It’s déjà vu all over again. Skinny ties and tight suits are back “in.” I’ve seen this cycle a few times in my now-not-too-short life - first when the Rat Pack seduced my parents generation and then when the “Mod” inspired Who exploded on m-m-m-my generation.
When the seventies dawned, ties and lapels widened and tight pants bloomed bells on their bottoms. The human silhouette morphed into an exaggerated, exuberant caricature of self - look at the Partridge Family or Brady Bunch (or my high school yearbook) to see how bad those fashions were.
Punk imploded the late seventies, hatching a back-to-the-future, faux-mod movement with bands like the Jam and the Specials turning punk into the new wave. Skinny ties and tight suits were cool again and Vespa riding mods adorned their scooters with a plethora of unintentionally symbolic rear-view mirrors. Oh, but that too was short lived. The eighties witnessed a return to bad fashion with Miami Vice shark-skin zoot-suits and big-hair that only a David Byrne/Talking Heads giant suit parody could de-rail, making way for the next generation of trend setters… grunge!
Well, the skinny tie is back. Though in a curated way. People want to be down to earth, yet fashionable. A black denim trucker’s jacket cut tight in a sport coat trim. Jeans made of Japanese fabric, tailored to fit close. It is a mash-up of what came before… a search for something authentic from the land where anything goes.
I’ve always said that RSV Merlot is not a fashion statement. It can’t be when you are farming the land and growing the grapes. It takes too long to create the wine to be a follower of trends… that is, unless you go out of your way to be trendy - but then you run the risk of one day becoming unfashionable.
The history of Merlot in the New World is actually shorter than the story of the skinny tie, but in some odd way it has parallels.
Merlot was a relatively unknown upstart, living in the shadow of Cabernet Sauvignon and looked upon as a blending grape when, in the early nineties, it took center stage. At first it was seen as an elegant counter point to the more tannic and green Cabernet Sauvignon of the time. But it slowly began to believe its own press. Merlot producers latched on to the buzzwords of “soft,” “lush,” and “unctuous,” and learned that Merlot could be planted in marginal areas and manipulated to fulfill pre-conceived notions. As the nineties became more exuberant, the wines did too until, like David Byrne wearing the giant suit, Paul Giamatti uttered the now famous cinematic Merlot slur and suddenly, no one wanted to be seen with a glass of Merlot in their hand. Excess killed the grape.
However, excess also did the grape a favor. Since Merlot lived and died the trendy life, it fell off the radar. Those chasing the market had no choice but to rip up their Merlot vineyards and plant something that might be producing in time for the next trend. But those committed to the grape (with vineyards in select regions that produce elegant, untrendy Merlot) stuck to their guns and soldiered on… focusing their production and their skills to make classically proportioned Merlot that they wanted to drink.
Perhaps RSV Merlot is more like fashion than I want to admit… yes, it’s a timeless classic.
The Agrarian Worker…
Aries terroirist tendencies
As California grape growers, we are spoiled. Compared with our French, German, or even Oregon friends, we have idyllic weather. Little gets in the way of our ability to bring in a great crop. We historically experience no hail, rarely any rain, and very little pestilence during the growing season - but there still is risk. The ideal can encourage complacency, leaving one unprepared for those years when nature changes its rhythm.
Every year offers a unique set of challenges, but 1989 was our first experience with a truly difficult vintage when the skies opened up during harvest and the rain came down. The entire valley was atwitter with technology-based solutions. Restaurant suppliers and grocery outlets could not keep sugar in stock. (In this country it was, and still is, illegal to add sugar to wine so we’re still trying to figure out where all that sugar went.) Some, more law abiding, winemakers chose a technologically challenging, yet legal, remedy. They picked some of their fruit early, had it concentrated, then added it to the fermenter weeks later with just-picked fruit. Others chose the dramatic, flying helicopters low over the vineyards to “air dry” the grapes, timed to go airborne when the local Bay Area news crews appeared.
Critics outright declared the vintage a failure, essentially destroying the marketability of the wine. It was anything but that - the vintage just had a different character than the sloppy, sun-driven wines that garnered high scores before; that is, unless you tried to turn them into something they were not meant to be.
Our solution to the pre-conceived notions of the ’89 vintage was not to barrage the wine with tech, but rather to let it be itself, a lighter more delicate Pinot Noir. We then created a new label we called Aries.
