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vineyardThere was a time when I had to know it all, or at least try. (Or, one might more accurately say with the benefit of hindsight, be able to pretend well enough to convince others.) That time was during my studies with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust and, later, what was supposed to be my preparatory work for the Master of Wine examinations. I planted and harvested much of the former, but never did more than scratch and scuff the ground for the latter. Once the project had been abandoned I…went off in search of another metaphor, because I’m already heartily sick of this one.

My point is: once, I tried to stretch my arms (and my palate, and all too often my wallet) around the entirety of the world’s wines. Assyrtiko or albalonga, Mudgee or Merlara, I had to be ready for any and all of it. I was an enormous vacuum for datum and trivium. If it existed, and someone within my sphere of acquisitiveness knew of it, then I probably knew of it too.

On the sacrificial altar, of course, was depth. I could afford one or two limited specializations, but there simply wasn’t time to know, rather than know of, aught else. So when my rewarding but ultimately fruitless attempt to know it all ended, the counter-reaction was natural. I dropped nearly all the threads within my hand, concentrating on one or two at a time…enthusiasms that flowed with my palate’s eddies, and that often coincided with places I’d recently visited. When one immerses, however, one loses contact with the wider world.

Still, it’s rare for something – especially when it suits both my interest and my palate – to completely pass me by. So when I first heard about Clos Saron, not all that many years ago, I figured (especially based on the sources invoking it) that it was one of the growing number of hipster/naturalista/counter-cultural startups springing up in California, and that I’d check it out when it was a little more established.

Anyone who actually knows the winery knows where this is going. Clos Saron has been around for a while, its winemaker for longer, it’s not at all what I’d assumed, the wines were available in my previous home and were long straight up my aesthetic alley, and…well I have no good excuse for inattention, really. It just slipped through my ever-widening mental cracks. Based on a brief tasting with the winemaker over dinner, and then a somewhat more expansive overview a few days later, more’s the pity.

Winemaker Gideon Beinstock traces his journey from Israel, via France, to – of all places – the Sierra Foothills. One is, he says, in search of “a certain lifestyle” in those gold-emptied hills, and unless some great yet unforeseen leap in ease of conveyance is just around the corner, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. There’s plenty of convention and coasting in the region, from some, but it’s also an exceptionally good place for someone who wishes to work outside the boundaries. Or at least to create their own.

But boundaries help a writer contextualize, so how to draw a perimeter around the wines of Clos Saron? To employ a distinction I’ve used I the past, they’re natural without being Natural: made towards one end of the anti-intervention continuum, yet tasting more like high-quality examples from the more conventional set. They seem like the sort of wines one would identify as terroir-expressive, though lacking sufficient experience with their specific sources I can make no more than a guess at that. The reason I’d hesitate to call them capital-N Natural is that they lack the biochemical ephemerae – both good and bad – that mark so many products of the genre. These are wines one could slip into any tasting of exemplary representatives of their peer groups without anyone knowing that there was a naturalist interloper in their midst.

So there’s data for those who drink philosophies. Those who care about details of agriculture and winemaking can go to the winery’s web site and look them up; I have, over the decades, developed an extreme fatigue with thousands of nearly-identical paragraphs about how a winery moves their product around in harmony and contravention of gravity and thermodynamics, and tend to restrict commentary to anything out of the ordinary. Thus, of particular note is that the vines tend to be own-rooted (though there are exceptions, like cabernet sauvignon grafted over to pinot noir), and – by intent – grapes spend their birth, life, and death in group marriage. That is: they’re grown, harvested, and co-fermented together.

And they need age. Or at least the reds very obviously do, the winemaker claims the rosé does, and the white that I taste is somewhat of a special case (see below). Or, as Beinstock puts it:

Wine is not a one-dimensional thing. It’s not a snapshot, it’s a movie. It has a whole life. We think we understand this wine…but we don’t understand this wine.

I stress that word “need,” because these aren’t wines that just soften from one appeal to another with time, they transform. And not, based on what I’ve tasted, all that quickly.

cellar doorOver dinner at Vedge, Philadelphia’s excellent and ambitious vegan restaurant (if one can trust the word of this committed carnivore), we taste a few wines in their youthful, underdeveloped forms while the soft-spoken Beinstock attempts to be heard over the din. Eventually he just gives up and goes from table to table, which probably better-reflects the ethos of his wines, anyway. For while the wines certainly don’t lack body, they’re themselves essentially soft-spoken, and in this they reflect their guiding hand.

Clos Saron 2010 “Tickled Pink” (Sierra Foothills) – Syrah and cinsault. Bony and forgettable. But the a new bottle arrives, vastly more generous than the previous, and while there’s still a parched, desert butte quality on a bed of minerality ground slowly down from gravel to sand, it at least makes one take notice. The notion that this ages well makes sense when one compares it with the bleak starkness of another rosé known for its ageability: that of R. López de Heredia. The organoleptics are different, though.

