine…

Wolfberger “Belle Saison” Pinot Noir (Alsace) – Yes, it’s non-vintage. Light, crisp red cherry with lots of acid and minerals at the foundation. This functions more like a white wine with red fruit aromas than it does an actual red or rosé. It’s only just OK, but it’s probably better than the vast majority of Alsace pinot noirs that result from significantly more effort.

Edmunds St. John 2001 Syrah (California) – As is typical whenever I bring a domestic wine to France, the weight and heat are commented upon (negatively) by the natives. And maybe it’s the setting or the context, but this does come off just a touch hotter than usual: there’s strong leather, blueberry, black pepper, and a touch of sweet Scotch lounging in Sherry wood. It’s rather forceful, sure, but there’s good acid and a succulent juiciness that keep it tasty. I also note that, despite their reservations, my family guzzles it down.

We follow lunch with a walk around the old German fortifications on the small hill that crowns Illange.

Gaston & Claude Schwender’s house – Drinks with the relatives. More formal, more “classic” French. And also tinged with sadness, because these relatives are older and can’t really host meals anymore…which is a particular shame, as a lot of my formative French experiences were at this family’s table. Perhaps more relevantly, many of my most revelatory wine experiences were from Gaston’s cellar. Now, he can’t drink much (doctor’s orders), she can’t drink at all (ditto), and matters have reached the point of slow but inexorable decay. Loss is always with us, isn’t it?

Roederer 1997 Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut (Champagne) – Intensely fresh lemon, ripe apple and yeast with sharp acidity and pulses of greater complexity and weight around a spherical, icy core. Striking.

Patricia & Bruno Fratini’s house – Dinner with friends (and relatives, who’ve been invited to join us). More great food, more wine. But I’ve reached the point where the smoke wears on me, and thus I start losing interest in the French that surrounds me; an interest I need to follow well enough to participate. Thankfully, there’s more music on the overhead projection screen; this time, a mix of seventies Americana (mostly the Eagles) and the always-entertaining Alain Bashung.

Louis Violland 1999 Pommard “La Pierre du Roy” (Burgundy) – Rough, sweaty and slightly athletic, with wild cherry, blackberry and light earth. It brightens with aggressive swirling. Nonetheless, it remains a somewhat surly wine, with its rough edges unfiled.

Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 1997 Pauillac (Bordeaux) – Cedar chest and fresh cassia with pine. It smells like Christmas. It’s also fairly tight, but swirling brings out some aromatics and more complexity, and the wine is probably just about to re-emerge in a burst of blackcurrant fruit. The finish is a bit of a sine wave that one must catch at zenith. This is a pretty good effort from a difficult vintage.

Wolfberger “Belle Saison” Pinot Noir (Alsace) – Take two. And in this company, much stranger and less appealing than before: fish and crushed minerality with skin bitterness and a flat finish. Moral: drink it first, then move on to better things.

TN: Bam!

Ridge 1993 Zinfandel “Essence” (Paso Robles) – By far the best of the half-dozen bottles I’ve tasted. Sweet, ultra-concentrated blueberry, boysenberry, olallieberry and stripes of anise candy are given lift by the otherwise restrained, unobtrusive buoyancy of slight volatile acidity, while the tannin has completely melted away. Delicious. (2/07)

TN: Old wood

Edmunds St. John 2001 “Los Robles Viejos” Rozet White (Paso Robles) – A bit difficult out of the gate – closed, cranky, too old or too young; it’s hard to say – but matters improve dramatically after some air. Mixed nuts (peanut, pignoli, almond, hazelnut) and slightly bitter stone fruit spike through an otherwise softly-textured midpalate, while the acidity crescendos on the finish. I don’t get the sense everything’s quite together here, but the elements are tasty even in sequence. (2/07)

TN: Falling into everywhere (California, pt. 11)

[Yosemite Falls base](The original version, with more photos, is here.)

28 April 2006 – Yosemite National Park, California

Mist Trail, Vernal Falls, John Muir Trail – The most popular hike in Yosemite, we’re told. It’s easy to see why, though the track is more popular in theory than in practice, as the lower elevations littered with the defeated demonstrate. Especially in the spring, a good soaking is promised, and a good soaking is delivered. What’s even more fun than the ascent, however, is looping back down via the end of the John Muir Trail, which provides breathtaking views of Yosemite Valley and Falls. Lunch – on a picnic table with nature all around – has rarely been devoured as quickly.

Harrington 2003 Pinot Noir Birkmyer (Wild Horse Valley) – Mixed red berries and plums with hints of graphite. Ripe and full-fruited, yet pretty. It’s a little on the heavy side, but then that’s hardly unusual for domestic pinot. Pleasant.

Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall – The eerie (and wet) moonscape of Yosemite Falls in full spring torrent is something to behold, but so is the drenching soak of the impossible approach to Bridalveil Fall. If you’ve ever wanted to get saturated without leaving “dry” land, this is the way.

The Ahwahnee Bar – The décor of this hotel lives up to the hype, though the combo Indian/medieval theme is a little jarring at first. The bar, however, is somewhat dreary…and the prices are wearying.