We figured the wine was good, it was just stylistically different than what people had come to expect from Robert Sinskey Vineyards. In later years, we would dust off the Aries label whenever we had a lot or two of wine that did not fit stylistically into the blend, or when we were figuring out the character of a new vineyard.
Now that our vineyards are mature and we’ve refined our selections and varieties to best express terroir, we no longer have as many “outlier” lots of wine. But sometimes, the weather forces our hand. Since we do not “manipulate” our wines, we have to make choices and let the grapes do what they are going to do. Then it is up to us to select what lots should go into which wines.
Aries has grown up and lost some of its whimsy in exchange for gravitas. It sports a new label based on an ancient etching that reflects a wine with a more grown up character, richer and more full bodied than our other RSV Pinots. It is also more satisfying at a younger age. It is a true California Pinot.
In Babylonian times, the constellation Aries was known as “The Agrarian Worker” - this seems appropriate for this wine, as its character is defined in the vineyard.
THE PERFECT CIRCLE…
Birds, Bees and Pinot Noir!
The diving pelican elicited shrieks of joy as it crashed into the pacific. The large, pre-historic looking bird was a rarity in the 60’s and a sighting was almost as thrilling as witnessing its dive-bomb aerobatics.
More than fifty years ago, the big bird was near extinction… decimated by the genius of our species. We humans are good at problem solving, probably too good. We have a myopic tendency to immerse ourselves in finding a solution to a singular problem before understanding how that might impact other living things.
The chain of events began with a noble purpose - to eradicate the malaria carrying mosquito and the typhus spreading louse. Typically, the “humanitarian” purpose was a means to protect our WWII era troops by protecting the local population. DDT was the solution and it was sprayed everywhere the insects lived. It was so effective that the chemist who recognized its insecticidal use was awarded a Nobel prize and the World Health Organization deployed it in its chemical arsenal. On the home front, it became so commonplace that it could be found on most farms, in our beds, and under the kitchen sink.
For a while, life was great. The good guys won the war, food became plentiful and cheap, malaria and typhus deaths dropped precipitously. Then, seemingly unrelated to all this, scientists began noticing that the pelican, osprey, peregrine falcon, and, the symbol of America itself, the bald eagle, were all in serious decline… but there were no bodies to reveal cause and effect.
As DDT increased in popularity, it found its way to the oceans, entered the food chain and, since it was fat soluble, persisted. It worked its way up the chain, concentrating, until it reached the predatory birds at the top. Instead of killing the birds outright, it thinned their eggshells so the incubating bird crushed its offspring under its own weight.
However, this tragedy didn’t enter the public consciousness until Rachel Carson’s seminal book “Silent Spring.” Carson also indicted DDT as a carcinogen. As a result, it was eventually banned for use in the United States – though, unbelievably, it is still in use in North Korea and India.
Fortunately, the use of DDT was curtailed in time for the birds to return from the brink, but this episode stands as a reminder that we don’t have all the answers.
We forget that everything is interrelated, how complicated and unpredictable natural systems are. We compartmentalize, using chemicals in our backyard to kill what ails our ornamentals, destroy pesky weeds, or kill those ants, without a thought to the larger ecosystem. It is not so much this spot use, but rather the accumulated effect these chemicals have on the environment as they run off into storm drains, mix into a toxic slurry and enter the food chain… never mind the accumulated effect these chemicals have on you and your family. You have little control over your exposure outside the home, but you do have a choice in what you purchase and use.
Recently, certain pesticides have been indicated in the mass collapse of bee colonies. The debate still rages as to the exact cause. There is evidence that it is a fungal disease, but it is believed that exposure to insecticides weakens the bee’s immune system, allowing the fungus to rage unchecked. If the bees don’t survive, the use of chemicals in our food supply will be a false economy.
Why write this in what should be a short marketing piece for wine? For me, it’s never been about just selling something… I feel as a business owner I should bear more responsibility than that. Maybe the real products I am selling are ideas… or thoughts that happen to taste good. I would like to believe we are offering guilt-free hedonism - because if something is going to be luxurious, it should do no harm.
When we called our series of limited release Pinot Noirs “A Perfect Circle,” it was more a philosophical statement - an aspirational goal - to view everything as interconnected. It is a never-ending quest to understand the impact our farming and winemaking have on an impossibly complex environment - improving methods as we go to lessen those impacts while increasing the quality of our fruit and wines. This begins by not using synthetics in the vineyard… but there is so much more.
