Organolepticians Number 87
How does it feel? You’ve spent close to half your life in the wine business, and established yourself as a vintner in California, working with some grape varieties almost no one else in the neighborhood has heard of, and it works, in its way; you’ve begun to carve out what will become known as a niche. And the context in which that niche appears is, seemingly, still in place, i.e., the assumption that there is an established hierarchy of the grapes that make the best wines in California: Cabernet at the top, for reds, Chardonnay for whites. Then, purely by chance, you encounter something completely unexpected, and, quite suddenly, nothing is ever quite the same again.
And who will believe you? And how can you possibly keep it to yourself?
The scene is around Easter in 1990, on the Ligurian coast of Italy, in a hamlet known as Levanto, just a train-stop from the impossibly steep, wild slopes of Cinque Terre, where the quickest way between the five little fishing villages on that part of the Mediterranean coast is on foot, on trails laid out by the Romans, centuries ago. We’re staying at a B&B just across the alley from a pasta joint that becomes our main dining spot, because they serve a local dish, called Pansotti, that is heavenly, and we can’t get enough of it. The best wine choice for this meal is a Ligurian white from a local co-op, made from Vermentino grapes.
(How can it be that I’ve been waiting, and wanting to taste a wine from Vermentino for such a long time that I’ve essentially forgotten about it, and then—Voila! It falls into my lap!?! I’d asked Francois Peyraud, on a honeymoon visit to Domaine Tempier, in Bandol, in 1986, what white variety he liked best for white wine in Bandol, given his choice. He named a variety that was not permitted in the Bandol A.O.C., the grape known as Rolle. “In Italy, and Corsica,” Francois told me, “it’s called Vermentino.” Immediately I wanted to know what it tasted like, though subsequently I had no success finding an example.)
The first sip, that night in Levanto, was all it took: “my God!,” I said out loud, to no one in particular, “this would be the perfect grape for California! But what in the world, I thought to myself, could it all possibly mean?”
And what to make of this? Earlier on the same trip we’d been in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, at the domaine known as Beaucastel, on the very day they’d shipped the plant material they’d chosen to propagate at their new estate in the Central Coast area in California, a few miles west of the little town of Paso Robles. And as it happened, (something I only learned nearly five years later) among the varieties they sent was –Vermentino. The first Vermentino ever to grow on these shores.
It was a full ten years after that discovery before the opportunity presented itself to establish a planting of Vermentino for Edmunds St. John, in a promising site, and only then with the absolutely essential assistance of my Sierra foothills co-conspirator, the man with whom I’ve worked on innumerable efforts to find out what the best grapes for California really are (with, I might add, some success!) His name, you must know, is Ron Mansfield (see Organolepticians #27 #28 and #29).
On the day those vines were going into the ground, on the east and northeast-facing slopes of the hill that also contained one of the best Syrah plantings from which we sourced fruit, Ron called me. “I’ve got a small amount of Grenache Blanc vines, left over from another project; shall we put a little of that out there, too?” he asked. I’d been interested in Grenache Blanc for awhile, and I couldn’t resist, so I said, “sure, sounds good,” or words to that effect, and into the ground they went, on a late Spring day in 2005.
It was 2007 by the time there were some grapes to pick, and there weren’t an awful lot of them. But they were amazingly flavorful and delicious, and, remarkably, they were flavorful and delicious at ridiculously low sugar levels, with wonderful acidity. One surprise, though; there was more Grenache Blanc, by a few percent, than there was Vermentino.. Yikes.
Given the small amount of fruit, it didn’t seem to make sense to separate the varieties. Since they were both ripe at the same time, we put them in the press together, to see what we’d get. (In that Summer, 2007, while in Bath, Maine, I’d had occasion to taste a wine from the Cotes du Ventoux that was a blend of these two varieties. I was astonished to see it on the list, not having imagined that such a blend existed in the Rhone area. Intrigued, I ordered it at once. Whoever had made this wine had raised it in brand new oak, which so badly overpowered the flavors in the wine that there was absolutely no way to tell where it had been grown, nor from what kind of grapes. It did teach me, though, that I shouldn’t handle either variety in a similar manner.)
What we got, as we discovered when the wine had completed its ferment, and settled out in tank, (It was fermented at under 60 degrees Fahrenheit in stainless, then left on its lees until late January of ’08, before racking, and, shortly thereafter, bottling) was something fresh and almost electric with perfume and energy. These two grapes really seemed to like to play together, and gave something that, even now, five years later, is becoming ever more charming and nuanced. It was such a felicitous combination, that we’ve done the same thing ever since! And we call it Heart of Gold.
Of course, lots of people want to know why I named the wine after a Neil Young song (and lots of them also seem to want to know if I had to get anyone’s permission). Here’s the story I tell them, which is 100% true:
I’ve made up a lot of names for wines, especially for blended wines, partly because it’s fun, and partly because there’s always a story behind each wine, about where it comes from, or what it evokes (at least in my mind), or what it calls attention to. Without the name of the grape variety as the name of the wine, there’s got to be some way to signal, to whomever might be looking at the bottle, something about what’s inside.
Now, as I mentioned a few paragraphs back, there is a French name for Vermentino, which is Rolle. And this grape, by whatever name, seems to reflect its origins in the ground in a pretty expressive way. The planting we first established was in very rocky ground, with little moisture-retaining capacity. Being who I am, I decided pretty quickly to call this Vermentino-based wine Like A Rolle In Stone. (We are dancing in the street, here, and as Martha said; “There’s music everywhere!”)
But when it became apparent that there was so much Grenache Blanc in the picture that first year, I had to rethink, right? And this vineyard is in the very heart of “Gold Country,” soooo….
Each year’s version of Heart of Gold has been a little different, for numerous reasons; it is, first and foremost, a work in progress. In 2012, my feeling is that we may have hit paydirt! I have never made a white wine before this one that I thought was as great a pleasure in the glass. This time around, it’s 52% Vermentino, and 48% Grenache Blanc. The perfume is at once floral and edgy, and the flavors are riveting, and persistent. It’s a joy to drink.
Now what I need is to find someone who can reproduce that Pansotti we ate in 1990. In the event I succeed I can hear myself saying “would you like to…make a deal?”
Our 2012 Heart Of Gold sells for $20.00 a bottle. Let us know if you’d like some. firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s also some pink, again! Our 2012 Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir Rosé is available, at $18.00, and there’s also our 2012 Fenaughty Vineyard Syrah, at $30.00. Check out “The Wines” page. Sometimes, April is just the coolest month.