Bakers 7 Year Bourbon – Sweet peach and brown sugar. A little too obvious.

Dinner back at Yosemite West is a selection of sausages from a Ferry Plaza butcher – duck & pork, wild boar & beer, and veal with spinach – plus asparagus in a Meyer lemon dressing. This food needs a wine with some bite, and we’ve got just the thing.

Edmunds St. John 1999 Sangiovese Matagrano (El Dorado) – Crisp raspberry acidity spiked with strawberry seeds (that add both their fruit and their bitterness) with very slightly green tannin. It’s long and intense, however, and really sings with food. What is isn’t is completely ready; a few more years might help calm matters down.

TN: Threenot noir

[grapes]Hartley Ostini “Hitching Post” 2005 Pinot Noir “Cork Dancer 5.1” (Santa Barbara County) – A separated wine, with zippy strawberry and raspberry, clingy acidity, and a light, scraping tanning all sitting in their corners glaring at each other. It’s got a picnic-style appeal, but doesn’t bear close scrutiny. (12/06)

Evesham Wood 2004 Pinot Noir Seven Springs “En Dessous” (Willamette Valley) – Difficult at first, showing thick, almost brooding fruit under a smooth wave of tannin. With an hour or so of air, complexities emerge from the murk, and the wine picks up an earth-floral component – still in the tone of brown, but with promise and possibility for the future. The finish is long and, eventually, elegant. There’s nothing but upside here. (12/06)

[label]Dog Point 2005 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Concentrated plums in the key of jam, with little shreds of orange, walnut and beet zest. Call it a Midwestern Jello “salad,” of sorts…except that it’s much better than that. All the elements are in balance, and the package is unquestionably tasty, but the wine is a little on the monotone side, and eventually grows slightly tiresome. A persistent, nagging weight problem doesn’t help this. (12/06)

TN: Turning the Tablas

[bottle]Tablas Creek 2002 “Côtes de Tablas” Blanc (Paso Robles) – Elegant and seemingly fully mature (though it would be a somewhat surprisingly early exit for this wine), showing blended nut oils with sun-desiccated flower and herb characteristics. It seems fat, then scratchy, then faded…it’s a little hard to figure this bottle out, and one immediately wonders if there might not be some very low-level taint or mild oxidation at work – but under the layers of difficulty there’s enough spicy, low-acid complexity to make it worth the effort. (12/06)

TN: Whites in triplicate

[label]St. Innocent 2005 Pinot Blanc Freedom Hill (Willamette Valley) – Striking green grape and zingy, underripe apricot with fresh-cut grass and spiky acidity. It’s got a nice, clean, pure appeal, but it carries too much alcoholic heat, and as a result loses most of its claim to freshness and approachability. (12/06)

J. Christopher 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Maresh (Dundee Hills) – Green fruit and herbal sodas with a shattered crystalline minerality, dustings of sea salt, and a lot of exciting, almost frothy complexity along a sharp, clean finish. This is fantastic sauvignon blanc, individualistic and nervy, with structure to spare. (12/06)

[label]Hendry 2005 Chardonnay “Unoaked” (Napa Valley) – Friendly peach, grapefruit, ripe lemon curd and apple. Deliciously appealing, and there’s plenty of bright, balancing acidity as well. Despite a well-justified fear of aging any unoaked chardonnay that isn’t from Chablis, I’d consider holding on to this just to see what happens…but then again, it’s awfully nice now. (12/06)

TN: 41 bottles of red on the wall

Marietta “Old Vine Red” 41 (California) – Every year, this wine disappears further into its own shadow. This version is fading to transparency (and I don’t mean visually), showing anonymous spicy fruit underneath somewhat strident oak…not that much of that latter, but more than enough to subdue aught else. Not only is this no longer the value it once was, I’m not even sure it’s recommendable as a bargain quaffer anymore. Let’s see what the next release brings. (1/06)

Benoni 2002 Syrah “Three Vineyards” (Napa Valley) – Simple plum-berry aromas with a little bit of water-soaked leather and a good deal of dry, papery tannin. Good old Napa, doing to syrah what it does to zin: drying it out. (12/06)

TN: Peevish pinot

[Loring]Loring 2004 Pinot Noir Brosseau (Chalone) – Red-black fruit, soupy and searingly alcoholic. More like a harsh, grappa-infused berry liqueur than wine, and not a particularly balanced one as well. The next day, however, the alcohol has calmed down somewhat…perhaps a nice sweet rum rather than grappa…which makes it a little less painful to drink. But it’s still profoundly imbalanced. (12/06)

Faiveley 1993 Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy) – The aromatics (old berries, forest floor, fresh morels) are muscular and enticing, but the wine is wan and decrepit, leaving only a dried-out, scratchy tannin and in its wake. Twenty-four hours later, the palate has made a little bit of a recovery, with some emergent red fruit peeking out of the grave. Unfortunately, it soon doesn’t much matter, as a “sherrying” of the wine eventually buries the improvement once and for all. (12/06)