For example, how soil structure is important for mycorrhizae and how that mycorrhizae can transport nutrients to the roots of the vine. Or, how cover crops can support soil structure and the waste of sheep eating those cover crops can increase soil fertility. Or, how increased organic content of the soil actually sequesters carbon. Or, most amazingly, how the vine can access the nutrients in this soil to create balanced, healthy fruit that can make better wine.
Off the farm, we look at ways to offset the energy used in winemaking by increasing efficiency, generating energy from solar, and using carbon offsets to defer the energy used in shipping the wine.
Finally, no matter what we do ourselves, we can’t solve all the problems on our own. If we want to keep moving forward, it comes back to educating the next generation. A Perfect Circle gives back 5% of the proceeds to educate youth about organic farming and the importance of heirloom preservation. Eventually, the goal is to develop a farm where young and old can come to learn. When, and if, this happens, the circle will be one step closer to perfection.
after a dozen years of practice!
I love my old Polaroid Pathfinder camera with its bellows, manual Rodenstock lens, rangefinder focus and Prontor shutter – it’s a beautiful example of industrial art. Then there is the ritual of using it. You first open it, extend the bellows, flip down the metal lens cap, frame your subject, take a light meter reading, set the aperture and shutter speed, cock the shutter, focus the rangefinder then move your eye to the framing finder (without moving the camera) to make sure you are properly framed, push the shutter release, pull the paper tab, pull the film through the rollers to release the chemicals, wait for the right amount of development time based on ambient temperature and then, after anywhere from 15 seconds to 2 minutes, peel off the backing and enjoy your “instant” photo… but your job isn’t done yet as you rarely get the shot on the first try so you need to assess your image for focus and/or exposure, make corrections and start over. Not only did I have to put in a lot of work for that “instant” moment, an amazing amount of science, chemistry, and industrial might went into the making of that little rectangle of magic.
I also love a dry Muscat for its high place on the pleasure meter with its instant, smile-inducing dose of spicy grape-ness. However, before the first glass cap was popped on our little moment of happiness, lots of stuff had to happen in just the right way. First, we had to source the noble “á petits grain” clone of Muscat before we could plant it in our Scintilla Sonoma Vineyard some dozen years ago. Then we grew cover crops to provide bio-mass, tilled at just the right time, grazed sheep, created and administered biodynamic preparations, experimented with picking times and fermentations for the first few vintages until we got it “right.” Then we planted some more Muscat so we could have enough grapes to fill up a small fermenter. The result is a wine that provides instant gratification… it just took a dozen years of practice to bring this instantly gratifying moment to you.
ORGIA IN ITALY… A “Dirty” Bacchanalian Tale!
Her contagious smile barely masked her iron will, a one-two combination that left me vulnerable when she asked me to meet her in Italy. How could I refuse the beautiful blonde? Little did I know her invite, offered almost twenty years ago, would forever change our lives.
Maria, then executive chef of three restaurants for the PlumpJack group, had been sent to a cooking school in Tuscany by her employers. Maria and I had just started dating and were still getting acquainted, so it was a leap of faith for her to ask – and for me to accept. Little did we know that we both had secret tests our prospective mate must pass, and compatibility during foreign travel was one.
Maria figured I could join the cooking school on the final day, arriving in time for the last group meal. Afterward, she and I would roam the land of the Romans and get to know each other. As I walked in that evening, sleep deprived and flight weary, I found myself thrust into a pack of merry pranksters, friendships forged by the kitchen fire.
The group greeted me as if I were the last soldier to return from battle, foisted a big glass of Chianti into my hand and called for a toast. Much to my surprise, the room was filled not with strangers, but with people whom I had either met before, who knew members of my family or whom I had heard of through their culinary achievements. Two from the latter category were Johanne Killeen and George Germon of Al Forno in Providence Rhode Island. George had an impish look on his face as he rummaged through the coals of the fireplace to pull a “dirty” Tuscan steak directly from the fire and on to a carving board. He shaved off the burnt parts and carved the buttery meat. To this day I still remember that beef to be the most tender, luscious, and flavorful I have ever tasted.
Feast over, we retired to our rooms for a well deserved rest before Maria and I disappeared into the Tuscan mountains in a trusty rented Fiat.