With roasted root vegetables and baby leaves, charred onion, and pistachio:

Clos Saron 2011 “Carte Blanche” (Sierra Foothills) – A little out of the norm for this wine in that the grapes for this blend were purchased from Lodi. A crazy-quilt blend of albariño, verdelho, chardonnay, and petit manseng…the varietal equivalent of what my Minnesotan family used to call “leftovers hotdish.” It takes a while to get up to speed, with sweet lemonade aromatics and a bubblegum texture, but eventually the full mass of the wine (and it’s surprisingly, if adeptly, large-boned) makes its impression. Juicy yet brooding, there’s an eventual sharpening to the finish worked by the etching qualities of the wine’s acidity. Finishes long and very dry, despite all the initial dalliances with sweeter notions.

With a lightly-curried gold lentil and Kabocha squash bisque and a fresh heart of palm fritter:

Clos Saron 2008 Pinot Noir Home Vineyard (Sierra Foothills) – Very earthy, sweaty, even a little swarthy, its soils seething in unrest. Pillowy tannin hardens towards the finish, while the wine dabbles in aromatic exoticism. Long and exceedingly interesting.

With smoked eggplant braciole, crushed cauliflower, and an Italian salsa verde:

Clos Saron 2006 “La Cuvée Mystérieuse” (Sierra Foothills) – Syrah, merlot, grenache, and roussanne. Big, galloping purple fruit with morels. Gorgeous, rich, extremely aromatic. So seductive for such a big wine, whirling and helixing as it finishes.

With roasted maitake mushroom, smashed turnips, leeks, and a porcini sauce:

Clos Saron 2006 Syrah “Heart of Stone” (Sierra Foothills) – There’s a dollop of roussanne here. Very strong. Leather, blackberry, and a forbidding wall of dried fruit adhering to a currently-impenetrable wall. Broadens a bit as it pushes against that wall, but there’s little point in drinking this now.

leavesAbout a week later, at a trade tasting in New York, Beinstock showed some of the same wines (which, in the service of efficiency, I skipped) and some additions, but more importantly opened older versions of more than a few of them. More than anything anyone could say, this exercise made his ageability argument clearly and definitively.

(As is almost always the case with trade/press tasting notes, these come from briefer scribblings than are my preference, and the notes are thus proportionally shorter and more abrupt.)

Clos Saron 2006 “La Cuvée Mystérieuse” (Sierra Foothills) – Syrah, merlot, grenache, and roussanne. Black and blue berries (and yes, a little bruised), strappy, with pink peppercorns adding their odd prickle here and there. A bit of a cudgel at the moment.

Clos Saron 2002 “La Cuvée Mystérieuse” (Sierra Foothills) – Syrah, merlot, and viognier. Developing nicely, a surprisingly pretty face somewhat obscured by swirling dust. Very long, and eminently promising.

Clos Saron 2006 “Black Pearl” (Sierra Foothills) – Syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and petit verdot. A rutting beast a-swim in fruit syrup. Not to say that the wine’s sweet, but it’s sticky, dense, and eventually turns quite hard as it finishes. Full of stuffing, but it’s going to take a really long time to abrade its wrapping.

Clos Saron 2001 “Black Pearl” (Sierra Foothills) – Syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, petit verdot, and cabernet franc. Dark purple stains on peppered leather. Still very tannic, and showing more structure than I’d think was ideal. Then again, it’s possible this is just in a difficult adolescence, and generosity will reemerge.

Clos Saron 2006 Syrah “Heart of Stone” (Sierra Foothills) – Co-fermented with a little roussanne. Bell peppers dusted with black pepper. Gorgeous and expressive right now. There’s some jerky, or perhaps dried leather, late that is usually an early indication of age in syrah, but the wine’s actual future remains to be seen.

Clos Saron 2002 Syrah “Heart of Stone” (Sierra Foothills) – Weedy and starting to unravel. Lots of gravelly minerality, held together by tar.

Clos Saron 2009 Syrah “Stone Soup” (Sierra Foothills) – There’s a touch of viognier involved, too. Huge and thick. A rhombus of a wine, structurally, with chunks much on which to chew. Tannins are, texturally, powdery. Observe that I haven’t mentioned fruit anywhere in this note; it’s not devoid, but it’s certainly not prioritizing any at the moment.

Clos Saron 2000 Pinot Noir Home Vineyard (Sierra Foothills) – Forest floor and maturing (though far from absent) tannin, lingering antique pie aromas. Gorgeous. Wow!

Clos Saron 1999 Pinot Noir Home Vineyard (Sierra Foothills) – Rough, bold, and chewier than the 2000, still with a heft wallop of tannin and a gritty texture. This may just be in an awkward stage.

(All images © Clos Saron)