"It's difficult to soar with eagles when you walk with turkeys."--Jack Rollins
Thursday, January 16, 2014
Halcón You Do Me Like You Do?
Halcón Vineyards Wines I’m Using to Talk About Myself
Halcón Vineyards 2012 Prado Alder Springs Vineyard Mendocino County 180 Cases $32
Halcón Vineyards 2011 Alturas Syrah Yorkville Highlands 175 Cases $38
Halcón Vineyards 2012 Esquisto Yorkville Highlands 220 Cases $32
I’ve spent most of my adult life evaluating wine, in one way or another. In hindsight, this seems outrageously stupid. And yet, here I am, still writing about it, still tasting it, still evaluating it. It’s such a magnificent obsession, I even measure my life like a vertical. Let’s see, the 1999, that was a great year, very satisfying, and still holds up today. The 1989, well, just a terrible vintage, dead from the time it was opened—I hate that year. All the critics thought 2013 would be a great year, but that’s why I never believe any of that prognostication. Overall, my 2013 was a disappointment, and smelled moldy. It’s an illness, this passion for wine, for which there is no cure. Except maybe reading wine blogs.
The one thing I’ve learned from a career tasting wines is that there is no foolproof way to evaluate wine. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Every methodology has its weaknesses. Some are far worse than others. Attending a large tasting in a gigantic banquet hall smelling of mildewed carpeting, sweat, and putrid marketing materials, a hall filled with hundreds of people, half of them drunk, the other half gatecrashers, and then reporting scores? Just dismiss the dolts who do that. It might be the only way they have available to taste a lot of different wines, and that’s fine, but pretending their evaluations have any meaning is arrogance. Buying wine based on that sort of recommendation is like choosing a make of car after watching a demolition derby.
Tasting at the winery with the winemaker or owner? It’s a good time, and it’s educational, but there isn’t anyone who can’t be swayed by the experience. And let’s not forget that owners and winemakers frequently lie to wine writers, sommeliers, and anyone else within hearing. Not all of them, not every time, and sometimes just for sport, but often enough that you should be wary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a winemaker swear he doesn’t filter his wines only to spot a filter in the corner of the winery—and it isn’t dusty. And if you ask around, absolutely no one adds MegaPurple to their wines. (This might be feasible considering Trader Joe’s blends reek of it, so they must buy a lot.) I was at a tasting several months ago of Pinot Noirs from the far west coast of Sonoma County. Most of the wines were from the dreadful and wet 2011 vintage, several smelled like the inside of a hoarder’s house. I asked every winery about the vintage, and every single winery, about 25 different wineries, told me they picked “before the rains.” Wow. So why were the rains a problem? I asked a few producers if any wineries in attendance hadn’t picked before the rains. No one would be specific (I didn’t expect them to be), but most said a few they knew about had picked after, or during, the rains. None of that matters to the wine evaluation; it’s what in the bottle that counts. My point is an awful lot of wineries will simply tell you what you want to hear. You report it, it becomes fact. It’s on the Intergnats, it has to be true.
Blind tasting? For judging, it’s best. Especially when there are lots and lots of wines to evaluate, say, for a wine competition, or a wine publication. Yet it seems nuts to spend a lifetime accumulating knowledge, then discarding most of it when you taste a wine. That’s the pattern of someone who’s been divorced five times. (Yes, I’ve been divorced once—from reality. Trust me, when it comes to reality, get a pre-nup.) And do scores or ratings get changed when a wine is revealed after being evaluated? A basic understanding of human nature would make you think absolutely they get changed at times.
Tasting alone is different than tasting with a panel. And, most importantly, drinking is completely different than tasting. There are so many variables in wine evaluation, it almost makes it seem useless. OK, you said it, not me.
On a practical level, if you want to be famous, want to be known for your wine tasting acumen, you have to judge lots of wines, and write about them. I don’t want to be famous, nor do I worry about my acumen. When I read a wine blog about a junket, or a visit to a winery with the winemaker, it seems all I read is a predigested testimonial carefully served to a marginally talented writer, much like how a bird feeds its young by regurgitation, which he or she then dutifully repukes onto the screen. Who believes that crap? If those pieces were judged on a scale of objectivity and truth, most would be lucky to score 82 points.
When I decided to write these occasional Wine Essays, I decided I would write about wines that were offered to me, essentially unsolicited, and that I would drink each bottle with a meal, often over the course of two or three days. Most wines don’t deserve that kind of attention, that’s for certain. I go to as many tastings as I can, visit wineries all the time, but that’s for personal fulfillment. I don’t write about those experiences, except satirically. I want to get to know a wine or winery before I spend all this time writing this baloney. A lot of wineries are loathe to send samples, don’t want to cede any sort of control to a puny little wine blogger who actually knows something about wine, and I’m fine with that. I’ve been lucky, and have received wines from terrific sources like Gramercy Cellars, Rocca, Loring, Fulcrum, and Mathis, to name a few. And, no, I don’t claim objectivity or truth. Just passion.