Our destination was a town about twenty minutes outside of Sienna that could only be accessed by a winding, rutted dirt road more appropriate for horses than an underpowered Fiat. The town, if you could call it that, was little more than a cluster of ancient, abandoned stone buildings with a restored barn as the only living space. The barn had a gorgeous sleeping loft, modest kitchen, generous living room, covered patio and a swimming pool that looked out on the most stunning view imaginable of the Tuscan hills.
The name of our little private village was Orgia. From there we foraged for mushrooms that Maria would turn into risotto, scampered down the mountain to visit the open markets in the city and when we got lost, our mantra was always “further”… we just kept going until we discovered something or found our way again. We relished our freedom, even while we subtly sized each other up, figuring out if this thing we were doing was going to work.
Tonight, we come full circle. As I write this missive, we are off to dinner at Al Forno in Rhode Island with George and Johanne to enjoy their “dirty” Tuscan steak and to toast with our first release of Orgia.
you’re either on the bus or off the bus!
It was an outstanding day in the field last June. While the thermometer danced in the mid-80’s, 150 people enjoyed wine, conversation and dinner by Spruce chef/partner Mark Sullivan and his crack culinary team. The venue: A long table in one of the avenues between the Pinot and Merlot blocks of RSV’s OSR Vineyard in the Carneros.
The event was organized by a group known as Outstanding in the Field, founded by self confessed slacker/chef/artist/surfer dude Jim Denevan who stumbled upon the idea of taking the party to the farm some 15 years ago. He is now the leader of a moveable feast – a roving troop of vagabonds in an ancient bus who conduct up to 90 dinners a year on farms throughout the country. A veritable Keseyan journey of believers whose mission is to enlighten all who venture onto their path.
“Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place-then it won’t make a damn.”
What is amazing, besides how great the events are, is how successful they have become. Tickets for these farm dinners sell out in minutes… guests at our event told me they had to plan to have no interruptions at the moment the tickets went on sale because if not purchased within a few minutes, the events would be sold out. It’s the culinary equivalent of landing tickets to a Grateful Dead concert back in the heyday.
It appears we have a quiet revolution going on…. a desire for authenticity in the age of homogeneity. Now there are a lot of people out there who are still more comfortable with something predictable and safe, but there is a growing movement of seekers who want something real, unique, and distinctive.
This attitude gives me hope. It tells me there are many restless folks who will brave the weather and sacrifice creature comforts for the experience of connecting with the farms that produce their food… this time, enjoying lamb that not long before grazed the vineyards of RSV and washing it down with wines grown in the same spot.
I would like to think that those of you who have been following the wines of RSV and my ramblings are on the bus. There might be times when you’ve gotten off, but since you’re reading this, I have to assume you’ve gotten back on. Enjoy the ride.
about nothing and everything!
I feel like a hypocrite. I talk about doing the right thing by trying to farm and conduct my business in a carbon neutral manner, yet I am writing this while flying at 35,000 feet. Then, on the home front, my kids attend school in San Francisco, belching hours of extra carbon into the atmosphere with each round trip.
I know that my actions run counter to my beliefs, yet I refuse to give up opportunity and my children’s education in exchange for a smaller footprint… but what option do we really have? We could home school our kids and live a hippie dream. We could retreat from the marketplace and only sell locally – but what would happen to our employees and our business? As romantic as it might seem to live and farm as if it were another era, we can’t turn back the clock. Our only choice is to accept empirical evidence, evolve and deploy technologies that not only allow us to live in the way we are accustomed, but do no harm in the process. The genie is out of the bottle and the only way forward is to learn from the past and embrace the future.
I wish we had electric high speed trains in this country – and a supporting network of local rail. I wouldn’t hesitate to park my car and get on-board. This is a technology that works well in Europe, Japan, and many other countries, yet the stateside version is archaic and dysfunctional. I really don’t know why it is not a matter of national pride to have the best rail system in the world. We should demand it… it needs to be greenlighted, even if it takes decades to build.
Energy needs to be sustainable, renewable and carbon neutral. Though it should be a matter of national security to ween ourselves of fossil fuel, it should also be a public health priority. Right now, oil drives the world economy and we fear what might happen to our economy if we disrupt the system. Yes, it would change… and we might find a system that is more equitable. If you think about it, the way our fossil fuel energy systems are structured, it really relies on deferred taxation. We, not the energy producers, pay the cost of the environmental degradation after the fact. We also deal with health issues and lower quality of life. I hate taxation as much as anyone but I also hate to see the damage being done by cheap fuel. If a carbon tax could be implemented, one that would fund the research and deployment of new, clean energy systems, it might be a good thing for everyone except the oil companies.
We need to support the dreamers. There are several new technologies in the pipeline that are trying to save the world - that is, if they can get established. Like any other disruptive tech, there are lots of people who are afraid of the future and want to kill off the competition before it gets a toehold. Electric cars are no longer fringe, though the naysayers do try to marginalize them. They aren’t perfect but they are getting better with each incarnation. Those with discretionary income should vote with their pocketbook and become early adopters so investors and corporate executives see the future, improve the tech, develop an infrastructure, and lower the cost so they eventually become mainstream.
I live in the Bay Area where I’ve seen the future and it is beautiful and weird! I’ve not only witnessed the interesting characters inhabiting the city but I’ve seen the Google auto-piloted car cross the Golden Gate Bridge a couple of times and all I can say is, WOW! Just think, no-driver… it just goes where you want to go. Now, combine that with the above mentioned electric car and you have a near silent, clean, collision free form of transportation. You can work, create or just plain daydream while you commute. No more dodging lane changers, no more white knuckles or road rage… and after that dinner, when you know you’ve overindulged a little too much, you don’t have to take the wheel.
What does all this have to do with wine? Nothing… and everything! If climate models are correct, we’ll have bigger problems than what grapes to plant. My business relies on the natural rhythms of nature. Grapes, particularly Cabernet Franc with its narrow comfort zone, will be an early indicator of that change. Though they might continue to produce fruit, they will no longer be able to create the elegant, vibrant style of wine we have been producing for nearly thirty years. Our way of life is at stake, but my concern is with the health of agriculture in general and what it may mean to everyone’s way of life if we don’t take responsibility.
DO YOU REALIZE?
… It’s hard to make the good things last!
Can something be both simple and complex at the same time? Could letting it “be” result in something better, or more interesting, than perfection? I was listening to an interview with Wayne Coyne (of the innovative art/punk/psycho rock band, The Flaming Lips), the other night as he discussed his early inspirations, including Strawberry Fields Forever - a song of superlative craftsmanship, yet loose, with technical mistakes that, if the song were recorded today, would have been “cleaned up,” i.e. auto-tuned, and “perfected” before being released. A process that probably would have destroyed the song - or at least rendered it less memorable.
“It’s so easy to make it perfect,” Coyne said. “Anyone can make it perfect - perfect is the enemy of almost anything good in the world… They [musicians like the Beatles, Tom Jones or the Rolling Stones] tried very hard to make it as good as they could, knowing it was never going to be perfect, because people were playing it.”
His point was that musicians strove for perfection because perfection, without the aid of modern technology, was not achievable in those days. That’s not to say the music was completely naïve or accidental. The craft had to be good enough to express the idea, but the delusion of perfection didn’t get in the way either. They gave their best effort but, being human, they reached for an emotional/visceral peak that was more important than getting it technically correct… they walked the razor’s edge between craft and emotion.
The Flaming Lips wrote a song a few years ago called, Do You Realize. It is a simple song… almost childlike, yet poignant and honest with an underlying, universal truth that could make all but the most hardened soul want to cry.
“And instead of saying all of your goodbyes - let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.”
The song is full of rough edges and broken vocals that only make it more endearing… and the contagious musical simplicity helped it become an underground hit. It tells a story of a simple truth delivered in an honest way. A lesson we can apply to any craft… including wine.
PERCEPTION OF PERFECTION
Terroir in the Bionic Age
“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic man… Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.”
That overly optimistic, iconically kitsch seventies show, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” revealed our nation’s love affair with technology as a magic fix-all. And why not? We were the first to land a man on the moon and our science was the most advanced on earth. We, as a nation, believed we could do anything - not only “fix” our problems, but improve on nature!
Ah, wouldn’t that be nice if all problems were so easily solved with a six million dollar investment? Better, stronger, faster! We could arrest global warming and provide fresh water to the world. Eradicate illness or design bionic limbs that work better than the real thing. But what about the unintended consequences of technology? We, as a people, tend to only look forward. Fix a problem, move on, then fix the next problem. But every once in a while, even a good “fix” can still destroy the essence of something by removing the random and the unknown, making it too perfect or too easily replicable. Sometimes, the perceived flaws or weaknesses are what made it unique and distinctive in the first place.