Last June, my beautiful wife and I dined at Scopa Restaurant in Healdsburg for her birthday. Wonderful restaurant, by the way, if you’re in the neighborhood. You really don’t want me doing restaurant reviews. I’m a foodie like I’m a fartie—I just do it, I don’t brag about it. Anyhow, on Wednesdays during the summer, Scopa has winemakers come in and serve tastes of their wines, talk about their wines, and sell wines to patrons. On Kathleen’s birthday, it was the nice folks from Halcón Vineyards--Paul Gordon, the owner, and Jackie Bracey. We tasted the wines, were very impressed, even bought a glass or two, but I was more focused on my beautiful wife, and we were drinking a lovely bottle of Ricasoli 2006 Casalfero with our dinner, so I wasn't that focused on the Halcón wines. I gave Paul my HoseMaster card (I get looks), and that was that.
Several months later I received an email from Paul offering to send me his new releases. I’m glad I accepted his offer. Halcón was new to me at Scopa, but I’m a fan now. I think their wines have everything going for them. And if you’re a fan of Syrah, and the other Rhône varieties, you must, you MUST, I tell you, get on their mailing list.
Halcón Vineyards are way up in the Yorkville Highlands, a relatively new appellation that overlooks Anderson Valley from the southeastern edge of Mendocino County. The vineyards are at 2500ft, making Halcón one of the highest vineyards in California, excluding Pisoni, but for a different reason. And, here’s where it gets crazier, the vineyards are planted to 2200 vines per acre. That’s denser than a Rudolf Steiner lecture. Planted in 2004, and it must have been crazy expensive to plant 2200 vines at 2500ft in the middle of damn nowhere in Mendocino while wearing bulletproof vests, it’s still a young vineyard. I want to go there. They say that the altitude, soils and exposure of Halcón Vineyards create a climate similar to Côte-Rôtie. Where I come from, them’s fightin’ words.
Their white wine comes from purchased fruit, but Alder Springs is a great vineyard way out on the coast in Northern Mendocino. Their vineyards must be above 2000ft. The Halcón Vineyards 2012 Prado is 50% Marsanne and 50% Roussanne from Alder Springs Vineyard. Does it seem to you that the white Rhône variety wines from California are getting better, but never really taste like their Rhône counterparts? I think that’s a good thing, honestly. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a Viognier from California that reminded me of Condrieu, for example. Just an observation. The Prado was delicious, and one of the better California white Rhône blends I’ve tasted. It was very slow to open, testament to its tightly woven structure. When it did, the wine had a gorgeous perfume of apricot, white peach and honey. Oh my, it’s lovely. Yet it’s best when you drink it and feel the tension of its acidity. It’s a high strung wine, vibrant and edgy, and very nicely assembled, with loads of personality. Making a white wine like Halcón’s Prado is like working without a net. One false move, the tiniest loss of balance, and it plunges to its death. Man, I make that sound so melodramatic. It’s just really tasty wine.
On to the estate wines, though I hate to leave that pretty Prado. The Halcón Vineyards 2012 Esquisto is 65% Grenache, 30% Mourvèdre, and 5% Syrah. “Esquisto” is Spanish for “shale,” and, believe me, this wine is fracking good. If you’re thinking Australian GSM, you’re way off track. My first note for this beautiful wine spoke about its obvious cool climate upbringing. Cranberries and cherries dominated the fruit notes, but there’s a decided herbal edge, I thought it was closest to sage, and the unmistakable savoriness of Mourvèdre. It’s very graceful and enticing on the palate, more ballet than tap dance. It seemed a bit light when first tasted, but it kept gaining size and weight as it opened, like a snowball running downhill. With a simple piece of beef, which, luckily, was very lightly seasoned, it was illuminating. I love restraint and subtlety in wine, they allow the fruit to show all its contrasts, and the 2012 Esquisto is a hallmark of that style. I’m guessing it will be gangbusters in four or five years.
Finally, and aren’t you glad Halcón only sent me three wines, there’s the Halcón Vineyards 2011 Syrah Alturas Yorkville Highlands. No one would mistake this for Côte-Rôtie, friends, though Jeb Dunnuck says he did (he mentions “liquid mineral” in his tasting notes—what the hell is that? Lava?), but I love this Syrah! When a wine is this seamless, this evocative of its variety, this interesting and graceful, I refer to that wine as having integrity. One can describe it, try to explain its ineffable appeal, but when criticizing it, one is nitpicking. I haven’t the wit to nit, though I’m a nitwit, so I’ll paint a word picture. From a cool vintage in a cool vineyard, it shows Syrah at its blue fruit and white pepper best. I was smitten as soon as I sniffed. When tasted with roasted lamb chub (I often awaken to a lamb chub, but that’s different), the Syrah blossomed. The 2011 Alturas has the bones and intensity for the long haul, though it may need a bit more stuffing, a symptom of its youthful vines. I have this weird hunch that Alturas might become one of the state’s signature Syrahs. Time will tell, of course, and ratings. But I’m a believer.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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