We had one desire when we started this endeavor: to make a world class wine. So, we embraced state of the art cellar technology and looked to science to help us deal with our problems, figuring that was the answer to making a wine that tasted like it was world class. But the further we wandered down that path, the more unsatisfied we became. Though the wines were technically correct, something was missing.
We all have had that experience of tasting a wine and identifying it with a place. It could be an earthy or herbal character, maybe a level of acidity or a minerality. It might be technically flawed, based on some critic’s point of view of what a great wine should be, but it also does not taste like every other wine.
I used to have these discussions with my father. He is a man of science and, based on his experience in the medical world, technology was salvation. He pioneered ultrasound and lasers for eye surgery when they were still considered experimental techniques. This quantum leap in med tech reduced suffering and improved quality of life. No one would argue that removing cataracts the old way was actually better. But wine is not about perfection, it is about distinctiveness, and sometimes making something too perfect is less than exciting.
Bordeaux is an example of how technology can create high scoring wines that taste more alike, resembling beverages from other regions. Some Bordelaise vintners have embraced consultants who advocate the use of high-tech winemaking like micro-oxygenation that softens tannin to make a wine drinkable younger. But the big homogenizer of wine has been the sorting tables that allow a vintner to select grapes for ripeness which, based on old benchmarks, should have been a good thing. Instead, the grapes that were deemed less than ideal no longer offer up the herbal, green note characteristics that once defined the region and provided a counterpoint to the ripe, sweet fruit… now, the all super-ripe grapes result in powerful, high alcohol wines that taste as though they could be from California, Australia, Italy or Spain.
Ironically, the quest to make world class wines caused us to look inward. Instead of basing quality on external forces, like a critic’s opinion or the wines from other parts of the world, we look to our own land for inspiration and rely less on the “tricks” of the trade. In our opinion, a world class wine is distinctive, unique, and tastes as though it came from somewhere… and the only way to do that is to put away the chemistry set and the toys and make real wine.
Tribulations of the Non-Conformist!
I’ve been accused of being a bull-headed, non-conformist with a bad habit of shooting myself in the foot by not playing the media game. We all desire some sort of affirmation, but at what cost? We’ve found that once you go down the accolade trail, you have no choice but to set aside your good, natural instincts in exchange for technique driven mediocrity and, although you may achieve short term success, you risk making yourself, and those who care, very unhappy.
About twenty five years ago, when I was fresh out of school and enjoying our coming out party in the wine industry, I had three distinct experiences with the wine media. One very powerful critic claimed to have tasted a barrel sample of one of our wines and proceeded to trash it in print, yet he had never been in our cellar. He then went on to rave about our Russian River Pinot Noir, yet we had never made a wine from that region. Not long after, a very powerful wine magazine assured me the advertising department was next door to the editorial department and went on to imply that an ad would just about guarantee a good score. I felt as though I had just lost my innocence, but I also came away feeling we needed to go it alone and not “grow-up” in public by chasing someone else’s ideal of wine style. Instead, we needed to define our own place in wine.
So we took our toys and went home by refusing to send samples to the evil empire of wine critics. But there was one wine writer—a writer as opposed to a critic—who did not seem to mind our anti-social ways. In one of our early wine events, I sat next to Dan Berger who I believe was then writing for the LA Times. He proceeded to tell me that our wine would not be very popular, but then encouraged me to not change a thing because, eventually, the market would find us. It was all I needed to give me permission to chart our own course.
We still don’t send wine samples to critics, but Dan has taken it upon himself to stay in touch with what we do by visiting the winery, talking to RSV winemaker Jeff Virnig and tasting through all the wines. The following from Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences Volume XVI, Issue 47, January 24, 2013, gives me all the positive reinforcement I need.
A Winery Synthesis
by Dan Berger
People usually decide to start a winery because they have a vision of what they want to do. But visions vary. A recent wave of interest seems to be with people who want to make the best Pinot Noir in the history of the world. So a lot of cool-climate land was planted with Pinot Noir, including marginal places.
Two decades earlier, any place in Napa Valley (and I mean any) became home to those who wanted to make a wine better than Château Latour. But instead some people ended up making a wine that was merely half as pricey…
Sure, young wineries often get high praise from glossy rags or number based prognosticators, but mostly that’s for the shock value.
It’s hyperbole such as this: “Hey,bro, I just found this fantastic, tiny property you never heard of that makes roughly no wine at all. Well, I tasted it, and believe you me, it was absolutely fantastic. But sorry, you’ll never get a chance to try even so much as a thimbleful because after the score I give it, the price will rise so fast that only the stupidly rich will be able to afford it and they will buy all of it, so just drool and slather. Nyah.”
One visionary concept guaranteed not to gain klieg-light attention is to make wines defined by terroir that speak directly of the soil and which are specifically designed to pair with what comes directly from the kitchen.
Such projects rarely start with the goal of exalted wine. The idea is to focus intently on what nature permits from an area, and to craft wines with exceeding precision.
I can name many U.S. wineries who get this notion clearly. Decade after decade these wine makers hew to a house style that’s reliable and give loyal consumers a taste of the vision.
Most are small wineries who are not saddled with a marketing strategy that demands the wine maker soften all the wines for a broader market. They make wines for a more savvy consumer and in fact some of these projects make wines that are edgy, delicate, and atypical of the huge 95-pointers intended to impress with power.
Those who craft wines with a deft hand lift my spirits. Amid a flood of too-soft wines, these backers of crisp offer those of us who like balance much hope.
A vision of varietal identity and balance usually connects a wine maker with his vineyard manager. But at organically farmed Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa Valley, this synthesis includes the founder, Dr. Robert Sinskey his son, Rob, Rob’s wife, Maria, wine maker Jeff Virnig, and the vineyards they own…
What’s special about all of this is that, were it not for all of the parties involved, the wines would not be so singularly exciting to those who get what food-and-wine pairings are really all about. It starts with varietal authenticity and ends with a crisp finish so the food synthesizes with the wine.
It really started with Dr. Sinskey, an eye surgeon, inventor, and one of the world’s most respected ocular experts. He also is a long-time wine collector who relishes opening old, perfectly stored wines and pairing them with great food. Much of which comes from Maria Helm Sinskey, his daughter-in-law, superb chef and cookbook author.
The person who keeps it focused on the table, and on balanced wine is, Rob, who was well trained in the classic wines of the world and who requires no compromise in the house style.
Thus lots of new oak or modest acid levels aren’t in the game here. As a result, it wasn’t an accident that the Sinskeys ended up with Virnig as their wine maker—a guy who not only gets the balance thing, but whose hatred for flabby wines has had him far too vocal on the subject for his own good.
This sort of Sinskey synthesis leads to a structural integrity for all the wines but doesn’t come without a price. One of which is how low such wines are likely to score with some reviewers. That’s because no Sinskey wine is plush, simple, or easy to quantify, and certainly not as simplistically as what a numerical shorthand tries to do. Here it’s about complexity… These wines are unlike so many others we find that are boringly mainstream. Virnig’s vision includes his ability to bring an edginess into a wine that others would gladly (and happily) compromise.
What I love about these wines is that they’re distinctive. It shows best in most of Jeff’s reds, almost all of which are uncompromising in their structural balance—almost to the point of absurdity.
Take for instance any vintage of Marcien, a blend that is tart and lean, yet a perfect vision of the best reds of the 1970s, before the compromisers got their hands on the double oak, potassium carbonate, and micro-ox machines.
Marcien, as with other Sinskey wines, are built to stand up to time and food and display the grape variety and the soil.
The only question is: how much of these wines must a dedicated wine lover have to be assured that the boringness of a 95 can be avoided when the victuals demand. For me, it’s never enough. White, red, or rosé, they are all A+.
A Rose to Get
by Dan Berger
One of wine’s inside stories is the popularity of dry rosés and how fast they sell in winery tasting rooms.
Literally dozens of wineries around California make superb dry pink wines and sell them direct to visitors—most of whom taste them and then must have a bottle, or a case.
Robert Sinskey’s greatness in this area is a sub-story that’s hard to believe. The winery’s dry Pinot Noir Rosé from Carneros is among the best made anywhere in the world.
It always has such vibrant fruit and balance that it sells out every year…
I had a pre-bottling sample at the winery late last week and found it as good as the best rosés I have ever had. The wine will be on strict allocation, and I suggest orders be placed with the winery. At about $28, it should be tried by every serious wine lover.